Near the top of the world a Seer sat in a forest thick with trees. Around him howled the Nordic wind but he heard and felt it not. The trees shrieked and whistled, groaned and creaked, in chorus, but theirs was not the arboreal song humming in his mind. He heard instead the incantation of a far mightier tree which sang of ages long forgotten and epochs yet to be. It called the forest pine and beech "little brothers" and intoned the sacred runes which were the powers of its many parts. "Branches have I", it sang, "upon which the smallest detail of the world is suspended like a leaf. Upon my branches twigs divide the myriad levels of being into infinitely delicate categories, and my boughs separate and unite all the worlds that be and that unfold and are nourished by their life-giving sap. My roots span the nine realms of existence, finding their sustenance in Asgard, Midgard and Niflheim, in sacred places of beginning which few have ever seen." The trees listened and they bowed. A casual traveller might think they merely bent before the wind, but the Seer knew that they bowed in reverence, almost touching their crowns to the ground as he himself now did. "O gods," he wonderingly mused, "long before the thought of you and all your glory was this cosmic tree. Surely it must have grown out of Ymir's mighty frame, taking its sap from his oozing blood, its flesh from his scattered parts. But its seed must have come from a source far beyond the giant's roar, beyond the great abyss which bore him in its womb. For it carried a divine plan, a design for worlds to come, which could only have arisen in the Universal Mind."
The Seer paused and, still oblivious to the rushing wind about him, passed his mind back over the poems of his forefathers. He remembered the descriptions he had heard as a child of the great Yggdrasill Tree, whose living structure yet supports the world and which "is of all trees the hugest and most stately". Its branches were described as overhanging all the worlds and striking out above the heavens. The three roots of the tree, spreading far and wide, support it aloft: one root is with the gods, another with the Frost Giants, and the third stands over Niflheim, the world of the dead. Under the latter root are the roaring cauldron called Hvergelmir and the dragon Nidhogg who gnaws it from below. Under the root twisting and curving towards Jötunheim, home of the Frost Giants which lies in Midgard, bubbles Mimir's well, full of wisdom, imbibed daily by its warden, Mimir. The third of Yggdrasill's roots grows in the heaven of Asgard and beneath it is the exceedingly sacred well of Urd. It is at this place that the gods have their judgement seat, coming every day astride their chargers over the Bifrost bridge which spans heaven and earth. Above them, on the topmost branches of the tree, roosts an eagle, wise beyond all knowing. Between his eyes sits the falcon Vedfolnir, who sends piercing glances into the three worlds and reports all that he sees. A squirrel named Ratatosk darts up and down the tree bearing insults between the eagle and Nidhogg. His name, meaning 'Nibble-tooth', conveys something of the antagonism existing between the extreme worlds, but his continual travel between the two also illustrates their interdependence and ultimate unity.
While Nidhogg gnaws away at the life-giving roots, aided by a whole nest of serpents, four stags browse over the branches of the tree, giving forth drops of honey-dew from their horns to the earth. Eating roots and leaves and bark, these creatures tear away at the vitality of Yggdrasill. It is fortunate that the three sisters of Fate, called the Norns, bathe it and give it drink to prevent it from withering. Living in a cave next to the well, they come to the water each day and mix it with the surrounding white sands to make a moist paste with which they cover the great tree's roots. The well of Urd (etymologically related to wurt, wyrd and 'weird' – all coming from an ancient verb meaning 'to become') also gives life to two heavenly swans from whom are descended all birds on earth known by that name. Heavenly swans from the well of Fate, wisdom from the well of Mimir and rivers containing venom from Hvergelmir's well, each springs forth in one of the three worlds and is tapped by one of the three roots of the cosmic tree. "A wondrously complete and significant design," the Seer thought, "one which suggests all the dualities and interrelationships of subsequent systems and addresses the difficult questions concerning good and evil as well as the operation of universal Law."
