Monday, November 13, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 13: Let's Get Wyrd

Ludwig Pietsch, Nornir, 1865. Public domain.

Today I'm finally going to get to the heart of the matter. Although I find Anglo-Saxon paganism interesting for all the reasons I've outlined in this 50,000-word series, this is the thing that really grabbed my attention. And I think it did so because it cultivates an outlook on life that might better equip me to deal with the ongoing challenges of how I feel physically from day to day. 

First, a word about Shakespeare. 

What does Shakespeare have to do with Anglo-Saxon paganism? Well, he connects us to those ancient times through his use of the three sisters in Macbeth. As you might recall from your high school literature class, the sisters were three witches, portending doom for the play's title character and eventually leading him to his demise. You might also remember that they're often referred to collectively as the Weird Sisters. 

Now that doesn't just mean that they were kind of eerie or odd or mysterious, which is what we associate with the word "weird" today. But the word didn't always mean that. "Weirding," as the present participle of "weird," is a term you don't hear a lot, but it's generally associated with the magical acts of witches from times past. Sci-fi fans may be familiar with "The Weirding Way" in Frank Herbert's Dune, in reference to the witchy Bene Gesserit who exercised and taught an extreme disciplinary technique that allowed someone to move in ways that seemed to defied reality. The bottom line is that the term "weird" was once a word that suggested a kind of supernatural power. 

If we reach back even further into the history of the English language, we find that "weird" pointed more to the supernatural than it did to our modern meaning of something that's merely unusual. And what the word held in common with Shakespeare's usage involving the Three Sisters was that the older meaning with its supernatural overtones still pointed toward the power of three mysterious women. Other cultures called these women the Fates. In Norse mythology, they were the Norns. In Anglo-Saxon myth, they were the Wyrdæ, or the Wyrde. (Spellings weren't standardized back then.) And they were so named because it was their job to spin the web of Wyrd. 

So what the heck is Wyrd? Well, it's not an exaggeration to say that it's probably the most fundamental concept to all of Anglo-Saxon paganism, because it gives us a central insight into how the Anglo-Saxon people viewed the world and their place in it. Everything else flows out from their understanding of this concept.

Wyrd is cause and effect, but also more than that. It's a little bit like fate and a little bit like karma, yet neither concept perfectly captures what we're talking about here. It might help a little bit to understand where the word "Wyrd" came from. (Here we go again.) 

So wyrd comes from the Old English verb weorþan, meaning "to become," which itself derives from the Indo-European root wert-, meaning "to turn." Thus, Wyrd expresses the sense that something is becoming, or that one thing is turning into another thing. It's active. It's changing. It's a process. And it's important to understand this, because it means that Wyrd is not synonymous with fate, which by definition is both unchanging and unchangeable. The Fates of Greek and Roman mythology laid out a path for our lives that we had very little control over: Whatever they decided was going to happen to us, was going to happen to us. That's not what we're talking about with Wyrd.

Now, there's no question that the Germanic people were fatalistic in their outlook on life. If you were meant to die in battle, succumb to disease, or fail to make it through the long winter, there wasn't much you could do about it. But they still believed that you could influence the ultimate outcome of things through the actions you chose to take in every moment. And that's because, again, Wyrd is not static. It's not something set in stone. It's something that's always becoming, based on the choices you make. 

To better understand this idea, let's look at the Wyrde sisters themselves. The Norns, their counterparts in Norse myth, stood over the Well of Fate at the base of Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, and measured out the life-threads of all people. One sister spun out the thread, another measured it, and the the last one cut it. That's how your birth, life, and death are determined. In the Norse stories, the sisters' names are Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld, whose names mean, roughly translated, "fate," "happening," and "debt." We have clues from an Old English dictionary that their Anglo-Saxon names might have been Spinel, Metten, and Deaþ. Respectively, those translate to "spindle" or perhaps "the spinner"; "mete," or "the measurer," one who metes out; and, well, death. The Anglo-Saxons had a way of cutting right to the heart of the matter like that. 

And what makes the Wyrde sisters significantly different from the Fates of Greek and Roman myth -- and probably even from the Norns -- is the idea that while the Wyrde oversee the loom of our lives, we're able to control, at least to some degree, how the threads in our tapestries get weaved. The process of weaving goes on throughout our lives, which is why we say that Wyrd isn't a fate set in stone. It's a constant state of change. Every choice you make in the here and now determines what direction the next thread gets weaved in. 

