One of the biggest problems we face when trying to understand our ancestors is that of perspective. We, no matter how much we study the past, are ourselves products of our time and as such we see things through the eyes of our age. Through the study of our forebears we can get glimpses into how they saw the world around them. Here, I will using myth, words and historic events try to present a glimpse of our ancestors view on time and fate.
As I have discussed Yggdrasil appears in at least one view to represent the present and the wells from which it draws nourishment the past. together they create a constant birth (Yggdrasil) from previous events (the wells). Simply, Yggdrasil represents the present, all that is, where as the wells the past, all that has come to pass. Yggdrasils mighty roots draw up the past and creates the present.
Into the well of Hvergelmir fall dew drops from the antlers of Eikþyrnir (A stag) as he chews upon the branches of a tree that stands above Valhalla called Læraðr. There is much debate over whether or not this tree is Yggdrasil, but even if Læraðr is a separate tree we still have a template we can use. Atop of Yggdrasil we also find four stags by the names of Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, which like Eikþyrnir eat the new shoots. Although it is not attested that from their antlers fall dew drops, it is without doubt a possibility. Especially given as one of them is called Dáinn, which literally means “death” so could be seen to symbolise the death of the present, thus it becomes the past and falls down below back into the well.
Even without that explanation for how the dew is produced, we know that dew falls from Yggdrasil. In the Völuspá it mentions that from Yggdrasil falls dew drops making the land below forever green. The dew drops falling represent that, that has just come to pass. With the well of Urd said to be directly under Yggdrasil, this dew would eventually fall back into it, thus eventually being drawn back up by Yggdrasils roots. All of this gives a cyclical nature to life, past affects the present and the present adds to the past. You could also imagine this rather symbolically as a Serpent eating its own tail……
This concept is mirrored in the Germanic languages, whilst we have words for past and present tense we lack words for future tense. for example, we have phrases like, I’m sleeping or I slept, but we do not have a word describing us sleeping in the future. To do this we have to add a verb, so we say “I will sleep”, where as in French they can simply say je Domerrai. It is interesting also to note that the verb we use is “will”, by our will, we will it. So even when we speak of future events we emphasise the need for action, it is not some certain event we have no control over.
Before we go on I would like to go off on a small tangent, the past tense of will is would and I cannot help but see well and wood, albeit their roles reversed. I guess though from the perspective of the well the wood (tree) is its past, such is the nature of cyclical concepts.
We have all this talk of past and present , but where’s the future? well being cyclical there kind of isn’t one, but you may say “what of the Norns, they weave the future?” This is a fair question and one that must be addressed. The Norns appear in mythology as an inbetween, they reside between the well of Urd and Yggdrasil, to me their role seems more that of a conduit, creating the fate that must be faced, based of off all that has gone before. They do though appear in mythology at the birth of children especially those of importance and hand out both blessings and curses. We could see this in many ways, such as the Norns reading the swirls of the well, see within them the most likely future and appear at births to almost give advanced warning of what must be faced. Or as they are practitioners of Seiðr are actively trying to create a future, by helping or hindering certain characters in order to get the future they feel is fit. It is even possible that this aspect of Norse mythology is a later addition, given that by the time these stories were written down the northern folk had been in direct contact and under heavy influence from Latin languages and southern European mythology, both with strong notions of fate. So by the time the mythology was recorded this idea of the future had already altered our forebears perceptions.
We have looked at both mythological and linguistic sources, but is there any evidence of this cyclical world view in historic events? For me we need look no further than the great Cimbri and Teutones and their adventures in Roman territory. There are many accounts of their daring in these southern lands, all written of course from the side of the ultimate victor, Rome. In the written accounts it is clear that these northern folk had no fear of fate, they time and again meet fate head on where they stood in the present. Whenever confronted by a Roman army they do not beg or plead, nor do they postpone, they embrace the moment as it appears before them. Even in the Final battle of the Cimbri when they are exhausted, possibly a little worse for wear for drinking and in an unfamiliar climate, it is they that ask the Gaius Marius when and where. It is almost as if they saw their meeting with the Roman army as a fate that must be faced and as such, knew they could not hide from it, but had to face it where it appeared, no matter their disadvantage. again though this idea of fate is one in the present tense, it is as it is, not as it will be. Fate simply becomes the crossing of paths, determined by past action, the outcome, well that is down to present action. The very fact the Cimbri nor the Teutones seem to care for seeking a more advantageous position, gives the impression that they didn’t even conceive one.
You may be thinking that this is rather short sighted and with a multitude of ifs and buts they could of beaten Rome. If this is true or not we will never know, but hiding in this story for me is something far more profound. The Cimbri allowed fate to unfold, but never yielded their position to determine how it ended. They lived their life as they should at all times, never worrying on the future, only their action in the now. just as the old saying “if you look after the penny’s the pounds will take care of themselves” the Cimbri believed, if you act in the present as you know you should the future will take care of itself. Essentially Your actions determine the future you deserve.
It occurs to me that this way of thinking is as close to natural as is possible. How many times in our lives today have we kept quite, when inside we knew we should speak? how many times have we ducked our head and moved on, when we knew we should of acted? All the time allowing our future, our part in creating it slip through our fingers? Whenever we turn away from a problem, we give away a part of our future and allow others to create it for us. We allow what should not be, to be, because we concern ourselves with future outcomes and not present action. It seems to me our ancestors lead a truly genuine life by not worrying on the future they in each moment boldly acted as they knew they should, be this for better or worse, their destiny was truly theirs, it resided in their hands.