I have heard that up north in an island,
[the/a] Norn is grim to me,
Óðinn chose him much too soon,
Þórólfr has met his end;
The heaviness of old age
Has robbed me of my fighting strength,
Revenge will not come quickly
Though not for lack of wanting.
– Egils Saga
The Nornir are usually represented as a trinity or Tripartite entity. The notion of this triple division of the Nornir is supported by Fáfnismál, which, in turn, may be drawing on conceptions similar to those underlying the First Merseburg Charm. Not only is the Nornir split into three distinct entities, what is also of importance is that the three Nornir have names – and each play a different role in the construction of an individual’s fate. Respectively, they most common names for the Nornir are Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld and they are associated with the temporal states of past, present and future, as in seen in the following extract.
Thence wise-maidens three betake them –
Under spreading boughs their bower stands –
Urth one is hight, the other, Verthandi,
Skuld the third: they scores did cut,
They laws did make, they lives did choose:
For the children of men they marked their fates.
These Nornir are the most widely known portrayals, however, references concerning the nature of the Nornir and even their number sometimes varies. Furthermore, the names for the Nornir are sometimes found outside of explicit references to the Nornir, which is suggestive of them having additional functions, or a more esoteric significance which is not fully conveyed by surviving textual references. For example, Urðr (genitive urðar, plural urðir), appears in fifteen or sixteen instances, either as the name of a Norn or in compounds where it has the meaning of ‘fate’ or ‘fateful’; Skuld occurs in four instances without Voluspá and Snorra-Edda: as a noun or perhaps simply as abstract ‘fate’ in Grógaldr, as a Valkyrjur in Þulur, as a Heiti for a woman in Lausavísa, and as the evil half-sister of Hrólfr in Hrólfs Saga. Of the three Nornir it is Skuld who appears to have the greatest degree of both complexity and personification, which also indicates that she is either the most powerful or the most feared member of the Trinity. The variation in terminology likewise provides an indication that the Nornir are not just an anthropomorphism of a chronological concept. Accordingly, the rudimentary temporal aspect embodied by the Norns is likely to be the lesser function which is part of a more complex whole.
There are other collectives of semi-divine female figures to be found in Scandinavian and Teutonic mythology which possess some similarities to the Norns – namely the Dísir, Fylgjur and Valkyrjur – all three of which also have a link to the destinies of mortals. Whilst not explicitly tied to fate or destiny, these entities are allotted a protective role which enables them to guide the destinies of their respective wards, and as such need to be examined in relation to the Nornir. The Dísir, in particular, have previously been looked at in connection to the Nornir, though the exact identity of the Dísir themselves also appears to be a topic of contention. For example, Gunnell states that unlike the other type of beings (fylgjur and valkyrjur), the Dísir sometimes receive sacrifices, have places dedicated to them, and appear to protect not only individuals but also families and even nations. Raudvere, by contrast, claims the following:
The function of the Dísir seems to have been the protection of crops and production in a certain place. They are more closely related to the landscape and have a more markedly protective role than the abstract Fylgjur. The latter are connected to an individual or family, while the Dísir seem primarily connected to a certain place.
Whatever aspect the Dísir play, whether it be protecting families of the land or the land itself, it seems apparent that the Dísir are some form of spiritual (and most likely ancestral) guardian. However, they do still appear to have supernatural abilities above and beyond the norm of any mere classification of spectre. Further clarification on the role of the Dísir is provided by De Vries and Prokorny, who both cite etymological evidence that the word Dísir derives from the Vedic language, with De Vries linking the Dísir to dhiṣaṇyant – ‘attentive, devout’ and Prokorny then linking dhiṣaṇyant to the Sanskrit root dhī-, ‘to see’, from which is also derived the Sanskrit word for wisdom, thought, and insight, the seers who composed the Rig Veda. Thus the implication is not that the word describes the normal mode of eyesight, but rather a preternatural form of vision that enables them to see through the veils of maya and see the world as it really is. Based on these terms connected to the Dísir, it seems clear that they (albeit still possessing a minor influence over the course of human fate) are not the same as the Nornir – rather they are a form of ancestral spirit which appears to have gained precognitive vision in the same manner as the Vedic seers – remembering of course also that the Vedic seers are themselves the ancestors of the Traditional Brāhmana varna, so there is also an element of ancestor worship inherent in the Vedic Tradition via the transmission of caste also.
