What is Fate to a Heathen?
M ost people are likely aware, at least superficially, of the importance of fate in the Germanic worldview. Unfortunately, the concept of faith is also possibly the most often misunderstood aspect of modern Heathenism, taken to be something negative, with fate as something inescapable. This idea is reflected in the words the character Herger the Joyous is made to speak in Michael Crichton’s 13th Warrior, that “our fate is fixed”, that “you can hide in a hole if you wish, but you won’t live one instant longer.” It all sounds pretty grim. But is it?
Our problems in this regard are compounded by the fact that as Simek reminds us, we are subject to the literary sources: everything of what the pre-Christian Germanic peoples thought comes to us through the Christian filter of the scribes who wrote it all down. We’re dependent upon how well hostile scribes understood the Heathen concepts they were discussing, and, as we will see, by the fact that there were many possible views of fate, even among Heathens, based on time, location, and other factors.
Scholarship used to suggest that for our Heathen ancestors things were as bad as they seemed and people speak of the “grim” North and the fatalistic attitudes of its people. But Rufolf Simek notes of wyrd that “more recent research has suggested that it is as much a predominantly Christian creation as the supposedly fatalistic belief of the Germanic peoples in nothing but their own power and strength (máttr ok megin).” In other words, no, those Christians did not understand Heathenism; not at all. And Heathens today must be ever wary of reconstructing the religion of their ancestors as Christians saw it rather than as those ancestors saw it.
Simek’s assessment is this:
It is hardly assessable how far the concept of the norns, who direct the fate of men and gods in Scandinavian mythological poetry of the late heathen era, was already influenced by classical thought. It is even more risky to assume an impersonal but influential fate for the Germanic peoples, a kind of fate which can hardly be proven, even if the saga literature appears to confirm it.
I will address some of these issues here. Others I will not discuss. For example, you will find here no discussion of the Norns (ON: nornor), the female fates spoken of by Snorri, who represent past (Urðr), present (Verðandi), and future/destined (Skuld). My reasoning is simple, though no doubt it will little appeal to many Heathens. Simply put, we know too little about the Norns to take them into account. Rudolf Simek is reduced to noting that “the concept of a plurality of women of fate in Germanic religion is…certainly older than the Middle Ages and is certainly based to some degree on the Germanic matron cult in Roman times” and that “the norns also represent the fateful aspect of the dísir in which life-giving aspects are united with those of battle and death.” It has to be admitted that this is very little to go on. The safest thing to say about the nornor is that, in Turville-Petre’s words, they are “fate-goddesses who attend the birth of every child.” And Thomas DuBois can only call the norns “possible” spirits of fate and suggests that they (along with the dísir) “derive ultimately from ancestors worship: a bride brought her clan’s ancestral spirits with her when moving to her husband’s home, and these deities settled in the women’s sections of the house, remaining distinct from thee spirits of the man’s clan.” The best a Heathen interested in having norns in his religion is to satisfy himself that whatever choice he makes, it will likely have little in common with the beliefs of our ancestors.
In my 2006 post on Heathen Karma (elaborated upon here) I investigated the idea that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples saw fate as something that was not entirely out of their control. Certainly, the gods can act upon the earth and in human affairs, as can various spirits (norns), but also especially people themselves contribute through cause and effect to the shaping of their own fate. For example, take the following passage from Beowulf:
To Hondscio then was that harassing deadly,
his fall there was fated. He first was slain,
girded warrior. (28)
Many would probably assume (as Herger is made to in our example above) that it was simply Honscio’s fate to die there. But why? Because his fate was woven outside of any control of his? Or because his own actions brought him to that place, put him in that position to be the first killed? Certainly there is some evidence to suggest that fate was inescapable, as the following episodes from Norse sagas demonstrate:
“A death-fated man cannot be saved” (Islendinga Sögur, ii. 103; Fms., vi. 417).
“All is dangerous for the death-fated” (Fafnismál, 11).
