Spanning different seas and centuries, finding parallels between Norse and Greek mythologies can be a difficult task – but there are some important underlying similarities. This article will explore the roles and representations of the Norns and the Moirai, figures of fate in Norse and Greek myth respectively. I will explore the names of the figures and their meaning, then their roles in determining fate, their actions, and appearances in myth.
The Moirai (or Fates) are three goddesses who ‘give to mortals when they are born both good and evil to have’ (Hesiod, Theogony, 218-9). In most texts, the names of the Moirai are given as ‘Κλωθώ’ (Clotho, Spinner), ‘Λάχεσις’ (Lachesis, Allotter of portion), and ‘ Ἄτροπος’ (Atropos, Inflexible). These names are associated with the role of the Moirai in the giving of Fate. Each man is given his portion of good and evil (Lachesis), as Hesiod tells, and this may not be equal for each man, and cannot be changed (Atropos). ‘Atropos’ is also thought to be an allusion to death, as ultimately death is non-negotiable and ‘inflexible’. This is important for the roles the Moirai had in Greek thought, as they also determined the length of each man’s life. The Clotho’s name comes from the verb ‘κλώθω’ (I spin), an action associated with the Moirai originating in Homeric epic. As a ‘woman’s task’, spinning was long associated with the act of motherhood and childbirth, the Moirai were also thought to be present at birth to determine the fate of the child (discussed further later), so the act of spinning became linked with the Moirai.
The Norns, also three goddesses, are named Urd, Skuld, and Verdandi. Like the Moirai, they ‘shape the lives of each man from his first day to his last’ (Lord of the Gallows). ‘Urd’ means ‘Fate’, ‘Skuld’ means ‘Being’, and ‘Verdandi’ means ‘Necessity’, thus each embodies and represents an aspect of the concept of destiny. Beyond this, each is associated with an aspect of time: past, future, and present respectively. Thus, beyond the very concept of fate they are also inescapable overseers of all time. Urd, Skuld, and Verdandi are the most important of the Norns, who, according to the same poem, Lord of the Gallows, tended to Yggdrasill, the Tree of Life. In addition to these three, in the Gylfaginning, recorded by Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda, we are told that ‘there are yet more norns, namely those who come to every man when he is born, to shape his life, and these are known to be of the race of gods’.
Having introduced the profile of the Moirai and the Norns, I will now discuss their common elements. The Moirai are described by Hesiod as giving ‘both good and evil’ (Theogony, 219), and are therefore not purely bringers of fortune. The Norns, on the other hand, bring either good or bad depending on their descent. It is detailed in the Prose Edda that ‘Good norns and of good descent shape good lives, and when some men are weighed down with misfortune, the evil norns are the cause of it.’ The ‘descent’ refers to whether the Norn granting the fate of a person is a god, an elf, or a dwarf. The Moirai do not have this idea of an inherent evil or goodwill influencing their decisions, but rather are an indifferent higher power which even Zeus often cannot control.
The Norns, or rather their subordinates, are present at birth to fix the fate of each man. This is also seen in Greek poetry, from as early as Homer. In Odyssey book 7, Alcinous says ‘he shall suffer whatever fate and the dread spinners spun with their thread for him at his birth, when his mother bore him.’ This is repeated by writers of poetry and prose throughout the Greek world even beyond the Hellenistic period. This idea that man’s fate is predetermined is thus also a common factor between the two groups of Fates.
It should be noted too that the Moirai and Norns are also present at death, since in both cases they determine the length of life. This portrayal is especially common in battle, perhaps a reflection on the societies which created them. The Fates appear in Hesiod’s poem The Shield, here referred to as the ‘κῆρες’, picking those to be slain in a battle scene adorning the shield of Heracles:
The dark Fates, gnashing their white teeth, terrible-faced, grim, bloodred, dreadful, were engaged in conflict around those who were falling. They were all eager to drink black blood. Whomever they caught first, lying there or falling freshly wounded, she clenched around him her great claws, and his soul went down to Hades to chilling Tartarus. When they had satisfied their spirits with human blood, they would hurl him backward, and going forward they would rush once again into the battle din and melee. Clotho and Lachesis stood over them; Atropos, somewhat smaller, was there, not an especially big goddess, but nonetheless she was superior to these others and the oldest one. All of them were waging bitter battle around one man; they glared terribly with their eyes at one another in their fury, and upon it they were equal to one another in their claws and fierce hands.
Hesiod, The Shield, 248-63
The Norns bear a similarly bracketing role; heroes of Norse mythology often mention the will of the Norns when their death is close at hand, but most similar to the Greek Moirai is the fact that according to the Prose Edda one of the Norns, Skuld, oversees the tide of battle with companions Gud and Rosta: ‘Gud and Rosta, and the youngest norn, Skuld, always ride to sway the battle and choose the slain.’
The final similarity is the weaving motif associated with the Moirai of Greek mythology. As previously mentioned, Clotho’s name means ‘spinner’, and the Moirai are often said to have ‘spun’ a man’s fate. This is also seen commonly in material culture, such as in a mosaic from the House of Theseus, Paphos, Cyprus, where Clotho holds her characteristic spindle and thread. Such a portrayal is not at all regular for the Norns, and in fact only one such example exists to us in textual form. ‘The First Lay of Hunding’s Bane’ from the Lay of Volsungs involves the Norns’ presence at the birth of warrior and prince Helgi. We are told:
The Norns came to the house that night,
those who would fashion the prince’s fate;
great fame, they said, would mark his future,
he would be called the best of kings.
Then they wound the threads of fate,
in Bralund’s castle where the hero was born,
gathered the strands into a golden rope,
and made it fast in the moon’s high hall.
The First Lay of Helgi Hunding’s Bane, vv. 2-3
This proclamation of the child’s fate and the winding of the rope with the threads of fate is very characteristic of the Moirai. In other poems, the Norns are not shown to spin or weave the physical fate of a person, so this is an exception, but striking, nonetheless.
The Norns and the Moirai have more than surface-level similarities. They oversee the allotting fate, both good and bad, and determine the course and length of a person’s life. Their presence at battles and births is described in both traditions, making their roles as givers and takers of life evident. The differences between these figures of Fate lie in the minute details, such as the subordinate Norns of different descent having different effects on fortune, but the ideas of the overarching power of pre-determined Fate is intrinsically the same between the Greeks and the Norse.
Written by Fiona Macrae
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