The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 28

Chapter 28: Destiny and Well-Being

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This is the place to insert a more exact survey of ancient opinions on fortune and destiny, than it was possible to take in chap. XVI, where the semi-divine directresses of human fate where spoken of. Fate in the proper sense has so much to do with men's notions about birth, and more especially those about death, and these have only just been expounded. Thus, a man over whom there impends a speedy and inevitable death is said to be fey. (1)

Our ancestors, like other heathens, appear to have made a distinction between destiny and fortune. Their gods bestow prosperity and bliss: above all, Wuotan is the giver of all good, the maker and author of life and victory (pp. 133-7). But neither he nor any other god was at the beginning of creation, he has himself sprung out of it (p. 559), and can do nothing against a higher constitution of the world, which exempts neither him nor victory-lending Zeus (2) from a general destruction (pp. 316-8). Some things turn out contrary to his will: Oðinn and all the âses cannot prevent the misfortune of Balder; another instance of overruling destiny at p. 425. Ragnarök, the world's destruction, far overtops the power of the gods.

This predetermined and necessary character of all that comes into being and exists and perishes, was expressed by a plural noun, ON. scöp, OS. giscapu, AS. gesceapu; I have not found an OHG. scaf, kiscaf in the same sense, though the sing. is forthcoming, and, like the sing. skap in ON., signifies indoles, consilium, Graff 6, 450. The later Icelandic uses a masc. skapnaðr, and the Dan. skiebne (ON. skepna = forma, indoles). The OS. intensifies its giscapu by prefixes: wurdigiscapu, Hel. 103, 7. reganogiscapu (supra p. 26), decreta fati, superorum, where the old heathen notions of wurd and regin plainly assert themselves. In ON. the neut. pl. lög (statuta) is never used of destiny, except when joined to the particle ör (for or), örlög, which in all the other dialects becomes a sing., OHG. urlac (neut.? Graff's quotations 2, 96-7 leaves it doubtful, Notker uses urlag as masc., pl. urlaga), OS. orlag, AS. orlœg, all denoting a 'fixing from the first;' but as the most momentous issue of fate was to the heathen that of war, it early deviated into the sense of bellum, and in Hel. 132, 3 urlagi bellum seems distinct from orlag, orleg fatum, but in reality both are one. So the OHG. urteil, urteili, AS. ordœl, from being the award of a judge, came to mean that of battle. The OS. compound aldarlagu (vitae decretum), Hel. 125, 15 retains the old plural form. Now aldr, aldar is strictly aevum (p. 792), and hveila, OHG. huîla tempus, but also vitae tempus; hence these words alos run into the sense of fatum, conf. AS. gesceap-hwîl, orleg-hwîl, Beow. 52. 4849. 5817, OS. orlag-huîla, Hel. 103, 8, and OHG. huîlsâlida. (3) Then there is an ON. auðna, Swed. öde, destiny, and 'auðinn' fato concessus: 'auðna ræðr hvörs manns lîfi,' rules every man's life, Fornald. sög. 1, 95. Our modern words, not introduced till late, schicksal (fr. schicken aptare, conf. geschickt aptus), verhängnis, fügung, do not come up to the old ones in simplicity or strength.

To the nouns 'scapu, lagu,' correspond the verbs to shape, to lay, which are used in a special sense of the decrees of fate (pp. 407. 410): 'ist tha kindee skepen (is it shaped for the child)' says the O. Fris. Law 49, 10. But we also meet with an ON. ælta (destinare, to intend for some one), OHG. ahtôn and perhaps ahtilôn, MHG. ahten, and beslahten, as ahte and slahte are akin to one another (see Suppl.).

Destiny has principally to do with the beginning and the end of human life. The Wurd visits the newborn and the dying, and it is for one or the other of these events that the above-mentioned names of destiny are mostly used by the poets; thus Beow. 51 speaks of dying 'tô gesceaphwîle,' at the appointed time: Hel. 103, 7: 'tho quâmun wurdegiscapu themu ôdagan man, orlaghuîle, that he thit licht farlêt.' The hour of birth too settles much as to the course and outcome of one's life: 'qualem Nascentia attulit, talis erit,' and 'Parcae, dum aliquis nascitur, valent eum designare ad hoc quod volunt,' Superst. A, and C 198c. The infant's whole course of life shall be conformable to what the norns or fays in their visitation have bestowed, have shaped. (4)

It is a deviation from this oldest way of thinking, to put the settlement of destiny into the hands of the gods; yet it is a very old one. Undoubtedly the faith of many men began early to place the Highest God at the very head of the world's management, leaving those weird-women merely to make known his mandates. The future lies on the lap of the gods, qewn en gounasi keitai, and with this agree that 'laying on the lap,' that 'taking to the bosom,' which is performed by the paternal or maternal deity (pp. 642. 839). If above the gods themselves and end of all things, yet their authority and influence was regarded by men as boundless and immeasurable, all human concerns were undoubtedly under their control (see Suppl.).

