Column: Wyrd Will Weave Us Together

Karl E. H. Seigfried —  May 28, 2016 — 5 Comments

Wyrd is a concept at the theological heart of Ásatrú and Heathenry. For many of those who practice one of the modern forms of the Old Way, wyrd is a core element of worldview. It stands behind, runs through, and supports our words and deeds. It connects each individual’s present moment to her past actions and to the actions of those around her. It forms a constantly shifting matrix that connects us all as we move through our intersecting lives.

The word wyrd itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon. In the main volume of An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, the first translation given for wyrd is “what happens,” followed by “fate, fortune, chance.” In the dictionary’s supplement, additional translations are presented: “what is done, a deed, an action.”

"The Norns" by Charles E. Brock [Public Domain]

“The Norns” by Charles E. Brock [Public Domain]

The Old Norse cognate for the term is urðr, which An [Old] Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon translates as “a weird, fate.” The same word is used in medieval Icelandic literary sources as the name for one of the three Norns who sit at the well under a root of the World Tree and “shape men’s lives.”

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for weird gives a wide range of definitions, including “the principle, power, or agency by which events are predetermined,” “that which is destined or fated to happen to a particular person,” “what one will do or suffer,” and “a happening, event, occurrence.”

Taking the Old English, Old Icelandic and Modern English translations and definitions together, there is a curious combination of action and fate. These two concepts seem quite different on the surface level, as those of us raised in a modern western worldview tend to make a distinction between (1) the actions we take of our own free will and (2) the futures that are fated to occur by some deity or supernatural force.

However, for Heathens who believe that “we are our deeds,” the two ideas are inextricably linked. What actions you have taken in the past determine what fate awaits you in the future. This is not mystical predetermination at the whim of an omniscient and omnipotent deity but rather a system of cause and effect determined by actions here on Midgard, the world we inhabit.

This is also not an ideology of rugged individualism in which each Romantic hero singlehandedly determines his own destiny in a triumph of the will. Although your actions add color, weight and strength to the thread of your life, that thread continues to tie you back to your beginnings at birth. As you move through time, your thread is woven together with those of many others to form the tapestry of wyrd. Together, these two basic concepts underscore the connectedness that is at the heart of a Heathen worldview.

Before the first mooring of your thread occurs, it is important to choose your parents wisely. In the United States, we embrace the myth of the American Dream and pretend that every individual has an equal chance of success in worldly things. Wyrd tells us something else entirely, and it is more honest about the realities of this nation.

The actions of your parents shaped your wyrd long before you were born, as the actions of your parents’ parents shaped theirs. A child born to a crack-addicted and HIV+ mother in a poverty-stricken neighborhood has a much different wyrd than does one born to an automobile executive or a real estate developer with a deep portfolio of profitable investments. No matter how hard the first child struggles to take control of her own destiny, she will have to trudge a long and difficult uphill road filled with obstacles before she reaches even the starting point of the second.

American_progress

“American Progress” by John Gast [Public Domain]

Much of what we tell ourselves about level playing fields and the benefits of a traditional work ethic is designed to obscure this basic truth of the functioning of wyrd. We seek to deny that past actions have future consequences as we embrace fictions of forgiveness that forward the idea that our deeds can be erased from existence.

Whatever we want the world to be, whatever we will ourselves to be, the past continues to exert its influence on the present. It is this power that is expressed in the idea that wyrd represents “the principle, power, or agency by which events are predetermined.”

This predetermination is not predestination. As you live your life and make constant large and small decisions about what actions to take, those actions slip into the past and affect your present. The thread of your wyrd does not snap and separate from what has been spun in the past, but – with enough effort on your part – it can take twists and turns that change its orientation in the tapestry.

The weaving of the tapestry occurs when the deeds of others intertwine with your own. Your wyrd crosses that of everyone with whom you come into contact – family, friends, classmates, and colleagues. Your deeds affect their wyrd, and theirs affect yours. The more contact you have, the more actions you have taken together, the more closely intertwined your threads in the fabric.

"Woman Weaving" by Oszkar Glatz [Public Domain]

“Woman Weaving” by Oszkar Glatz [Public Domain]

This is not necessarily a matter of choice. If a student in your class who has never spoken to you has been abused by a family member to the point where he snaps, brings a rifle to class, and puts a bullet in your brain, his wyrd has profoundly affected yours – regardless of your own will and desire.

Truthfully, his abuser’s wyrd has affected yours, and the wyrd of those who drove the abuser to abuse have affected yours. At any moment in time, webs of wyrd spread out from that moment into countless strands tied to past deeds. The farther you move from this moment into the past, the greater the number of individuals that have influenced the present reality.

Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, it is clear that we are all connected. Every day, your wyrd is affected by people you will never meet. An IRS agent in Washington flags your tax returns for auditing because your name reminds him of a college admissions officer who treated him unfairly when he applied for financial aid. A FedEx driver loses the CV you overnighted for a job you really need because she didn’t sleep the night before due to a fight with her father over end-of-life care. A factory owner in China produces a plastic bowl that leaks toxins into your child’s oatmeal because the governor pressures him to ignore safety rules in order to remain competitive in the American market.

In each case, you are deeply affected by an action that is taken by someone with whom you have no personal connection, and their acts are connected to the actions of still others behind them. We cannot pretend that our free will is the sole determiner of our individual fate. We are all connected by the workings of wyrd, even if we staunchly deny its power.

Yet you are not the passive recipient of the wyrd of others. You are not the victim of powers beyond your control. As the deeds of those around you affect your wyrd, your own actions affect their wyrd. The closer your relationship to a person, the more impact you have on her life. Your deeds also spiral out from you, intersecting and interweaving with the actions of others, affecting innumerable individuals whom you will never meet face-to-face.

Despite the Romantic impulse to see ourselves as sovereign individuals and the nationalist impulse to divide ourselves into separate tribes, we are all connected. Together, our individual threads make up one great human tapestry, and each of us has a responsibility to always strive for right action. Wyrd will weave us together.

Karl E. H. Seigfried

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Karl E. H. Seigfried is a writer on mythology and religion in Chicago, where he teaches for Newberry Library’s Seminar Program. His website, The Norse Mythology Blog, was named the world’s Best Religion Weblog in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His writing has been broadcast on the BBC and published in Herdfeuer, Iceland Magazine, Interfaith Ramadan, MythNow, On Religion, Religion and Ethics, Reykjavík Grapevine and the Religion Newswriters Association’s Religion Stylebook. He is currently working on his third graduate degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

  • Govannon Thunorwulf

    I completely agree with what you have written in this article. My question now, is there any similar idea or theory in Wicca? I don’t remember ever coming across anything discussing the same concept. Anyone have any information on this?

  • mdyer

    Great essay!

  • Now I’ve got that “Captain and Tennille” song stuck in my head.

  • wulf

    Wyrd bith ful Aread

  • Very well written post – but somewhat contradictory. Lots of examples of how the individual wyrd influences you or whole societies, but yet no place for individualism… If this was true, where would the incentive for change or good deeds come from, I wonder ? To my mind, the individual c-a-n be stronger than the collective, and small groups of like minded individuals c-a-n make a change – especially in dysfynctional societies like the Western ones or even in times of hardship.