Fate: Norse Norns & the Saxon Shapers
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Most people who adhere to the practice of Asatru follow the Norse tradition. Therefore, most people have heard that there are three Norns (or Nornir) in Norse Heathenry. However, the Saxons (most of whom stayed in Saxony, and spoke Old Saxon), had the words “Uurd” and “giscapou”. “Giscapou” is pronounced “yee-shape-ooo” and means “Shapers.” Simply put, Norse Heathenry had Nornir, and Saxon Heathenry had “Shapers.” This article will first discuss the Norse Nornir, and then the Saxon Uurd and her Shapers (i.e. the Old Saxon view of Fate.)
There are verses in the Poetic Edda implying there are three Nornir, who set men’s fates: One example: Voluspa verse 20 “Thence come the maidens mighty in wisdom, Three from the dwelling down beneath the tree; Urthr is one named, Verthandi the next, On the wood they scored, and Skuld the third. Laws they made there, and life allotted To the sons of men, and set their fates.”
There are Old Norse Passages implying there are more than three Nornir: One example: Fáfnismál verses 12-13: "Tell me then, Fafnir, for wise thou art famed, And you know much now: Who are the Nornir who are helpful in need, And the babe from the mother bring?" Fafnir spake: "Of many births the Nornir must be, Nor one in race they were; Some to gods, others to elves are kin, And Dvalin's daughters (dwarfs) some."
The Poetic Edda Poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana I (verses 2-4), the Nornir visited each newly born child to allot his or her future (implying their futures were set): “Twas night in the dwelling, and Nornir came there, Who shaped the life of the lofty one; They bade him most famed of fighters all And best of princes ever to be. Mightily wove they the web of fate, While Bralund's towns were trembling all; And there the golden threads they wove, And in the moon's hall fast they made them. East and west the ends they hid, In the middle the hero should have his land; And Neri's kinswoman northward cast a chain, and bade it firm ever to be.”
Often the Norns are blamed for a person’s bad fate in Norse Lore. In Reginsmál verse 2, the dwarf Andvari blames his misfortune on a Norn: "Andvari am I, and Oin my father, In many a fall have I fared; An evil Norn in olden days Doomed me In waters to dwell."
The Prose Edda Gylfaginning states that the Fates (Nornir) determine the length of men’s lives: “A hall stands there, fair, under the ash by the well, and out of that hall come three maids, who are called thus: Urdr, Verdandi, Skuld; these maids determine the period of men's lives: we call them Norns; but there are many norns: those who come to each child that is born, to appoint his life; these are of the race of the gods, but the second are of the Elf-people, and the third are of the kindred of the dwarves, as it is said here: Most sundered in birth I say the Nornir are; They claim no common kin: some are of Æsir-kin, some are of Elf-kind, Some are Dvalinn's daughters. Then said Gangleri: "If the Norns determine the weirds of men, then they apportion exceeding unevenly, seeing that some have a pleasant and luxurious life, but others have little worldly goods or fame; some have long life, others short." Hárr said: "Good Nornir and of honorable race appoint good life; but those men that suffer evil fortunes are governed by evil Nornir." “The three main nornir take water out of the well of Urd and water Yggdrasil: It is further said that these Nornir who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which come there into the well become as white as the film which lies within the egg-shell,--as is here said: I know an Ash standing called Yggdrasill, A high tree sprinkled with snow-white clay; Thence come the dews in the dale that fall, It stands ever green above Urdr's Well. That dew which falls from it onto the earth is called by men honey-dew, and thereon are bees nourished. Two fowls are fed in Urdr's Well: they are called Swans, and from those fowls has come the race of birds which is so called."
In Chapter 4 of the Saga of Erik the Red, we have an example of a Volva. “A woman named Thorbiorg was in the settlement. She was a Soothsayer and called ‘Little Volva.’ She had nine sisters all of whom were Soothsayers. She was the only one still living. It was Thorbiorg’s custom to go to feasts in the winter, and people invited her to their home; most who wanted foreknowledge of their Fate.” In Nornageststhattr 11, Gestr tells King Olaf that when he was born “Volvur were traveling around the country and they prophesied men’s Fates.” In Ynglingasaga 7, we see that Uuoden practiced “seið” which is a craft that allowed Uuoden to learn men’s Fates and the future. (In Old Saxon “seið” is “soð” or “sooth.” Our modern word “sooth-sayer” comes from this word.)
The Lore is clear that our lives are fated. See the Voluspa 20, which is the words of the Volva whom Uuoden sought wisdom: “Then to the Irminsul…three wise maidens take them. Under spreading boughs their bower stands: Uurd is one, the other Versandi, Sculd the third, they cut scores and made laws, they chose the lives for the children of men, they marked their fates.”
The Old Saxon Uurd, and Giscapou: Saxon Heathens do not have a "Saxon Edda" that survived. We Saxon Heathens do have the Heliand Poem that survived, as well as other literature. The Heliand was written circa 830 AD, and is almost three times as long as the Old English Poem Beowulf. I will post several Heliand passages showing Uurd and her Shapers. These passages are from my published book on Saxon Heathenry (translation mine). In the passage below, Uurd determines that John the Baptist will never drink apple-cider (alcoholic) or wine in his lifetime. Uurd is also given the title "metod" in Old Saxon. "Metod" means "measurer", implying that Uurd and her Shapers measure out the lengths of men's lives.
The next Heliand passage below shows that at times, in Old Saxon, the words "Uurd" and "Giscapou" were made into one compound word "Uurdigishapou" meaning "Uurd's Shapers."
Another mention of the "Shapers" in the Heliand. This time, the Shapers are called "God's", implying God has power over Fate and Time, which is the opposite of the Gods in Saxon Heathenry (and Norse Heathenry), as the Gods in Germanic forms of Heathenry are subject to Fate and Time and are powerless to change it.