The Gautrekssaga tells us (Fornald. sög. 3, 32), that at midnight Hrosshârsgrani (5) awoke his foster-son Starkaðr, and carried him in his boat to an island. There, in a wood, eleven men sat in council; the twelfth chair stood vacant, but Hrosshârsgrani took it, and all saluted him as Oðinn. And Oðinn said, the demsters should deem the doom of Starkaðr (dômendr skyldi dœma örlug St. ). Then spake Thôrr, who was wroth with the mother of the lad: I shape for him, that he have neither son nor daughter, but be the last of his race. Oðinn said: I shape him, that he live three men's lifetimes (conf. Saxo Gram. p. 103). Thôrr: in each lifetime he shall do a 'nîðlings-verk.' Oðinn: I shape him, that he have the best of weapons and raiment. Thôrr: he shall have neither land nor soil. Oðinn: I give him, that he have store of money and chattels. Thôrr: I lay unto him, that he take in every battle grievous wounds. Oðinn: I give him the gift of poetry. Thôrr: what he composes he shall not be able to remember. Oðinn: this I shape him, that he be prized by the best and noblest men. Thôrr: by the people he shall be hated. Then the demsters awarded to Starkaðr all the doom that was deemed, the council broke up, and Hrosshârsgrani and his pupil went to their boat.
Thôrr plays here exactly the part of the ungracious fay (pp. 411-2), he tries to lessen each gift by a noxious ingredient. And it is not for an infant, but a well-grown boy, and in his presence, that the destiny is shaped.
According to Greek legend, Zeus did not always decide directly, but made use of two scales, in which he weighed the fates of men, e.g. of the Trojans and Achæans, of Achilles and Hector:

Kai tote dh cruseia pathr epitaine talanta

en d etiqei duo khre tanhlegeoj qanatoio,

Trwwn q ippodamwn kai Acaiwn calkocitwnwn.

elke de messa labwn repe d aisimon hmar Acaiwn. Il. 8, 69. 22, 209; conf. 16, 658. 19, 223. The same of Aeneas and Turnus, Aen. 12, 723:

Jupiter ipse, duas aequato examine lances

sustinet, et fata imponit diversa duorum,

quem damnet labor, et quo vergat pondere letum.

I am the more particular in quoting these, as the christian legend also provides the archangel Michael, the conductor of souls, with scales, in which the good and evil deeds of them that die are weighed against one another, and the destinies of souls determined by the outcome (6) (see Suppl.). The application of a balance to actions, to sins, is very natural; the (apocrypha) 2 Esdras 3, 34 has: 'nunc ergo pondera in statera nostras iniquitates,' and 4, 36: 'quoniam in statera ponderavit seculum.' (7) The Jomsvîkîngasaga cap. 42 (Fornm. sög. 11, 128-9) describes the magical luckscales or wishing-scales of Hâkon iarl: 'Sîðan tekr iarl skâlir gôðar þær er hann âtti, þær voro gervar af brendu silfri ok gylldar allar, en þar fylgðo 2 met, annat af gulli en annat af silfri; â hvârotveggja metino var gert sem væri lîkneskja, ok hêto þat hlotar, en þat voro reyndar hlutir, sem mönnum var tîtt at hafa, ok fylgði þesso nâttûra mikil, ok til þess alls, er iarli þôtti skipta, þâ hafði hann þessa hluti. Iarl var þvî vanr at leggja hluti þessa î skâlinni, er þat merkði at hann vildi at yrði, ok breysti sâ hlutrinn nokkot svâ î skâlinni, at glam varðaf.'

