Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wyrd: The Tree, the Runes, and the Knot

"Wyrd bið ful aræd!"  Fate is utterly inexorable!  ("The Wanderer", 5, Tolkien trans.)

Try to imagine that there is no objective linear time, only concurrent processes and cycles of growth.  Our bodies grow and cycle through processes of respiration, digestion, etc.; the earth grows through its changes and circles the sun; the sun grows through the life cycle of a star and circles the galaxy; and so on.  These growings and cycles impact one another, but are also driven each by their own nature and impetus, like genetics and homeostasis in the case of living things, mass in the case of planets, or like clocks, which don't actually measure anything external but are driven by internal mechanisms. "Complex systems...tend to be nested, on within the other, and are separated by fuzzy boundaries.  These are boundaries which allow for the flow of energy, materials, and information between larger- and smaller-scale system, but maintain each system's integrity."  (Wessels, 12.)  Thus, smaller systems are embedded in larger systems, and though each maintains its own particular nature, each is also connected to, and dependent upon, the smaller systems it contains and the larger systems in which it is contained.

The collective interaction of all systems and cycles is what I feel is meant by Wyrd.
Verða [the root of "wyrd"] derives form the IE root *uert-, which denotes the kind of motion common to 'turn, spin, rotate.' ... The idea basic to verða contains this element of 'turning' and probably represents some kind of change of location or reorientation in space.  Its meaning evolves logically from 'turn (from one place or position to another)'; 'turn (into)'; 'become'. (Baushatz, 13.)
The Tree

  I know that an ash tree stands called Yggdrasil,
a high tree soaked with loam;
from there come the dews which fall into the valley,
ever green, it stands over the well of fate [Urd/Wyrd].

From there come three girls, knowing a great deal,
from the lake which stands under the tree;
Fated [Urth/Wyrd] one is called, Becoming [Verthandi] another,--
they carved on wooden slips--Must-be [Skuld] the third;
they set down laws, they chose lives,
for the sons of men the fates of men.  ("Volupsa", 19-20, Larrington trans.)
Urth reflects actions made manifest, brought to a full, clear, observable, fruition; they have 'become'; they are accomplished.  Verthandi clearly reflects the actually occurring process of all that Urth eventual expresses.  The two Norns are closely linked, with the influence of Verthandi flowing directly to Urth.  As actions pass from Verthandi to Urth, they move from 'becoming' to 'become'.  As Skuld is involved with necessary or obligatory action, she stands slightly apart from the other two Norns.  She seems to make reference to actions felt as somehow obliged or known to occur;that is the necessity of their 'becoming' is so strongly felt or clearly known that they present themselves as available to be incorporated into the realms of Verthandi and Urth. (Baushatz, 14.)
Wyrd is like a tree, like Yggdrasil.  The tree's genetic structure, its "skuld", is a "plan" for how the tree should grow.  But this is not a "future"; its genes are part of the tree's present structure.  As the tree follows this genetic growth plan, it is also affected by its environment, so the tree does not end up as a perfect manifestation of its genetic plan.  As the tree grows, it adds more rings of "urth", and people who know how can look at the rings and tell how much rainfall there was during that time, etc.  The history of the tree's experience is part of its present structure.  So the structure of the tree at a present moment, the "verthandi", is made up its past growth, its urth, and skuld is the plan for growing new structure, but this plan is not the future, for the future growth will be affected by variables which have not yet occurred and which will affect how this skuld "verthandi's" into urth, how what ought to happen encounters the phenomena of the present moment and thus becomes the structure of an irrevocable past.
The 'falling' of the dew reunites the waters from the tree with those of the well, into which the roots of the tree extend.  The cyclic nature of this process with the well as both source and goal, beginning and ending of the nutritive process, combines all of the structural semantic elements of brunn [wellspring, the well of fate/Urd/Wyrd], representing both an active, natural welling source and a collecting storing source.  The myth presents a continuous cycle of activity.  (Baushatz, 20.)
I know everything, Odin, where you hid your eye
in the famous well of Mimir.  ("Volupsa", 28, Larrington trans.)

