History, the Norns, and the Nutritive Past
It's not surprising that I, as a historian of women's religion, have
a thing about that past.
But I'm not the only one. Many Goddess-women seem drawn to the past,
studying historical and prehistorical Goddesses and Goddess-reverence,
trying theologically and practically, ritually and creatively to forge
links between ourselves and the women who came before us. Goddess-women
and scholars have sometimes been criticized for this endeavor as well.
Why focus all that energy on a past that can never be, in many cases,
truly known? Why not focus on our common struggles of the present and
our hopes for the future?
You see the view of time implicitly hidden in the previous paragraph.
Past moves to present moves to future. All of us are familiar with that
view of time, and, since many of us are Americans, with the strong focus
on the future. American culture is very future-driven, with its goals
and objectives, watches, alarm clocks and calendars. In an American view
of time, the major purpose of the past is to inform or educate the future.
Think of our phrase, "Those who don't know the past are condemned
to repeat it."
Paul Bauschatz, in his work The Well and the Tree: World and Time
in Early Germanic Culture, explains the ancient Germanic view of time,
which is a spiritual inversion of the American view of time, and in many
ways more resonant with the Goddess-woman's view of time. Instead of time
moving from past to present to future, time moves from the "nonpast"
(present and future rolled together) into the past. The past is like a
tapestry that keeps growing larger and larger as the events of the nonpast
are added to it. To us this might seem backward. But the past is also
like a well that surges into the nonpast with a nutritive force. This
nutritive past, a living past that feeds us and moves forcefully into
our lives, is the sense of the past that I share with my Goddess-sisters.
We share a past that is not static and dead, but alive and moving, entering
our present lives with a knowing force.
To keep up with Bauschatz' explanation of how this all works, you need
a little background in Germanic mythology. One of the most famous and
beautiful poems to have come down to us in the Old Norse literature is
called "Völuspá," the Song of the Seeress. This
sweeping poem begins the collection known as the Poetic Edda, and
dates possibly to the 10th century or earlier. This poem describes, among
many other things, the great World Tree Yggdrasil, the pillar that connects
all worlds, whose roots are fed by the water of sacred wells and by the
rich soil of the earth, whose branches reach to all worlds, along which
beings of power can travel between the worlds. The poem also describes
the three Norns, the Goddesses Urth, Verthandi and Skuld. The Norns stand
at the base of the World Tree and score the fates of humans and gods onto
staves of wood.
... here at the center of [Norse] cosmological
myth, with the sacred Well and the holy Tree, are images of the three
Goddesses doing their work of healing and renewal. It is one of the loveliest
images in all mythology.
The mythological book known as the Prose Edda adds more detail.
Urth is the guardian of a sacred well at the base of the World Tree. Each
day as the roots of the World Tree are worn away by care and ill-will,
the Norns take up some earth, moisten it with water from Urth's Well,
and place this clay with care on the roots of the tree, healing and renewing
it. The tree that links all worlds draws up water from the well, up through
trunk and branches and leaves, and the well's water falls again from the
tree as the dew, where it re-enters the well again to renew the cycle.
I don't know about you, but I have been used to considering Norse mythology
as pretty much the most brutal and patriarchal of all mythologies. And
yet, here at the center of its cosmological myth, with the sacred Well
and the holy Tree, are images of the three Goddesses doing their work
of healing and renewal. It is one of the loveliest images in all mythology.
Many of us, myself included for awhile, fell into the assumption that
the northern Norns should be glossed as "fates," with a simplistic
meaning of past, present, and future: Urth = Past, Verthandi = Present,
Skuld = Future. Bauschatz gives us a little history of where this idea
came from. Christian etymologist Isidore of Seville in 622-623 CE wrote
of the Latin Parcae, also glossed as fates, and gave them the temporal
attributes of past, present, and future. These ideas were adopted into
later scholarship on the Norns, by none less than the Grimm Brothers themselves,
and other 19th and 20th century scholars, so Goddess-women picked it up
from some of these secondary sources. We're in good company with our misunderstandings.
Linguistically and culturally, the picture is more complicated. There
is something about the ancient Germanic verb tense system that was different
from English and different from other Indo-European language systems.