But even that's not the whole story, because our tapestries don't take shape in isolation. Wyrd is far bigger than any of us. Wyrd is a web that encompasses everyone and everything. And where the tapestries of our own individual lives intersect with others, we can create effects that then spin out into those other tapestries. That is to say that our choices don't happen in isolation. Every choice we make doesn't just affect our own Wyrd; it can have ripple effects on the Wyrd of others. Everything has a butterfly effect. If I'd chosen years ago to join a monastery and shut myself off from the world -- something I actually was giving thought to at one point -- then I never would have met my wife, and we never would have had our daughter, and the three of us wouldn't be living together in Idaho. Likewise, if my wife had chosen not to read the personals ad I'd placed online, her choice would have set my life and hers on drastically different courses. In this way, others' choices also affect our Wyrd.

There's a rune-like symbol out there that appears to have been created in the 1990s. Like many things in modern paganism -- the Wheel of the Year being a prime example -- it's something that looks back to the spirit of ancient pagan traditions but remains of strictly modern provenance. This symbol has come to stand as a visual representation of Wyrd and how it works. I find it quite striking. Most commentators say that its three interlocking sets of three branches is a depiction of the interconnectedness of all things within the web of Wyrd. But to me it signifies something much deeper. I see one set of diagonal lines as representing my own past, present, and future, and the intersecting set of diagonal lines running in the opposite direction as representing the past, present, and future of other people -- mostly those with whose lives I've come into contact, but in a larger sense everyone and everything, since the web connects us all, even in cases we can scarcely perceive. Finally, there are the three lines running straight up and down behind the crisscrossing lines. These, to me, represent the persistent and unchanging Wyrde, the three sisters, whose influence over our lives is always intimately part of our own. Our fates cross over with others' fates, but it's ultimately the sisters who get the final say over all of us. 

Here's what the symbol looks like:

Pretty darned powerful, if you ask me. 

So where exactly does the "fate" part come in to all of this, if the Anglo-Saxons were such fatalistic people? Well, that's the part of your tapestry that's already been woven. That's your orlæg, which is something like your past fate, or the things that are out of your control. Everyone has an orlæg. You're born with the orlæg of being born to specific parents, in a specific place and time, with specific physical characteristics, and with certain genetic predispositions. These are the things you're stuck with, and there's nothing you can do about them. But our orlæg also encompasses the choices we and others have made along the way that have affected the tapestry of our lives up to the present moment. Like the stuff we were born with, these things are in the past and therefore can't be changed. If you got behind the wheel after too much to drink last week, and you totaled your car and broke your arm, you can't go back and get un-drunk, can't un-total your car, can't un-break your arm. What's done is done. All our actions have consequences, and they affect the directions our Wyrd can spin out in from that point forward. We still have freedom to make choices in the present, but those choices are always conditioned, and often limited, by what came before, by our orlæg. We have no choice but to work with the hand we've been dealt, and also with the circumstances along the roads of our lives that we and others have created for ourselves. 

Having studied Buddhism for many years, I see a lot of similarities between the concept of Wyrd and that of the Buddhists' idea of dependent origination, which states that nothing arises in isolation and everything that happens is to a greater or lesser extent conditioned by something else. The late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh called it "interbeing," which I think offers a clearer understanding of the concept: When we sit down to a plate of peas, for instance, we realize that the peas didn't just show up there by themselves. They required soil, moisture, and sunlight to grow. They required someone to plow a field, plant seeds, and harvest the plants, which had to be sent off for processing and canning, which required a truck driver to take them to the store, where somebody had to put the can of peas on a shelf and a cashier had to scan and it bag it when you bought it. You might say that all those steps in the life of our can of peas was an act of orlæg, leading up to the Wyrd of our choice to purchase the can and cook them up at home. And your choice to eat peas instead of, say, carrots had a small financial effect on the maker of the peas versus the maker of the carrots. It also gave your body a different nutritional input from what you would have had by consuming the carrots. In small, subtle ways, those choices will in turn affect your future options. Your Wyrd is constantly becoming your orlæg, but your orlæg never has the final word -- at least until Deaþ, the Wyrde sister, snips the thread of your life.

There's a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring that I think illustrates both concepts in a striking way. It happens when Galadriel leads Frodo into a glade at night and fills a magical basin with water. She tells him that by looking into the basin, he will be able to see "things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass." As he peers down, he does at first see a replay of recent events that suggest a growing tension within the fellowship. These are the things that are set in stone and can't be changed: his orlæg, and by extension the orlæg of his companions.

