In Norse mythology, the Norns (pronounced like “norms” with an “n” instead of the “m”; Old Norse Nornir) are three female divine beings who have more influence over the course of destiny than any other beings in the cosmos. They dwell within the Well of Urd beneath Yggdrasil, the great ash tree that stands at the center of the universe and holds the Nine Worlds in its branches and roots. They shape destiny by carving runes into the trunk of the tree, or, in some sagas and poems, by weaving destiny like a web or tapestry.
–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy
The three Norns who dwell within the Well of Urd are Urd (“What Once Was”), Verdandi (“What Is Coming into Being”) and Skuld (“What Shall Be”).
When I chose Norse mythology as the topic for the A to Z Challenge, I naively thought I could pull together some stories that I heard as a child and add a few descriptions of characters that I know have been used as inspiration for current culture heroes. But as I do the research, I have found so many sources from those who have in-depth knowledge of the tales, the players, and the religion or philosophy that binds them all together. I can barely scratch the surface. For a more thorough understanding of Norse mythology, I recommend the following sources:
- Norse Mythology for Smart People, by Daniel McCoy – especially articles under the headings for Runes and Concepts.
- The Norse Gods – The creator of this website isn’t identified on it, but the content looks good.
- Ancient History Encyclopedia article about Norse Mythology, by Emma Groeneveld
- The Baldwin Project, by Padraic Colum
Now back to the topic of the day. To answer the question “what are the Norns?” requires a complex knowledge of Norse and Germanic world views and many more words than I planned to put into any one of my posts during the April A to Z Challenge.
Let me try not to fall back on children’s fairytale versions in a simplified version of what I have learned about the Norns. Note: there are many other creatures in Norse mythology referred to as norns, without a capital n. Only the three who dwell within the well are known as Norns with a capital N.
Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld reside within the Well of Urd beneath the tree Yggdrasil. The tree connects all levels of the cosmos. The water from the well is drawn up the tree’s roots into the trunk and branches, and is eventually released through the leaves into the atmosphere where it collects and is returned to the earth as dew or rain. The movement of the water from the well is cyclical, with every bit of what flows through the tree nourishing the tree or returning to the Well.
The three Norns carve runes into the bark of the tree to declare what will happen to every living thing in the cosmos. For this reason, some refer to the Norns as fates or destiny. But just as the water that runs from the well, through the roots, up the trunk and out to the branches and leaves, and into the atmosphere will return and change the tree, other cycles in the world may affect what the Norns have written, causing the runes to change as well.
Because the future can be altered, the work of the Norns never ends. As forces change the future, the Norns must incorporate those changes into the runes they carve on the trees.
Too simple, I admit. Perhaps by the time I reach Y is for Yggdrasil I will have absorbed more and can fill in some of the gaps.
For more about norns in general, see Poetic Edda, stanzas 8, 14, 19-20, Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy; stanza 111, Hovamol, The Ballad of the High One; stanza 49, Vafthruthnismol, The Ballad of Vafthruthnir; stanza 53, Grimnismol, The Ballad of Grimnir; stanza 7, Svipdagsmol, The Ballad of Svipdag; stanzas 2, 4, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I, The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; stanza 18, Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II, The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane; stanzas 2, 24, Reginsmol, The Ballad of Regin; stanzas 11-13, 44, Fafnismol, The Ballad of Fafnir; stanza 17, Sigrdrifumol, The Ballad of the Victory-Bringer; stanza 7, Sigurtharkvitha En Skamma, The Short Lay of Sigurth; stanza 17, Atlakvitha En Grönlenzka, The Greenland Lay of Atli; stanza 13, Guthrunarhvot, Guthrun’s Inciting; stanza 28, Hamthesmol, The Ballad of Hamther
Image credit: By Amalia Schoppe. – Die Helden und Götter des Nordens, oder Das Buch der sagen. G. Gropius., Public Domain, Link