The question of whether or not humans are free agents or only actors in a play whose script has been written in advance is an important one. If we have free will, then our deeds make a difference and our lives thereby acquire a degree of meaning. On the other hand, if we are only pawns in the hands of fate our personal significance is negligible. The question of free will then echoes into other areas, such as morality (Are we responsible for our actions?) and politics (What is the point of political liberties and human rights, if we are all puppets anyway?)
To understand how the traditional wisdom of Europe answers these questions, we must learn something about the mythology that encoded the thought processes of our ancestors.
All of the Germanic cosmos can be summed up in two features: the Well and the Tree. They, and the relationship between them, express the concepts of time, space, causality, and fate, as well as the ethical values, of the ancient European tribes. Our evidence comes mainly from the Norse culture of Scandinavia. However, the Germanic tribes scattered across northwestern Europe seem to have shared a similar system of belief.
The tree is the World Tree of Nordic mythology. It is named Yggdrasil.
Although some translations describe it as an ash, there is no doubt that Yggdrasil was thought of as a yew tree in the old lore. The yew has mythic associations with life because it remains green through the winter, and because it lives a very long time. However, death is no stranger to the yew; its needles give off a poisonous gas. For many centuries people have planted the yew in cemeteries to look over the dead. Its exceptionally strong wood calls to mind spiritual strength and the power of the will and there are echoes of a tradition of immortality associated with the yew. In many ways, the yew incorporates and combines the polarities of life and death. It is the holiest and most magical tree in the Germanic mythic consciousness.
Yggdrasil is both the framework and the content of the manifested, multidimensional universe. In its branches nestle all the worlds of Gods, giants, dwarves, and elves. Our own world, Midgard (“the enclosure in the middle”) is also in the tree — not just Earth, but all the spinning galaxies in the immensity of space.
On the very tip of this immense World Tree perches a wise eagle who knows many things; between his eyes sits a hawk named Vethrfjolnir. The squirrel Ratatosk runs up and down the trunk, carrying insults between the eagle and Nidhogg, the serpent which gnaws at Yggdrasil’s roots. Four harts nibble at the brances of the great tree.
Yggdrasil has three roots. One is found in the home of the Gods, and another looks out into the land of the Rime-Giants. The third root extends into the misty world of Niflheim, where the roiling well Hvergelmir gives birth to a multitude of thundering rivers with names like “Storming,” “Loud-boiling,” and “Fearsome.”
Just as there are three roots, so are there three wells. Besides the aforementioned Hvergelmir there is the Well of Mimir, from whose wisdom-giving waters Odin drank after surrendering one of his eyes for the privilege. The other is the Well of Urd, which figures very largely in the account that follows.
Though three wells are described in the lore, such reiteration is common in myths and we can treat their separate descriptions as nothing more than three aspects, three re-tellings from different perspectives, of a single archetypal Well. Let us refer to it, then, as Urd’s Well.
Urd is one of three mysterious entities, depicted in the lore as females, called the Norns. Her sisters are Verdandi and Skuld, and together they encompass the Norse ideas of time. Urd’s name translates literally as “that which has become,” or what we would call the past. Verdandi is “that which is becoming,” or our present. Skuld means, not the future (There is no such concept, technically, in the Germanic languages) but rather “that which should be.” They are roughly equivalent to the three Fates of Classical mythology, though there are important differences that will become clearer as our story unfolds.
From the meaning of Urd’s name, we can see that her Well is the repository of all past actions. Into it go the deeds of Gods, humans, and the other beings living in the nine worlds scattered throughout the branches of Yggdrasil. These deeds are represented, in the mythology, by the dew falling from the branches of the tree into the water of the well. Good or bad, great or tiny, these acts are put into the well where they form layers. However, they do not simply lie there, static and forgotten: They roil and weave, connecting people and things together in complex ways that defy human comprehension. These layers of past events continue to affect each other – and more importantly for the purpose of our discussion, they interact with the ever-changing moment we call the present and influence, but do not determine, its shape.
Happenings in the present can be inferred from the contents of the well, but the action of the individual as he or she faces the situation must also be figured into the equation. Can a man or woman overcome adverse circumstances by heroic will? Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on the magnitude of the past events. One’s ability to shape the outcome is a function of skill, wisdom, and prowess on many levels, ranging from physical strength to the intangible power one acquires through spiritual growth. Sometimes the person’s overall might is great enough to prevail, but other times the momentum of events in the well is too great, and the individual is overwhelmed.
In other words, the final outcome depends on cause and effect, both as manifested in Urd’s Well (from the past) and in the power of the person or group on whom these influences are acting (in the present). There is no moral judgment or divine fiat involved – just the working out of a multitude of interwoven events both great and small.
It is sometimes said that the Germanic peoples, and particularly the Norsemen, were “fatalistic.” As we can see from the above paragraphs, this is not true. The idea of events being predetermined, with humans relegated to the role of actors in a script written in advance, is alien to the indigenous European mind. No God, no outside force, no inherent structure of the cosmos forbids free will or sets limits on human activity. However, as we have seen, that does not mean we are free to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Although we are free from divine coercion, we are not free from cause and effect. The man whose leg is trapped by a fallen rock is not free to walk away – not because God or the Norns are forbidding it, but because of impersonal events.
Philosophically, this means that to an extent limited only by our power, we are free to “make our own fate.”
It is this freedom that makes heroism possible. In any contest we are expected to exert all our strength, talent and will to gain victory. The difficulty of the challenge becomes a chance to prove our own worthiness. If we triumph, the experience makes us stronger. We grow in spiritual power and in reputation.
And if we do not win, but are instead defeated? This, not victory, is the true test of the hero. We may not be able to control circumstances, but we can control the way in which we react to defeat. An enemy can take away victory and even, in the extreme, take away our lives, but the hero does not allow the foe to take away his or her poise, calm, and dignity.
The native Way of the Germanic People insists we assume the burdens and rewards of free will. We are not puppets or pawns, but free men and women acting in the complex arena of the present under the influence of many forces with roots in the past. We fight life’s battles, and in the process grow in physical, mental, and spiritual might. For those who have mastered themselves and their reaction to events, life gives opportunities for shining heroism.
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