But then Frodo sees something terrifying: a future vision of the Shire in flames and the hobbits in chains. If you've read the books, you know this scene as reminiscent of the scouring of the Shire that comes into play near the end of The Return of the King. That event doesn't happen in the Peter Jackson films. Instead, it's used here in this scene to let Frodo know what will happen -- not might, but will, as Galadriel makes clear -- if his quest to destroy the One Ring should fail. Thus was Frodo's Wyrd unfolding moment by moment, and the choices he continued to make in the present would determine the ultimate fate of Middle-earth. 

But of course, this was not something Frodo could accomplish on his own. His part in the story was perhaps the most crucial of all. But if any of the other members of the fellowship had failed in any way, then their actions, their Wyrd, could have doomed Frodo's Wyrd, possibly through no fault of his own. If Boromir had taken the ring, if Gandalf couldn't have escaped his imprisonment at Isengard, if Sam had never come back after being turned away and heroically carried an exhausted Frodo the rest of the way up Mount Doom -- if any of those events out of his control had taken another turn, then it wouldn't have mattered how hard Frodo tried to set things right on his own. 

As Galadriel told Frodo: "The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fall, to the ruin of all." That just shows you how tenuous all of our lives and potential futures really are -- indeed, how fragile our Wyrd can be. The direction we send our Wyrd in, based on our present actions and how they intersect with the actions of others, can make all the difference in the world. Thus, we should always choose carefully and wisely. We can't control the choices others make, but we always have the power to make our own choices -- and those choices matter. Always. They might even end up influencing the choices others make. And that's why Galadriel adds, after her ominous warning to Frodo, that "hope remains while the company is true." We're all in this together, quite literally. No one is immune from the effects of the web of Wyrd. But we can have a say in how our Wyrd unfolds.

And yet this is not the end of the story, because we know that the Anglo-Saxons still believed that there were things about our lives that were certain to happen -- that no matter what we did, what kind of Wyrd we made for ourselves, we couldn't stop the inevitable. For an example, again we can look to the Lord of the Rings movies -- and I think it's not by accident that J.R.R. Tolkien would have worked these ideas into his tales, given his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history. 

In The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf is trying to remember the way through the Mines of Moria, Frodo confides in the Wodenish old wizard that he wishes the One Ring had never ended up in his hands. Gandalf replies by letting Frodo know he understands his concern, that it is the same concern of all who have to live through such difficult times. But he also suggests that this was always the way things were going to work out, when he says that "Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case you were also meant to have it." And Gandalf adds that this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it may seem, but rather "an encouraging thought." 

Now, is Gandalf stating that the web of Wyrd made that moment inevitable, that things could not have worked out differently based on the past events that led up to the present? Perhaps. Or maybe he was just voicing a belief that our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would have held -- that it is very difficult for any of us to alter events to such a significant degree that things could have turned out any differently. Maybe a few of the details would have been different, but the end result would have been largely the same. 

I think this is merely a statement of the obvious -- that events are usually much larger than any of us, and that most of us are effectively helpless, in the grand scheme of things, to do much more than be swept along by the waves that others have created. In most things that happen to us, we're bystanders, and there's not much we can do about it. It's hard to have an influence in many, if not most, things. To cite a contemporary example, I don't want my tax dollars to fund wars overseas that ultimately only serve to prop up American empire -- but there's really not much I can do about that. I can write an editorial. I can go out and protest. I could vote for a pro-peace politician -- if one actually existed. Or I could decide to be a tax resistor. But no matter what I do, the war machine is still going to grind on. The only thing I can do is decide what my role is going to be in the bigger picture, if any at all. Or, as Gandalf put it, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." 

This is pretty much why the epic poem Beowulf flatly states: Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel: "Wyrd goes ever as it must." Or, as another Old English text pointedly puts it: þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle, wyrd byð swiðost -- "Christ is strong, but Wyrd is stronger." That's a sentiment that probably a lot of Anglo-Saxons shared as they were being converted to Christianity against their will. Wyrd, in other words, apparently decided that things were going to turn out that way, whether the pagans liked it or not. 

Now, this could also simply mean that our ancestors couldn't see the bigger context in which these things happened, which made them seem like fate. Even today, when we have such a bigger vantage point on history, science, and world events, still none of us can see the entirety of the web of Wyrd. But to ancient people living hard lives, the events leading up to a terrible battle in which you were likely to die probably felt as if the gods had fated this end for you all along. It was always out of your control. And whether the gods decreed it or events simply led up to that point really didn't matter: The almost certain doom someone faced in a given situation would have been the same either way. 

