Once upon a time, there was a great Ash – some say Yew, and depending on which culture is talking about this tree, some even say Oak or Birch. It doesn’t matter though, because whether you call it Yggdrasil or Bile, it’s the same tree, the ‘world tree’. Vast beyond imagining, with roots that grow deep into the depths of the Below World and beyond, and branches that grow high into the Above World and beyond, it stands. Proud and strong even as wyrmas gnaw at its roots and deer graze upon its leaves. We live in what might be called the ‘Around World’, but some call it Middle-Earth, or Midgarð. I don’t like to get into names of worlds though, because when you get into names, then you get into counting them, and that’s where things get controversial. I like to keep things simple and I like the number three, so I’m going to talk about the ‘Below World’, the ‘Above World’, and the ‘Around World’, any differentiation within those worlds are just countries…yeah, that’s what they are, just countries. But the point is, the tree is everything, and everything inhabits the worlds that are on the tree.
In spite of the gnawing and munching, things aren’t entirely miserable for the tree, the tree has help in the form of three women that keep it wet with ‘white water’. But that’s not their entire function (thankfully). Eternity would be awfully boring if all you had to do was water a tree.
No, these ladies are special, and moreover, it’s because of them that a Heathen seer does not and cannot ‘see’ the future.
Introducing the Nornir
The first thing to know about these ladies is that they have names, of course they have names, and like many old names, they give us a clue about what these ladies did or the forces they may represent. They might not even be their ‘real’ names, the ancient and sacred often hides behind kennings, but the names they have serve us just fine. The second thing to know is that time and happening don’t work for them in the same way that it does for us, chronology takes a back seat to context. Lastly, because of this, the third thing to know is that they’re not in any ‘order’ that we would recognise. In other words, they aren’t working on some assembly line of ‘fate’.
It’s not even really ‘fate’ that they do either. Fate implies a set future that is not one of many possible futures but a ‘The Future’. There is no fate for us, there is simply ‘what was’, ‘what is’, and ‘what is owed’. Moreover, because the layers we lay down aren’t only laid down by us, but our ancestors and those we interact with too, then unless we live our lives in bubbles, there is no way to lay layers without ‘our’ layers interacting with the layers of others, whether we realise that at the time or not. Just as the tree holds all, wyrd’s well holds more than just our own personal wyrds.
But back to the ladies…Collectively known as ‘Nornir’ in Old Norse and ‘Wyrdae’ in Old English, the ‘first’ of the three is ‘Urðr’, or ‘Wyrd’, she is that what was, that which is set down layer by layer, and her partner is ‘Verðandi’, or ‘becoming’, in other words, ‘what is’.
Together they are bound in a constant interaction in which Urðr is the past and Verðandi the present continuous. ‘What was’, and ‘what is becoming’. ‘What is now’ lays down the future layers of ‘what was’, and the layers of ‘what was’ often lead to the creation of the ‘what is’ – but not always. You see, sometimes the ‘weird’ in our lives, the things we cannot explain given current circumstances (be those things good or bad) are often the product of ‘what was’ affecting ‘what is’. We rightfully call these things ‘weird’ in English, but most of us have forgotten the root of this word, that once it was Wyrd, and that Wyrd belonged in a well in which context rather than chronology has the most meaning.
Standing a little off on her own is ‘Skuld’, or as I will call her here, ‘what is owed’, and for the most part that’s where she stays. However, she may also be a Valkyrie, so the perception by some that she’s linked to death is not unfounded. In my experience, you also very rarely see her at work, most rough times that people have are down to wyrd, to the layers they set down in the past.
Whether these three ladies are personifications of forces as intrinsic to natural laws as gravity, or distinct beings that actually exist to manipulate these forces is not clear. The image of the Nornir gathered around wyrd’s well though, is stirring to say the least, and whether you choose to ‘journey’ to the well to look within to peel back the layers on your client, replicate the waters by use of skrying bowl or mirror, or pester various unseen beings for answers, as Heathens we have to be clear on what is actually being done.
For the most part, when a person approaches with a question, what he or she is really doing is asking the seer to take a look at ‘what was’ and ‘what is now’ in a targeted way, and then with wisdom, construct the ‘most likely outcome’ for the questioner if there are no attempts to change course.
But with this in mind, how is a seer still a seer?
The Art of Seeing “What is”
Often, when we are in a situation, it’s hard to see all the angles because we’re too close to it, or we’re protecting ourselves emotionally from coming to the conclusions we really need to come to. Moreover, while a seer cannot see a set future (because there is no such thing – at least not in the sense that is usually meant), he or she can see the layers of both ourselves, our ancestors, and other involved parties, and see factors hidden to the querent at the time of questioning. A good seer can then identify the layers in the querent’s past that continue to be problematic in the becoming, and counsel the querent on how to change that pattern that the future becoming might be better. Of course, we can all question and explore the layers of another in order to help them create better layers, but one way to think of a seer for ease of differentiation, is as a person with the facility to perceive wyrd (or the ability to question the unseen about ‘what was’ and ‘what is’).