The wondrous Yggdrasill correlates with the Hindu Ashwattha, the Hellenic Gogard, the Tibetan Zampun and the Hebrew Sephiroth, as well as many other cosmic trees. It is an idea which seems to have arisen in all places and times, even blossoming forth in areas where trees do not grow, in the form of scaffolding or ladders climbed by shamans who thus visit the various worlds. Another related concept associates the tree with man himself, the prototypes of our race having been 'enclosed' in the microcosmic tree "which grew and developed within and under the great mundane macrocosmic tree". Thus, in the Nordic tradition, the first man and woman were formed from the ask (ash) tree, which is the cosmic tree writ small. The Ases who created the form of man from this tree could not endow him with mind. This could only be given by those who ushered in the realms of good and evil where the serpent of wisdom and the serpent of destruction self-consciously meet. On the macrocosmic level, the World Tree is the serpent of eternity and wisdom itself, but on the microcosmic plane the tree is the serpent of manifest wisdom, and its shadow is a reflection symbolized in myths by the serpent dwelling in or under the tree. The song of creation and destruction sung by the eagle at the top of the tree heralds the cognizable symbiosis of death in life and life in death, a synthesized anticipation of the Ragnarok (the twilight of the world) and of all the cycles of destruction and rebirth that would follow it.
After the establishment of the World Tree, the Aesirs (gods), Vanirs (rival gods) and Jötuns (giants) coexisted in their various realms within the tree in a golden age harmony. But deceit entered their midst and the Aesirs permitted their hitherto latent anxiety about the destructive impulses of the Jots to provoke them into breaking their vow of trust. Guilt came into the world and the Golden Age receded, further eclipsed by the coming of Gullveig, who was sent among the Aesirs by the Vanirs. The Völuspá tells with horror the story of how she corrupted them. She was a bewitching enchantress, a magician who gave to them the full measure of her name, which means 'gold-madness'. She could fill the souls of men and gods with indescribable longing, an affliction that particularly affected the goddesses of Asgard, who became bewitched and performed innumerable acts of foolishness and immorality. The Aesirs, perceiving her pernicious influence, pierced her with spears and burnt her three times in Odin's hall. But she arose from the flames, each time more beautiful and alluring than before. The longing and subsequent discontent had infiltrated Asgard and would infect the rest of the world like a plague. There was no going back, the damage was done, for when this longing comes, the Norns enter into being, "and the blessed peace of childhood's dreams passes away and sin comes into existence with all its evil consequences".
One could identify Gullveig as the golden fruit on the tree which, once eaten, destroys the simplicity of a pre-manasic existence. Following the myth, one could say that manas was thrice purified in the flames of Odin's hall before lighting up the minds of gods and men with knowledge of both the good and the evil serpents. At this point, all become choice-making agents who create karma and reap its individual and collective consequences as they go along. Therefore, the weavers of fate or karma necessarily enter the picture to act according to the dictates of one continually adjusting universal Law. Some say the Norns came from Jötunheim as the daughters of the first giant to settle that place. This would make them sisters to Nott (Night), who also called Narfi her father, and it places their birth before that of Odin and his brothers. But the true origin of the Norns is wrapped in mystery. Heroes on their quests sought the answer to this riddle, and Odin, when contesting in wisdom with the giant Vafthrudnir, asked him the secret which he knew he possessed. The wise Jötun whispered the answer in Odin's ear, but no one else has ever been told. All we do know for certain is that Urd (after whom their sacred well is named) is the eldest, and gazes thoughtfully into the past. Verdandi, the second, fearlessly looks into the present, and Skuld, the last, gazes into the future, rich with hope or dark with tears. Looking thus, they make known the decrees of orlog: out of the past and present, the future is born.
Together, the Norns were called Urd or Fate. When prophesying over the cradle of a royal-born, the first two usually gave a good report, while the last often enacted the evil fairy role and handed down some dire pronouncement. As Urd is Fate, so Verdandi is Necessity and Skuld is Being-to-Be. They were believed to stand next in rank to the Aesirs themselves, which is odd, in a way, as they wove the fate even of the gods. But whatever their rank, their word was inexorable, making the prophecies of Skuld awesome indeed. Many stories deal with her dark ways. When the royal child Nornagesta was born, he was named in honour of the Norns. But this did not prevent Skuld from looking at the candle burning low by the cradle and pronouncing that the babe would die when its light went out. Verdandi quickly stepped in, however, and snuffing out the light herself, she proclaimed that Nornagesta would always keep the candle safe on his person and that only he would determine the time of his death by its lighting. The young babe grew to rule and performed many deeds of great heroism. After three hundred years he was brought to the court of King Olaf Tryggvesson, who (as was his practice) forced him to convert to the new religion of Christianity. Familiar with the story of Nornagesta's candle, the king wished to light it in order to show all his subjects what foolish superstition such beliefs were. But when he lit the candle and all stood watching its flame gutter and go out, Nornagesta slumped to the floor and died.
