A profound Norse sense of fatalism—everyone has an inevitable death day chosen by the Norns—and the importance of reckless courage, added up to make the especially crucial concept of being a drengr. This drengr code, the bitter valiant courage in the face of inevitable fate, is what Norse myths and stories are so often about and so often motivated by.
Drengr is a person who shows great courage and doesn’t cheat or take advantage of an enemy. He’s the kind of person whose story might become a saga, whether he lives or dies.
Here’s an example that explains the code of drengr. Let’s say that right now I go walking downtown, and am walking along, minding my own business, and someone happens to shout out some kind of insult, like, “Hey nice boots, dork!”
In our society, I could just walk along, ignore it, and be the better person. However, in Norse society, the correct thing to do would almost be the reverse.
If I were a Norseman, with Norse concepts of ethics and the afterlife, the proper thing for me to do would be to fight that man right there, quite possibly to the death. That is because if I got killed fighting him, then that was the day I was destined to die anyway.
A Destined Day to Die
Moreover, if I died while fighting, I would get to go to the glorious afterlife, joining Odin in his hall Valhalla.
Whereas, if I decided not to fight—from a perspective foreign to the pre-Christian Norse—and just walked along, then later that day I might be in an accident or in an explosion or get electrocuted—because, whatever happens, that was already my destined day to die.
The choice I had was to meet my death the honorable way, with weapons in hand, joining Odin in Valhalla, or have a dishonorable death.
So the Norse had a concept of fatalism and a concept of reckless courage that tied together very directly, and these are strongly reflected in their mythology. The Norse believed that every person had a particular day on which they would die, though they don’t know exactly when; it’s just that the date is predetermined.
According to Norse belief, this date is determined by, and only known to, the three shadowy female beings called the Norns.
The Norns are never called goddesses, or anything else for that matter. They just seem to be their own category within the Norse cosmos. Whatever their family origin, it is the Norns who determine, at the birth of every sentient being, what day that person will die. It is the day they are going to die no matter what. There is simply no way they will survive past that date.
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While one may not know when they would die, they do have two different afterlife options.
One of them is called Hel (with one l), a boring shadowy dead reflection of our world where there is neither honor nor joy. This is not a fiery place of torment like the Christian Hell, but it has nothing to recommend it either. This afterlife is often pictured as literally being contained within the confines of the grave.
The alternative to the boring domain of Hel is for a person to fight all day, every day, in the afterlife, with other men who have fallen in battle. Not an easy afterlife, but at least it would have the glory of being associated with the gods in a hall in their own realm and assisting Odin in his final doomed battle against the enemies of order at Ragnarok.
So one must accept their opportunities to fight, because the choice is not between living and dying as such, but between dying well and dying badly.
Odin himself says in the poem of his wisdom, Hávamál, stanza 16:
An unwise man
thinks he’ll live forever
if only he can avoid a fight,
but old age
will give him no peace,
even if weapons do.
A man will die no matter what—“even if weapons” “give him peace”, that is, even if he avoids getting hurt in battle. And in old age, he will suffer anyway, just as he would have suffered from those weapons he avoided in his youth.
The Inevitable End
This expectation about the inevitable end, and what a man can do to meet that inevitable end well, colors every event in Norse mythology—and also in the sagas of Viking heroes.
For example, in The Saga of Hallfreth the Troublesome-Poet, probably written down in the 1200s, chapter 1, we read of the fate of two men escaping a fire:
They left under cover of smoke, and ran off across the island. Because of the roar of the fire and its immense size, and because they were not doomed, they escaped.
“Because they were not doomed” might almost seem a redundancy to a modern reader, but the Norse storyteller accepts that each life has one certain predetermined doom, and this fire was not the doom for these men.
So, these beliefs encouraged a code of reckless courage, the code of drengr. There was no fight too small or too wild for one to consider getting involved in, when they knew that if they died, they were going to die that day anyway; so they might as well die the brave way.
Common Questions about the Norse Concept of Predetermined Doom
A drengr is a person who shows great courage and doesn’t cheat or take advantage of an enemy. He’s the kind of person whose story might become a saga, whether he lives or dies.
According to Norse belief, the date of a person’s death is determined by, and only known to, the three shadowy female beings called the Norns.
The Norse belief that each life has one certain predetermined doom encouraged a code of reckless courage. There was no fight too small or too wild for one to consider getting involved in, when they knew that if they died, they were going to die that day anyway; so they might as well die the brave way.