Wyrd and Orlæg
Critical to Heathen cosmology are the concepts of the Well and the Tree, but in order to understand them, one must first understand the cosmic principles of wyrd (ON urðr) and orlæg (ON orlǫg). These concepts also inform the Heathen perception of time, which is quite different from our modern perception of it.
Orlæg is a complicated concept to explain, especially since there is no modern, Western equivalent. It translates as “the first law” or, more accurately, “that which was laid down first.” It is the defining template of a person that sets them on their course of life. Everyone is born with a unique orlæg that they do not share with anyone else, not even their siblings (though identical twins might be an exception to this).
Many factors contribute to orlæg, such as:
- Economic class
- Social class
- Country of birth
- City of birth
- Occupation(s) of parent(s)
- Religion(s) of parent(s)
- Gender assigned at birth
- Year of birth
- Physical and mental health
All of the factors that contribute to one’s orlæg have one thing in common: they are chosen for the person before birth or shortly after. Some factors are even the result of decisions made many generations ago, such as immigration or religious conversion. Regardless, a person cannot change their orlæg, nor can they deny the orlæg given to them.
However, the unchangeable nature of one’s orlæg does not mean a person is stuck with these predetermined circumstances forever; in fact, it is not uncommon for some of these circumstances to change, such as religion or economic status. Additionally, just because a person starts out with a certain circumstance does not make it true, such as in the case of gender, which is chosen for a newborn by a medical professional based on observed factors. However, that doesn’t make it the person’s true gender, which might not be realized until much later in life. Orlæg is simply what one starts with — those various influences which were laid down first.
If orlæg is how one begins, it is easy to see why people misunderstand wyrd as how one ends — one’s fate or destiny. However, this is not accurate. Wyrd is better described as the threads that connect us to every other person, creature, and entity around us. Wyrd is also the tapestry we weave with those threads when we interact with our world. Any action that an individual takes not only changes their own wyrd, but also the wyrd of others. It leaves an imprint on those whom their action affects, whether the individual realizes it or not.
Conversely, an individual’s wyrd can be changed by events outside of their control, whether those events began as someone else’s action or as whatever the Norns wove into reality. Therefore, it is impossible for Heathens to view themselves as existing within a vacuum, separate from and unaffected by the world around them. What affects one, affects many.
The Well and the Tree
Orlæg and wyrd also exist on a grand, cosmological scale. In this case, the orlæg of the cosmos is that which was first laid down in illo tempore, or the First Time, i.e. the mythological time. The cosmic orlæg is represented by the Well of Urðr (ON Urðarbrunnr), which contains the layers of the wyrd that have already been woven. These layers are likened to layers of earth, or “strata,” that pile up over time. In this way, the actions in the cosmic wyrd become part of the cosmic orlæg.
The Well of Urðr feeds Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which connects with all of the worlds. Not only do the Tree’s roots extend into the Well, but the Norns also pour the Well’s water over the base of the Tree. This water flows through the Tree to the various worlds, then back into the Tree to drip from its leaves back down into the Well. This cycle represents the continuous effect of past actions on present moments. The cosmic orlæg in the Well travels through the Tree to the various worlds, whereupon it guides all actions taking place there. The effects of those actions ripple back into the Tree and drip into the Well, adding more layers to the strata piled in there. Then the cycle repeats itself from there.
The Heathen concept of time
The unchangeable nature of orlæg and its influence on us, both on the cosmic scale and on the personal scale, contribute directly to the Heathen concept of time. In modern day, time is split into three parts: the past, the present, and the future. However, Heathen time is split into two parts: the past and the non-past.
On a personal scale, the past begins with one’s orlæg and is built up with every action one takes. As soon as an action is made, it slips from the present into the past, a thread woven into one’s wyrd with no possibility for reversal. An action made is an action manifested forever into reality, with consequences that ripple forward into many possible futures. That is why there is only the past and the non-past: The past is all that we know to be real. The future is unknowable. And all a Heathen can do in the present is decide how to act — or, shall we say, how to contribute to their past so that they can guide their personal wyrd toward the best possible outcome.
- The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture — Paul C. Bauschatz