The Theosophical Forum – July 1949

KARMAN IN ANCIENT MYTH: THE NORNS — Allan J. Stover

Peoples who have not fallen under the skepticism of materialistic science or the fear inspired by a narrow religion, almost universally have a deep trust in the eternal justice of Nature's ways.

The great law of the universe is equilibrium, for nature quickly restores harmony wherever it is disturbed. On the ethical side this law is often known as the Law of Immanent Justice; for every act carries with it the seeds of future adjustment. This is not punishment for evil-doing, but is justice as inherent within every act, whether good or bad. Seen thus Karman is the working of a cosmic harmony which all things obey, from the unseen atoms in the air we breathe, to the highest gods.

It is only in the sphere of effects that concepts of fate, kismet and destiny, assume a personal aspect and the broader vision of Karman in its majestic sweep is lost. In order to understand Karman it is well to consider the organic structure of the life-web in which we live, and that everything we do affects the whole fabric of Life; so intermingled are its innumerable cycles of activity. The doctrine of Karman thus goes hand in hand with Universal Brotherhood.

There is scarcely a philosophy or religion which does not teach some aspect of this great law. We find it in the Bible, in Buddhism, in Islam, in the religions of China, in fact everywhere. In mythology especially are many beautiful and thoughtful symbols or allegories portraying certain phases of Karman; and by comparing these as understood by other peoples we greatly enrich our own concept of this great teaching of the Ancient Wisdom.

We may look upon myth and symbol as a vehicle or garment for clothing spiritual truth. In one sense they are a dramatization of inner laws of nature which are cosmic in their range of action. Words are not sufficient to give expression to the idea, since they are designed to convey precise and definite information. Symbol and allegory, like mathematical formulae, are better fitted to explain general truths which apply to a large number of analogous conditions on different planes of being.

Karman is one of these great universal truths and has been known to all peoples. It is symbolized in Greek Mythology by the Moirae, or Fates, three in number, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin the thread of destiny, severing it when the time comes. In the mythology of the Norse and early Teutons, the Fates appear as the three Norns who tend the World-Tree. In each case the original meaning has been largely obscured and distorted by succeeding religious ideologies, each seeking to shape the tradition to their own ends. But the keys given us by our Theosophical teachers offer a guide through the maze of apparent contradictions.

Of the many myths representing the nature and action of Karman, that of the Three Norns seems to come closest to the original doctrine; yet even here there has been a deliberate alteration and destruction of ancient books.

A writer of the seventeenth century (Svigota ok Normanna Edda) states that Snorre and Saemund did not compose the Eddas, but copied or recorded them after the old Runboker or rune books. He further explains that in the time of King Olof Skot about 1200 A. D. the Pope wrote King Olof complaining that the old Rune-books were hindering the progress of the church in Sweden and asking that he do something about it. Olof held Thing (a council), wherein it was decided to burn all the old Rune-books on the excuse that they were full of "Spellcraft." Previously, however, numbers of the writings had been taken to Iceland, then a great center of learning; and it was from these old books that the present Eddas were composed.

But while the greater part of their precious Rune books went up in smoke, there still lives in the hearts of the northern peoples an intuitive understanding of the ways of Karman. And while the Eddas today represent but a portion of the original sacred writings, the Theosophical student can recognize in them the basic teachings of the Ancient Wisdom as once given to the Norse and Teutonic peoples. Thus, in the Edda Karman is depicted under the guise of the three Norns, Urd, Verdande and Skuld, who guard and water the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil.

 The World Tree is of course our hierarchical system of Sun, Planets and Moons in all their various planes and sub-planes. It is the hierarchical system of every being from an atom to a universe. And since man in his inner and outer nature is a miniature replica of the solar system, he too has his planes and sub-planes of consciousness reaching from the physical vehicle upwards to divinity.

One approaches the subject of the Norns with hesitation and with the feeling that full knowledge of this ancient tradition is to be found, not in books, but about the firesides of northern homes.

Just as the Yggdrasil Tree is a symbol of the inner constitution of both man and universe, so the Norns who tend and water the Tree of Life are also many. In fact a Norn is given to every child when he enters life. It selects the mother that child is to have and guides the little one through life; only departing at the time of the second death. Always the Norns deal out utter justice, and nourish the soul with the waters of wisdom. In fact they appear to have been to Norse thought, what the Lipikas were to Hindu thought.

The names of the three chief Norns — Urd, from a root carrying the idea of the primeval, the inmost; Verdande, signifying the coming into being, emerging or unfolding from within; and lastly Skuld, which is obscure in meaning but seems to imply debt, as of something owing that will have to be paid — are commonly said to represent the three aspects of past, present and future. The names, however, suggest a deeper and more occult significance lying within the other. Anciently men who were in many ways wiser than ourselves did not think in terms of time as we do now, but rather of things emerging as a stream of consciousness from within without; from spiritual planes to material ones.

Now suppose we consider an act of Karman, such as sickness, as a seed deep within the timeless inner consciousness, planted there by actions in another incarnation, this seed maturing in its proper time emerges upon the physical plane, where like the thread of the Fates it is severed and thrown off.

In the Greek mythology the three names of the Moirae, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, mean respectively the spinner, the allotter, and that which cuts off, or withdraws nourishment. The Latin word Fatum even means the Laws of Nature. The nature of the Norns is well illustrated by the picture of the three Fates drawing forth a strand from the mass of wool, of latent Karman, twisting it into a thread and finally severing it. This graphic illustration of the course of Karmic action does not conflict with the usual interpretation but rather deepens and adds form to the concept.

Dr. de Purucker once explained our life's Karman by comparing it to a deck of cards which we pick up at birth stacked in a certain way. But he continued, there are many decks, the accumulation of many lives, and as the soul approaches imbodiment it chooses which features of past Karman can best be worked out in the coming life. It is the soul itself which chooses what the new life will be. And having chosen the deck of cards or, to use the ancient symbol, the wool, strand after strand is drawn forth from the Karmic bundle, spun into a thread, and severed. Finally the life itself, its purpose accomplished so far as may be, is cut off.

Such seems to be the significance of the Karmic Norns or Fates as found in mythology. But there are still deeper reaches of thought, greater vistas of beauty which a closer study of the Edda discloses.

The Yggdrasil Tree has three roots, watered from three fountains or wells. The first root is watered from Urd's well with the knowledge of past experience; the second root is sprinkled with transcendent wisdom drawn from Mimer's well. Even Odin was required to sacrifice an eye to obtain a drink from Mimer's Well. The third root is sprinkled with water from the stream of Hwergelmir, the nature of which cannot be told. It is said that the waters of the well were so pure that anything they touched became as white "as the membrane between the egg and the egg shell."

The crown of Yggdrasil overshadows even Walhalla, the Devachan of the Norse. The branches spread over the whole universe with all its system of globes and planes each teeming with countless lives. This majestic symbol of the oneness and inherent justice of the universe has fallen upon sad days. Yet even they will pass and truth once more be sought. Should the earth be swept by devastation of fire and flood, Yggdrasil would remain untouched, for the World Tree "defies both edge and fire." The faithful who remain would dwell in Mimer's groves until the regeneration of the world. Such is the teaching of the Edda.


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE