“Nornor and Dísir”
by Folke Ström
From Nordisk Hedendom: Tro och Sed i Förkristen Tid Akademiförlaget, by Folke Ström, Göteborg 1993, p.201-203. (Norse Heathendom: Faith and Customs in Pre-christian Time" translated and sent to us from Sweden by Johannes Persson and reprinted with his kind permission. Tack så mycket!
When it comes to the individual, the thought that his fate is shaped in his moment of birth appears. At this crucial moment his family’s female protective spirits, the dísir, take action. One of the dísir’s function -and not the least important one- was to assist the woman in labor and help her to deliver her offspring. This particular function has given the dísir a peculiar and important position as agents of destiny. In their function of agents of destiny the dísir have received a special name: nornor. The nornor measured the life of a man and plotted his path of life at the moment of his birth. In the Norse literature the nornor are connected to the neutral concept of destiny, skop, which means that they were conceived as the active participant behind the executive one, the fate, of man. It is said that "Nobody escapes the prophecy of the nornor" (norna skop). The conception of the nornor’s fate-settling actions is realized in one of the poems of The Poetic Edda: Helga Hundingsbane. In a visionary stream of images the poem exposes the birth of the prince and the actions of the dísir, unseen by the human eye.
"It was night in the house
nornor came who settled the prince's age
they named the prince the most famous to be
and most prominent among princes."
The prophecy is followed by a symbolic deed. With divine power the nornor twine the threads of destiny. They fasten them to the midst of the heavens and throw them out in different directions: the land of the conqueror-to-be is measured out in advance. Here we find the nornor in a heroic-royal context, which adds mighty dimensions to the story. But the picture of twining or spinning nornor is firmly linked with the conception of their activities. And the belief in their interfering with the birth of a child has in some areas lived on in folk tradition into modern time. We find a remnant of this belief in Setesdal, Norway, in nornegrauten. (I think it means "porridge for the nornor"/Johannes) It was prepared at the birth of a child and has been thought to be an original sacrifice to the nornor.
The nornor's allotted destiny is for better and for worse. As life is in general, it is psychologically understandable that the dark aspect of the nornors activities dominates the view on them. We seldom meet them as providers of happiness and success.
"The nornor decide both good and evil, for me they have decided immense suffering" reads a runic inscription at Borgund's church in Sogn, The expression "the judgment of the nornor" becomes equal to an unfair destiny, misery and death.
In Hamdesmàl we read "He who has been called upon by the nornor sees not the night ".
Oftentimes the nornor are named as evil, cruel, fiendish and vile. The original meaning of the word "norna" is a matter of great dispute. In their fate-settling context it has been connected to the Swedish dialect word "norna" (nyrna), a verb that means "inform secretly". Another etymology ties the word to an Indo-European root "ner" which means "twist" or "twine". Behind this meaning of the word the conception about the thread of destiny, which the nornor twist and twine. In the cosmic visions in Voluspà the nornor appears as universal powers. Their abode is next to the spring at the foot of Yggdrasil. There are three of them, and their names are Urd, Skuld and Verdandi. Their power is great: they decide the destiny of all humans and the laws of cosmos.
Laws they gave,
Lives they chose
for the children of men,
the destiny of men.
Their fate-settling activities they practice according to the poem by cutting marks on staves and thus estimates the days and years of men. With this motif the poet depicts a variant of the fate-settling nornor presumably made up by him himself.
The poets of Voluspà treat their material in an independent manner. The name Verdandi has no support in the mythical tradition, Skuld is in another context the name of a valkyrie. Of those mentioned in the poem it is only Urd who stands out as a genuine power of destiny. As such she is of particular interest. It is characteristic for the shifts in the belief in destiny that Urd not only was perceived as a personal entity of destiny, but also as the consequence of destiny, as the dark destiny and its result: death.
Which of the meanings are more original is hard to say. Possible is that two different lines of thought has met and merged in the character of Urd. The word Urdhris etymologically related to the temporal verb varda(icl. verdha). However, in certain other Indo-European traditions time is thought of as the fate-settling principle, as the power of fate. The conclusion lies not far ahead, that similar tendencies in thought has been known among the Nordic peoples. When pushing down to the root of the word complex we are dealing with here, we come upon a basic meaning of "twisting" or "turning". At this final point another, in other places existent conception of fate as a wheel, for example the wheel of a distaff, with the rotation of which the course of existence is linked.
Diser (dísir) is the name of a collective of female deities without known individual names. The dísir were worshipped extensively, and the character of this worship gives an ancient impression. They stood close to Freyja- also known as Vanadis- close and in every matter connected to fertility.
The word diser is linguistically related to the name of ancient India's name for female goddesses of fertility, dhísanas. In the sacred kingdom of Uppsala the cult of the dísir was firmly rooted. It was part of the official cult. The cult seems to have been strong in Oesterrgoetland where the place-names Disebergand Disevid (from an older form Disavi) are manifest memories of that time. In Norway the dis-names are concentrated to the south-eastern part with Disin as the most common compound.
About the cult of the dísir in the heart of the ancient kingdom of Svea (An older name for the land of the Svear, as opposed to the Goetar. The distinction is kept until this day, when we speak of Svealand and Goetaland as different parts of Sweden.
As a name for the well-known market/fair it reminds us not only of juridical proceedings but also of trade as complements to the great cult holidays, when people gathered from all directions and provinces.
Even in modern times they have remained, if a bit faded, a remnant of something that in the beginning was a complex cultural activity, with religious, juridical, mercantile and even political significance. (the following sentence is a very accurate translation, as it really does not make sense in Swedish. I can make it, though, and will./Johannes) "The relationship exemplifies the great significance of the dísir-cult in Sweden." (Sic! Does not make sense, does it?) This (the disting as a cultural and religious event) indicates the great significance of the dísir-cult in Sweden.
In any case it was part of the Swede's central cult, because of the naming of both "ting" and fair. In concordance with the official character of the Swedish dís-cult were it's practice under direct supervision of the king. One specific detail of the ritual has been kept in one in Ynglingasagan mentioned tradition about a Swedish king named Adils. He is said to have died after having fallen off his horse, when he rode it around "disarsalen" (the dísar-hall).
In Ynglingatal as in Historia Norwegiae is mentioned not a multitude of deities but on a single one, in the latter named Diana. (In spite of the fact that disarsalameans "the hall of the dis", i.e. in singular.)
Several things point to the fact that it is Freyja who is referred to here, that she was seen as the dis-leader and that she were particularly close to the king.
In the texts that are preserved we can furthermore assume that a ritual ride was part of the cult. The assumption is supported by several hints on relationships between the dísir and the horses. The expression "horse-dísir" appears in Ynglingatal. Dísir mostly appear on horseback.
Hence the ritual ride gets a meaningful symbolical meaning. The Swedish dísablot took place in the spring, more correctly around the vernal equinox. The exact date was settled by the position of the moon. After the advent of Christianity the fair from its former religious context at the heathen blot.
The fair was subsequently relocated to the Christian Candlemass holiday. As a pious surrogate for the heathen tainted disting we find an early medieval kyndelting (kyndilthing). But this Christian renaming never gained any foothold. Soon the original meaning of the word dísir and dísablot was forgotten and the ancient dísting was taken up. Even the old luna connection was maintained, and <"distingstunglet"> was for a long time the name for the full moon of the dísting.
The West-nordic dísablot differs on a couple of points from the East-nordic. It was not celebrated in the spring but in the autumn, at the "winter nights" in the middle of October. Further the dísir cult- at least in western Norway and on Iceland- seems to have been kept inside the clan/family. Public worship of the dísir seems to have been limited to the south-eastern parts of the country.
In a certain way the dísir seems to have been perceived as the protective agent of the family and in this function to have been especially close to head of the family. Their activities are strikingly often tied to actions of war, one part of their being that apparently is of ancient origin.
The contents of the Indo-European war-chant, that is called the first Merseburgsgaldr, is really an incantation of the dísir, (I am not really sure what word to use- spell, curse, incantation, formula etc/Johannes) here called idisito interfere in the battle in favor of the one who sang it. Icelandic sagas and poems express the same thought: the glorious and victorious outcome of the battle depended on the dísir. But the ídir were also believed to be able to let their wards down. A sudden defeat was believed to be the result of the dísir's betrayal.
Another similar way of interpretating the unpredictable shiftings in life is characteristic of the religious attitude. The dísir made their discontent visible through a specific foreboding, that meant an infallible omen about the forthcoming defeat. He who stumbled on his way to battle was sure to have been doomed by the dísir. This is what the Eddaic poems say in Reginsmal:
It is very dangerous
If you stumble with your foot
when you into battle walk
deceitful dísir on both sides stand
and want to see you wounded.
The sagas tell of several cases of similar ominous stumbling, caused by deceitful or angry dísir. In soldiers' superstition of later periods the thought has lived on as a more general conception about the ominous foreboding and stumbling, when going to war.
In their roles of battle-directing entities the dísir where close to the war-god. They were Odhin's warrior-maidens, Herjans dísir, and were then called valkyrjor, "they who make the choice" (not very accurate/Johannes).
The valkyries represent the heroical-mythical shape of the dísir. They are portrayed as spear-wielding, helmet-wearing, mounted maidens of war, who on Odhin's command interfere with the bloody battles of the princes and call the chosen ones to Valhalla.
Odhin sends them out, Snorri says, to every battle. They choose which of the men who shall die, and they control victory. The Vala of Voluspà pictures them in her vision:
She saw valkyries
come from far
ready to ride to the god-people.
Skuld held her shield,
Skoegul the other,
Gunn, Hild, Goendul
Now are Herjans
to ride the earth.
The names of the valkyries give evidence of their war-like nature. Gunn, Hild, Goendul, Sloegul are simply variations of the expression for battle or the sound of battle; other Valkyrie-names have a similar meaning.
As a more peculiar variant of the same war-like ideology the name Haerfjaetter (Herfjoyur) points to the magical anathema that she (Haerfjaetter) could lay upon the one she had chosen to be defeated. The anathema were thought of as magical links, which made the warrior powerless and restricted his movement.
Sometimes we find the clan's dísir under the name of fylgjor. This identification with the dísir should not be seen as original. In the beginning the conception of fylgian is related to the belief in the soul, where it is manifested in the belief that the human being or certain human beings have a double in the shape of an animal. Fylgia means "follower" in its original connotation (a nomen agentis to the verb fylgia). (Another alternative interpretation, is the deduction from fylgia in the meaning "afterbirth" i.e. that which comes after the child at childbirth, to which a lot of superstition/folklore has been connected.)
The fylgior have in contrast to the dísir never been the objects of worship. But as time went by the both concepts have attracted each other and partly blended with each other. As a result of this assimilation we meet in the fylgia in the shape of a female deity of protection, also known as fylgjukona. The female fylgia appears closely connected to one of the clan's males, its leader in particular, and is "inherited" on his death to his successor.
The story of the poet Hallfred Ottarson shed light on this concept: when he felt the hour of his death draw near during a sea voyage, his fylgjukona showed herself. She was visible to all, high of stature and clad in armor. She walked upon the waves behind the ship, as if walking on dry land. Hallfred then ended their relationship, and she asked his brother Thorvald if he would accept her, and he refused. Hallfred's son, Hallfred the young, declared himself willing to accept her, and then she disappeared.
© Marklander 1997