Oft him anhaga are gebideð,
metudes miltse, þeah þe he modcearig
geond lagulade longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sæ,
wadan wræclastas. Wyrd bið ful aræd!
Thus begins one of the saddest, most touching poems in the existent Anglo-Saxon Corpus:
Often the solitary one finds grace for himself
the mercy of the Lord, Although he, sorry-hearted,
must for a long time move by hand
along the waterways, along the ice cold sea,
tread the paths of exile. Fate is wholly inexorable!
The translation of Wyrd to fate, while perhaps appropriate in a poetic context, removes a level of subtlety that becomes an omission of great importance when discussing the concept of Wyrd (O.N. Urðr, O.S. Wurd, O.H.G. wurt) as it meant to the Elder Heathen. What I will address below is an attempt to systematically conceptualize these concepts in a digestible, easily understood process.
It is important to understand our own modern definitions first. When we, modern westerners, discuss the concept of fate or destiny, we are speaking of the future. A man's destiny is the ultimate expression of his life, the thing that he is moving towards, a predestined, an ultimately defined future event or situation that cannot be avoided. Fate is expressed similarly, as a thing that which is fore-ordained, inescapable, and that which occurs in the future.
But to our ancestors, the word Wyrd did not have the connotations of the future. To them, the future was fluid, shifting, unpredictable and unreliable. The popularity of soothsayers, prophets, and fortune tellers shows not that our ancestors believed that our future was set in stone, but in the rarity and importance of knowing what it held. This, like many things we have trouble understanding living in a modern society with modern conveniences funded and shored up by modern wealth, is a function of the extreme and truly soul crushing poverty our ancestors lived cheek to jowl with. Westerners really do not have a comparison to this kind of knife edge where a single wrong decision meant that you starve, or worse, your children starve. Our ancestors looked for every single advantage, every single piece of technology or magic that would give them an advantage over the vagaries of fate.
Wyrd comes from the Proto-Indo-European word *wert- meaning to turn, to become. It is everything that has happened. This is important. Wyrd is reality itself, the layering of action and reaction on top of each other, a pattern unfolding and becoming since the beginning. We speak of individual wyrd, family wyrd, but these are abstractions, the way the pattern matches this locus. Wyrd is the pattern itself, and it is whole, and yet incomplete. It is constantly becoming. Every moment, actions occur that get recorded into the pattern, that become part of Wyrd. Those actions spark reactions, which in turn cause reactions, and so on and so forth, forever and ever, the pattern continues.
The Pattern of Wyrd
Its important to note that the pattern of Wyrd only becomes apparent over time, and at great distance. For those within the pattern, there is no good way to discern where the pattern is turning, and how they — or we — might fit in it. Remember, Wyrd is every action in the universe, from the smallest theoretical particle to the movement of planetary bodies and beyond. Every action is laid in the well, every action generates a response, every action is a response.
Despite a natural inclination of the modern mind to view humanity as somehow divorced from the natural world, we are merely just highly adapted to it. Time and time again, we are confronted with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, solar events and other natural disasters, that have proven that there are forces that have no care for our well being and will do what they do no matter the consequences to us.
This applies in the fields of human endeavors, as well. Every human being on this planet has needs and desires that they seek to satisfy. Those needs and desires lead human beings to take actions. Actions that have reactions; those reactions may or may not be beneficial. Sometimes, those needs or desires will lead a person into conflict with another person who needs or desires the same thing. The world is finite; our desires, infinite. These conflicts will cause further reactions down the road. Sometimes, things will resolve peacefully, and sometimes, not.
But the point of this is that each thing in the universe is acting according to its nature, either at the direction of a will, or through the natural reactions of physics or biology. And those actions and reactions will cause more actions and reactions, adding to the pattern that is Wyrd.
Potential and Reality
Only that which has come to pass is real. Wyrd is reality, it was action, it caused a reaction. The present moment, each moment, is the moment of reality asserting itself. But the future is only probabilities and unreliable. Each moment is at the mercy of all those things influencing each other, and it feels that almost anything can happen until it does happen, and then it was impossible for it to be any other way. This is the absolute bedrock foundation upon which everything else is built. It is fundamental to understanding Heathen world view. Our fate is not determined by the future, but by the actions of the past, which inform the present, which lead us to the next moment.
Humanity has the gift of will, the ability to make choices and decide to do things. This ability to choose gives us the ability to make deliberate changes to the pattern, to form a pattern, our pattern, within the greater pattern of our tribe, our nation, and our world. It is only when we chose, that the pattern becomes fixed, that we have made, through our will, an impact on it. Once chosen, that moment can never be reclaimed, it can never be taken back. We may be faced with the pattern of choices, such as what to eat for breakfast, or how to navigate to work, or whether or not to get out of bed in the morning, but they will never be the same choice again.
If choosing is, ultimately, a gift from the gods, we only have so many choices in this world. We will, as all things must, one day die. When we are born, we are filled with so much potential, almost none of it real. As we age, we realize that potential to greater, or lesser extents. There is a point when we reach our maximum amount of potential, but it is not he same thing as realizing that potential. There is a point, usually when we are quite young, when the breadth of choices available to us is greater than it will ever be in our lives. As we age, and choose, the potential becomes used up. By the time we are old, we are no longer able to do things like we used to, we can no longer choose as a young person might. But we still have choices.
Eventually, those choices are used up, and every human being is left with a single choice: how they choose to accept the reality of their death. Do they do it with dignity, or do they not? This is ultimately, the common thread through all human life, and connects us, each and every one, to our ancestors going back to the beginning. The philosophy behind our religion is fundamentally about how you choose to deal with the situation in front of you, because that situation is training you for the one moment that is almost a human universal — that moment of accepting your own mortality.
The Wyrd Universe
To understand these concepts requires us to shed a lot of complacency inculcated into us by modernity. We must begin to understand that our ancestors were not simpletons, but capable of incredibly deep understanding and observation of the universe. They may not have had the same information we do, but their understanding of how the universe worked was far more in tune with reality than we might, in our own hubris, believe.
The second thing to understand that Wyrd is not religion, it is philosophy. It is a way of understanding the nature and, for lack of a better word, purpose to the universe. Just because someone isn't Heathen doesn't mean that Wyrd doesn't apply to them. All people, all things, all animals and plants and planets and stars are all part of the pattern of Wyrd. Wyrd is a semiotic concept, a symbol with particular meaning, that we as Heathens employ to understand the world in a fundamentally unique and valuable way.
Everything rests on this understanding of the universe and how it works. As we will see in future essays, everything is built on the understanding that only actions are real, and that they have consequences. When our poet, in the introduction, laments his fate, it is not the future he laments, nor the past, but the present. The moment to which his past led him. The tragedy of the poem is not that the Wanderer was wretched, it was that he saw no other way to be, and could not accept the vagaries of wyrd that led him to his current condition, and he felt there was no way to escape it.