Wyrd: The Role of Fate
Wyrd brought you to this page.
If you can accept this, you have gone a long way in understanding the concept of active Fate known to the Anglo-Saxons as Wyrd.
Wyrd is an Old English noun, a feminine one, from the verb weorthan “to become”. It is related to the Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt, Old Norse urür. Wyrd is the ancestor of the more modern weird, which before it meant odd or unusual in the pejorative sense carried connotations of the supernatural, as in Shakespeare’s weird sisters, the trio of witches in MacBeth. The original Wyrd Sisters were of course, the three Norns, the Norse Goddesses of destiny.
Wyrd is Fate or Destiny, but not the “inexorable fate” of the ancient Greeks. “A happening, event, or occurrence”, found deeper in the Oxford English Dictionary listing is closer to the way our Anglo-Saxon and Norse forbears considered this term. In other words, Wyrd is not an end-point, but something continually happening around us at all times. One of the phrases used to describe this difficult term is “that which happens”.
A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, compiled by J.R. Clark Hall (University of Toronto Press, fourth ed, 1996) lists variously “fate, chance, fortune, destiny, the Fates, Providence, event, phenomenon, transaction, fact, condition” depending on the literary reference of the Old English work that mentions wyrd. Note “transaction” and “condition”, as they point to both the idea of active Fate and the environment in which life is played out.
Anglo-Saxon scholar Stephen Pollington describes it thus:
“…It is worth stressing that the modern notion of linear time was still something of a scientific abstraction among even the Christian Anglo-Saxons, whose attitudes to life and death seem to have been governed by the world-view of their heathen forbears. They believed that at a given time some men…were doomed to die – a reaction to the uncertainties of warfare and accidents not unlike that of many modern soldiers who have faith in the idea that “if it’s got your name on it, there’s nothing you can do…”
Tied in with this idea is the concept of wyrd ‘the course of events’ which is the underlying structure of time; it is this pattern which the Anglo-Saxons tried to read in the world about them… As the Beowulf poet observed:
Wyrd often saves an undoomed hero as long as his courage is good
The implication is that while a man’s courage holds out, he has a hope of winning through since wyrd ‘the way things happen’ will often work to help such a man, as long as he is not doomed; conversely if a man is doomed then not even his courage can help him stand against ‘the course of events’.”
The English Warrior from Earliest Times to 1066, pp166-167 Anglo-Saxon Books 1996
If time is not considered or experienced in a linear fashion but instead regarded as an interconnected series of events, each affecting the other, ‘that which happens’ or wyrd becomes not a destination but a sign post, or even a crossroads. Just as the traveller affects the outcome of his journey by the path he chooses, so do we play an active role in facing what wyrd metes out to us. Wyrd can be “worked”. What you do as an individual can bend or change wyrd.
Consider Time not as a swiftly flowing river, constantly rushing us further away from our births to our deaths, but instead as a lake or pool of infinite size. A handful of pebbles tossed unto the surface of a still pool creates simultaneous, rippling impressions on the water that spreading, touch each other and overlap. Each pebble is distinct from the other. They may be larger or smaller and create a splash of greater or lesser size, but the path of each creates an impression on the watery impression of every other pebble. These pebbles represent wyrd, but ours are the hands that cast them.
Even when a man was doomed by wyrd, there were always consolations, even if it was simply accepting an unpleasant fate with courage. The last line of the poem known as Resignation, a meditation on the Day of Judgment, sums this up well:
It is still the best thing, since a man may not himself avert his destiny, that he should therefore suffer it well.
(translated by S.A.J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, David Campbell Publishers, 1982)
This is from The Exeter Book, written c 950 to 1000 CE, and though strongly Christian in nature reflects the importance of Fate in human striving.
The analogy of a spider web is usefully employed in considering wyrd. Each section of the web is a discreet part of the whole, yet the tiniest ensnared insect will set the entire web vibrating. Whether the spider wins her dinner depends on how skillfully she has woven her web, how quickly she reacts, and the chances of the captured insect to struggle free. The web is wyrd, but what the actors do upon it will decide the outcome.
The World Wide Web is another interwoven network, and a well named one. It is truly a web of almost endlessly interconnecting nodules (of which this page is one) linked together by invisible strands of electronic connectivity. This page has existed, waiting for you. You arrived here to learn of Wyrd because of what you selected on your path to this knowledge.
