The Luck Discussion, pt. 1

Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld

Fated one is called, Becoming another–
they carved on wooden slips–Must-be the third;
they set down laws, they chose lives,
for the sons of men the fates of men.
–Voluspa, Larrington’s translation

Overall, I really like Larrington’s translation of The Poetic Edda. I think she strikes a nice balance between rendering things literally and rendering them in an easy to read fashion. I’m always struck by her struggle to translate the names of the Norns, though.

Granted, she does a little better than the folks who equate them with the Greek Fates and translate their names as Past, Present, and Future, and incredibly better than the folks who plagiarize off of each other on the internet (fate, necessity, and being), but she loses the sense of how closely the names of the Norns are related to each other.

Urd and Verdandi share a common root with Wyrd, the old Germanic notion of fate. The word means something like “become” or “happen” as you can see from Larrington’s rendering. She wants to get at the notion of a type of fate and stay true to the literal translation of the names.

If you look up ‘happen’ in the OED, you’ll find that the root of the word ‘hap’ is Germanic and that it has to do with luck–luck and fate being inextricably linked, if not the minor and the major arcana of the tarot of the universe.

So, I prefer to translate Urd and Verdandi as Happened and Happening, keeping in mind that there’s an undertone of ‘Lucked’ and ‘Luckening’ in that choice.

Her choice of rendering Skuld as “Must-be” is inexplicable to me. Yes, the whole theme of the Voluspa seems to be that the fates of the gods are inescapable. And, yes, the whole point of Balder’s Dream seems to be that the fates of the gods are inescapable. So, yes, I’ll concede that rendering this future fate as “MUST-be” seems reasonable.

Until, of course, we consider the Old Man. If one’s future fate is set, why does Odin call forth the seer in the first place? Why does he travel to Hel to ask about Balder’s dream? Why does he send another son to the home of Hel to see about bringing Balder back if fate cannot be changed?

I appreciate the folks who translate Skuld’s name as “debt” or “obligation” and I don’t think they’re wrong about that. I think those ideas lurk around there. But I prefer to translate her name into its closest English equivalent: Should.

Another way to ask this is this: what forces determine the kind of life a person will have? What happened, what is happening, and what should happen.


The Luck Discussion, pt. 2

What forces determine the kind of life a person will have?

When my parents were here at Christmas, my dad told me this: My grandpa’s grandmother was deaf and unable to speak. Her father asked my grandpa’s grandfather to marry her because “some man had taken advantage of her” and she was pregnant. My grandpa’s grandfather, also deaf, though able to speak, so I reckon he was not born deaf, but lost his hearing, figured that he’d not have a wife otherwise, and so he agreed.

My grandpa could be cruel to his kids. It’s something I’ve never been able to reconcile myself to, not his treatment of my dad and my uncles, but my grandma, who I think of still as a kick-ass woman, staying with him. I know those were different times, but it’s still hard for me to understand.

Once, after my grandpa was dead, I asked my grandma about his parents. The first thing she said was that my grandpa’s mom had a temper, a terrible temper. And so, I guessed the same thing you’re guessing now, that this is how things came to be how they were when my dad was growing up.

But this new knowledge, that her mom had been pregnant with another man’s child when she married her father, sat me bolt upright.

Imagine how scary that would be to have a baby you can’t hear crying. Or imagine marrying a man because your father made you. What of this other man? Did he rape her? Did she love him? Was she lonely and curious and lacking the religious indoctrination most folks got in that time? I’m hoping for lonely and curious. Imagining being raped because you can’t say who did it, carrying that man’s child, and being forced to marry someone you don’t love is too hard, or not hard enough, I guess. Do you hate that baby or love it? Do you hate your husband or love him? What of the children that came later?

I love it when my youngest nephew comes to visit. He’s a little firecracker. But he’s so fast and he’s always up to no-good, chasing the cats, over-feeding the dog, sneaking out the door because he wants to go look at the trains. It’s hard to keep up with him. But he’s noisy, so you just have to keep an ear open and you can pretty much stop any trouble before it starts. Still, it’s scary. What if something happened to him?

You can see where I’m going with this. I don’t condone beating anyone, but if it’s imperative that your kids behave because you cannot hear them, because you cannot tell when they’re crying out for help, and not just you, but no other adult in the house can hear, and you’re in this fucked up situation through circumstances you had no control over… I can see how it happened. That’s all I’m saying.

I don’t know. It could be that her dad beat her and his dad him on back to the beginning of time. But when I heard this story, I just felt like “aha, so this is how it starts.”

Everyone tells me I look just like my mom. Actually, I look very much like her mom. I have blue eyes like my dad’s brother and am left-handed like he was. I’m the fourth generation of women in my family to go to college and I’m afraid of heights, just like my dad. All of these things, physical and physiological traits, are easy enough to accept as inherited.

Whole therapeutic industries are built on helping folks overcome the things that happened to them. And the premise of many a sociology article and true crime biography is that, if someone commits some atrocious act, something must have happened to him to make him that way.

And we all know the guy who can’t catch a break, whose wife is cheating on him with the boss who’s firing him. But more than that, we talk about runs of bad luck. We seem to have some sense that we can get in a rut, that once things start to go wrong, they have a tendency to continue to go wrong. We also know the girl born lucky, for whom all things seem to come a little easier.

Whether you accept a sociological or mystical explanation for it, is it so hard to believe that one’s luck might also be inherited, shaped by your family and friends and those that came before you?

The Luck Discussion, pt. 3

Magic and Superstitions

So, concede to me for a few minutes that world views are codified into religions and philosophies and then linger on as superstitions before they are lost to history. And concede that this is how one’s family might be thoroughly Christian and still hanging horseshoes over doors or naming children after long-dismissed gods.

Now, see again, how we end up in that familiar, peculiarly American, spot, where the superstitions of the Christian Europeans mix with the religions of the Africans and draw in the medicinal knowledge of the indigenous people, to get our particular vernacular beliefs. If we see each folk practice as both drawing on its own traditions and adapting the useful beliefs of others, it ought not to surprise us to see The Long-Lost Friend or The Black Pullet in the homes of African American root workers.

If you prefer a purely rational way of looking at the world, it’s easy enough to see how curses work. Say you were my lover and I was tired of you, but fighting and throwing you out of my house seemed to do no good. Back you came, with your sorry ways, charming your way into my bed, even though I knew it was bad for me.

Easy enough to go down to Schwab’s and pick up some Hot-foot Powder. Easy enough to circle it around your bed or around your house or across your front walk, where you’re bound to step on it.

And, of course, easy enough for you to see it. And since you know me, you can guess what it is. Then, rationally speaking, it’s just a matter of time before your own mind starts to working, making connections between every little bit of ill-wind and what I’ve done to you.

But screw rationality. What’s really going on here? Even if the label on the prepackaged shit might guarantee that the powder will work, anyone who does anything for you will never make that guarantee. Instead, you might have to come back again and again to find something that works for you. True enough, if your client is paying you, this is a great money-making strategy. But let’s choose to believe that most folks who are doing this believe in what they’re doing.

So, again, what’s really going on here?

Things are always happening to us, forces are always working upon us. Luck is fate is what’s happening. In and of itself, it’s neither good nor bad, it just is. Think of it this way: say some young yahoo is going around with a bb gun shooting out street lights and the windows of people’s homes. Say you have a couple of young yahoos for sons, but, as far as you know, they don’t own a bb gun. Your tail light is reaching the end of its life.

Why does it burn out when you are in the Walmart parking lot and not closer to home? Why does the cop chose to pull you over and not the person five minutes in front of you who has some other minor problem? Why did your yahoo son leave his bbs in your glove compartment, so that they could spill out all over the floor when you reached for your registration?

What if you thought there was something you could do, a gesture you could make, a trinket you could carry that might move luck in your direction? The tail light burns out just as you’re pulling in your driveway. The cop only wants to tell you its out and lets you go back into Walmart for a bulb; he never asks for your registration. Your yahoo sons don’t fill your glove compartment with ammunition in the first place. Even if it only might work, even if you think it’s just superstitious nonsense, aren’t you tempted?

So, say my luck is always having a bed full of charming sorry lovers who do me wrong. Maybe it’s a result of generations of my people making commitments to people that aren’t the best choice for them. Maybe I associate commitment with being trapped in some small Midwestern farming hamlet, and so I look for people to whom I will never commit. Maybe there are many understandable psychological, rational reasons for why things are how they are. Family history, personal history, the weight of them pushes my luck in a certain direction.

But no ones fate is set. The future is only what should happen, based on what has happened and what is happening. Should. Not must, but should. (See how we carry this with us into our “rational” beliefs? Are you repeating damaging patterns? Go to a therapist or a psychiatrist or a priest and get some guidance. Let them help you get beyond this.) And there might be something I can do to change my luck. Depending on how deep the rut I’m stuck in is, I might have to do more than one thing, I might have to do something enormous and dangerous. But I can change my luck.

But another facet of this is even more interesting to me-the horseshoes, the hex signs, the St. Christopher’s medals. It suggests you can cultivate or attract good luck, that you can get in the habit of having good luck.

The Luck Discussion, pt. 4

People and Gods

Once, I was talking this over with The Butcher, who is just about as Christian as someone who doesn’t give a shit about the divinity of Jesus can be (he doesn’t think that Jesus’ divinity or lack-thereof adds or detracts from the importance of what Jesus said). And we were speculating about the relationship between the pre-Christian Germanic gods and people. With the major monotheistic religions, it’s easy enough to understand why God cares for and intervenes in the lives of humans. There’s no one else like him–he’s alone in the universe as far as deities go–and he created human beings. He cares for them because he has such a great stake in them, having made them.

But in the creation story the Old Norse people left us, the gods find Ash and Embla “capable of little, lacking in fate.” Odin gives them breath, Haener gives them spirit, and Loder gives them “vital spark.” There are two things interesting here. One, the gods didn’t create people; they found them. And two, what they contribute to humanity is making them capable of something. Two stanzas later, the Norns come out from under the world tree and give humans their fate, their luck.

So, why do the gods intervene in the lives of humans? What stake do they have in humanity?

I was telling the Butcher how Lindow has this idea that the gods don’t experience time the same way that humans do. This is why, when Loki shows up to dinner in the Lokasenna, and he tells Frigg that he “brought it about that you will never again see Baldr ride to the halls” it’s impossible to tell if he’s revealing a plan he has or confessing to a crime he’s committed. The Butcher said, both. That for the gods, in some way we don’t understand, everything is always happening.

No wonder Odin cannot change Balder’s fate. Happened, happening, and should happen are jumbled by the gods’ timelessness.

But we aren’t timeless. We’re born and then die (the gods die, too, but, again, because of how fate is jumbled for them, they have an entirely different relationship to death, I’d argue). What happened is knowable. What is happening is perceptible. And what should happen is predictable and, importantly, avoidable. Unlike the gods, we can affect our fate. And maybe not just our fate, but fate, luck, in general.

Now our importance to the gods becomes clear. We can do something they cannot. We can change fate, alter luck. Perhaps we can even change their fates, and alter their luck.

The Luck Discussion, pt. 5

Theologies of Dead Religions

So, why even bother with trying to understand dead religions and gods most folks are done with? Obviously, I think it has to do with the lifespan of a world view and the fact that we are still carrying around superstitions that are based in a worldview none of our ancestors have officially held for hundreds if not thousands of years.

We don’t believe in the Norns, but we still believe in luck. Well, how do we understand our relationship to luck if we don’t examine the worldviews that went into shaping our notions of luck in the first place?