Germanic concepts of Fate

Der Germanische Schicksalsglaube by Walther Gehl (1939)

A couple of things made me want to have a look at the explanations that I was offered of the terms “Ørlögr” and “heilagr” and this book was suggested. I got a copy through my library, so I had only 3 weeks to study the book. The Germanic Belief In Fate is a very interesting work, offering tons of information about the subject. Gehl does not really work towards the explanations that I was after, but there are things to work with. I want to introduce you to this book and because this text is too lengthy for a book review, this turned out to be an ‘article’. Of course I read the book with a certain idea in mind, so this review may turn out to be a bit onesided.

Ørlög

Gehl has found a staggering amount of terms to describe “Schicksal” (“Fate”), but most of them do not really have the meaning that we give to that term today. How could it be, with so many words? On page 16 (in the introduction) Gehl writes that words like “sköp” and “ørlög” were used to describe “fate”. Both terms are written with a “.” below the “o”, but I cannot reproduce that character, so I use the nowadays more common way of writing with “ö”. There we have the term that I was looking for, but in another meaning.

On page 19 Gehl writes: “Die gleichmäßigste Verbreitung under den germanischen Worten für “Schicksal’ zeigen die Ableitungen zu den germanischen Stämmen *laga, *gaskapa und *wurði (“the orderly spreading of the Germanic word “Fate” show deductions of the Germanic stems *laga, *gaskapa and *wurði“). Then follow terms from different Germanic languages such as gilagu, aldrlagu, ealdorlegu, feorhlegu, lög, forlög and urlac. The line of terms is interesting since the term “ørlög” seems to be present in most (all?) of the Germanic languages. An interesting remark is made on p.21: “Während as. orlag, ags. orlæg stark zurücktreten, scheint im Ahd. urlac das weitaus verbreiteste Word für “Schicksal” gewesen zu sein. old Norse ørlög is, im Gegensatz zu aldrlag, sköp usw., typisch für die mythologische Dichtung, wird aber auch von der Heldendichtung verwendet, wenn eine Steigerung ins Mythische beabsichted ist”. (“As old Saxon orlag, Anglo-Saxon orlæg are hardly present, it seems as if in old High German urlac is by far the most widely spread word for “Fate”. An. ørlög, contrary to aldrlag, sköp, etc., is typical for the mythological poetry; it is also used in the heroic poetry, but only when when it appears in a mythological context.”) A little further (p.22) Gehl writes that “sköp” is more ‘active’ and “ørlög” more ‘passive’. Later (p.37) Gehl makes that into “Weltlich” (“wordly” for “sköp”) and “mythogisch” (for “ørlög”). Towards the end of the book, the writer speaks about personal and impersonal fate and heroic versus organic.

In another article I have given my ideas about the terms “ørlögr” and “heilagr” and it is in that context that I use these terms. The reason that I started to look into the subject is that the major works about Germanic mythology such as De Vries’ or Meyer’s Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte or Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology hardly (or not at all) speak about “ørlögr” and some of the modern books that I read give other explanations. Gehl seems to do the same. When he quotes texts such as the Eddas or the Gautreksaga, the term seems to use simply “fate” and not “primal law”. Ask and Embla are ørlöglausa (“without fate”) before before the three Gods visit them. Starkadr is given ørlög during a þhing. This seems to be ‘very personal’, even when there is another term for ‘personal ørlög’ being førlög.

On the other hand, “Snorri erzählt in seiner Edda, daß Alföðr (Allvater) zu Anfang stjórnarmenn, “Regenten”, eingesetzt habe mit dem Auftrag, at doema með sér ørlög manna (“das Schicksal der Menschen under sich durch Urteilsspruch zu bestimmen”)”, which means that Odin gave mankind “ørlög” and appointed regents to bestow judgements on it. That would mean that “ørlög” is Divine and further ‘handed down’ to mankind and that is the meaning that I give to the term.
On page 175 Gehl says that Odin knows “Seiðr” and “ørlög manna” (the “ørlög” of man) and when quoting Friedrich Kauffmann on p.225 Gehl speaks about “Urgesetz” and “Urprinzip” and “die tiefe Hintergründe alles Geschehens”, which lives up to my ideas a lot better, since “Urgesetz” is best translated by “primal law” in my opinion, “primal principle” says enough and especially the sentence “the deep background of everything that happens” does not miss much clarity. I would love to read this book by Kauffmann, but I have not been able to track down a copy, it seems unavailable from any Dutch library… But since Gehl also speaks about “überpersönliche schicksalhaften Urgesetse”, maybe in the end he presents what I was looking for anyway.

The rest of the book

Like I said, I was preoccupied when I read this book, but I made a lot more notes than those I gave above. So that you also learn a bit of other things that Gehl describes, here comes ‘the rest of the book’.

When the term “ørlög” is mentioned in the poetic Edda, somewhere near you will also see the term “leggia”, which I myself linked to the Norns (also present in each quote) and which Gehl translates as “schicksalhaft bestimmen”, or “‘fately’ determine”. This usually refers to the personal level. “þær lög lögðu, þær líf kuru, alda börnum, örlög seggja” (Völuspa 21) which is translated: “Laws they established, life allotted, to the sons of men; destinies pronounced” (Thorpe verse 20), “destiny”, a translation that I do not really like personally, but perhaps it says what it should in a way. “Law” for “lög” is more like it and the “ør” part I take for “Ur” or “primal”.

Gehl concludes that “der germanische Schicksalsglaube” is “gemeingermanisch” (pan-Germanic) since he has found terms referring to fate in every text that he studied. As appendix he gives a gigantic list with terms with their sources! This is extremely usefull for other people who want to have a look into the subject. Like I said, “Schicksal”, or better said, the terms that Gehl collected, do not always mean what we do with the term “fate”. A fairly large part of the book is about “Glück”, or “luck”. Terms such as Hamingja, goefa, gipt(a) refer to luck in connection with fate. That first term I would have explained in another way, but on page 67 Gehl writes: “Auch die hamingja is the Summe der körperlichen und geistlichen Vorzüge einer Menschen, oder vielmehr ihre sichtbare Wirkung in then Außenwelt. Auch Character und geistlichen Anlagen einer Menschen kann man auf seine hamingja schließen”. (“Also the hamingja is the sum of the physical and mental parts of men, or perhaps more even it is the visible result in the outer world. Also character and spirit of a man can be seen as his hamingja.”) (p.67)

“Hamingja” is often seen as (a part of) the soul, just as “fylgja”. About the latter Gehl says that the term is to be linked to the idea of heritable luck (p.68). Luck again, but then again: “[…] das Glück [ist] eine selbständig wirkende Macht” (“luck is an independently working force”) (p.67). This is shown when Gehl names terms that seem to refer to both luck and fate. “Heill” (“magisches Glück”) and “goefa”, “gipt(a)”, “hamingja” (“personsgebundenes Glück”) (p. 78).

The writer has a complete chapter about “fylgja”, which he even equates with the “hamingja” on page 145. 15 Pages earlier, Gehl speaks about “fyljur” in animal form and “fylgjur” in the form of a woman. The first appear in dreams and do not live longer than its carrier, man, because it is only the “Doppelgänger” of man. Another word for animal form “fylgja” according to Gehl, is “Hamr”. The “fylgja” in the form of a woman is connected to a person’s death, but this fylgja does survive its carrier, its goes over to “Sippengenossenen”.

Besides all this, but writer also touches upon subject such as magic (Spá, Seiðr, Útiseti / sitjar a haugi, etc.), ideas such as Sipp-/clan-luck and even “aldar rok” (“Welten Schicksal”) and “Weltenglück”, of course about the Norns, “Wurd”, etc., concepts of the soul, such as önd, hugr (“animus nie anima”), etc. and all that with many quotes in the original languages and, as said, a list with all terms and their sources. A wonderfull book with a much wider subject than I was looking for and inspite of the fact that there are more books dealing with this subject, Der Germanische Schicksalsglaube supposedly is the standard work on the subject to the present day.

One comment

  1. It is important to know that the word lot, although it correlates with the
    Italic-based fate, providence, destiny, has a quite different meaning. Its root is
    in the Old Teutonic hluto, the primary meaning of which is uncertain. “In genuine OE
    idiom” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “the verb governing hlot was
    weorpan ~ to throw; its meaning is primarily the object (usually a piece of wood)
    used in the ancient method of deciding disputes, dividing plunder or property,
    selecting persons for an office or duty, by an appeal to chance or the divine agency
    concerned with chance.” Thus it is not only the casting or drawing of lots ~ the
    action, but also the result: what falls to a person by lot, a share, or inheritance.
    The important difference with the Italic cognates is that the Teutonic lot has no
    connotation of divine determinism. This concept of the human lot is opposed to
    belief in a fated existence. One need not bend to destiny, for the human lot is
    subject to circumstance and one’s willful intercession. Wrote Madame Blavatsky:
    “Reject fate that implies a blind course of some still blinder power; believe in
    destiny which from birth to death everyone weaves thread by thread around
    themselves.” Destiny and fate may make a Needlot, and we live side by side with what
    befalls us of necessity; but each woman, every man, has power to bend that great
    Need by acting with the integrity of their convictions.
    http://www.albertburger.com/eddas%20weird.htm

    albert

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