“A man not death-fated cannot be dealt with (fought against)” (Gisli Súrsson, 148).
“He who is not death-fated escapes in some way” (Fostbrœdra Saga, 171).
“Everyone must go when he is death-fated” (Grettis Saga, 138).
Yet we will see that not only are human actions are very much a part of the equation in Germanic thought, but some can indeed escape their self-made fate.
But what about another element we today take for granted? I speak of the element of chance.
Until the twentieth century, the idea that the universe is governed by chance would have been almost unthinkable. As late as the mid-twentieth century, such a thought was widely considered “absurd.” (This Camus dubbed the “indifference of the world.”) The most stubborn argument against evolution continues to be the blinkered whine that “all of this could not have come about by chance,” and even the Big Bang, it is argued, shows somehow that “there must be a purpose behind existence.”
Scholar Robert Solomon points to the “antagonism between Christian theism and fatalism”: “Briefly, fate and fatalism are considered godless and pagan, despite the obvious affinities with Christian “pre- determination,” and so are rejected by most Christians in favor of the God-given gift of “free will.”” At the same time, however, Christians set aside this vaunted free will for something more enslaving: God’s will.
But Susanna Weil argues that appearances can be deceiving. Examining one of Beowulf’s more Christian moments (685-687): [... And afterward wise God on whichever hand, holy Lord, seems good to Him, will assign victory!] Weil argues that “the emphasis is not on the deity to whom Beowulf prays, but on what he prays for: not his own victory as such, but that victory should go to the most worthy. He is not asking for favoritism, but for confirmation of his value.”
Of course, the unpredictable did happen in life in general and in battle in particular, but this was not “chance” but the movement and influence of unseen forces, as Anthony Gilbert explains:
The ideas of fate and fortune in Germanic poetry, both Old English and Old Norse, focus on the unpredictable and sudden turn of events in every part of a Germanic warrior’s life. Both in the meadhall and on the field of battle there was always the possibility of intervention by invisible powers outside human control.
Why fate and fatalism and not chance?
Thinking of the ancient agrarian world, it is easy to imagine why the notions of fate and fatalism would become a natural part of the human imagination. Consider the inevitability of change in nature, the cycles of the seasons, the “passages” of human development, the sacraments, the cycles of life and death. Ancient conceptions of time and existence as a wheel or a circle are quite reasonably based on such evidence, long before the linear arithmetic of Christianity and the complex calculations of Einstein were on the horizon. In our own urbanized, increasingly global and “virtual” world, it is easy to lose sight of the obvious.
Fate is a complex subject, and no doubt it’s safe to say different people living at the same time and place had different conceptions of it. The farmer might have had one view, the warrior another, the poet yet another, which, even when writing about the warrior, might not be an accurate reflection of the warrior’s own. Ronald Grambo finds fate subject to numerous factors:
- The ecological system;
- The historical development;
- The social stratification within a community;
- The frame of reference (knowledge of tradition);
- The emotional attitude (anxiety, expectations, resignation, rage, powerless frustration, depression, stoical frame of mind, etc.);
- The value (positive or negative);
- The impact of literature.
He observes that “On studying fate within a certain selected community, or within a certain selected epoch, or whatever approach one chooses, it cannot be expected that all these factors will make themselves felt at the same time. However, an educated guess will surely reckon the following factors always to be present and make their impact: b, d, e, j.” Our own options are, of course, limited. We cannot interview a Norse farmer, or a warrior. We can only read the words of the poets and the scribes and come to the best understanding we can.
We should pause here to consider the differences between “fate” and “fatalism”. Solomon distinguishes between the two: “Fate is not the same as fatalism, although most conceptions of the former imply the latter. Fate is the explanation. Fatalism is a doctrine. “Fate’s decree” and other such phrases may suggest some sort of personal agency without indicating anything of what (or who) such personal agents might be, but we need not invoke such images in order to believe in fate. Indeed, the personification of fate is but one of many versions of fatalistic thinking and by no means the most prevalent one. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy, for instance, karma is not a distinctive agent, although it is firmly connected to one’s own actions (as their “residue”) and the ongoing story of one’s life.” 
