Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wyrd: The Role of Fate

by Octavia Randolph

THE Anglo-Saxons had a special concept, and a special word, for what today we would call Fate. Wyrd is an Old English noun, a feminine one, from the verb weorthan "to become". It is related to the Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt, Old Norse urür. Wyrd is the ancestor of the more modern weird, which before it meant odd or unusual in the pejorative sense carried connotations of the supernatural, as in Shakespeare's weird sisters, the trio of witches in MacBeth. The original Wyrd Sisters were of course, the three Norns, the Norse Goddesses of destiny.

Wyrd is Fate or Destiny, but not the "inexorable fate" of the ancient Greeks. "A happening, event, or occurrence", found deeper in the Oxford English Dictionary listing is closer to the way our Anglo-Saxon and Norse forbears considered this term. In other words, Wyrd is not an end-point, but something continually happening around us at all times. One of the phrases used to describe this difficult term is "that which happens".

Another definition includes variously "fate, chance, fortune, destiny, the Fates, Providence, event, phenomenon, transaction, fact, condition" depending on the literary reference of the Old English work that mentions wyrd. (A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, compiled by J.R. Clark Hall University of Toronto Press, fourth ed, 1996) Note especially "transaction" and "condition", as they point to both the idea of active Fate and the environment in which life is played out.

Anglo-Saxon scholar Stephen Pollington describes it thus:
...It is worth stressing that the modern notion of linear time was still something of a scientific abstraction among even the Christian Anglo-Saxons, whose attitudes to life and death seem to have been governed by the world-view of their heathen forbears. They believed that at a given time some men...were doomed to die - a reaction to the uncertainties of warfare and accidents not unlike that of many modern soldiers who have faith in the idea that "if it's got your name on it, there's nothing you can do"...Tied in with this idea is the concept of wyrd 'the course of events' which is the underlying structure of time; it is this pattern which the Anglo-Saxons tried to read in the world about them....As the Beowulf poet observed: Wyrd often saves an undoomed hero as long as his courage is good (lines 572-3) The implication is that while a man's courage holds out, he has a hope of winning through since wyrd 'the way things happen' will often work to help such a man, as long as he is not doomed; conversely if a man is doomed then not even his courage can help him stand against 'the course of events'.
 -The English Warrior from Earliest Times to 1066, pp166-167 Anglo-Saxon Books 1996
If time is not considered or experienced in a linear fashion but instead regarded as an interconnected series of events, each affecting the other, 'that which happens' or wyrd becomes not a destination but a sign post, or even a crossroads. Just as the traveller affects the outcome of his journey by the path he chooses, so do we play an active role in facing what wyrd metes out to us. Wyrd can be "worked". What you do as an individual can bend or change wyrd.

Consider time not as a swiftly flowing river, constantly rushing us father away from our births to our deaths, but instead as a lake or pool of infinite size. A handful of pebbles tossed onto the surface of a still pool creates simultaneous, rippling impressions on the water that spreading, touch each other and overlap. Each pebble is distinct from the other. They may be larger or smaller and create a splash of greater or lesser size, but the path of each creates an impression on the watery impression of every other pebble. These pebbles represent wyrd, but ours are the hands that cast them.

Even when a man was doomed by wyrd, there were always consolations, even if it was simply accepting an unpleasant fate with courage. The last line of the poem known as Resignation, a meditation on the Day of Judgment, sums this up well:  
It is still the best thing, since a man may not himself avert his destiny, that he should therefore suffer it well.
(Translated by S.A.J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, David Campbell Publishers, 1982)
This is from The Exeter Book, written c 950 to 1000 CE, and though strongly Christian in nature reflects the importance of Fate in human striving.

The analogy of a spider web is usefully employed in considering wyrd. Each section of the web is a discreet part of the whole, yet the tiniest ensnared insect will set the entire web vibrating. Whether the spider wins her dinner depends on how skillfully she has woven her web, how quickly she reacts, and the chances of the captured insect to struggle free. The web is wyrd, but what the actors do upon it will decide the outcome.

The World Wide Web is another interwoven network, and a well named one. It is truly a web of almost endlessly interconnecting nodules (of which this page is one) linked together by invisible strands of electronic connectivity. You arrived here to learn of Wyrd because of what you selected on your path to this knowledge.

 Wyrd byð swyðost 
 Wyrd is strongest 


Octavia Randolph is the author of The Circle of Ceridwen, set in 9th century England, available for .99 on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk September 23 through September 30. Enjoy!


  1. Very enjoyable. Tweeted and shared. :)

  2. Another great post, espcially enjoyed the Beowulf reference.

  3. This ticked the boxes in lots of ways for me. I love the origins of language especially individual words; I find the concept of destiny or fate intriguing and 'time' is an enigma the more you think of it. I believe the passing of time is also relative to the length of your life. 'That year went so fast!' echoes but for a 5 year old a year is a long time, one fifth of their life. Excellent post. Will tweet and share!


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