Instead of past, present and future, the old Germanic languages had a
binary tense system, with no difference between present tense and future
tense. Bauschatz believes that this directly affected and reflected their
view of time. Imagine how our lives would change if English had only past
and present tenses.
So, if the ancient Germanic languages didn't really have the three tenses,
then the three Norns are probably not simplistically Past, Present and
Future. If not, then what are their meanings? And are they a trinity of
equals? Not really. The key to the Norns is the figure of Urth, first
of the Norns. It is her name given to the Well that nurtures the World
Tree; it is her name mentioned over and over in the mythology; it is her
name that is cognate with that weird concept of Wyrd. Urth's name means
"that which has turned," or "that which has become."
But she is not a simple storehouse of events that have gone before, a
solid unchanging wall of the past built up brick by brick. Her past is
like her well: a spring, welling forth with fresh, nutritive water.
Verthandi is semantically related to Urth and is almost an underlining
or italicizing of her sister. Where Urth is "what has turned or become,"
Verthandi is "what is turning or becoming." Verthandi is the
working in of the nonpast into the past. Those of us who lay down rows
of weaving onto warp threads or do any kind of fiber art or craft that
slowly increases inch by inch know something about the working of the
nonpast into the past. In some strange way, the present and the past are
one and the same. As modern folk, we are used to thinking that the past
becomes the present. The ancient view is just the opposite: we work the
present into the past. Not the other way 'round.
Skuld stands slightly to the side of her sisters, because instead of
"turning or becoming" she requires the payment of a debt. Her
name is literally cognate with "debt" in modern High German.
In English, the closest cognate is the word "should." The only
other time besides in the Völuspá poem that Skuld is mentioned
in the Norse mythology is as a Valkyrie, one of the choosers of the dead.
Truly, death is one of the debts that we all must pay as we work the nonpast
into the past.
Maybe our Germanic ancestors had a wisdom that
some of us are struggling to regain. Instead of having our backs to the
past, what if we lived with our faces to the past?
All of us have been raised in a mainstream culture that in many ways
despises the past. It is old, "been there, done that." It is
out of fashion, barbaric, worn out, wrinkled. We live with our backs metaphorically
turned to the past, and we barely notice the present; we're always running
toward a future promised to us in religions or in advertising. Maybe our
Germanic ancestors had a wisdom that some of us are struggling to regain.
Instead of having our backs to the past, what if we lived with our faces
to the past? What if we worked each day and each moment into the past,
as though we were adding another row to the weaving or another color to
the tapestry or another layer of clay? What if the women of the past,
instead of wrinkled and worn out and out of fashion, are our heroines
and ancestresses and Goddesses, towering figures whose history wells up
into our present, feeding us, sustaining us, nurturing us?
Listen to how Bauschatz puts it:
The Germanic past is ever growing and it has
a direct, nurturing, sustaining effect upon the world, which men [sic]
experience as life, just as the water from Urth's Well nurtures Yggdrasil.
The relationship implies a continual, supportive intrusion of past upon
These are the words of all in this column that I mean to stress: that
the past is a continual, supportive intrusion upon present existence.
Think of it: what we experience as life is the direct, nurturing,
sustaining eruption of the past into the present. Isn't this what so many
of us on the Goddess path are seeking? The sense that the pattern laid
down in the earliest of times structures what is happening now? Don't
many of us have an intuition that the past is continually surging into
the now, as if to feed us? How that pattern erupts into the events of
any particular daily existence make up an individual's Wyrd.
So if you find yourself feeling out of touch with the wider culture,
see if you might be one of those women living in the nonpast, with your
face toward the nutritive past. You are not alone. There are other sisters
who have found their way toward the nutritive past, and no doubt people
of indigenous cultures all around the world would understand this particular
lifeway. The next time something "weird" happens, look for the
supportive intrusion of the past into the now. Every time you see a fountain
and you toss a coin in, remember the holy wells, and remember the holy
welling-up of Urth. She is the past, and she and her sisters nurture and
sustain all the worlds.
- Bauschatz, Paul C. 1982 The Well and
the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture. Amherst: University
of Massachusetts Press.
- Hollander, Lee Milton (editor) 1986 The
Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Snorri, Sturluson 1992 The Prose Edda:
Tales from Norse Mythology. Berkeley: University of California