Solomon also notes that some philosophers try to reduce fatalism to “determinism”: “Determinism, by contrast, is the reasonably science-minded thesis that whatever happens can be explained in terms of prior causes and standing conditions (facts, events, states of affairs, internal structures, and dispositions, plus the laws of nature).”
According to Gilbert, “Ultimately, of course, fate is mysterious and impersonal, but the choices available to a hero in his moment of crisis are intelligible and realistic in the way they are treated by poets. A man who is conscious of his fate is not a prisoner to it.”
A hero then, can be expected to rise above his fate:
All human experience was to some extent ambiguous; human action and purpose could not be free from the immanence of good and ill fortune. The hero of Germanic poetry, in a moment of crisis, has to resolve the ambiguous tensions in such variable fortune. His task is to transform the uncertainties of fate and fortune (which are never clearly distinguished from each other in the Germanic tradition) into good fortune, fame, and enduring glory for himself. For a time, at least, he is able to achieve this, but eventually he succumbs to the ill fortune that threatens in all tests of his courage. He is at last unable to impose his will on events, and becomes the prisoner of a malignant fate which allows him only a choice between two evils. He can conquer even this choice between evils by dying an honourable death, and inflicting dishonour upon his enemies; but before that final catastrophe, other options are open to him.
A hero both controls and transforms events. A coward does not, as Beowulf shows: “A coward faced with a dangerous situation, such as an uncertain fate often presents, always gives way and fails to exploit the moment of crisis to his advantage. Unferth knows nothing of the resolute temper of the hero. But Beowulf shows this both in his rebuttal of the lying account, and in the manner of his swift and coherent reply. Cowards, the poet argues implicitly, are prisoners of fate and fortune, and soon lose heart when circumstances look difficult to them.”
Going back to Crichton’s Herger and to our examples from the Icelandic myths, then, we can see that fate is not fixed. Naturally, as we approach our fate our options grow more limited, as with Beowulf’s decision to fight the dragon. We can see why a character might be described as “death-fated” – his own choices have made it so, like a flow-chart with ever more limited choices. As is made clear by Wiglaf (2638-39) it was Beowulf’s decision – and his alone – to fight the dragon. Notice that he still had this choice. He could have chosen to do otherwise and his fate would not have been the same. We could argue that the decisions he had already made, the man he was, narrowed his choices even then, but it was still within his power to make another decision. Yet once he chose to face the dragon, much fewer options remained to him. We might say the same of our decision to step out into the street in front of a moving vehicle. Once we put ourselves in its path, our options are very limited, and our survival goes from a high probability to a very low.
The epic poem Beowulf has been argued over incessantly by scholars. How much of it is Christian (it was unarguably penned by a Christian scribe just as was our Icelandic evidence) and how much of it Pagan? Susanne Weil believes that Beowulf contains “a genuine synthesis” of Christian and Pagan worldviews.
I argued elsewhere that actions matter. They matter because we create our future. Because of wyrd, which is the cycle of cause and effect. Yes, there is fate, but fate is not fixed absolutely. We can always ‘fudge’ a little, if you wish to look at it that way. Weil observes that the word wyrd is “derived from the Old English root meaning “to shape.”” She observes that “the motif of wyrd as the implacable arbiter of men’s struggles resounds throughout the Anglo-Saxon canon like a perpetual minor chord.” Marie Padgett Hamilton suggests of the poet that “Doubtless he was less disturbed than we are by vestiges of his pagan sources that lie awkwardly in the matrix of his Christian prepossessions” and adds an acute observation, relevant to our own investigations, that he also “had the advantage of knowing what he meant when, for example, he used terms of various and elastic connotation like wyrd.”