Wyrd byð swyðost
Wyrd is strongest
Anglo Saxon Literature
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Anglo Saxon Literature
W Y R D
The word wyrd generally means fate in Anglo Saxon literature. It is one of the recurrent themes in many old English works. For example, wyrd is seen as the force that determines the result of events in Beowulf. In another story, “The Wanderer,” wyrd is mentioned several times. In the first few lines, the speaker states that “fully-fixed is his fate” (Norton 100). This shows that wyrd is unchangeable. Then, he goes on to say “Words of a weary heart may not withstand fate” (Norton 100). Here it seems that a person must be strong, brave, and show no emotion in order to be able to cope with wyrd. Later on, wyrd is proclaimed as “mighty” because not even earls are able to escape their deaths. Lastly, we see the power of wyrd: “The world beneath the skies is changed by the work of the fates” (Norton 102). This quote reflects the belief of Anglo-Saxons that wyrd is an invisible, powerful force that controls the outcome of a person’s life.
This final use of wyrd may also refer to the “Weird Sisters.” They are seen in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The Fates are also an important part of Greek culture. Usually they are depicted as three horrid old ladies who share one eye with which they see the future. They also are seen tending to so-called “threads of life.” Each time they cut a thread another soul goes to the underworld. This portrayal of the Fates can also be related to the “Measurer” in “Caedmon’s Hymn.” The “Measurer” seems to be the one who decides the destiny of a person, just as the Fates: “The Measurer’s might and his mind-plans” (Norton 24). Like witches, the Fates are sometimes shown surrounding a large pot, brewing spells.
Women were given the opportunity to pick their own husbands. The families acted merely as financial advisors. However, in many circumstances, women were married off to members of enemy tribes in order to bring peace. Hence, they were given the name peace-weavers. Women, depending upon social standing, were also educated and wise, sometimes acting as advocates and protectors of the people of the village. Over all, the women in Anglo Saxon were well respected and valued.
Scene Analysis: Beowulf Fights Grendel's Mother
In the Howe translation of Beowulf, the scene depicted on pg. 26-29 deals with the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.
How to Cite this Page
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Saxon Anglo Literature Weird Sisters Fates Shakespeare’s Play Norton Important Part Greek Culture Skies
After Grendel’s mother attacks the hall as revenge against her son’s death, Beowulf announces that he will go after the monster. He feels that his promise to rid King Hrothgar of his problems has not been fully fulfilled. Before going off to battle, he makes a statement similar to a modern will and testament. He worries not about what may happen to him ands asks that his loyal men be taken care of if he doesn’t make it back. Also, he asks that the sword, Hrunting, lent to him by Unferth, be returned to its owner upon his death. Finally, he asks that all his treasures be sent back to his homeland so that his king may know of the kindness and generosity bestowed upon him during his time there.
Then, Beowulf plunges into the mere to meet his next adversary in battle. Beowulf swims down deep for about a half-day’s time. When he is about to reach the lake floor, Grendel’s mother senses his advance. Then, Grendel's mother lungs for him in the water and tries to tear at his flesh through his mail shirt. However, her claws cannot seem to penetrate. She pulls him further down into the water. During the journey, many other savage sea monsters attack him.
Beowulf lands in a hall that is not touched by the water. Grendel’s mother tries to bite at him again but it doesn’t work. Beowulf whips out his sword and tries to strike Grendel's mother on the head. However, the blade that had been so victorious in battle failed him. He abandons the sword and tries to attack her with his bare hands. They battle furiously, throwing each other to the ground. It is at this point that Beowulf notices an unusual sword by the wall of the cave. It is heavy and greatly adorned. He gabs the “work of giants”, and with one swipe of the sword, he cuts Grendel’s mother in half.
Victorious he moves as if to start backed to the surface of the lake. But then he notices a light and follows it to Grendel’s body. Angrily, he raises Hrunting up and decapitates Grendel’s already lifeless body. Instantly, the metal of the sword melted, leaving only the hilt of precious gold and jewels.
Up above, some of the King’s men watch for him to return. Yet, at the sight of the bubbling lake of blood, they fear that the worst has happened and head back to the hall. Beowulf’s men remain, anxiously awaiting the return of their leader.
Beowulf then gathers up Hrunting, the sword hilt and Grendel’s head. And returns to the surface after a day of battle under water. His men rejoice at his safe return. They help Beowulf out of his armor. Four men stick Grendel’s head on a post and carry it between them. The sight disgusted and revolts the people of the hall.
