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.