Havamal 23: Njorð Take the Helm?

23: An unwise man lies awake all night,
brooding on everything;
he's quite worn out, when morning comes,
and it's all just as bad as before

We all worry, it's a natural part of being human. Isn't it? I'm not sure. I mean, shouldn't I worry?

Seriously, the meta-worrying is stressful AF.

Every choice can bring anxiety. Is there a "right" or "wrong" choice? Often, our experience and knowledge can tell us that the answer for the majority of our choices. Running a red light, even though we're late, is a "wrong" choice, it's safe to say. But what about taking that job offer on the other side of the country? What about the comfortable, but cramped, house you can easily make payments on, but you're positive some space would grant some peace of mind? For those questions, things get significantly fuzzier. For the monotheists, it's a common response to "Let God handle it" or "Pray about it."

That's all well and good for them, with a belief that their God handles anything and everything, but from a Heathen perspective? It's a lot less clear. Should you even ask Them? Who do you ask? Is this a better question for the Ancestors?
When you ask a Hearth Goddess if you should start learning martial arts.
Others can be a bit more...blunt.

For Heathens both modern and ancient, looking to the Gods for advice is complicated. We can ask the Gods for advice, but it's not like we're tapping into a source of certainty. The Gods have been around a long time and with that comes experience. They also have goals and agendas that may or may not align with our own. You really want that bigger house, and maybe you can actually afford it, but the God/Goddess you're asking for advice would rather you spend that money differently, taking classes or donating all of the difference to a local charity. It's simultaneously freeing and terrifying.

As for the concept of "Fate" itself, that's even less simple. Most people are familiar with are three Norns, often syncretically matched with the Three Fates of Greek Mythology. The Three Fates, as I understand them, fully know and control the Fate of mortals (sometimes Gods, depending on the source), weaving together the strands of a being's life from start to finish. The Norns are a bit more complicated. Their names are Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld, and the etymology of their names gives a clue to a deeper and stranger worldview than controlling destiny.

Urðr usually translates to "Fate," or it's later Anglicized update of "wyrd" (pronounced like its modern cousin : "weird"). Urðr represents "that which happened." She is the Past, immutable and weighty. She is the only representation of solidity and certainty. What happened last Tuesday happened and will continue to affect things into the future to whatever degree it might. A car accident would have large, lasting affects, but skipping lunch that day might only have a smaller, cumulative affect. There's a pleasant level of scaling involved in the Norse conceptualization of wyrd. Changing our view or interpretation of it doesn't change what the past actually is, and that is the fundamental anchor of the Norns, the basis from which the other two work.

Verðandi is trickier to translate, but the generally accepted concept is "becoming," or "present." She represents the razor's edge of the instant of now, before it becomes the Past, and after the nebulous Future coalesces around the moment being experienced. If the Norse had a Goddess of "mindfulness," She would probably be it.

Skuld best translates as "debt", or "should be." Notice "should," not "will." There's no certainty. The debt isn't so much in the idea of owing something to another, but the final Norn represents the opposite side of Urðr's efforts on the scale of time. At any point before the present, anything is possible, before it "becomes."  The reason utterly outrageous things happen so rarely is because Skuld's task is to ensure that the momentum of events that begin with Urðr "become" with Verðandi. If events don't occur which "should," then the "debt" must be paid, and that is also her duty. Oh, and she's likely a Valkyrie ("Chooser of the Slain") to boot. She's listed among them more than once in the Eddas. My speculation is that battlefields are such complex and chaotic places, that sometimes to make things play out, She has to show up in person.

Let's take an example of going to the movies. Last weekend, you promised your kids you would go to the movies, so that event (the promise) happened in the present (the weekend) and moved into the past by Monday. So now the "debt" is your promise to your kids. It's not set in stone that you're going to the movies, just that the momentum of your life has shifted ever so slightly in that direction. When you're actually going, i.e. Friday or Saturday, matinee or evening show, is completely up in the air. Buying tickets in advance during the week shifts it even further, increasing that "debt," and narrows the focus of that momentum to a specific place and time. Things can still derail your plans, like a car breaking down, but the more you act and create threads (for lack of a better metaphor) tying you to going to the movies, the more likely it is to happen. If you break your promise to your kids, the "debt" becomes that they might trust you less now, and if you bought the tickets the "debt" includes the lost cost of the tickets in addition to the broken promise.

Now take all of those "threads," all the possibilities of Life that shift and grow and shrink according to an endless series of events and decisions, and you can begin to grasp the concept of "Fate" from a Norse perspective, and why even the Gods can be powerless against it. Some things are inevitable because we lack the power to change them, not because they are inevitable in-and-of themselves.

Some battles are more complex than others.

The Gods are not immune to these forces any more than we are. Odin received prophecy about Ragnarök, and that it was unavoidable. He was not told that it will happen on a set date or that it will exactly play out a certain way. He knows that the momentum towards the death of himself and many of his children and friends is inevitable because even their powers cannot shift the greater power of events already past to affect the future.

However, one of the defining characteristics of Odin is that almost every single action he takes in his wanderings and swelling the ranks of the warriors in Valhalla is to subtly push the "debt" away from Ragnarök's impending occurrence. He can't stop it, but he can delay it, and so far it seems to be working.

We know we're going to die as well, but with healthy living and choices, we can shift the "debt" away from "heart failure in our 40s" towards "in our sleep in our 90s." Maybe it's all in vain because when we were born, our genetics gave us a defective heart, or maybe the exercise is the reason we survive that out-of-the-blue heart attack in our 40s. We simply don't know, and neither do the Gods, when decisions have to be made and just how far they might reach.

There is no easy answer, and we can't leave it up to the Gods, who despite having experience and time on their side, can be no more certain of the future than we are. Asking them for advice (and help, occasionally) is certainly useful, since they have a longer and higher view of events than we mortals do. Ultimately, the decision is ours to make, and the consequences ours to live with. We can't ignore the past and the debts we created, but we can make every effort to bend the momentum of our future towards what we want.

I don't care what anyone says, LOTR is very Norse.


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