In some ways, modern science is even coming to reinforce these ideas. Recent research in DNA has shown that we can not only inherit the health of our ancestors, but their phobias too. Entire disciplines in counselling rely on the idea that one must explore the client’s past and work with changing their current behaviour and perceptions in order to create a better future for the client. We are counselled that you can make new habits by doing them at least twenty-one times, in other words, by laying new layers to begin the process of offsetting Wyrd, and evolution teaches us that we are related to every single living thing on this planet.
But regardless of whether you’re looking for more scientifically or ‘magically’ based wyrd-counselling, as always, it’s important to choose your counsel well.
What do you think of when you think of the word, ‘prayer’? Perhaps you envision a person piously kneeling in church, or even rocking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Maybe you even think of the Muslim with a prayer mat, or the Sufi worshipers swirling in their billowing robes?
But what about Pagans and Heathens? Do we pray? Should we pray? And how should that prayer ‘look’ in comparison to the prayer of other religions?
A while ago, I posed the question of prayer on a group that I frequent – it’s a lovely group, very calm, and a lot of the members find it supportive. A lot of the respondents said that they did indeed pray, and then we went on to have a wonderful conversation about prayer. However, there were a few that expressed views that they don’t pray so much as just ‘talk to the gods, ancestors, and wights’. This isn’t unusual either. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the prayer question come up in both Heathen and Pagan circles over and over again, and the ‘I don’t pray, but talk to the gods’ response is one that I’ve seen come up a lot.
But what is prayer, and what was it for Heathens?
“Teach us the Secret Runes”
Many of the sources we have for the Heathen period were written by Christians, in some cases centuries after conversion. With this in mind, when we examine these sources, we have to treat them with some degree of caution and bear in mind that we’re reading these events as presented through the filter of a Christian worldview.
The ‘Heliand’ however, is pretty unique in that it’s the Christian gospel written in a way that the Heathen Saxons could understand it. In other words, it’s the story of Jesus adapted to the Heathen worldview. Through comparing the rendering the ‘Heliand’ gives, with the actual Christian gospel, I believe it’s possible to discern aspects of the Heathen worldview.
When it comes to prayer, and the way it is introduced in the ‘Heliand’, the difference between the Christian version and the version as rendered for Heathens is obvious.
In Luke 11:1, the introduction to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is short, and with the expectation that the reader will already understand what is going on:
“One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
In contrast though, the ‘Heliand’ presents prayer very differently:
“Our good Lord”, he said, “we need Your gracious help in order to carry out Your will and we also need Your own words, Best of all born, to teach us, Your followers, how to pray – just as John the good Baptist, teaches his people with words every day how they are to speak to the ruling God. Do this for Your own followers – teach us the secret runes.”
– Song 9
With those words, ‘teach us the secret runes’, or ‘gerihti us that geruni’, the normally ineffectual wish-prayer of the
pious, is made understandable within the context of Germanic culture as a kind of spell of great performative power; the word ‘geruni’ conveying both the ideas of secrecy and petitioning.
From the importance of skalds and their craft ( that often bordered on the magical) to the belief that certain combinations of words could have a magical effect, the idea of the power of language, is something that permeated Germanic culture. In the Old English medical texts, certain prayers such as the ‘Pater Noster’ (the Latin name of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) are considered to heal when said a certain number of times, and texts like ‘Solomon and Saturn’ often advocate the same prayers as war-spells for in battle.
But none of this really sounds like the Judeo-Christian idea of what a prayer is. The word ‘prayer’ itself derives from the Latin word ‘precari’, and has the Proto Indo-European root ‘*prek’, meaning ‘to ask, request, or en
treat’. In a sense, the asking and entreating does form a part of these formulaic ‘rune-prayers’ from Germanic tradition:
‘Give us support each day, good Chieftain, Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector of Heaven Our Many crimes, just as we do to other human beings Do not let evil little creatures lead us off to do their will, as we deserve’
– Excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer, Heliand, Song 19
But there is never really a sense with Christian prayer that the prayer itself is a kind of magical formula, or a ‘rune’ to be used as a form of magic in of itself. Christian prayer hinges on the entreaty, on the benevolence of the being you’re entreating. However, not only did Germanic prayer make that entreaty to the higher, as a subject might go to a King, it was also powerful in of itself. In other words, the formula and language used were important.
So while the word ‘prayer’ might not hold up within a Germanic context, at least not in the same sense as prayer in other religious traditions, a sense of respect, formality, of formula, and tradition does.
For health, for protection, for battle-victory, and for support – these were all reasons to make these entreaties and use these inherently magical formulae, these were the reasons that made sense to the Germanic tribes. There was no asking for ‘our daily bread’, which would have rendered the asker little more than a beggar, and asking for forgiveness is replaced by the more judicial ‘pardon’ from crimes.
So where does that leave us as moderns? Do we still call it ‘prayer’? How often should we do it? And if we bear in mind that a prayer was believed to hold an inherent magic based in the words used, how would this affect the prayers we come up with?
Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide how often they pray or…I dunno… speak runes? However one thing is clear to me; the formal and formulaic is not the sole domain of Christians, and when coming up with our prayers or ‘runes’, we should take as much care as possible, and never forget that we are addressing the Holy Powers.
The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel – Translation and Commentary by G.Ronald Murphy. S.J. The Lacnunga Solomon and Saturn The Holy Bible NIV