The Master of Mischief, Part II: Prophesy and Fate

They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer still, and Loki is about the worst enemy you could ever possibly have—but not strictly because of his character. As troublesome as he is, he is not really evil, or at least, he’s no worse than Odin in many ways. Nonetheless, the Norns have already decided that Loki will lead the Jötnar to the ultimate Pyrrhic victory at Ragnarök, and what the Norns decide might as well be written in stone rather than wood.1

The Norns are three goddesses who live beneath the world tree, Yggdrasil, and like the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology, they determine the future of each child at birth. According to The Prose Edda, there are also norns of the elves and the dwarves, but is the Norns of the gods who come to the newborn.2 They represent the past, the present, and the future, as shown by their names:

– Urd (past tense of verða) means “Became” or “Happened”;

– Verdandi (present participle of verða) means “Becoming” or “Happening”; and

– Skuld (roughly equivalent to “shall” or “should”) means “Will Be” or “Is to Happen”.3

Alternatively, their names may be translated as “Fate”, “Being”, and “Necessity”, respectively.4

The Norns carve out the future of all beings, even the powerful Aesir. It is foretold in “Voluspá” (“Seeress’s Prophesy”) that the worlds and virtually all beings within them will meet a terrible end at Ragnarök and that Loki will be the one to lead the charge. Unfortunately, the extant myths do not explain Loki’s presence among the Aesir and many sources are silent on this topic. Lindow provides what may be the best educated guess: Odin may have persuaded Loki to swear blood brotherhood in an attempt to head off Ragnarök.5

Odin knows what the future holds and yet he fervently and futilely struggles against it. Why? Perhaps we should have a little chat about fate and freedom.

Since the Vikings believed that the future has been decided, it might appear as though they conceived of a deterministic world in which there is no genuine freedom of choice. Therefore, you might expect them to be fatalistic and resigned, but this couldn’t be further from reality. Instead, the Vikings espoused something like a rudimentary compatibilist philosophy and believed that although the future was certain, they possessed the agency to choose their actions. Indeed, their emphasis on honour depended on it.

Although the raiders were terrifying, many Vikings lived rather ordinary lives as farmers, tradesmen, and traders. Their individual communities were relatively small, but their societies were governed by complex laws and social norms, and free men and women enjoyed a certain degree of social mobility. Those who acted with honesty and integrity, kept their oaths, and were generous and hospitable to others could expect to earn a great deal of respect and possibly followers. Wisdom was prized, no matter your gender. Bravery was almost literally worth its weight in gold, whether that gold was pillaged on a raid or given freely by a king or chieftain as a gift or reward.

Without the agency to act and think freely, such things would not be valued, unless of course, the powers that be saw fit to predetermine that people should value those things. But this is not the attitude that we see in the literature. For example, the speaker in “Havamal”, who is generally believed to be Odin, chastises cowards for thinking that death will spare them if they avoid fighting [stanza 16] and the worrier for staying awake all night fretting when he is going to face his trials whether he sleeps or not [stanza 23]. He also says that the brave and generous will have the best lives with the fewest sorrows [stanza 48].6

Additionally, the Vikings envisioned two places for the dead. Helheim (the home of Hel) is where those who die of old age or disease find themselves.7 The story of Baldur’s unfortunate death shows that those who die accidentally will also be caught in Hel’s tight grasp, which not even Odin can loosen. In contrast, Valhalla (or Valhöll) is Odin’s splendid palace where those who die bravely spend their afterlives battling each other until it is time to defend Odin at Ragnarök. Indeed, the very fact that Odin collects these vaunted warriors knowing that they will fail is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the Viking spirit. There is no question in Odin’s mind that he will be destroyed and yet he prepares for the war anyway.

As you can see, this deeply rooted belief that life is governed by fate had an effect that was quite the opposite of what you might expect. Instead of being cowed into a passive acceptance of their lot, the Vikings were freed and even encouraged to act bravely. If you are going to die at the appointed time whether you are fighting valiantly on the battlefield or picking your fingernails at home, you may as well seek glory and honour. There is no point in fearing death. You will die, but your reputation will not.8

Thus, it should be no surprise that Odin would do anything he deems necessary to preserve himself and his power—even if it means welcoming his most fearsome enemy into Asgard. Blood brothers or not, however, Loki and Odin’s relationship is anything but simple. I will take a closer look at the characters of Odin and Loki in the next instalments.

The Series:

  1. In Larrington’s translation of the “Voluspá”, the Norns are said to have “carved on a wooden slip” the fates of men, while McCoy translates the same lines as “they carve into the tree/The lives and destinies of children.” McCoy’s translation appears to be a more poetic translation and may have been influenced by a broader interpretation of the stanzas and possibly other sources. Since the Norns are said to reside beneath Yggdrasil, it seems very reasonable that these wood slips wood come from the great ash, although that is by no means certain. Other sources do not explicitly mention the Norns writing runes directly on the tree, so it appears that the interpretation is not universally supported. Nonetheless, there is a connection between Yggdrasil and the runes. In “Havamal”, Odin speaks of his self-sacrifice, in which he spears himself to the tree and hangs for nine days, and during this time he learns the runes. Other sources describe the Norns as weaving the tapestry of men’s lives, which is more in line with the conception of the Greek and Roman Fates and which appears to come mostly from the sagas and skaldic poems. [“Havamal” stanzas 138-9 and “Voluspá” stanzas 20-1 in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, New York [2014].]
  2. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. Oxford University Press, New York [1916], p. 29.
  3. New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Norn,” New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Norn&oldid=986398 (accessed August 15, 2016).
  4. Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books, Toronto [1990], p. 26.
  5. Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, Toronto [2001], p. 219.
  6. “Havamal” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, New York [2014].
  7. Ellis Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books, Toronto [1990], p. 32.
  8. “Havamal” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press, New York [2014], stanzas 76-7.

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