The Norns (Old Norse: norn, plural: nornir) in Norse mythology are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. They roughly correspond to other controllers of humans' destiny, such as the Fates, elsewhere in European mythology.
In Snorri Sturluson's interpretation of the Völuspá, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld, the three most important of the Norns, come out from a hall standing at the Well of Urðr or Well of Fate. They draw water from the well and take sand that lies around it, which they pour over the Yggdrasill tree so that its branches will not rot. These three Norns are described as powerful maiden giantesses (Jotuns) whose arrival from Jötunheimr ended the golden age of the gods. They may be the same as the maidens of Mögþrasir who are described in Vafþrúðnismál (see below).
Beside these three famous Norns, there are many others who appear at a person's birth in order to determine his or her future. In the pre-Christian Norse societies, Norns were thought to have visited newborn children. There were both malevolent and benevolent Norns: the former caused all the malevolent and tragic events in the world while the latter were kind and protective goddesses.
The origin of the name norn is uncertain, it may derive from a word meaning "to twine" and which would refer to their twining the thread of fate. Bek-Pedersen suggests that the word norn has relation to the Swedish dialect word norna (nyrna), a verb that means "secretly communicate". This relates to the perception of norns as shadowy, background figures who only really ever reveal their fateful secrets to men as their fates come to pass.
The name Urðr (Old English Wyrd, Weird) means "fate". Wyrd and urðr are etymological cognates, which does not guarantee that wyrd and urðr share the same semantic quality of "fate" over time. Both Urðr and Verðandi are derived from the Old Norse verb verða, "to be". It is commonly asserted that while Urðr derives from the past tense ("that which became or happened"), Verðandi derives from the present tense of verða ("that which is happening"). Skuld is derived from the Old Norse verb skulu, "need/ought to be/shall be"; its meaning is "that which should become, or that needs to occur". Due to this, it has often been inferred that the three norns are in some way connected with the past, present and future respectively, but it has been disputed that their names really imply a temporal distinction and it has been emphasised that the words do not in themselves denote chronological periods in Old Norse.
Woman is also metaphorically called by the names of the Asynjur or the Valkyrs or Norns or women of supernatural kind.
These unclear distinctions among norns and other Germanic female deities are discussed in Bek-Pedersen's book Norns in Old Norse Mythology.
Mímer and Balder Consulting the Norns (1821-1822) by H. E. Freund.
There are a number of surviving Old Norse sources that relate to the norns. The most important sources are the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. The latter contains pagan poetry where the norns are frequently referred to, while the former contains, in addition to pagan poetry, retellings, descriptions and commentaries by the 12th and 13th century Icelandic chieftain and scholar Snorri Sturluson.
A skaldic reference to the norns appears in Hvini's poem in Ynglingatal 24 found in Ynglingasaga 47, where King Halfdan is put to rest by his men at Borró. This reference brings in the phrase "norna dómr" which means "judgment of the nornir". In most cases, when the norns pass judgment, it means death to those who have been judged - in this case, Halfdan. Along with being associated with being bringers of death, Bek-Pedersen suggests that this phrase brings in a quasi-legal aspect to the nature of the norns. This legal association is employed quite frequently within skaldic and eddic sources. This phrase can also be seen as a threat, as death is the final and inevitable decision that the norns can make with regard to human life.
The Poetic Edda is valuable in representing older material in poetry from which Snorri tapped information in the Prose Edda. Like Gylfaginning, the Poetic Edda mentions the existence of many lesser norns beside the three main norns. Moreover, it also agrees with Gylfaginning by telling that they were of several races and that the dwarven norns were the daughters of Dvalin. It also suggests that the three main norns were giantesses (female Jotuns).
Fáfnismál contains a discussion between the hero Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir who is dying from a mortal wound from Sigurd. The hero asks Fafnir of many things, among them the nature of the norns. Fafnir explains that they are many and from several races:
It appears from Völuspá and Vafþrúðnismál that the three main norns were not originally goddesses but giants (Jotuns), and that their arrival ended the early days of bliss for the gods, but that they come for the good of humankind.