So the most you could do was to face your doom with courage, in which case you might have some slim chance of success and you could maybe change your Wyrd. Maybe your actions could inspire others to greatness, which could change their Wyrd. Even if you died, maybe your heroic exploits would serve as inspiration to those left behind. That, too, could have an effect on the Wyrd of others. But on the other hand, if you just rolled over and accepted defeat, then your fate, quite literally, was sealed. 

It should also be noted that our ancestors weren't above resorting to magic to try to influence their Wyrd, which is really not all that different from when people in our current time pray to God in their time of need. When things seemed uncertain in those ancient times, you might have turned to amulets and talismans, or spellcasting, or making offerings to the gods. Or you might turn to a soothsayer to see what your future held, so that you'd have the best chance possible of averting your fate. The bottom line is that there was a certain amount of belief back then that there was a supernatural element to your Wyrd. Likewise, if things did turn out in your favor against all odds, there would have been a strong belief either that the gods heard your prayer and spared you, or simply that luck was on your side. And again, this is an understandable viewpoint to take when you can't see the entirety of the web of Wyrd and things seem out of your control and stacked against you. A distant ripple effect that ended in your favor might as well have been a miracle.  

But the question remains: Is the end of your story really set in stone? Is it as unchangeable as your birth? Will Deaþ get out her scissors at the same predetermined time, regardless of what you do and what choices you make? Even if we're free to make choices during our lives and send the threads of our tapestries spinning in any number of directions, are we still just weaving our way to an unchangeable destination? Is it fated that I'll die on July 13, 2037, and all I'm doing is changing the scenery along the way? 

That's the part of Wyrd I struggle with. It's kind of scary. But at the same time, it's pretty humbling to think that when your number comes up, there's not a single thing you can do about it. And that just makes you want to do the most you can with the time you're given, just as Gandalf said. We're all at the mercy of the Wyrde, when you get down to it, whether we have a preset expiration day or not. Even the gods are subject to their spinning and cutting. 

And yet at the same time, I find this outlook on life and death to be a little bit inspiring. A lot of this has to do with the state of my health and my religious upbringing. I haven't felt well for most of my adult life. No one has ever been able to give me an answer why, which means I haven't been able to find a remedy, despite years and thousands of dollars' worth of tests and procedures. I know something's wrong, but since I don't seem to fit neatly into anyone's box, the root of the problem or problems goes unaddressed, and I feel more run-down and despondent the older I get.

I spent a lot of time when I was younger praying to the God I was told to believe in. I was told that if I asked, I'd receive. And yet nothing ever changed. I never felt better. I never got the miraculous healing that so many others seemed to get. It left me feeling either like I was unworthy of God's mercy or I was doing something wrong. 

But as time went on, I stopped blaming myself, because I realized that if this God was really both all-loving and all-powerful, as I was told he is, then he would have been compelled to make me better. And since he didn't, then either he wasn't actually all-loving and all-powerful, or he didn't exist. Either way, my relationship with that deity had to come to a close. And that left me free to believe that some things about my state of health are simply out of my control -- but that I also have some power to influence things from here on out. I'm not sure what that might be, but even if I just try to keep a positive frame of mind, that's something. 

And it's more than I had when I believed that there was a deity out there who knew all there was to know, past, present, and future. Because if a deity like that exists, then it negates the free will that his believers always claim we have. If this God knows how your life is going to turn out before you're even born, then you're just a puppet on a string. You never had any say in anything that goes on in your life. Free will is just an illusion. If you want to understand why the Calvinists believe what they do. that's pretty much it in a nutshell. And it's a terrible way to look at life. It leaves you no agency. It leaves you at the whims of a deity who's already decided whether he's going to listen to your prayers or not.

But looking at life through the perspective of Wyrd, I can take comfort in at least knowing that the things I do might actually have an effect that's not predetermined. Even if there are things I actually can't change -- and even that is strangely comforting in its own way, knowing that maybe things just are the way they are and that's all there is to it -- maybe I still have some say, some semblance of control. Why things have to be this way for me is something I can't answer. Karma would tell me that maybe I'm paying for something horrible I did in a past life. But that's something I can't answer, and either way, it's better just to come to terms with how things are and try to make them better, regardless of what I might have done in a previous existence. 

And who knows -- maybe I can petition these gods the way my ancestors would have, and maybe they'll be willing to lend a hand. At this point, I'll try anything. At least these gods seem far more relatable, more direct, more in the muck of the here and now along with us. And that's not something I take lightly. 

Wyrd goes ever as it must -- but maybe I can give it a little nudge along the way.

[WC: 4,314 / TWC: 46,684]

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