Like in Norse Heathenry, the Shapers in Saxon Heathenry are involved in the births of children. In the below Heliand passage, the bright Shapers (and "God's Might") reminded Mary of the future, that she would bear a son in Bethlehem. Mary could not escape her Fate anymore than the Saxon Gods could escape their fates at Mudspelli (Old Norse: Ragnarok).
Here is an amazing passage. Uurd and her Shapers are considered "angry" when a person's life comes to an end. The word "metod" is used in this passage. "Metod" is the Old Saxon word meaning "the measurer." Uurd and her Shapers are "the Measurer" and determine the length of one's life. A woman, of noble birth, was separated from her noble husband (he died) because Uurd and her Shapers were angry.
In the below passage, Uurd bring's about the death of an evil man, Herod. Uurd (here just as "Uurd" without the Shapers)
And once again, Uurd (independent of her Shapers, the giscapou or the Measurer) "destroys" Herod.
Here is an interesting Saxon concept "giuuand" (i.e. turning, spinning...). Therefore, it appears that Uurd and her Shapers do spin thread in Saxon Folklore as well as in Norse Folklore.
The below Heliand passage clearly implies that people actually carry out (perform, accomplish) the Fates of the "regin-giscapou." Regin-Giscapou means "Ruling Shapers." This phrase occurs a few times in the Old Saxon Heliand. Our modern English word "reign" comes from the word "regin." (The "g" in "regin" is pronounced more like a "y.") The Shapers apparently are REIGNING. This implies to me that they are superior to the Gods in Saxon Thought. I say this extremely seriously. While I am only going to post one more Heliand passage, I could easily post three dozen more Old Saxon Heliand passages on Uurd and her Shapers. I say this very candid, Uurd and the Shapers occur in the Old Saxon Heliand more than John the Baptist, more than Herod, more than Mary. Only Jesus occurs in the Heliand more as a "person" or "being" than Uurd and the Shapers. Pause and think about that for a moment. The Old Saxon Heliand is a Gospel written circa 830 AD to convert the Saxons from their Saxon Heathenry to Christianity. In order to convert them, they have to write a Poem about Christ, making Christ a Hero, not all that different from how the Old English Poem Beowulf makes Beowulf a hero. Yet, in the Heliand, Uurd and Her Shapers must be everywhere, because you can't convert the Saxons without having "Fate" play her role, and the second largest role in the Heliand to Christ himself. Please note, the best Old Saxon scholars (who are American) in the world, have written extensively on this. Here is one outstanding book, one of my absolute favorites in my library: https://www.amazon.com/Semiotics-Fate-Death-Germanic-Culture/dp/0820452777/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537967760&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=Fate+semniotics
All the Saxon Gods and Goddesses are subject to Uurd and her Shapers' decisions. Uurd and her Shapers determine that "fateful hour" where all men (and women) will die.
In Conclusion: It seems that Norse and Saxon Heathenry have very similar views on Urthr and Uurd, and Nornir and Shapers. Fate is predetermined, and the Uurd and her Shapers are "all-knowing", knowing the future long before it happens. The biggest differences in Norse and Saxon Heathenry are very different words (Nornir vs. Giscapou). It appears that there may be more than three Shapers. In Old Saxon, there are three sets of numbers: 1. singular meaning "one". 2. Dual meaning "two." 3. and plural meaning "three or more." "Giscapou" is a plural word, which means that there are three or more Shapers. Our lives are Fated. We really do not have much control. We can't control who we were born to, when we were born, nor can we prevent our deaths. We can't control what DNA we are born with, as it is indeed, all predetermined. This is where debate enters, on the subject of free will. The Heliand makes clear that men perform Uurd's decrees (Uurd and her Shapers Fates.) And I do believe mankind does have free will. But I also believe that Uurd and her Shapers know exactly what we will freely chose to do, as we have free choice, but our actions are "fated." Hence, we have Old Norse Seith and Old Saxon Sooth, i.e. soothsaying in Old Saxon, predicting the future. In the year 782, the first Saxon Capitularies were written by the Franks as a law code over the Saxons. The Lex Saxonum is the Frankish codification of the "new" Saxon Law, after the Franks defeated the Saxons in a thirty three year war to convert them forcefully from Heathenry to Christianity. When the war was over, these laws were forced on the Saxons. The Saxons received a public execution for eating meat during lent, for refusing to be baptized, and for burning their dead. But oddly, Saxon Soothsayers apparently were so successful at predicting the Future, the Franks did not want these Soothsayers to be put to death, instead they wanted them serving in the church. Saxon Soothsayers were extremely Heathen Heathens I might add. The Lex Saxonum in order 23 clearly states: "We have ordered that diviners and soothsayers shall be given to the church and priests." That is saying something. Throughout the Old Saxon Heliand, we also have Saxon Soothsayers, and even Christ was pictured as a Soothsayer, in many passages. Christ used the "Saxon art of soth" (pronounced "sooth") to predict his one death (I prefer to say suicide, but moving on...) If the Gods cannot escape their Fates, neither can we. Soothsaying is a lost art in modern Heathenry. Sure we have many who claim to be able to tell the future, but it is obvious that society doesn't respect modern Soothsayers for being so accurate at predicting the future as the historical Saxon Soothsayers were spared the death penalty by the Church.
Modern Heathens should spend a lot more time understanding Uurd and her Shapers. It appears from the Old Saxon Heliand, Uurd and her Shapers were on the minds of the Saxons daily. The Shapers were thought of every bit as much as the Gods were, and probably even more so. Come visit us on Facebook, search for the group "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry"