In worlds older, wiser and saner than the ones we live in, our ancestors marked their days according to the angle of the light of the sun. Light that for a time blazed with great intensity and warmth, making wheat and barley, apples and corn grow, gradually seemed to wither. After the harvest, shadows lengthened, flocks of birds flew away to the south, nights grew longer and colder. The sun appeared less and less above the horizon and on one day it seemed to shrivel and its light almost disappeared.
That time of year, which we call the Winter Solstice, often became a period of withdrawal and introspection, of quiet and thought and reflection. When I was in Iceland, I was told that, to this day, many country folk in the North of Europe stay in their homes as much as possible during the end of December and the beginning of January and avoid venturing out of doors. “Why?” I asked.
“Because there are sinister forces out there, the Spirits of Winter. Perhaps they’re not malevolent, but it’s not a good idea to risk encountering them. Gradually, when light returns in the warming days of springtime, they will leave our lowland pastures and valleys and retreat back into the wilds of the mountains where they came from. But in Autumn, when cold winds and snows return and nights grow long, the spirits come back as well. Winter is their time, not ours, so you have to be careful.”
In addition to innumerable nameless spirits in the Northlands, three have names: Urd, (What Was Once), Verdandi, (What is Happening Now), and Skuld, (What Is to Come). They are the Norns. They are female and always appear near water: wells, lakes and rivers, that is, with the flow of time, with Fate and Destiny. This painting shows them about to gather at a well which, like them, predates by many thousands of years the arrival of Christianity, with its stone churches that replaced, at least for a time, the sacred forest groves where our ancestors spoke with spirits. I didn’t understand the words the Norns spoke to each other, but at least once, I thought I detected in the tone of their conversation a hint of something comforting to us humans.