The action of the scene reveals some of the personality traits of the characters. Beowulf, as the hero and protagonist of the play, seems to represent the quintessential warrior in this section of the poem. As a typical Anglo-Saxon warrior, Beowulf leaves all to fate and looks forward to his battle with Grendel’s mother. He shows his loyalty and camaraderie with his soldiers by asking Hrothgar’s assurance that they are taken care off in case of his death. His strength is clearly depicted in his battle scene with the monster. Beowulf’s ability to do thinks that ordinary men couldn’t (such as swim underwater for hours without air, carrying pounds of heavy weight while swimming upstream) shows that he is a superhero. He even dares to take on Grendel’s mother without weapons. With all of his great attributes, Beowulf comes out of this scene a hero and companion of good.
Also, Unferth is greatly characterized here, though indirectly. In previous scenes, Unferth is characterized as being a brother-slayer. In Anglo-Saxon society, there was nothing as abysmal as killing your own brother. Yet, he has a position of honor in Hrothgar’s court. He is also power-hungry and jealous of Beowulf’s claim to rid the people of the monsters. In this scene, the mention of Beowulf using Unferth’s sword shows his cowardice. Instead of being a warrior and fight for his people, he stands in the shadows and lets a foreigner (Beowulf) do the work for him.
Many of the quotations present in this passage are vital to the understanding of the poem, as well as Anglo-Saxon society in general. In his speech at the beginning of the section, Beowulf settles his affairs. As well, he asks that Hrothgar take care of his men, requesting that he “ be guardian of my young retainers, my companions, if battle should take me.”(Howe, pg.26) This quote is representative of the familial bond between the warriors of that time. Through the comitatus, the warriors pledged their allegiance to the king till the very end. They were with each other, by each other’s side, at all times, most especially in battle. Therefore, they knew each other and probably loved each other more than their own blood relatives. Also, this passage exemplifies how a warrior goes into battle. Anglo-Saxon warriors tended not to worry about their future because they believed it was out of their hands. This is exactly how Beowulf presents himself here.
Another key passage is during the battle underwater between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf. After Hrunting fails to pierce the monster, Beowulf drops the sword and tries again with his own hands. The scop or poet uses the explanation that “so ought a man do when he thinks to get long lasting praise in battle.”(Howe, pg.27) This passage expresses the desire for fame and immortality. To be remembered, warriors had to the extraordinary. Only those brave and courageous men would have their adventures chronicled by the oral historians, or the scops. In the verse, their deeds lived on for centuries.
Finally, Beowulf decapitation of dead Grendel is symbolic of the policy of wergild. Wergild was the agreement to pay retribution for any wrongdoing perpetrated against another clan. This scene may be Beowulf’s way of taking revenge against Grendel for not paying wergild. Also, this may have been Beowulf’s way of insuring that the monster was truly dead.
Religious Themes and Ideas
Beowulf may be a tale of adventure and camaraderie; however, it also has various religious ideas or beliefs that are intertwined in the story. Though written during a pagan time, there are several Christian references in the poem. For example, as Beowulf is being dragged under and attacked by Grendel’s mother, the narrator mentions that not only did his mail shirt protect him, but also “Holy God, who brought about victory in war.”(Howe, pg. 27) The monk who transcribed the manuscripts, however, may have included these references. It may have also been the wish of the scop at the time to try and convert his audience to Christianity. Also, the entire scene while Beowulf is underwater could be compared to the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as Jesus’ actions saved us from sin, Beowulf’s actions cleanse and save Hrothgar’s people from this terrible evil.
Important Anglo-Saxon Words
Here is a collection of some of the more important and widely known Anglo Saxon words-
The agreement between the king and his warriors which stipulates that, in return for shelter, food, and gifts, the warriors will protect the king in battle with their lives.
A rash promise or pledge to perform an act, usually made in the meadhall due to intoxication. Originally, this simply meant a pledge
. Blood vengeance
Belief that a family is honor bound to retaliate against another tribe that has offended or attacked a member of their clan.
The alternative to blood vengeance or the man price or payment to the opposing tribe as a peaceful way to end disputes.
The name for the warriors, which represented their elevated status over the common man.
Name of the tribe to which the hero Beowulf belonged.
The name given to women who are married off to the men from opposing tribes as way to bring about peace.
Alcoholic beverage that was staple during Anglo Saxon times. The mead-hall evolved around the drink and became the center of the community.
Name for the king, who gave gifts of gold rings and other treasures as prizes to deserving warriors.
The afterlife for the Anglo-Saxon people. In Valhalla, warriors battle all day and feast all night.
Word meaning secret; early form of writing used during the Anglo Saxon period. These symbols were usually inscribed on weapons and armor and included magical charms.
War banner given to a hero after a great victory or buried with a great king as a tribute into the Afterlife.
Anglo-Saxon Heathenism. 22 July 2003. 4 Feb. 2004. < http://www.englishheathenism.homestead.com/glossary~ns4.html >.
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