I do not find that in our earlier heathen time the fates of men were calculated from the stars at their birth. This kind of soothsaying (p. 721) seems not to have become known till the latter part of the Mid. Ages. Radulphus Ardens (an Aquitanian priest of the 11th cent.) says in his Homilies (Antverp. 1576, p. 41b): Cavete, fratres, ab eis qui mentiuntur, quod quando quisque nascitur, stella sua secum nascitur, qua fatum ejus constituitur, sumentes in erroris sui argumentum, quod hic in scriptura sacra (on the star of the Magi) dicitur 'stella ejus.' One instance we find in Klinsor's star-gazing on the Wartburg; another in the wishing-wife who looks into the stars, Altd. bl. 1, 129 (see Suppl.).

For individuals then, as well as for whole families and nations, length of days and happiness were ordained beforehand (8) But the decrees of norns and gods lay shrouded in an obscurity that disclosed its secrets only to the glances of wise men and women (p. 400). (9) The people believed in a predetermining of fates, as they did in the certainty of death.

The Old Norse fatalism is proved by the following passages: 'lagt er alt for,' predestined is all; and 'era með löstom lögð æfi þer,' Sæm. 175b. 'siâ mun gipt lagið â grams æfi,' and 'munat sköpom vinna,' 179b. 'eino dœgri mer var aldr um skapaðr oc allt lîf um lagit,' 83ª. 'var þer þar skapat,' 164b. 'þat verðr hverr at vinna, er ætlat er' ; 'þat man verða fram atkoma, sem ætlat er'; 'koma man til mîn feigðin, hvar sem ek em staddr, ef mer verðr þess auðit', Nialss. pp. 10. 23. 62. 103. So in Swed. and Dan. folksongs: 'detta var mig spådt uti min barndom,' Arvidss. 2, 271. 'hver skal nyde skiebnen sin,' Danske V. 1, 193.

The same with our MHG. poets: 'swaz sich sol füegen, wer mac daz understên (what is to happen, who can hinder)?' Nib. 1618, 1. 'swaz geschehen sol, daz füeget sich,' what shall be, will be, Frauend. 'dâ sterbent wan die veigen,' there die (none) but the fey, Nib. 149, 2. 'ez sterbent niuwan die veigen, die lægen doch dâ heime tôt,' would lie dead though at home, Wigal. 10201. 'di veigen fielen dar nider,' Lampr. 2031. 'hinnerstirbet niman wan di veigen,' Pf. Chuonr. 8403. 'then veigen mac nieman behuoten, thiu erthe ne mag in niht ûf gehaven (hold up), scol er tha werthen geslagen, er sturve (would die) thoh thaheime,' Fr. belli 42b. 'swie ringe er ist, der veige man, in mac ros noch enkan niht vürbaz getragen,' the fey man, however light, no horse can carry farther, Karl 72b. Rol. 207, 24. 'die veigen muosen ligen tôt,' Livl. chron. 59b. 'der veigen mac keiner genesen,' none recover', ib. 78ª. 'ich ensterbe niht vor mînem tac (day),' Herb. 53d. 'nieman sterben sol wan zu sînem gesatten zil (goal),' Ulr. Trist. 2308. 'daz aver (whatever) scol werden, daz nemac nieman erwenden (avert),' Diut. 3, 71. 'gemach erwenden niht enkan swaz dem man geschehen sol,' Troj. 58c. 'daz muose wesen (what had to be), daz geschach,' Orl. 11167. 'swaz geschehen sol, daz geschiht.' Freid. 132b. MS. 1, 66ª. 71b. 'daz solt eht sîn, nu ist ez geschehen,' MS. 74ª. 80ª. 'ez geschiht niht wan daz sol geschehen,' Lanz. 6934. 'ez ergât doch niht, wan als ez sol,' Trist. 676. 'tot avenra qanque doit avenir,' Ogier 7805. 'bin ich genislich, sô genise ich,' if I was made to live thro' it, I shall, A. Heinr. 190. 'swaz ich getuon (do), bin ich genislich, ich genise wol; bin ich dem valle ergeben (doomed to fall), so n' hilfet mich mîn woltuon nicht ein hâr,' MS. 2, 129ª 'ez muose sîn, und ez was mir beschaffen,' it was to be, was shaped for me (134b). 'diu maget was iu beschaffen,' that girl was cut out for you, Wigal. 1002. 'ez was im beslaht (destined),' Eracl. 2394. 'swaz ist geschaffen (shapen), daz muoz geschehen,' MsH. 3, 434b. 'nu mir daz was in teile,' well, that was in my lot (portion), En. 11231. 'ez was enteile uns getân,' Herb. 18418. 'ez ist mich angeborn,' I was born to it, Herb. 6c.---The words geschaffen, beschaffen and beslaht are identical with the ON. skapat and œtlat, and this sameness of the words testifies to their original connection with the heathen doctrine. Even at the present day the fatalist view prevails largely among the common people (Jul. Schmidt pp. 91. 163). 'ez müste mir sein gemacht gewesen,' must have been made for me, Sieben ehen eines weibes, p. 211. 'fatum in vulgari dicitur "'tis allotted unto me (bescheert, my share)"; ego autem addo "allotting and deserving run always side by side."' Sermones disc. de tempore, sermo 21. 'was bescheert ist, entläuft nicht,' Schweinichen 3, 249 (see Suppl.). (10)


1. OHG. feigi, MHG. veige; OS. fêgi, Hel. 72, 4; AS. fœge, Beow. 5946; ON. feigr. The old meaning of the word has been preserved longest in Lower Saxony [and Scotland]: 'dar is en veege in'n huse'; 'en veegminsche, dat balde sterven werd (will die soon)'; per contra, 'he is nou nig veege (not fey yet)' of a man who comes in when you are talking of him. Also Nethl. 'een veeg man (with one foot in the grave), een veege teken (sign of death)', hence also veeg = debilis, periculis expositus. Our own feig has acquired the sense of fainthearted, cowardly, pitiable, as the Lat. fatalis has, in the Fr. fatal, that of unlucky, disagreeable. So the Lith. paikas, bad (see Suppl.). [Back]

2. Trwessi bouletai nikhn (Il. 7, 21. 16, 121), as boulh will, counsel, is usually attributed to Zens (hmin bouletai 17, 331); and sometimes nooj (17, 176) or nohma, purpose (17, 409). His great power is illustrated by the gold chain (seira, Il. 8, 19-28), but passages presently to be cited show that he had to leave destiny to be decided by the balance. [Back]

3. Wilsâlda (fortuna), N. Cap. 20-3-5. 53. 77. MHG. wilsœlde, Kaiserchr. 1757. Massmann 3, 669. Geo. 61ª. 'diu wîle mîn und ich müez Got bevolhen sîn, 'must be committed to God, Bit. 3b. [Back]

4. We still say: 'born in happy hour.' OHG. 'mit heilu er giboran ward,' O. Sal. 44. Freq. in the O. Span. Cid: 'el que en buen ora nascio, el que en buen punto nascio.' From this notion of a good hour of beginning (à la bonne heure) has sprung the Fr. word bonheur (masc.) for good hap in general. Similarly, about receiving knighthood, the O. Span. has 'el que en buen ora cinxo espada.' [Back]

5. That is, Grani, Sîðgrani, the bearded, a by-name of Oðinn (p. 147). [Back]

6. Conf. Deut. S. no. 479; a coll. of authorities in Zappert's Vita Acotanti (Vienna 1839), pp. 79, 88. [Back]

7. We need not go to 2 Esdras to find pleny of similar passages in the O.T., e.g. 1 Sam. 2, 3. Job 31, 6. Prov. 16, 2. Isa. 26, 7. Dan. 5, 27.---Trans. [Back]

8. Not unfrequently depending on their possession of certain things: a hoard drags the whole kindred of the Nibelungs to ruin; the gift, the jewel, of the dwarfs (p. 457) insures the prosperity of particular families. [Back]

9. It is worthy of remark, that, acc. to the ON. view, not all the gods, but only the highest ones possessed a knowledge of destiny; so to the Greeks, none but Zeus and those whom he made his confidants knew of it. Of Frigg it is said, Sæm. 63b: 'at öll örlög viti, þôtt hun sialfgi segi,' all fates she knows, but tells not. And Oðinn says (62b), that Gefjon knows the world's destiny (aldar örlög) equally with himself. Among men, particular heroes and priests spy out the secrets of the future, preeminently Grîpir (p. 94); to women, to priestesses, belonged the gift of divination. [Back]

10. The same belief is held by the Lithuanians and Lettons, fate they call likkimas liktens, from lik-t to lay down, arrange: 'tai buwo jo likkims,' 'tas jau bija winnam liktz,' that was destined for him. [Back]

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