“Beowulf, repeating the received wisdom of his age, says that Gaeð a wyrd swa hio scel (Fate always goes as it must!: 445b), yet also that Wyrd oft nereð/unfægne eorl, þonne his ellen deah (Fate often saves an undoomed man if his courage is good: 572b-573). This latter line was repeated by the hero Buliwyf (himself a stand-in for Beowulf) in Michael Crichton’s 13th Warrior where he observes to a coward that a man’s luck will often see him through if his courage holds.
Weil observes that,
In the first of these axioms, fate is unalterable; in the second, it plays favorites; in the narrator’s aside, it is subordinate to both “wise God” and “the man’s courage.” Someone is confused here, and I would suggest that it is neither Beowulf nor the narrator: rather, it is the modern audience, tending to miss the point of these pronouncements. Critics who see the poem as primarily Christian (Margaret Goldsmith comes to mind) view the narrator’s pronouncement on the power of God as evidence that Christian providence, not wyrd, was the Shaper of the Anglo-Saxon world-ignoring other pronouncements that the narrator makes elsewhere about the supreme power of fate. If proving God to be the sole power were the narrator’s purpose, why would he immediately append the caveat “yet is discernment everywhere best, forethought of mind?” He seems to be telling his audience not to count on the power of God or wyrd: the future will be a mixture of satisfaction and suffering even though God (or fate) “rule(s) all the race of men.” What a man can depend on is his “forethought of mind”: this is the core of the individual’s power to endure. Pronouncements about the importance of self- reliance outnumber pronouncements about anyone’s power.
She argues that,
What mattered was not who shaped a man’s death, or when he died, but how he died. This is where modern debates on the meaning of wyrd in Anglo-Saxon poetry go awry, for in considering whom the Anglo-Saxons believed shaped their fate, we need to understand fate as they would have defined it. The excerpt above strongly suggests that a man’s reputation was as integral to his fate as the time and place of his death: that reputation was Anglo-Saxon immortality. Call it God’s providence or the mysterious, ubiquitous wyrd: an arrow by any other name would kill you. Your choice, then, was whether you took that arrow in the back or head-on, and how you chose determined whether you would be sung as a hero, a villain-or not at all. Your reputation at death even affected your family’s future, determined whether your sons would be powerful lords’ retainers and whether your daughters would marry well. Most important, it was a matter of personal honor to be remembered as a man of courage. It would be a good fate, indeed the best, to die gloriously in the protection of your people as Beowulf does-an ignoble fate to live after deserting your lord, as Beowulf’s cowardly retainers do at the end of the poem. Bravery in extremity, grace under pressure: these are choices, and these a man could shape.
Here, Weil makes an important distinction between the Pagan and the Christian worldview: “Because the Anglo-Saxons believed this, I would like to suggest that the power behind the words of shaping in Anglo-Saxon poetry was, in the sense that mattered most to them, the power of the individual.”
Her conclusion is the same as mine: “the individual was the primary shaper of his fate in Anglo-Saxon poetry.” Weil goes so far as to suggest that “Beowulf, with that strength of thirty in his omnipresent hands, functions in the poem as a walking metaphor for the power of one’s own will and courage to shape one’s fate.”
There remains the problem of the reliability of Beowulf’s evidence to form our knowledge of ancient ideas of fate. The poem has been argued to be Christian, to be Pagan, or to be an admixture of both, a synthesis. Weil discusses the “critical controversy arising from attempts to make Beowulf square with the tenets of modern Christianity. Some critics tend to see wyrd as purely restrictive, and thus as implicitly contradicting the New Testament notion of free will: because they see Beowulf as an early example of Anglo-Saxon Christian poetry, they tend to label the references to wyrd as vestiges of an outworn creed. Others have asserted that the passages naming God and his power are only insertions by proselytizing monks: to them, the poem we have is marred, the name of God scribbled across the vellum like medieval graffiti. Given the void that is our concrete evidence about the poem’s transmission, surely we have an obligation to consider whether references to wyrd and God in the same poem are necessarily so self-contradictory as to render impossible the notion that the original significance of wyrd in the poem might not have been distorted beyond recognition in transcription.”
Wyrd (ON Ørlög is the same concept) itself is problematic as is so much else Heathens need to understand in any attempt to recapture their ancestors’ worldview. Simek writes:
This [wyrd] was understood by past scholars as the central concept in Germanic ideas about fate. In contrast to this Weber has been able to show that the expression wyrd (which glosses Latin fortuna) is unlikely to hand down heathen-Germanic thought, but rather a Medieval view of the world based on late Classical-Christian beliefs and therefore ought not to be brought into dispute as evidence for a belief in fatalism among Germanic peoples.
Emblematic of this earlier view we find H.R. Ellis-Davidson speaking of “the implacable decrees of fate, to be averted by neither man nor gods.” She brings in the poet of the Anglo-Saxon Wanderer in support of her claim: “Wyrd is wholly inexorable”; and Hervarar Saga: “Evil is the decree of the Norns” which sounds more like a slight on Heathenism than a Heathen belief. Where does that leave us in our search for evidence?
Weil looks for an answer in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. In the Consolation, God “does not create fate and that, therefore, men have free will. She argues that since God is greater than time, necessarily true if God is omnipotent, for he is outside of time. Thus, he sees our lives in their entirety, as completed works-but he does not author those works. In other words, God sees what we will do without forcing us to do it.”
She concludes therefore that “When Christianity came to the English, then, it seems that those able to grasp the argument that the Boethian concept of God’s foreknowledge of our acts did not equal foreordination of those acts may have welcomed the idea as a fresh approach to an old problem. Those who could not read, but were told of the shift in doctrine might have shrugged: they knew that they bore responsibility for their own actions, whether foreknown by God or forecast by fate.”
Fate (however central to their worldview) for our ancestors was not an escape from responsibility. There is a reason it was ancient Pagans who came up with the idea that “god helps them who help themselves” – something completely contrary to biblical teachings and a contradiction of God’s grace – Paganism, not bound by the constraints of revealed religion, could properly incorporate the workings of cause and effect.
Weil points out that “in trading in their ancient religion for Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons made at least one major shift in world-view: they replaced the bleak picture of chaos overwhelming all human effort with the brighter vista afforded by the promise of eternal life in Christ.”
It would be absurd to contend that this did not happen in Anglo-Saxon culture; I merely contend that it does not happen in Beowulf. The only form of eternal life mentioned by the scop is that of reputation: langsum lof (“long-lasting praise”). He tells us that Beowulf goes to heaven, but whether the heaven in which Anglo-Saxon warriors fought and feasted away the ages, or the New Testament heaven, is never made clear.” Galloway would have it that the scribe, by the portrayal of Beowulf’s death, was making clear to his readers that a “Christian choice is unavailable to him because Beowulf operates in a pre-Christian world.
But if the poet thought Beowulf benighted, it does not mean that we, operating without the doctrinal blinkers of the scribe, are required to do so. Weil’s conclusion that there was some promise of “eternal life in Christ” that was brighter than the Pagan “picture of chaos” can reasonably be argued. For example, this bleak image of chaos is not really replaced by a happy picture of Christ but by a dualism of another sort. Rather than the order versus chaos of the Norse creation myth we have good versus evil, and it can also be argued as a result that the Christian picture was itself bleaker than Weil is willing to concede. Too, the idea of a hero who fought for his people, his lord, his comrades, and his community (all ideas present in Germanic myth) is replaced by a more selfish hero, one who fights for his own place in heaven, his own salvation. As James C. Russell observes, the focus of Germanic honor “stemmed from a desire to avoid being publicly shamed” while the Christian notion of honor was avoidance of “the feelings of guilt and the fear of punishment associated with sinfulness.”