The well of Urd is round and its white sands make it appear opalescent, like the moon with whose three phases the Norns are connected. The role of the moon in marking cycles and affecting magical practices links the necessity of cause and effect with attempts to influence its patterns of unfoldment. But the Norns themselves cannot be bribed or placated. They are above and remain unmoved by such personal string-pulling. This seems to be true of the Fates operating in other Indo-European traditions as well, where the Moirae of the Greeks, the Parcae of the Romans and even the Weird Sisters of Old English literature share many common characteristics. All being triads governing fate, they are also spinners living in caves near springs, many of which flow beneath a great cosmic tree. The Hellenic Moirae include Klotho who spins, Lachesis who measures, and Nemesis who cuts the thread. Like Skuld, Nemesis is feared, the word even today conveying a tone of dagger-like finality. Though awesome, especially to those who view their personal future with trepidation, Nemesis guards the karma of the good, ensuring that each receives exactly what is his or her due. But she cannot be propitiated. Nothing will sway her from her path and she will relentlessly punish evil. So long as the effect of the evil-doer continues to perturb even the smallest atom, nothing will deter her from seeing to its readjustment in relation to the Law. The Norns similarly point out the way to heroes on the battlefield and take relentless vengeance upon murderers and other malefactors, bounding them even to self-destruction.
The weaving of the Norns, once begun, can never be stopped. As the sisters flash the shuttle to and fro, they sing a solemn song. They weave not their own desires or designs but a far grander pattern, and on their threads hang the lives of all that live, were ever born or will be. The threads of their woof are of different colours, revealing the nature of the event about to occur. A black thread stretched from north to south was an omen of death. The Norns are in no wise subject to the gods, who can neither question nor influence their decrees. They can proclaim fate themselves or make it known, as they used to, through the mouths of prophetesses or priests. But they speak the decree of orlog, the eternal Law of the universe, which is an older and superior power, having no beginning or end. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once pointed out that, with the pagans. Deity manifested coordinately with and only through karma – being the soul of Law itself. Orlog, said to represent Fate, is described as "a Power impossible to avoid or gainsay, ruling over gods and men; it is impersonal and bestows its gifts blindly". It sometimes acts through the gods, who then influence the lives and actions of mortals. Or it is simply meted out in the song and pattern of the Norns as they endlessly weave its will in the shade of the cosmic tree. Like karma, orlog is neither created nor begotten but calls the new world into being after the Ragnarok. As the spiralling nebula of the embryonic cosmos develops and the World Tree throws out its structural branches upon which it takes shape, the Law of orlog operates impersonally and unseen. It is only with the quickening of mind that the Norns appear in chorus as its interpreters.
Thus were the Norns consulted by Odin, who strove to avert the coming twilight of the gods. And he was, even in these climactic circumstances, only making a journey he had made myriad times before. Throughout the long ages he and the rest of the gods had crossed over the Bifrost bridge each day, riding their noble horses from Midgard to the well of Urd. Here, where the shape of destiny is woven, they held a court of judgement and handed down verdicts reflecting the intelligence of the Norns who, in turn, kept watch over Yggdrasill's fruit of life and knowledge, allowing none to pick them but Idunn, who gave them to the gods. Odin also journeyed to Mimir's well in Jötunheim, watched over by the wise giant of that name to whom Odin had given his eye in pledge. Mimir's well is that of primeval wisdom, from which the giant drank daily. To partake of this wisdom, Odin willingly sacrificed his eye, which is said to be at the bottom of the well. Though Mimir (whose name means 'memory') was beheaded by the Vanirs, his head remained at the spring to prophesy future events. In much older myths, Mimir is associated with supreme power and closely identified with Yggdrasill, which is called Mimir's tree. From this Odin learnt much of the magic he uses to further the cause of the gods and the cosmic tree. From the Norns he learnt the nature of destiny, how and why it operates.
There was a time when Odin took his silent son, Vidar, to Urd's well so they might "look into its depths and see what is hidden from gods and men". They crossed over to Ida's plain and approached the great tree where the three fatal sisters sat and the swans floated noiselessly in their silent course. Upon request for a word, the Norns responded: "Early begun! Further spun. One day done! With joy once more won!" Then they rose and spoke together: "The circling ages roll on and change. Past and future, passing and beginning again, thus the ends of existence meet. If the Father falls on the Field of Vigrid, he reappears in Vidar, the Avenger, the Victor, newborn in the halls of blessedness." When they had finished speaking, the leaves of Yggdrasill rustled melodiously and the eagle on its topmost branch sang of victory. The dragon Nidhogg forgot to gnaw the roots of the tree. All creatures were silent and content as though listening to some "wondrous music which told, not of death but of eternal change".