Völuspá relates that three giants of huge might are reported to have arrived to the gods from Jotunheim:
Like Snorri Sturluson stated in Gylfaginning, people's fate depended on the benevolence or the malevolence of particular norns. In Reginsmál, the water dwelling dwarf Andvari blames his plight on an evil norn, presumably one of the daughters of Dvalin:
Norns in Die Helden Und Götter Des Nordens, Oder: Das Buch Der Sagen by Amalia Schoppe, (1832)
Brynhild's solution was to have Gunnarr and his brothers, the lords of the Burgundians, kill Sigurd and afterwards to commit suicide in order to join Sigurd in the afterlife. Her brother Atli (Attila the Hun) avenged her death by killing the lords of the Burgundians, but since he was married to their sister Guðrún, Atli would soon be killed by her. In Guðrúnarkviða II, the Norns actively enter the series of events by informing Atli in a dream that his wife would kill him. The description of the dream begins with this stanza:
After having killed both her husband Atli and their sons, Guðrún blames the Norns for her misfortunes, as in Guðrúnarhvöt, where Guðrún talks of trying to escaping the wrath of the norns by trying to kill herself:
Guðrúnarhvöt deals with how Guðrún incited her sons to avenge the cruel death of their sister Svanhild. In Hamðismál, her sons' expedition to the Gothic king Ermanaric to exact vengeance is fateful. Knowing that he is about to die at the hands of the Goths, her son Sörli talks of the cruelty of the norns:
A hall stands there, fair, under the ash by the well, and out of that hall come three maids, who are called thus: Urdr, Verdandi, Skuld; these maids determine the period of men's lives: we call them Norns; but there are many norns: those who come to each child that is born, to appoint his life; these are of the race of the gods, but the second are of the Elf-people, and the third are of the kindred of the dwarves, as it is said here:
Then said Gangleri: "If the Norns determine the weirds of men, then they apportion exceeding unevenly, seeing that some have a pleasant and luxurious life, but others have little worldly goods or fame; some have long life, others short." Hárr said: "Good norns and of honorable race appoint good life; but those men that suffer evil fortunes are governed by evil norns."
The three main norns take water out of the well of Urd and water Yggdrasil:
It is further said that these Norns who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which come there into the well become as white as the film which lies within the egg-shell,--as is here said:
I know an Ash standing
A high tree sprinkled
with snow-white clay;
Thence come the dews
in the dale that fall--
It stands ever green
above Urdr's Well.
That dew which falls from it onto the earth is called by men honey-dew, and thereon are bees nourished. Two fowls are fed in Urdr's Well: they are called Swans, and from those fowls has come the race of birds which is so called."
...and the youngest Norn, she who is called Skuld, ride ever to take the slain and decide fights...Faroese stamp by Anker Eli Petersen depicting the Norns (2003).
Snorri furthermore informs the reader that the youngest norn, Skuld, is in effect also a valkyrie, taking part in the selection of warriors from the slain:
These are called Valkyrs: them Odin sends to every battle; they determine men's feyness and award victory. Gudr and Róta and the youngest Norn, she who is called Skuld, ride ever to take the slain and decide fights.
Some of the legendary sagas also contain references to the norns. The Hervarar saga contains a poem named Hlöðskviða, where the Gothic king Angantýr defeats a Hunnish invasion led by his Hunnish half-brother Hlöðr. Knowing that his sister, the shieldmaidenHervör, is one of the casualties, Angantýr looks at his dead brother and laments the cruelty of the norns:
In younger legendary sagas, such as Norna-Gests þáttr and Hrólfs saga kraka, the norns appear to have been synonymous with völvas (witches, female shamans). In Norna-Gests þáttr, where they arrive at the birth of the hero to shape his destiny, the norns are not described as weaving the web of fate, instead Norna appears to be interchangeable and possibly a synonym of vala (völva).
One of the last legendary sagas to be written down, the Hrólfs saga kraka talks of the norns simply as evil witches. When the evil half-elven princess Skuld assembles her army to attack Hrólfr Kraki, it contains in addition to undead warriors, elves and norns.
This romantic representation of the norns depicts one of them (Verdandi according to the runes below) with wings, contrary to folklore.
Theories have been proposed that there is no foundation in Norse mythology for the notion that the three main norns should each be associated exclusively with the past, the present, and the future; rather, all three represent destiny as it is twined with the flow of time. Moreoever, theories have been proposed that the idea that there are three main norns may be due to a late influence from Greek and Roman mythology, where there are also spinning fate goddesses (Moirai and Parcae).