Published in Cup of Wonder
Issue Number Five
October 2001

What is Wyrd?

By Arlea Æðelwyrd Hunt-Anschütz
Copyright © by A. Æ. Hunt-Anschütz 2000

Onwendeð wyrda gesceaft weoruld under heofonum.
Wyrd's shaping changes the world under the heavens.
The Wanderer (l. 107)

The most fundamental concept in heathenry is wyrd. It is also one of the most difficult to explain and hence one of the most often misunderstood. Here's my stab at an accurate yet relatively brief discussion of how wyrd works and how we can work with wyrd.

The Anglo-Saxon noun wyrd is derived from a verb, weorþan, 'to become', which, in turn, is derived from an IndoEuropean root *uert- meaning 'to turn'.[1] (If you noticed the redundant use of "turn" in the previous sentence, good. The use of the modern English phrase "in turn", illustrates wyrd in action. Watch for it throughout this article.) Wyrd literally means 'that which has turned' or 'that which has become'. It carries the idea of "turned into" in both the sense of becoming something new and the sense of turning back to an original starting point. In a metaphysical terms, wyrd embodies the concept that everything is turning into something else while both being drawn in toward and moving out from its own origins. Thus, we can think of wyrd as a process that continually works the patterns of the past into the patterns of the present.

A good metaphor for wyrd is spinning with a drop spindle. As the fibres turn round and round, they twist together and become thread. In Norse mythology three female entities called the Norns are responsible for shaping lives out of ørlög, the layers of the past. Their names are Urðr (Wyrd) 'that which has become'; Verðandi (related to the Anglo-Saxon weorþan, see above) 'that which is in the process of becoming'; and Skuld (Should) 'that which should necessarily be'. In the Eddic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana 1, the Norns twist the strands of the infant prince's ørlög (which in this case can be seen as his heritage, since he has no personal past to speak of) to create a golden cord representing his life.[2]

Another way of understanding wyrd is through a weaving analogy. In the Anglo-Saxon Riming Poem, the narrator says of his life circumstances Me þæt wyrd gewæf, 'Wyrd wove this for me'[3]. In the Icelandic Njal's Saga, valkyries weave out the course of a battle on a loom made of weapons and threaded with human entrails.[4] Imagine a patterned piece of cloth being woven on a loom. The horizontal threads (the woof) are woven in in layers along the vertical threads (the warp). The horizontal threads represent layers of past actions. The vertical threads represent a time line. The colour of each horizontal thread as it is woven in will add to the pattern that is already established and influence the pattern that emerges. The threads already woven in cannot be changed, but the overall pattern is never fixed. Existing designs can be expanded into new forms. New designs can be added. Everything we do adds one more layer to the pattern.

One ramification of wyrd in personal human terms is that our past (both our ancestry and our personal history) affects us continually. Who we are, where we are, and what we are doing today is dependent on actions we have taken in the past and actions others have taken in the past which have affected us in some way. And every choice we make in the present builds upon choices we have previously made.

The philosopher Schopenhauer voiced the notion that "our lives are somehow irresistibly shaped into a coherent whole by forces beyond our conscious will".[5] He believed that neither chance events nor inborn character were enough to explain the consistency and direction in the life course of an individual, and so he postulated "the intention of Fate" to explain this controlling force in our lives. Many people have equated the notion of wyrd with this sort of "fate" concept, and the Norns with the Moerae or Parcae, the Greek and Roman Fates. However, to do so is to ignore the constant interplay between personal wyrd and universal wyrd and the role we each play in creating our own destiny.

The key Schopenhauer seems to have missed is that what he calls "the intention of Fate" is itself created by an interplay between the events that happen to us and our inborn character. We interact with wyrd (that which has become) to create certain personal patterns which affect and are reflected in universal patterns. Those universal patterns, in turn, exert forces which shape our lives.

For example, say I happen to find myself in a situation where someone insults me. I can "freely" choose any one of a number of immediate reactions, from ignoring the person to slapping her. But my choice at that moment is obviously going to be constrained by a number of patterns of wyrd already in place, including my inborn personality characteristics, my social conditioning, my past experiences with being insulted, my relationship with the person who has insulted me, even my hormone levels.