The present unfolds before our eyes and the future is hidden in the folds. There seems to be change in an absolute sense, the events of today never repeating in quite the same way again. But that is deceptive, for the real event is the cause which took place long ago, the design which already exists in its entirety but which has to be put together, as it were, by assembling the millions of puzzle pieces in their proper places. But the design is not a static thing with pre-cut pieces which can be fitted together in only one way. In the rush of events, the Norns are continually altering the pattern of their weaving, incorporating all the myriad choices, thoughts, decisions and changes of heart made by men and gods. One alteration here, even of the subtlest sort, necessarily produces countless changes in interrelationships there and everywhere. It is a marvellous exercise for the imagination to try to visualize a type of weaving which could accommodate all the dimensions involved in karma. In the grand cycle of involution and evolution, from primordial, ethereal man through his inner development to the acquisition of a physical vehicle, his evolution as a manasic being to the culmination of a Round, when "the manvantaric Serpent swallows its tail", is made up of racial, national, lineal and individual cycles running each their course. In all this, orlog operates without attributes, absolute and immutable as a principle, and constant and continual in action. It is man (individually or collectively) who propels it to action and gives that action direction. Orlog or "Karma-Nemesis is the creator of nations and mortals, but once created, it is they who make of [it] either a fury or a rewarding angel." Orlog, neither begotten nor created, expresses itself in the world through the Norns, who are begotten by ourselves.
Being the name of the eldest Norn, Urd is also the term used for the three sisters collectively. Related to the Anglo-Saxon wyrd and the English 'weird', it is also an etymological cousin of the Indo-Germanic uert, meaning 'to turn', and the Old High German wirt or wirtel, the word for 'spindle'. To turn and turn again, one arrives once more at the warp and woof of necessity. The power that metes out or measures is fate, the work of Verdandi as she looks fearlessly on the present. Measure for measure, she demonstrates that which inspired the arcane and literary traditions from which Shakespeare drew so many of his idioms and characterizations. The word nom seems to be connected with the Swedish norna, meaning 'to tell secretly', and to the Middle English nyrnen, which means 'to utter'. It is also related to nornhi, which conveys the idea of twisting and combining, linking the notion of weaving with the fatal utterances characteristic of the Norns. Branching out from the three sisters of Urd, one finds that there were many other lesser Norns in Norse beliefs. Some were said to originate among the Aesirs, some among the Vanirs and others among the dwarfs. As Gangleri said, "If the Norns determine the fates of men, then they give unequal portions. Some have a pleasant, luxurious life, others have few possessions or little fame; some have long life, others short." To this the reply is, "Good Norns, of honourable race, appoint good life; those who suffer evil fortunes are ruled by evil Norns."
The spindle of necessity operating in the world would seem to have many parts which administer fine tuning according to an infinite variation in karmic effects. To put it simply, one gets the Norn one earns under karma – out of a vast legion of possible instruments of fate. Also, there are little webs, smaller inferior webs, woven in and through the circumstances of one's life, and they are woven within the interstices of a larger, overarching karmic pattern. Sometimes these works of lesser Norns clog up the design of the larger weave, making it bulky, knotted, muddy in colour at some points, and leaving it open and threadbare at others. The overall tapestry of a life can take on the appearance of a product of a beginner's basket-weaving class. There is no consistent weave throughout the piece, and gaping holes ensure that it will never be of much use when it comes to bearing one's portion of the collective load of life. It is not even a decorative work which could grace the halls of some worthy enterprise.
If an individual fails to assume a responsible position in relation to the strands of karma making up his or her life, then a tangled and incongruous design will surely emerge. It will be, in effect, woven by evil or inept Norns, meting out exactly what is called for in relation to the balancing of divine Harmony. One can imagine millions of woven designs clustered in and among the branches and roots of the great tree of life. Some are so massed in their assortments of ill-begotten tangles that they smother whole parts of the tree, like parasites clogging the arteries of a vaster design. Others hang like abnormal growths, hideous and murky in colour, playing host to all sorts of corrupting maggots and weevils. They are cohorts of the dragon Nidhogg in that they contribute to the decay of the ordered world. But they do not possess his openness of purpose and integrity of function, for they are simply diseased participants in a larger process of destruction. There are others still, however, whose lives are woven in and around the tree like silvery veins, lending to the leaves and branches and roots a luminous beauty. The pattern of their lives describes an individual consistency which blends with the weave of natural and harmoniously balanced growth comprising the structure of the tree.
