Wyrd & Orlog
Wyrd is an Old English word that derives from the verb weorthan, meaning “to become”. It is related to the Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt and the Old Norse urür. It is the ancestor of the modern word ‘weird’ which originally implied something supernatural rather than just strange or odd.
Wyrd roughly equates to the concept of fate and of karma. It was central to our ancestor’s view of the world. Indeed, that world view could be described as being ‘fatalistic’, meaning that everything that was going to happen was predetermined, that there was nothing you can do about it and so you should just accept it. Taken literally, this idea can be quite negative because it encourages us to accept things that are not good and discourages us to seek improvements or to better ourselves.
However, as we shall see, in the Germanic religion our fate was not necessarily an absolutely definite outcome as it was seen in say ancient Greece. It was more a case of what ‘should’ happen given what has gone before. It was possible to change our fate through the sheer force of our will or through magic. Saxon Christianity sought to reduce the influence of fate further by making it subservient to the power of Christ.
Orlog, or Urlag, is a similar word found in Low German and Icelandic languages. It has much the same meaning as Wyrd and is etymologically linked to it. However, the EFC uses the term to imply primal or natural law rather than any outcome of fate. In particular, we see this natural law as being an important of God’s underlying nature.
The word ‘Orlog’ is derived from ‘Ur’ which is a Germanic prefix indicating a primitive or primal state. This principle is embodied in the ‘Ur’ Rune which uses the symbolism of an aurochs, or primitive ancestor of the wild ox. ‘Log’, or ‘lag’ in other Germanic languages, means law - or a set of governing rules. These laws are created by layers of events and outcomes, rather like our ‘Common Law’ is created by layers of precedent. Putting these two terms together, we can therefore see that ‘Orlog’ refers to the underlying primal law that exists within and through all creation. Everything is subject to this law and everything which happens must happen within the ‘rules’ set out by Orlog.
The English Folk Church sees Orlog as the underlying nature of God. It is the governing principle, or law, that permeates the entirety of creation. The interaction between the created world and the primal law of Orlog is expressed mythologically as the Web of Wyrd. The word derives from the Old English word ‘Weorðan’ (Weorðan), meaning ‘to become’. This is itself derived from an old ‘Indo European’ root ‘Uert’ which means to turn or to spin. In the ‘Rhyming Poem’, we read, ‘Me þæt wyrd gewæf’, meaning ‘Wyrd wove this for me'. Wyrd can therefore be seen as a sort of spinning out of Orlog; the weaving of a particular destiny from the primal law.
Wyrd is in effect the product and the expression of the unfolding nature of creation as it relates to Orlog. Positive synergy with Orlog helps the evolution of creation towards wholeness in the Godhead. Negative synergy with Orlog results in the opposite. Wyrd permeates through all aspects of creation, including within ourselves. As such, our thoughts and actions reverberate throughout the web and contribute to the unfolding evolution of creation. Consequentially, the Web of Wyrd influences our own lives, individually and as communities.
In Old Saxon, the first letter ‘W’ literally becomes a ‘double u’ as ‘Uurd’. Again, we see the prefix ‘Ur’ and are reminded of ‘Urd’; one of the three Norns or Sisters of Wyrd. In the ancient mythology, Urd is queen of the ‘primal world’ our ancestors called Hel and she is sometimes known by this name. Within this realm, lies ‘Urd’s well; one of the three mystical sources that nourish the multiverse as depicted by the world tree or Irminsul. Urd’s well is not a static pond of water. It is a continually moving spring that contains the waters of life, the flow of time and the store of collective actions throughout the multiverse. One way of expressing the unfolding of Wyrd is to imagine throwing a stone into the still waters of Urd’s well and watching the ripples of water as they move outwards.
