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The primal law

This text was first published in “Mímir – Journal Of North European Traditions“, edited by Gwendolyn Taunton and published in July 2012 by Numen Books (isbn 0987158147) under the pen-name Roy Orlogstru.

René Guénon (1886-1951) wrote about a Source of all. This Source can have many names ranging from God to Ginnungagap. The expression of that Source in the world that we live in, can be described as the “primal law”, the order of things. That “primal law” can, again, have different names. Tradition (with a capital T), sophia perennis, religio perennis or a term that Guénon often used, Sanatana Dharma. All terms refer to some kind of primal ‘knowledge’, or in the latter case, a primal law. In the Northern European traditions, there is also a term that literally translates as primal law: Örlögr. In this short article I will investigate this term (and other terms) and its usuage in different texts, old and new.

The term Örlögr is written in different ways. This is caused by different ways of how authors translate old characters with accents that we do not know anymore to something better ‘typable’. The best-looking way of writing the word, in my opinion, would be “Ørlögr”. Actually the second ‘o’ has a dot below. Neither ‘o’ can be typed easily. This is why I prefer the spelling “Örlogr”.

The term seems to become more and more popular, but just as with the term “Traditionalism”, the term seems have as many usuages as there are authors.

In Tyr journal volume 3, there is an article from the hand of Nigel Pennick about the “Web of Wyrd”(1), three fates, Norns, etc. In this article he mentions the term “Ørlög” (his spelling) a couple of times. He seems to mix up this term with “Heilagr”.

The first time the term “Ørlög” is mentioned, Pennick gives it the meaning of “the primal law laid down by the Norns”(2), which is a very good explanation, save for the second part. Some authors seem to see “Örlogr” to be fate and maybe therefor Pennick connects it to the Norns, but it is not the Norns who ‘made’ “Örlogr”, they are merely an expression of it. “Örlogr” is the Primal Law, the (Sanatana) Dharma of the Hindus, the ‘expression’ of the Divine on earth. This has little to do with the other explantions that Pennick gives, such as “the history of all events”(3) or in a longer explanation:

Ørlög refers to both the structural ways that the cosmos works (the co-called Laws of Nature), and to the events and things that have existed in the past. Ørlög is the source of the present, and allthough it is in the past, it has not disappeared.(4)

I had never heard the idea that Örlogr is some kind of ‘accumulating’ thing, a ‘making of the present’ or how to explain it. In my idea Örlögr is ever present and always the same, since it is Divine.

A little further Pennick speaks about “our own ørlög”(5) and “human ørlög”(6), explanations that are out of the question in my idea of the concept.

These last two explanations seem to refer more to “Heilagr”, a term not mentioned in the article. This term is much harder to describe in a way that makes sense to our modern minds, but I will give it a try.

Pennick seems to think that “Örlogr” is personal, or at least, has a personal ‘side’ to it. This is of course impossible if it is the Divine Law. Personal and group “Heilagr” on the other hand, is perfectly possible. “Heilagr” can be seen as a mysterious ‘force’ that connects people, such as a family (family “Heilagr” is called “Óttheilagr” or “Ættheilagr” which means something like “family well-being” (heil)). This means that if the personal “Heilagr” of a person is damaged, this also effects the “Heilagr” of his family and that is why honour was such a great good in Germanic societies.
A good explanation of “Heilagr” is ‘Divine force that radiates from within’. If a person is honourable and works according to “Örlogr”, (s)he ‘gets’ “Heilagr” and improves the “Heilagr” of his/her family. “Heilagr” can (should!) be ‘developed’ and sustained by living according “Örlogr”. A person’s “Heilagr” even remains after his/her death and a disgrace in the family effects the forefathers and foremothers as much as the living relatives.

I will give a long translated quote from the first version (2003) of Stefaan van den Eynde’s Asatrú, inleiding tot een traditionele religie(7):

Heilagr is a transcendental concept that manifests on various levels, such as the personal. We can describe it as a non-physical Divine substance that can make part of every human and which can live on after the carrier dies. The force and radiation of someone’s personal heilagr is proportionate with the degree of his living conform the Primal Order [i.e. “Örlogr”]. […]
The individual heilagr moreover, is indissolutably connected with the jointly heilagr of the family – the family heilagr. […] It will be clear that the heilagr of a king should radiate over his entire domain.

Recapitulating: “Örlogr” is the Divine Structure of things, a Primal Law which ‘says’ how things should go and be. The more accordingly we live to “Örlogr” and therefor the more we fullfill our Destinies, the more and the better “Heilagr” we develop, because the less wrinkles we produce on the Divine Ocean. “Heilagr” is the Divine that we ‘work out of ourselves’ and which is both personal as shared and because of the latter, our forefathers had a very different view on life than us individualised modern men. We don’t even wonder anymore if our actions affect our family or fellow man in any way, nor do we remember that indecent behaviour (in whatever way) effects our well-being on a level we are not even aware off!