Though sometimes compared to the Dísir and the Nornir, the Valkyrjur appear to be something different again. The Valkryjur tend to manifest in heroic poetry and are often portrayed as the daughters of kings who, for reasons mostly unexplained, are leading a masculine lifestyle. Description of the Valkryjur show them as young, unmarried women who, for some reason, have become warriors and take on an entirely masculine role and who then undergo dramatic changes back into a feminine role when they encounter the hero who loves them and become betrothed or married to him. However they are additionally referred to as a battleground spirit which Óðinn sends out to collect souls of heroes that have fallen in combat, and conduct them to Valhalla and sometimes protect mortal men, as Grimm says here: “wish-maidens fetch his wish-sons […] But these messengers also take charge of heroes while alive, and protect them until death: they are guardian-angels and death-angels.” Thus there seems to be a confusion of terminology between mortal women and a type of guardian spirit in textual references, perhaps with the name being applied in an allegorical sense for mortal women.
Of the other groups of supernatural female figures in the Northern Traditions, the remaining two which could possibly have a link to the Nornir are the Fylgjur and the Volur. Of these two types, the Fylgjur do not appear to make decisions or choices concerning fate or destiny and probably operate as a form of ‘luck spirit’ for the person to whom they are attached. Similarly the Volur, though having knowledge of the destinies of mortals, are represented as human women, not supernatural ones. It is also apparent that although the Volur may have foreknowledge of certain events, they neither allot nor allocate specific events to individuals. The knowledge possessed by the Volur is more akin to that of the sage or shamanic stream than it is of a divine origin.
On the basis of these comparisons, it seems apparent that any link between the Nornir, Dísir, Valkryjur, Flygjur and the Volur is tenuous at best and that these groups of female figures do not overlap in any regard, except that the said mythological groupings all contain female entities. The fact that the name Skuld appears as the name of both a Norn and a Valkryjur appears to be coincidental. The only common factor between them is the form of literary content they appear in. The Nornir, Dísir and Valkyrjur, hardly ever turn up in mythological poems; with the exception of Voluspá, they are mentioned almost exclusively in heroic and skaldic poetry. However, this does not indicate that there is any degree of relation between the three groups which would prove that the entities are the same. Rather the Nornir, the Dísir and the Valkyrjur all tend to appear in the heroic and skaldic poetry because they interact and impact on mortals more than they do the gods. The Dísir and the Valkyrjur protect mortals, whilst the Nornir have the power to write their Fate.
Though the Nornir are almost exclusively referred to as a collective group, there are also references to isolated or lone Nornir. Snorri Struluson makes a direct reference to the multiplicity of the Nornir in the following passage.
These maidens shape men’s lives. We call them Norns. There are also other Norns who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives…Good Norns, ones of noble parentage, shape good lives, but as for those people that become the victims of misfortune, it is evil Norns that are responsible.
This may be a confusion on Snorri’s part however, as he may well be erroneously associating the Dísir and Flygjur with Nornir here. In the majority of references the Nornir are portrayed as a trinity, consisting of Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld, as was mentioned earlier.
Outside of literature, evidence for the existence of the Nornir is scant – which is not particularly surprising since a lot of content may well have been destroyed, either by the advent of Judeo-Christianity in Europe or as result of the ravages of time itself. However the items which have survived strongly support the premise that there are only three primary Nornir. By way of example, there are three female figures depicted on the right panel of Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon whalebone chest from the eighth century, which has been identified as representative of the Nornir. In addition to this the inscription N 351 M from the stave church at Borgund says “Þórir carved these runes on the eve of Olaus-mass, when he traveled past here. The Norns did both good and evil, great toil … they created for me”. Finally, there is an inscribed wooden stick from Søndre Engelgården at Bryggen in Bergen, which specifically uses the word Nornir. Other than these artifacts, the strongest evidence for a trinity of Nornir are the Roman-inspired votive altars depicting three ‘mothers’. The existence of these altars also provides proof of a direct connection between the Nornir and the Roman Parcae, who were another trinity of female figures, almost exactly the same as the Nornir.