For the pagan Norse and other Germanic peoples, fate (Old Norse Urðr or Örlög, Old English Wyrd, Old Saxon Wurd, Old High German Wurt, Proto-Germanic *Wurðiz) was the main force that determined the course of events in the universe. Much of what happened – from the overarching trajectory of time down to many particular occurrences in the lives of particular people – didn’t happen because of random chance or the consciously chosen intentions of the person who performed a causal action, but instead because it was fated to happen. Almost all beings were subject to fate – even the gods themselves. For all the fearsome power they had, the power of fate was greater still.
The only beings who (presumably) didn’t have their lives determined by fate were the Norns, the beings who shaped fate in the first place. The Norns were a group – in some sources, a trio – of “very wise” female entities whose magical abilities were unmatched by those of any other being. They lived at the base of Yggdrasil, the great tree at the center of the cosmos. There they carved the fates of all of the inhabitants of the cosmos into the tree, or, in another image, wove them with thread, cutting the last strand at the end of the person’s life.
The procession of events in the world, and in any person’s life, could only be understood with reference to fate, but fate itself could not be understood. Those who practiced the magical art of seidr could sometimes see what fate had in store, but there was no particular rhyme or reason in why some particular outcome was fated when an alternative outcome was not. Fate had no moral significance, and there were no caring or cruel motives behind it. It was merely the whims of the Norns, which were perfectly arbitrary relative to any and all human desires (and, for that matter, the desires of the gods and other beings as well). Likewise, fate and its creators were utterly implacable; there was nothing that anyone could do to change his or her fate. One Old Norse poem, Fáfnismál, warns that struggling against fate is as pointless as rowing a boat against a fierce wind. The Old English poem The Wanderer concurs: “Wyrd is wholly inexorable.”
The senselessness of fate was to culminate in Ragnarok, the final destruction of the cosmos at some unknown point in the future. The Vikings believed that Ragnarok would happen because they believed that it was fated to happen; those who could see the shape of fate had prophesied it. At that time, the seers said, the gods would meet the giants, the forces of chaos, in battle – and the gods would lose. They would all die, and the universe whose life depended on theirs would die with them. Nothing would remain but nothingness itself.
Fate’s senselessness and Ragnarok’s inevitability imparted a prominent element of tragedy to the Vikings’ mythology and religion. One Old Norse poet directly stated a sentiment that was widespread in more implicit forms throughout his people’s literature when he wailed, “Evil is the decree of the Norns.”
If the Norse worldview had stopped there, it would have been quite nihilistic. But the Vikings found deep enchantment in the world just as it was for them, including much of what we today would call “nature” and “culture.” Indeed, part of what made fate “evil” is that it would one day utterly destroy all of this beauty and meaning that was native to the god-crafted world.
Furthermore, the Vikings believed that one’s fate was hardly more important than what one did with one’s fate – that is, the attitude with which one met whatever fate had in store. There was no honor in merely passively surrendering to fate. Instead, honor was to be found in approaching one’s fate as a battle to fight heroically – even if it was a battle one was ultimately doomed to lose.
The paradigmatic model for this attitude was the way the gods were to approach their own doom at Ragnarok. Rather than mope or curse their fate, they were said to stand and fight until the last. Odin even prepared by amassing an army of the finest human warriors in his hall Valhalla. This glorious host would fight alongside him and his divine companions during the final struggle, and all would go down together in what to Viking tastes was the most sublimely beautiful way to die: in battle, with a cry of ecstasy on one’s lips.