The Sisters of Wyrd
The three ‘sisters’ are Wyrd (Urd), Werthende (Verdandi) and Sculd (Skuld). In simplistic terms, they are said to represent the past, present and future rather like a Germanic version of the Romanesque three ‘Fates’. However, this is too simplistic and gives a misleading understanding of the Germanic notion of time. It is important to think of the three ‘sisters’ as mythological representations of a single force. The Germanic notion of time was not linear as it is now and was not made up of three distinct periods; past, present and future. Instead, it was seen as a constant state of ‘becoming’, a continual ‘unfolding’ of cycles with no clear beginning or end. Importantly, this cyclical concept of time means that each of the three ‘aspects’ are inter-related.
Germanic Christian Poetry and Fate
Anglo Saxon Christianity was strongly eschatological and deeply fatalistic. There was a belief that this earthly life was really just a flitting journey towards the next life. The ‘end’ could literally come at any time and each person’s individual fate and doom was inevitable and unavoidable. This view became stronger towards the end of the period, as the first millennium approached and the seemingly endless wars with the Northmen continued. Human life was seen as transitory compared to inevitable fate. The elegiac poems, such as ‘The Seafarer’, ‘The Wife’s Lament’, ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘The Ruin’ are resonant with these thoughts.
The Ruin, for instance, deals with the lost world of Roman Britain that the Anglo Saxons encountered and for the most part shunned. Great cities and towns lay in ruins, the people having fled and the urban fabric being in slow decline. The Anglo Saxon English lived more rural lives and were not able to construct cities in the way the Romans had. They looked in awe at these man made accomplishments, the work of ‘giants’ in their eyes. But they also saw the hand of fate, leading to the inevitable destruction of the workings of man. His efforts slowly flaking away whilst the people themselves were long in their graves. Fate always won in their eyes.
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, Wyrde gebræcon;
Burgstede burston, Brosnaþ enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, Hreorge torras
Well wrought this wall: Wyrd broke it.
The stronghold burst . . .
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen.
Fate, free will and individual responsibility were important concerns of Anglo Saxon Christianity. Fate itself tended to be portrayed as an impersonal and inevitable force to which human life could not challenge. All life ended with the apocalypse and the prospect of eternal life in the hereafter or eternal damnation. However, as with Anglo Saxon Paganism, Anglo Saxon Christianity held that a heroic person could at least accept their fate with great personal courage and honour. Perhaps the most famous Anglo Saxon poem that synthesises Heathen and Christian ideas is ‘The Dream of the Rood’. In this poem, the poet, or scop, describes his dream of a conversation with the wood of the Cross on which Christ was crucified. Christ is portrayed as a Germanic hero warrior, who faces his death unflinchingly and even eagerly. The Cross, speaking as if it were a member of Christ's band of retainers, accepts its fate as it watches its Creator die. It then explains that Christ's death was not a defeat but a victory. This poem has several things to say about ‘fate’. In lines 9 and 10, we read:
“beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle, fægere þurh forðgesceaft”.
This is often translated along the lines of ‘the angel of God, fair by his pre-ordained condition, gazed upon (the Cross)’. However, some writers, such as Michael Swanton, translate this as ‘all there beheld the Angel of God, fair through predestiny”. The suggestion is that it is the Cross that people are looking at and therefore the Cross which is being portrayed as an Angel or messenger of God. To take this a little further, the word ‘forðgesceaft’, in this sentence translated as ‘pre-ordained’, is used elsewhere in Old English to mean either ‘creation’ or ‘future destiny’. ‘Wyrda gesceaft’ means the ‘ordered course of events’. In other words, there is a clear allusion to both the role of Wyrd in the unfolding of events and in the early Germanic view of creation, an unfolding of events, forðgesceaft. This implies a view that the Cross is a part of the inevitable unfolding of time, creation and destiny. We shall see later that this concept is reflected in the Old Saxon poem, The Heliand.
There are other references to ‘fate’ in the Dream of the Rood. In line 50 we read:
“Feala ic on þam beorge gebiden hæbbe wraðra wyrda. Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian. Þystro hæfdon bewrigen mid wolcnum wealdendes hræw,
scirne sciman, sceadu forðeode, wann under wolcnum. Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll. Crist wæs on rode”.
