The Norns

The goddesses of fate who almost always appear as a group of three figures. Snorri Sturluson writes: “A beautiful hall stands under the ash by the well [i.e., beneath Yggdrasill], and out of this hall come three maidens whose names are Urðr [“Past”], Verðandi [“Present”], and Skuld [“Future”]. They shape the lives of men. We call them Norns.”

These maidens are giantesses who sprinkle clear water and white clay on the tree every day. They are depicted as wicked and ugly; their verdict is irrevocable. It is said they come from the sea. Sturluson goes on to remark: “There are also other Norns who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives, and these are of divine origin, though others are of the race of elves, and a third group are of the race of dwarves.”

The Norns correspond to the Fates—the Greek Moirai and the Roman Parcae—as well as to the fairies of Celtic and Roman legends. In fact, several texts in Old French depict three fairies around a cradle who endow a child with beneficial or harmful aspects, a theme also found in the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Only the Norn Urðr appears to be ancient and authentic; Skuld and Verðandi appear to be later additions to form a triad modeled on the Parcae. Furthermore, the spring at the foot of Yggdrasill is named the “Well of Urðr.”

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