This wellspring, this "welling" and "collecting, storing" source is also related to memory, which is itself something that both stores and wells up.  The meaning of the name "Mimir", the giant who guards the well, is related to "knowing" and "remembering".  Our genetic past is stored within our cells, much like the tree, but we also have our past stored within our minds as memory and knowledge.  But, again, this is not truly the past, for it is part of the structure of our present minds.
The human brain does not for the most part organize events according to the sequence in which they happened or were recorded.  Human memory is not a tape that we must rewind to get back to the desired spot.  When we go to a place and remember the last time we were in that place, we do not do so by rewinding our memory through the sequences of events between now and then.  Simple introspection shows that people cannot predict what thought will come to them  a minute from now: Pick up a pen, stub your toe, have a drink, eat a cookie, and "out of the blue" may come a memory from any time in your past, even early childhood.   “Just as physical space is suffused by culture and memory with blend-prompting powers, our brains, in a very different sense, but with equal powers, gives us imaginative compressions of things that we know are far apart in time and space.”~ (Fauconnier & Turner 317)
Likewise, knowledge and memory are our sources for making calculations about the future.  The future only exists for us as imagined possibilities in the present.  Our minds in the present moment, with their memories of the past and imaginings for the future all wound together are the wyrd of the psyche.  From this well Odin drank, giving an eye for the privilege--Odin, lord of fury, of losing oneself in the ecstasy of the moment, whether in battle frenzy or poetic reverie.  Two eyes become one.  Looking backwards to the past and looking forward to the future weave together into one single vision of the present.

[The ravens] Hugin and Munin ["Thinking" and "Remembering"] fly every day
over the wide world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
yet I tremble more for Munin. ("Grimnismal", 20, Larrington trans.)

We create memory and knowledge from sensory input which, in turn, is informed by other memory and knowledge, all processed in different parts of the brain and woven together into our experience of the present moment.  Sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee is a simple matter, yet this experience is the culmination of numerous sensory and meaning systems.
As neuroscience has shown, the many aspects of a cup of coffee--the color of the cup, the shape of the opening, the topography of the handle, the smell of the coffee, the texture of the surface of the cup, the dividing line between the coffee and the cup, the taste of the coffee, the heavy feel of the cup in the hand, the reaching for the cup, and so on and on--are apprehended and processed differently in anatomically different locations, and there is no single site in the brain where these various apprehensions are brought together.  (Fauconnier & Turner 7-8)
This multifaceted process is used not only to create experience from sensory stimulation, but it is also used to recreate these experiences as memories and to construct simulations of possibilities for future experiences.
Episodic memory's failure to provide exact replicas of experience appears to be not a limitation of memory but an adaptive design that helps us to retrieve and recombine memories in order to run vivid simulations of future experience. ...  Tellingly for this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, imagining the future recruits most of the same brain areas as recalling the past..." (Boyd, 157.)
Thus our ability to remember the past and imagine the future are both echoes of the stored experiences of the present.

But Wyrd was not only seen as manifesting in living systems, such as the growth of trees and the memories of people, but also in the nature of what we would call "inanimate" objects as
characterized by
the māðum, a valuable article, such as a sword or cup or piece of jewelry, which often has some intrinsic worth but greater symbolic value.  A sword may be valued as worth a fixed amount of gold, but as a māðumā its worth may be incalculable -- it is the stored up history of the object which gives it its power.  Every warrior who has used it, every battle it has been used in, every oath upon its naked edge, every feud it has caused or settled, all these past events have contributed to the tale of the sword, its 'worth' (but not its monetary value, necessarily) and meaning.  (Pollington 44-45.)
And, as an objects reflected the past deeds in which they were involved, so did places retain meaningful events which occurred there.
A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture,  just a passive or inert setting for human events that occur there.  It is an active participant in those occurrences.  Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there. ... experienced events remain rooted in the particular soils, the particular ecologies, the particular places that give rise to them.  (Abram, 162.)
Who has not had a rush of memory having returned to a place from one's past or coming across a forgotten memento stowed in an attic?  We visit special places such as gravesites and memorials to summon the "spirits" of the dead and we visit museums to see the personal artifacts of important people of the past.  We still recognize the wyrd of these places and objects.
This use of space as a prompt to blend events, intentionality, and times is a basic cultural instrument: We visit the graves of dead relatives, heroes, and martyrs; we visit the towns where Vermeer and Shakespeare were born; we return to our alma mater; we go to chapels or churches to pray even when there is no service, and of course the graves are either in the floor of the church or in the graveyard next to the church.  Part of the motivation for these visits is the sense that, if we actually inhabit them, we can more easily integrate our thinking and emotions with the people, cultures, and events associated with them, no matter how ancient.  Cultures organize these compressions by designating certain places (the cemetery, the churchyard, the Vietnam Memorial) as calling for special attention to associated compressions across times and events for the purposes of remembrance.  Physical spaces are already attached by memory to sensations and events in our past.  A culture does enormous additional work to load these physical spaces with material anchors for memorial purposes (gravestones, relics, plaques).  Many other material anchors incidentally become prompts for memory and time compression (such as our personal effects, rooms in a house we once inhabited or inhabit now, cars we have owned)  (Fauconnier & Turner 316.)
Special objects and sacred places hold the past immanent in the present moment and influence future events and actions.  They have their own wyrd.

Polytheists see things in terms of multiple, interacting aspects personified by gods and spirits who have their own domains and story cycles.  Wyrd is the sum total of all of these domains, all individual processes and cycles and their interactions.  Wyrd is above the gods because they only have sway over their domains, not the domains of other gods, so they cannot affect the totality of process and cycle, but are merely a part of it.  The Greek concept of Moira, meaning "fate" or "destiny," has a similar meaning.
Moira simply means 'part,' 'allotted portion'; from that primary meaning it is agreed that the meaning 'destiny' is derived. ... Each God has his own allotted portion or province--a certain department of nature or field of activity.  This may also be regarded as his status; it gives him a determined position in the social system.  Within his own domain his supremacy is not to be challenged; but he must not transgress its frontiers, and he will feel resentment at any encroachment by another. ... It is this conception, not that of the individual human fate, that is generalized in Destiny, Moira.  She represents the apportionment to each God of his province, status or privilege.  It is at once plain why she is above any or all of the Gods, and how the limits she sets to their powers can be thought of as moral limits. ... The original conception of Moira thus turns out to be spatial, rather than temporal.  We are to think of a system of provinces, coexisting side by side, with clearly marked boundaries.  The conception has been obscured by the--in our opinion, later--mode of conceiving of the three Fates as corresponding to divisions of time--Past, Present and Future. (Cornford, 16-17.)
This "system of provinces," is the same as the systems within systems of Wyrd.  Wyrd is also spatial rather than temporal because it is not a timeline of past, present and future, but rather the immediate simultaneity of interactions among the structures of the past as existing in the present moment, which already contains the trajectory of the future.

The Runes

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.  (Havamal 138-139, Larrington trans.)

Odin discovered the runes among the roots of Yggdrasil.  The runes are an alphabet, basic letter units that can be combined to form a myriad of meanings.  The runes were also thought to be magical--to carve them meant to make something happen, to bring something into being.  Of course, no magic is needed for this to be true.  What someone writes may be read by another, and this may have an effect on that person.  In this way ideas come into being and reproduce themselves.  Richard Dawkins compares transmissible ideas to genetic code, coining the word "meme" for an idea transmitted and preserved by a culture.  The Norns "carved on wooden slips" and "set down the laws."  They use combinations of runes to write out the fates of gods and men.  Like the three Fates which personified the Goddess Moria, the established order of all things, the three Norns personify Wyrd, the being of all things.