“Much have I endured on that hill of cruel fates. I saw the God of hosts harshly stretched out. Darkness had wound round with clouds the corpse of the Wielder, bright radiance; a shadow went forth, dark under heaven. All creation wept, the King's fall lamented. Christ was on the Cross”.
There is a subtle link in this part of the poem between the ‘hill of cruel fates’ and the ‘weeping of creation’. The hill is the fate of both the cross and his master, Christ. It is an inevitable fate, one that Christ is aware of and to which he goes both willingly and eagerly. All creation weeps at this creation being an unfolding of events (forðgesceaft) as the Web of Wyrd is continually woven. Christ is the creator, his creation weeps at his fate, although that fate is ‘pre-ordained’ within the unfolding of time/creation through the weaving of the web.
One interesting aspect to the ‘Dream’ is contained in verse 25, “beheold hreowcearig, hælendes treow”. The Old English word clearly relates to our modern word, healer and is sometimes translated as such in the poem. Other translations though use the term ‘saviour’. This is a fascinating juxtaposition of Christian and Heathen terminology. It seems to clearly indicate that the early English Christians saw their ‘Saviour’ as the ‘healer’, the one who makes them whole. This appears to have strong allusions to the Heathen priest/magician/physician who would have been called a Druid in the British tradition. This resonates with the notion of Woden as healer and the nine herbs charm, which survived into Christian times. But it also resonates with a deeper meaning of seeing Christ as the one who shows us the path towards wholeness. Reference to Christ as the Healer also reflects his title in the much later Old Saxon poem, The Heliand (or The Healer), suggesting this was a pan Germanic concept.
In line 85 of ‘the Dream’, we read,
“Forþan ic þrymfæst nu
hlifige under heofenum, ond ic hælan mæg
æghwylcne anra, þara þe him bið egesa to me”.
“Therefore I, glorious now, rise under heaven, and I may heal
any of those who will revere me”.
This is a very interesting line, because it is suggesting that not only is the passion something of a shared experience between Christ and his loyal retainer, but that the Cross is also raised into heaven and is also seen as a ‘healer’.
Christianity teaches that God is omnipotent and omnipresent, whereas Heathenry accepts that even the Gods are subject to the workings of time and fate. In the Old Saxon poem Heliand, we see these two apparently irreconcilable notions being merged. From Chapter 2, we are told “this is the way the workings of fate made him (Christ), time formed him, and the power of God as well”. The poem is actually telling us that Christ is ‘made’ both through the workings of Wyrd, and through God. In otherwords, fate is given a clear role in the creation of Christ. This is a departure from orthodox Christian doctrine which teaches not only that God has always existed and was not ‘made’, but also that Christ is an inseparable part of the Godhead.
However, a degree of orthodoxy is re-established in several parts of the poem by portraying fate as the will of God rather than an impartial and independent force. Thus, Christ’s passion takes place in accordance with a pre-determined set of events which are established as a result of God’s will through the unfolding of time and fate.
In Chapter 32, we are told that Christ, “came out happily together with the people, he had no fear in his mind. He knew that not the slightest harm or injury could be done to him … before his time had come”. The Heliand author seems to be suggesting that nothing can happen to Christ before fate decrees it. This theme is taken up in Chapter 45, “These settlements around Jerusalem will become a wasteland of the Jewish people, because they do not recognise that their future has come to them (176). The phrase ‘tidi touuardes’ is used which suggests a more fate oriented description than in the New Testament where Jerusalem is described as being ‘unaware of her time’. The plural, times, ‘tidi’ is also used in Heliand where Christ replies to His Mother, ‘my times have not yet come’. Again, there is a link between fate and time.
