Collective female spirits.
Poets, especially in eddic verse, speak repeatedly of the judgment (dómr) or verdict (kviðr) of the norns, and this means death or a life lived out, so that death is imminent. One of the thulur says, “Norns are called those women who shape what must be,” and the noun related to the verb “shape” (medieval Icelandic skapa), medieval Icelandic sköp, which means something like “fate,” is also used with the norns.
Snorri describes the norns explicitly in Gylfaginning. He is discussing the center of the universe, where the gods dwell, close by Yggdrasil. “A beautiful hall stands there under the ash tree by the well, and out of that hall come three maidens, those who are thus named: Urd, Verdandi, Skuld. These maidens shape lives for people; we call them norns.” Here Snorri is paraphrasing a stanza in Völuspá, stanza 18 in the Codex Regius version of the poem:
Thence come maidens, much knowing, three of them, out of that lake, which stands under the tree. They call Urd one, the second Verdandi —they carved on a stick— Skuld the third. They established laws, they chose lives for the children of people, fates of men.
Snorri’s version of the stanza has the maidens emerging from a hall, not a lake, and the seemingly more plausible hall is also found in the other version of Völuspá, in Hauksbók. These three norns, then, had a cosmic function (“established laws”) as well as the function of shaping people’s fates. Their names are transparent. Urd is similar to the past tense of the verb verða, “to become” and thus means something like “Became” or “Happened.” It is cognate with Old English wyrd, “fate, destiny” and related words in Old High German and Old Saxon. Verdandi is the present participle of verða, “Becoming” or “Happening.” Skuld is derived from the modal verb skulu, which is cognate with English “shall” and “should,” and probably then means “Is-to-be” or “Will-happen.” Thus these three norns in their names cover the past, the present, and the future. Of these three, only Urd seems to be known in tradition outside this passage, most importantly in connection with a well, the Urdarbrunn (Well-of-Urd), which is found in poetry. Skuld is also found as a valkyrie name.
Snorri goes on in this passage. “There are additional norns, who come to each child, when it is born, to shape the life, and these are related to the gods, but others are of the family of the elves, and the third ones are of the dwarfs.” He quotes Fáfnismál, stanza 13, in which the dying Fáfnir tells Sigurd that the norns are very “differently born / they have not a family together; / some are related to the æsir, / some to the dwarfs, / some are the daughters of Dvalin.” Fáfnir is answering a question from Sigurd that is no longer easy to understand: “Who are those norns, / who go under duress / and choose mothers from sons?”
Snorri’s statement about the three kinds of norns seems to suggest that he thought the norns related to the æsir came to the children of humans; perhaps the elf norns came to elves and the dwarf norns to dwarfs. Certainly a norn came to the dwarf Andvari, or to his ancestors, for he says in Reginsmál, stanza 2: “[A] wicked norn / shaped us in days of old, / that I should go in the water” (the reference is to his sporting in rivers in the form of a salmon). Snorri ends his discussion of the norns in Gylfaginning by having Hár respond to Gylfi’s comment that the norns give very different fates to different people. “Good norns of good family give a good life, but those people whose destiny is not good, bad norns cause that.”
The skald Hallfred Óttarson vandrædaskáld coined the expression “long-maintained fates of the norns” to refer to the paganism he abandoned when he converted to Christianity. However, a runic inscription at the entrance to the church at Borgund in Sogn, Norway, says “Thórir carved these runes on St. Olafs day when he came by here. The norns did both good and bad. They shaped a lot of sorrow for me.” In much more recent folklore, the porridge put out for the spirits at childbirth is called nornegraut, “norn’s porridge.” If, then, there is a unified concept of the norns, it is that they are responsible for fate, and that they act especially at childbirth.