To the extent that my reaction is determined by these patterns, wyrd is shaping my life at that moment, and my reaction may feel to me as though it were predestined (if I want to deny responsibility) or the only "right" choice (if I want to claim responsibility for it). To the extent that I am aware of certain recurring patterns in my life, I might feel as though the person was fated to insult me at that moment. But no matter which way I chose to react to the insult, my reaction will add to the patterns in place and constrain my future actions (if I'm insulted a second time, my reaction will be determined in part by how I behaved when I was insulted the first time.) So, at the same time I am caught up in experiencing certain patterns of wyrd, I am creating them.

Moving from the personal to the universal, my reaction will also add to the patterns affecting the behaviour of the person who insulted me. As a result of my response, she may change her behaviour towards others which will, in turn, change her personal ørlög, and so on. Ultimately, each little choice we make affects universal forces which can come back to affect us in weird ways. The larger patterns of wyrd created by individuals in a particular time and place is the source of the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) which informs the beliefs and behaviour of everyone in a society. Thus, "that which has become", wyrd, both creates and is created by individual actions, states, and choices.

The metaphor of the "Web of Wyrd" is often used in modern popular sources to illustrate how the actions of individuals can have widespread effects.[6] If we imagine the universe as a big spider's web and imagine that each node where two strands meet represents an event (or a person or a life) we can visualise the interconnectedness of things. We can see how some things are directly connected whereas others are more distantly connected through a series of links. We can also see how nodes which are closely connected from one perspective (following a single strand from the centre outwards) can be distantly connected from another perspective (following the spiral that continually expands its radius as it moves from the centre). Furthermore, we can see that if we were to disturb any part of the web --say by blowing on it or shaking it, the entire thing would reverberate --though the parts closest to the disturbance would react the most strongly.

With an understanding of wyrd comes a great responsibility. If we know that every action we take (or fail to take, for that matter) will have implications for our own future choices and for the future choices of others, we have an ethical obligation to think carefully about the possible consequences of everything we do. But even if we manage to make all the right choices, we are bound to find ourselves facing difficult circumstances or tough decisions at various times in our lives as a result of the past choices of those connected to us through the web. Since we can't control everyone else's actions, nor can we change the past, sometimes we just have to live with what's been woven for us. In such a case we still have choices. We can ignore our problems in the hope that they will go away, we can burden other people with them, or we can boldly face up to them and do our best to overcome them. A verse from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer[7] observes:

Ne mæg werigmod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman.
For ðon domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste;

A weary mood won't withstand wyrd,
nor may the troubled mind find help.
Often, therefore, the fame-yearners
bind dreariness fast in their breast-coffins.

Through the Web of Wyrd may force us into circumstances we would never have freely chosen for ourselves, we always have some choice about how we react in those situations. And how we choose to react will always make a difference, if not to the world at large, then at least to our own ørlög.


[1]For a fascinating discussion of wyrd from a linguistic viewpoint see: Bauschatz, Paul. 1982. The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. The University of Massachusetts Press.

[2] For original references to the Norns, see The Seeress's Prophecy (verse 20) and The First Poem of Helgi Hundingsbani (verses 2-4) in Larrington, Carolyne (trans). 1996. The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press.

[3] The Riming Poem is contained in Rodrigues, Louis (trans). 1994. Anglo-Saxon Elegiac Verse. Llanerch Publishers.

[4] Magnusson M. and Pálsson H. (trans). 1983. Njal's Saga. Penguin Books. (chapter 157, p.349)

[5] Relevant sections of Schopenhauer's paper "On the Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual" are quoted in Campbell, Joseph. 1968. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. Penguin Books. (Chapter 4, section III, p.193-196)

[6] For example, Bates, Brian. 1996. The Wisdom of the Wyrd. Rider.

[7] The Wanderer is included in Rodrigues, Louis (trans). 1994. Anglo-Saxon Elegiac Verse. Llanerch Publishers. The translation of verse 15 given here is my own.

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