This is of course all good and well, but are these the ideas of one man, some people or a group, or are these thoughts analogous to the idea that our forefathers had? When looking around for other authorative authors on the subject, I first checked Jan de Vries’ and Rudolf Meyer’s Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte‘s(8+9), Simek’s Dictionary of Northern Mythology(10) and some other titles from my own library, but none of these books speak about Örlögr. Not present in my own library there is the book with the promising title Der Germanische Schicksalsglaube by Walther Geh(l1). The title translates as ‘Germanic belief in fate’. And is still regarded as the main source on the subject.

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? In the introduction(12) Gehl writes that words like “sköp” and “ørlög” were used to describe “fate”. (Both terms are written with a “.” below the “o”.) There we have the term that we are ooking for, but in another meaning.

A little further(13) Gehl writes: “the orderly spreading of the Germanic word “Fate” shows 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” (in various spellings of course) seems to be present in most (all?) of the Germanic languages. An interesting remark is the following:

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”. Old Norse 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.(14)

Later(15) Gehl writes that “sköp” refers to a more ‘active’ and “ørlög” more ‘passive’ notion or “Weltlich” (“wordly”) for “sköp” and “mythogisch” for “ørlög”(16). Towards the end of the book, the writer speaks about personal and impersonal fate and heroic versus organic.

When Gehl quotes texts such as the Eddas or the Gautreksaga, the term “Örlogr” seems to mean simply “fate” and not “primal law”. Ask and Embla are ørlöglausa (“without fate”) before the three Gods visit them. Starkadr is given ørlög during a þhing. This seems to be ‘very personal’, especially when you think of it that there is another term for ‘personal ørlög’ being førlög.

On the other hand, “Snorri says in his Edda that Alföðr (Allfather) initially assigned stjórnarmenn, “Regents” with the appointment “at doema með sér ørlög manna” (‘to determine the fate of people by verdict’). That would mean that “ørlög” is Divine and further ‘handed down’ to mankind.
On page 175(17) Gehl says that Odin knows “Seiðr” and “ørlög manna” (‘the “ørlög” of man’) and when quoting Friedrich Kauffmann(18) Gehl speaks about “Urgesetz” and “Urprinzip” and “die tiefe Hintergründe alles Geschehens”. “Urgesetz” is best translated by “primal law”, “primal principle” (“Urprinzip”) says enough and especially the sentence “the deep background of everything that happens” does not miss much clarity. Gehl also speaks about “überpersönliche schicksalhaften Urgesetze” or ‘supra-personal primordial laws of fate’, a wonderfull description.

When the term “ørlög” is mentioned in the poetic Edda, somewhere near you will also see the term “leggia”, appears to be linked to the Norns who are also present in the context. Gehl translates “örlög” “leggia” 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) is translated: “Laws they established, life allotted, to the sons of men; destinies pronounced”(19); “destiny”, a translation that I do not really like, 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 Gehl also writes: “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.”(20)

“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(21). Luck again, but then again: “[…] luck is an independently working force”(22). This is shown when Gehl names terms that seem to refer to both luck and fate. “Heil” (“magisches Glück”) and “goefa”, “gipt(a)”, “hamingja” (all for “personsgebundenes Glück” or ‘person bound luck'(23).

The term “Örlögr” refers to a Divine, Primal Law comparable to the Primal Law of the Traditionalists. Other explanations that are sometimes given to the term actually refer to other words from the old texts. While “Örlögr” is the Divine Law, Ginnungagap is its source. The “yawning gap” form which everything emerges is the Divine Source, the root of everything and that idea appears to me the most logical answer to some questions, also questions raised by a man like René Guénon.

1 Weaving The Web Of Wyrd by Nigel Pennick in TYR: myth-culture-tradition volume 3, 2007 Ultra Publishing, isbn 97809720292-3-0, pages 111 to 126
2 Ibid. page 112
3 Ibid. page 114
4 Ibid. pages 116/7
5 Ibid. page 117
6 Ibid. page 119
7 Asatrú! Inleiding tot een traditionele religie by Stefaan Van den Eynde, 2003 Werkgroep Traditie (, no isbn. The title translates ‘Asatrú! An introduction to a traditional religion’. Werkgroep Traditie is a Flemish Asatru group. The quote is from page 12.
8 Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte by Jan de Vries, 2 volumes 1935 and 1937 Walter de Gruyter, reprinted in 1956 and 1957 and completely reworked, expanded and republished in 1970. I have the 1956/7 printing.
9 Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte by Richard Moritz Meyer, 1910 Quelle & Meyer, available in several modern photographic reprints. I have a Phaidon reprint of an unknown year (isbn 3888512107)
10 Dictionary Of Northern Mythology by Rudolf Simek, 2007 D.S. Brewer, isbn 059915131)
11 Der Germanische Schicksalsglaube by Walter Gehl, 1939 Junker & Dünnhaupt.
12 Ibid. page 16
13 Ibid. page 19
14 Ibid. page 21
15 Ibid. page 22
16 Ibid. page 37
17 Ibid. page 175
18 Ibid. page 225
19 Edda translated by Benjamin Thorpe, 1866 Trübner & co. Quote from verse 20.
20 Der Germanische Schicksalsglaube by Walter Gehl, 1939 Junker & Dünnhaup page 67.
21 Ibid. page 68
22 Ibid. page 67
23 Ibid. page 76

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