Foremost among the Norns is Urd accompanied by her two sisters, Verdandi and Skuld. They are said to “choose life” (líf kuru) for men at birth. All this from Völuspá 20:
20. Then came women, much-knowing
Three out of the sea (or hall) that stands under the tree;
Urd, one is named, another Verdandi, —scoring on boards—
Skuld is the third; They lay down laws (lög).
They choose life for the children of men, speak destiny (örlög).
The function of the Norns to determine the fate of men is alluded to several times in the lore. Twice, we find instances of Norns visiting a child at birth and pronouncing his fate. One occurs in Helgakvida Hundingsbana I and the second instance, partially euhemerized, occurs in Nornagestr’s Thattur, ch. 11, which describes the Norns as visiting völvas who bestow gifts on a child at birth and predict his future. In Helgakvida Hundingsbana, the divinity of the Norns is preserved:
2. It was night,
who would shape
the life of the prince
They decreed him
a prince, most famed to be,
and of leaders
3. With all their might
they spun the fatal threads,
that he should break burghs
They stretched out
the golden cord,
and beneath the moon's hall
fixed it in the middle.
In Völuspá 20, cited above, we are told that Norns “choose life” (líf kuru). Similarly, the Valkyries, by their very nature “chose death”. Valkyries are literally “choosers of valr (the slain)”. Under Odin’s command, they select who falls on the battlefield, and conduct them down to Hel, over Bifrost whose bridgeheads are in the underworld, and up to Valhalla. Freyja is said to take half of the fallen (Grimnismal 14). Since the youngest Norn, Skuld, is also the foremost of the Valkyries, according to Völuspá 29, we see that Urd and her sisters must have some role to play in the selection process as well.
According to Tacitus, both women and birds were considered prophetic among the German tribes. In the mythology, goddesses often assume the form of birds. Both Frigg and Freyja have a falcon-guise. And in Völundarkviða, three women wearing swan-guises join Völund in exile. In one of the oldest Old English poems, Exodus line 164, a bird of prey is called wonn wælceaqsega, “dark slaughter-picker,” a play on the traditional wælcyrige (valkyrie), found in an Old English gloss for the Roman Bellona, Furies, etc, [ se Ursula Dronke, Poetic Edda, Vol. II, 1997, p. 301]. In Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, strophe 15, a troop of valkyries with breastplates soaked in blood and luminescent spears are described as dîsir suðrænar, “southern goddesses,” the same term used in Völundarkviða1 (cp. drósir suðrænar). In Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, Sigrun, who is the valkyrie Sváfa reborn, rides through the air to haunt Helgi’s battles. When she embraces his lifeless body, she identifies with carrion birds, rejoicing like “Odin’s hawks” when they smell fresh slaughter (HH II, 43). Helgi characterizes her as “sun-bright,” sólbjört, and “southern,” suðræn (str. 45), the same direction from which the sun first rises in Völuspá 5.
In Snorri’s Edda, we learn that Urd’s well also lies to the south, and that swans swim in its waters. Swans are creatures accustomed to warmth and light. In the mythology, they are associated with Urd‘s well. Snorri informs us that all swans originate from a pair in Urd‘s well (Gylfaginning 16). In Völundarkviða 1, they are referred to as ―southern maids (drósir suðrænar); whereas in a loose verse by the skald Eilífr Gudrunarson preserved in Skáldskaparmál 52, we find Urd‘s well located in the south: ―south at Urd‘s well‖, sunnr at Urðrbrunni. In Völundarkviða, the swan-maidens weave and when they fly off, it is to ―fulfill fate‖, örlög drýja. (verses 1 & 3). Both images refer back to the Norns who weave the threads of fate on the loom of the sky. In Völundarkviða 1, three, winged swan-maidens fly “from the south”:
2. Maidens flew from the south
through Mirkwood (the Dark-wood),
foreign beings, young,
their fate to fulfil.
They on the lakeshore
settled to rest,
precious linen they spun.
The Swan-maidens, three in number, weave, as do the Norns and Frigg herself, whose spindle forms the constellation known as Orion’s Belt, also called “the Three Sisters.” Their description evokes the norns, the weavers of fate. Like the norns, these “southern damsels,” three in number, set about spinning. They are driven by fate, the örlög which the Norns have spun. Like Frigg and Freyja, the swan-maidens are able to transform into birds by means of a feather garment. In the German Berchta legends, the earth goddess appears as a radiantly white woman with one webbed foot, like a swan’s, as a sign of such a transformation. In Völundarkvida, these ladies rush to meet their husbands who are designated as “elf princes,” alfa ljóði and vísi alfa. Völund, “the elf-prince,” himself takes flight at the end of that poem in a feathered guise of his own device, suggesting that an elfin-artisan made these wonders for the gods. The elves are closely associated with the gods, primarily through the common eddic expression Æsir ok alfar, a formula which also occurs in Old English. In Lokasenna, both Aesir and elves are gathered around the table. Grímnismál 5 says that the Van-god Freyr was given Alfheim as a tooth-gift, and in the German Frau Holle legends, Holle (Frigg herself) is sometimes seen as the queen of the elves demonstrating that these ancient ideas were not entirely lost with the coming of Christianity.
- William P Reaves