Those desiring to live as part of this greater design can learn to 'measure' themselves according to its perceived geometry. It is possible to live like a tree whilst consciously weaving a karma compatible with all trees growing beneath the umbrella of Yggdrasill's boughs. Nature is the great instructor and numbers are the threads of which she is composed. There are nine worlds in the cosmology of the old Norsemen and divisors of three providing the keys to them: three roots, three wells and three sisters of Fate. Each of the wells represents an aperture leading back through the waters of life to those of the astral sea of chaos. Each conveys forth into the manifest realm a principle inherent in the non-manifest pertaining to matter, mind and law. The venom-laced slag gushing forth from Hvergelmir forms the basis, not only of death in life, but of the maya of separatism which will permeate embodied consciousness. But its waters provide a portion of the sustenance taken through one of the roots of the World Tree. Without its flow, Yggdrasill would never have acquired material form, which is to say the world would not exist in the sense we know it. The water from Mimir's well conveys primordial wisdom into the world. If one looks at the pattern of a great and noble tree, one can see how this wisdom is made manifest. The harmonious and beneficent workings of the entire cosmos are perfectly reflected in its geometry of growth, its proportions, its economy of solar synthesis, its cyclic fluctuations and its inherently benign nature. The cosmic tree is a living display of wisdom writ small in every living tree, if one has the eyes to see it.
The water that flows up through the well of Urd bears the principle of absolute Law into the world. Yggdrasill draws from this well and is bathed daily in its vital waters. As long as its cooling and curing flow washes the roots and boughs of the cosmic tree, it will flourish and bear life. The steady gnawing of Nidhogg and his forces cannot stem its inner vital sap. But if the three servants of orlog should fail in their duties, if injustice and disharmony should grow so rampant among men and gods as to fill their loom with coarse and blackened threads woven in dark designs so chaotic as to destroy their gracious rhythm of duty, then the tree would begin to wither and die. The nine branches of cosmos live in balanced coherence fed by the pure stream of absolute Harmony. The nine persist as a triangle of the ternary and the end limit of the numerical series before its return to unity. This is true of the World Tree as it is of man, whose nine months of gestation mark a journey through the entire cosmic process.
Through the Norns man weaves his fate, according to the decrees of orlog. He weaves the tree that becomes his life, the structure upon which are suspended the karmic events of the past, present and future. His tree may be stunted and wind-blown, yet expressive of a brave tenacity, echoing the grandeur of the greater tree. Or his tree may be a splendid oak, a banyan or a Nordic pine, seen by all for miles around, lending shade and sustenance to all who pass. But his tree will also be his cross, his link between heaven and earth, upon which his soul struggles and makes its journey from life to life. A man is crucified on that tree, like Odin upon Yggdrasill's boughs, until he gains the wisdom and harmony that will release him. For nine long nights Odin hung upon the World Tree. "I was", he said, "an offering to Odin, myself to myself." What he learnt upon that 'cross' he never fully divulged. To the world he said, "No one has ever known or will ever know the roots of that ancient tree." But as man weaves his own tree from the roots of his inner being, so is he capable of understanding the pattern and following its effects back to their sources – thread after woven thread – until he grasps the nature of causation and begins to see its operation within the cosmic scheme.
Tracing causation back within the living sap of his life, man eventually crosses the Bifrost bridge and comes to the well of Urd. There before him the Norns sit, one old, one facing him and one shrouded in mystery, and he sees in the eyes of the present what the past and the future hold. The opened, the unfolding and the yet unfolded appear to him, cause in effect and effect in cause. And Verdandi smiles, knowing what he knows, knowing that he can now consciously act in harmonious rhythm with the Cause of All. Even Skuld raises her veil in recognition, welcoming him as a servant of orlog and a tender of the tree. "You know that death is inevitable," she says, "the gods and Yggdrasill itself will some day pass away." "Yes, I know," he answers, "I know that it is all a wondrous dream. But I am a dreamer who has awakened with a vision of the whole so just and beneficent in its integral design that I can but rejoice and join you at your loom." "You are welcome, stranger," she replies, "for we will not need to hide the harrowing nature of our work from thee."