In ancient Northern European cultures, as in other oral cultures worldwide, cultural knowledge, what we now call "myth", was disseminated over distances and passed down the generations in song.  These songs were created through a process of memorized "genetic" tropes which were combined in each performance depending on the the taste of the audience and the current political situation.
 ...we know how the bards learn: by listening for months and years to other bards who never sing a narrative the same way twice but who use over and over again the standard formulas in connection with the standard themes.  Formulas are of course somewhat variable, as are themes, and a given poet's rhapsodizing or 'stitching together' of narrative will differ recognizably from another's.  Certain turns of phrases will by idiosyncratic.  But essentially, the materials, themes and formulas, and their use belong in a clearly identifiable tradition.  Originality consists not in the introduction of new materials but in fitting the traditional materials effectively into each individual, unique situation and/or audience.  (Ong, 59.)
The versions of "Volupsa" and "Havamal" and "Grimnismal" quoted above are not the "true" versions, but simply three of many varying versions which simply happened to be recorded.  In a living polytheism these tropes would continue to recombine, giving birth to new songs which would tell new versions of the stories in ever-evolving cycles of "truth."  A living lore as opposed to fossilized scripture.  The sum total of these stories, the collective myths and legends of the cultures of the world, which is greater than the ego of any individual or traditions of any one culture, gives us a glimpse of the archetypal foundations of the collective human experience.  These archetypes, are, in turn, the "genetic code" of gods and spirits, which recombines in different times and cultures to produce different varieties of deities and supernatural beings.  These beings are products of their culture and time, yet their foundational building blocks are universal and unchanging, like the fixed alphabet of runes which can combine to form multitudinous words and meanings.

The monotheist big "g" god, on the other hand, is omnipotent and omniscient.   His plans cannot be thwarted and no fate reigns over him.  He tells but one story which proceeds cleanly from creation through judgment and into eternity, which could be one of bliss or punishment for us lowly mortals.  This is not a cycle, but a straight line.  The concept of time is also a straight line, (despite the fact that clocks are circular) like the "timeline" diagrams found in most history textbooks.  But the truth, according to the growth and cycle model, is that the "past" part of the line has not been left behind.  It is woven into the structure of the "present" and sets the course for the "future", and thus it is not a line at all, or, if it is, it is a spiral, an unfolding of cycles, each based on the same prototype, but each unfolding in new and unique ways.  Not time, but pattern, cycle, spiral--the plan for the future directing the unfolding of the present which contains the structure of the past.

The Knot
The sign known as the "valknut" or "knot of the slain" is three interlocking triangles.  "The form is tripartite and interwoven; the context is mortuary, Odinic and Otherworldly and it has both equine and feminine associations. This set of conditions is peculiar to the mythology of the World Tree and can be related to certain beings associated with it. The World Tree is Yggdrasill or "The Steed of the Fearful One", which makes it a doublet of Sleipnir [Odin's horse]. It has three roots which link the worlds together. According to Snorri Sturlson, each root leads to ... the Well at which the three Nornir gather to decide the fates of humans and gods alike."  (Stone.)
The valknut is an ideal representation of Wyrd, since it has the three aspects of 'becoming', 'become' and 'should become', united as one, first in the form of a triangle, and then in the form of three triangles interlocked.  Three times three is nine, and nine were the nights that Odin hung on the tree to discover the runes.  Three is a significant number in many cultures, and the "number nine, or by augmentation, thrice nine, occurs often enough in Indo-European religious contexts to suggest that it was a traditional sacral quantity."  (West, 329)  Some suggest that the valknut is a symbol for Odin, but this greatly limits and simplifies its meaning.  "If the valknut symbolizes anything then, it is probably either wyrd, death, or perhaps even the Nornir themselves, who are more or less the same as wyrd anyway." (Stone)  Odin, in his relentless pursuit of knowledge of Wyrd, sacrificed himself to both the well and the tree.  Through Odin's gifts of ecstatic vision: breath, which controls consciousness and creates speech, and alphabetic writing, by the use of which an infinity of stories can be created, he is the conduit through which mortals may also gain and communicate knowledge of Wyrd.  The valknut is a symbol of this knowledge, and thus encompasses both Odin and that which is greater than him--the knowable and unknowable aspects of Wyrd.

"Wyrd is over us, each shall meet/His doom ordained at the dragon-cliff!"  (Beowulf, trans. J. Duncan Spaeth.)
For all men, clearly, the most significant moment of existence comes at the instant of death, the point at which man joins existence beyond this world.  The wise man prepares himself for this instant when his individual life and the power of wyrd will be in closest conjunction; he attempts to place his life most directly in the main current of the flow of wyrd.  He must act in accordance with prescribed codes of conduct received from the past; by so doing, he will protect his reputation and insure himself good fame.  His actions will be governed by what he knows; therefore, the wise man seeks to discover all he can.  The force of past events, which surges so meaningfully into present life, offers him some information about the nature of wyrd itself, but man, as he lives within the realm of the tree, fails in knowing the past fully.  As he values himself, however, he will strive to learn.  He will attempt to associate himself directly with all he knows to be good and wise.  By so doing, he will place himself in the most auspicious light so that he will die well; the moment of death is the moment of greatest significance in all of ordinary life. (Baushatz 28-29.)
Wyrd is associated with death because, as far as our consolidated egos are concerned, the end of our process is death and the dissolution of the mind/body system we call "me".  The runes of our doom are written in our genes and woven through our bodies.  Our behavior, outcomes of the wyrd of the psyche, can also help bring on our end. Yet, that which was our bodies is absorbed back into the earth to feed the growth of other living things, as happened to our ancestors when they were buried long ago.  In this way we do truly join our ancestors when we die.  And some of us lives on in the genes which we pass to our decedents, and our words and deeds which live on as memories and, perhaps, stories told by those whose lives we have touched.  "I know one thing that never dies: the reputation of a good man."  (Havamal 77, Larrington trans.)  Wyrd takes on a special meaning for us when we die because the moment of death is the culmination of a lifetime of our fated growth, the weave of our thought and memory and our interaction with the larger systems of the world.

The Northern Europeans were fond of stories about deaths that occurred to achieve some larger purpose--heroic deaths--because this helped make the meaning of this culmination vividly apparent.  Yet they also believed in the power of the individual to continue to influence events after death in the form of ancestor spirits, alfar and disir, and the passing down of the maegen or "ability" of renown ancestors to their decedents, or through the significant objects, māðum, that had been used by that person.  This was their understanding of the legacy of a life, how the past continues to reverberate in the present.

I think if there is one lesson to be learned from Wyrd, it is that there is always only here and now.  "Past" and "future" only exist as part of the weave of the present moment, which flows continuously in cycles of growth and decay and growth.  Each of our acts adds a layer to our own foundations, and that of our families, communities, nations, and the world itself.  The Old Norse word for this legacy was örlog, which literally translates as "that which was first laid down".  Each of our deeds resonates endlessly as ripples in the waters of the well of memory.  For this reason we, like our Northern Europeans ancestors, should strive to live our lives well and fill our present moments with deeds both bold and good.

Copyright 2011 The Heretical Heathen


Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996

Baushatz, The Well and the Tree, 1982

Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, 2009

Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, 1912

Fauconnier, Gilles & Turner, Mark, The Way We Think, 2002

Larrington, trans. The Poetic Edda

Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy, 1982

Pollington, The English Warrior, 2002

Beowulf, trans. Spaeth, Duncan J.,

Stone, Alby, "Knots of Death",

Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. "The Wanderer", 5.

Wessels, Tom, The Myth of Progress, 2006

West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007

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