In Chapter 49 (entitled ‘By decree of holy fate), Martha says, “I believe that you are the true Christ, God’s Son. It can be recognised clearly and known from your words that you, by decree of holy fate, have power over heaven and earth!” In this passage, the author has fallen back into pre-Christian Germanic religion. Martha is saying that Christ rules thanks to the power of fate. This has been interpreted to suggest that the Heliand author is really a pagan in his heart of hearts and still accepts the superiority of fate over Christ. The author also appears to have deliberately mixed the Christian word ‘holy’ (though it is a native word, possibly pre-Christian) with the pre-Christian notion of fate and he has used this phrase in place of “by the power of God”. Holy fate can be identified with the will of God.
This theme is reflected in Chapter 64: “Fate was coming closer then, the great power of God, and midday.” (Thiu uurd nahida thuo, mari math godes endi middi dag.) Fate is clearly identified with the will of God which, as in olden times, had specified when everything was to come to pass, even the time of the Crucifixion. The mention of time, midday, brings the ancient association of fate and time together, with their task of measuring the span of mortal life. The mention of midday adds a very sombre heathen tone to the verse, reminding the Germanic listener of one of the old words for the divine being: Metod, ‘the Measurer’. The Song continues, “He was woeful later, when he gave up this world, later on..” The word used in this sentence for ‘later’ is sidor, implying a combination of the Christian concept of eventual punishment with the Germanic notions of the inescapability of fate. It also alludes to the heroic tradition of the doomed hero.
The poem goes further and even suggests that opposing a pre-destined fate is tantamount to opposing the will of God. In Chapter 65, we read, “Satan then set off for the place where the military Governor’s family lived in the hill fort. The sinister enemy began showing mysterious signs very clearly to the governor’s wife so that she would use her words to help Christ… to remain alive (he was already predestined to die)”.
Another way the Church sought to reconcile fate and God was by portraying fate as dealing with death and God as dealing with life. This was intended for people to associate the new Christian ideas in a positive light and the old heathen notion of fate negatively. By keeping and adapting the notion of fate, the Church was able to portray the new religion as the light which overcomes the darkness and inevitability of fate. For instance, in Chapter 6, we read “that the mighty power of the measurer (Metod) separated them”. This is a reference to fate as the ultimate determiner of lifespan. The measurer here is referred to as a separate entity to the Christian God, perhaps to avoid too close an association between the very Germanic concept of what we might now call the Grim Reaper ( a reference to Woden) and the Christian God of life.
Chapter 52 has the title “The coming of Doomsday” – judgement day. “The final turn of the heavens and the earth will yet come”. This reference to ‘the end times’ uses the interesting word ‘giuunand’ for ‘end’, though the word is actually rooted in the concept of turning. This seems likely to be a reference to the Germanic concept of the ever turning cycle, an allusion to the Heathen concept of Ragnarok. The suggestion, though is that on the day of judgement, the final turn takes place. This could be another reference to the dominion of Christ over Wyrd. Through Christ, the ever turning cycle of birth, death and rebirth finally comes to an end with the promise of everlasting life.
Chapter 59 deals with the desertion of Christ’s disciples at the time he most needs them in the run up to his arrest. This lack of loyalty from Gesithas to their Lord would be unthinkable to the Germanic warrior class the poem is aimed at. The poet therefore needed find a reason for this apparent cowardice. He comes up with a clever reasoning that they did not run away because they were afraid, but because that was what was fated to happen.
The final verse, Chapter 71, finishes the Gospel story with a particularly Heathen slant. “He (Christ) is seated there on the right side of God, the all-mighty Father, and from there the ruling Christ observes everything that happens in the whole world.” The Gospels contain no reference to Christ gazing down from heaven and watching. This is rather a reference to Woden who looks down on the world from a throne and observes everything that goes on. In the Heliand, Christ has surpassed Woden. Not only has he overcome fate’s power over people, he has also overcome his own fated death. He is therefore being portrayed as worthy of taking Woden’s place.