It is clear that in the Germanic view, this world offered its own rewards, both during our lifetimes and after, posthumously. Christianity offered in its place a world-rejecting view of individual salvation. Too, in pre-Christian times a person might look forward to dwelling in the halls of his ancestors, if he thought much about the afterlife at all. But it was not just “eternal life in Christ” that a person living in the Christian era would have to consider, but purgatory and hell (everyone would go to the halls of their ancestors; they just might not receive the same welcome, based on their deeds in life). It is difficult to see the improved view Weil speaks of. Is not the picture painted in the Hávamál brighter than this?
oneself dies likewise,
but good renown
will never die
for him who earns it. (76)
Thus, according to the customs and traditions of our ancestors, a person might overcome their fate and live forever in the memories of their kin and of their people, and if afterlife there is, a return to the halls of their ancestors, and not the uncertain future of a heaven or a hell. A greater reward than any offered by the advocates of the White Christ to our “poor, benighted” ancestors.
 Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (D.S. Brewer, 1993), 79, 374.
 See Gylfaginning 14 for Snorri’s description. For further descriptions in Norse literature see Reginsmál 2, Sigrdrífumál 17, Hloðskviða 34, Hamðismál 29, 30, Fáfnismál 11, 12, 44. Saxo (VI, 181) treats them like goddesses who are actually prayed to. For an analysis of the data, see Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993), 236-237. See also H.R Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Penguin, 1964), 61), who notes the similarities between the Norns and Valkyries.
 E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964), 221. Some semblance of this belief was visible in a study undertaken in 1963 that showed that “no less than 63.5% think that some people are born to good luck, others to bad luck” (Åke V. Str6m, Scandinavian Belief in Fate, Fatalistic Beliefs in Religion, Folklore and Literature, 78-84, cited in Ronald Grambo, “Problems of Fatalism: A Blueprint for Further Research,” Folklore, 99 (1988), 11-29). Modern-day Heathens are largely on their own in deciding how best to incorporate the nornor into their belief system.
 Thomas A. DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 51-2.
 Robert C. Solomon, “On Fate and Fatalism” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 437-8.
 Solomon (2003), 437-8.
 Susanne Weil, “Grace under Pressure: ‘Hand-Words,’ ‘Wyrd,’ and Free Will in ‘Beowulf’” Pacific Coast Philology 24 (1989), 98-99.
 Anthony J. Gilbert, “The Ambiguity of Fate and Narrative Form in Some Germanic Poetry” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 22, Medieval Narrative Special Number (1992), 1.
 Solomon (2003), 450.
 Ronald Grambo, “Problems of Fatalism: A Blueprint for Further Research,” Folklore, 99 (1988), 11-29.
 Solomon (2003), 442.
 Solomon (2003), 443.
 For the role of choosing in Beowulf, see Andrew Galloway, “Beowulf and the Varieties of Choice,” PMLA 105 (1990), 197-208.
 Weil, 94. There are dissenting voices. See Rufolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 79.
 Marie Padgett Hamilton, “The Religious Principle in Beowulf,” PMLA 61 (1946), 309-330.
 Weil (1990), 97, 101.
 Weil (1990), 102-103.
 Simek (1993), 374, citing G.W. Weber, “Wyrd”. Studien zum Schicksalsbegriff der altenglischen und altnordischen Literatur, (Bad Homburg 1969).
 H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Myth and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions (Syracuse University Press, 1988), 135, 165-66.
 Weil (1990), 103-104
 Galloway, 206. Hamilton believes that it would be rash to assume that the poet of Beowulf would have been familiar with Boethian philosophy though she admits that Bede and Alcuin were familiar with The Consolation of Philosophy (see Hamilton, 326). Grambo (“Problems of Fatalism,”25) is probably right when he says that “Some passages where fate is mentioned in Norse and Anglo-Saxon texts do not warrant any conclusive observations on the relationship between the conceptual framework of Norse religion and Christian notions.”
 James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity (Oxford University Press, 1994), 120.