By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today, we’re going to get weird…
The word weird comes from Old English wyrd meaning “fate”, and goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “turn” — think of the phrase “to turn out” and you’ll see the connection between turning and fate. It’s related to another Old English word weorþan which means “to become” as well as German werden, which is sometimes used to construct the future tense in German, as in ich werde kommen “I will come”, and occasionally the Old English weorþan is used with something of the sense of the future of the verb ‘to be’. Weird is also related to the word “toward” and its Old English equivalent toweard, which could mean “future”. Of course the Proto-Indo-European root *wer- gives us many other words in Modern English, many of which through the Latin vertere “to turn”, such as avert (literally “turn away”), pervert (literally “very turned”), and version.
“Wyrd” was an important concept, and much has been written about fatalism in Germanic culture. It used to be argued that Wyrd represented a personified fate goddess in pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon belief, though more recent scholarship is doubtful about this. What’s clearer is that the Old Norse cognate of Old English Wyrd, Urðr, is one of the Norns, along with Verðandi and Skuld, the Norse fates who determine the course of an individual’s destiny. Urðr and Verðandi both come from that ‘turning’ root, the first in the past tense the second in the present, whereas Skuld comes from the same root that gives us shall and should in English, and thus the three have traditionally been associated with the past, present and future respectively. The Norns hang around Urðarbrunnr, Urðr’s Well, at the foot of Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree that lies at the heart of the Norse cosmology, and could bring both fortune and misfortune. And the overall arc of the Norse mythological story ends in the destruction of the gods at Ragnarok, “the fate of the gods”, and this is but one example of the fatalism often found in Germanic heroic literature, the glory of fighting a losing battle.
Better known today, perhaps, are the Greek equivalents, the Moirai or Fates, generally depicted as 3 women (sometimes named as Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos — meaning Spinner, Allotter, and Unturnable) who determine the destiny of both mortals and gods. As their names imply, they were often seen as wool-working women, spinning the thread of a man’s life, measuring his lot, and implacably ending it—note that ‘turning’ “turns” up at both the beginning and end of their job. It’s no coincidence, of course, that there are three of them, like the three principle Norns — 3 is a significant number in many mythologies, and particularly so for women. There are many other sets of 3 women in Greek mythology, like the Graces, the Graiae, the Gorgons, and the nymphs of the Hesperides. The Fates have a complicated relationship with the gods in Greek myth: sometimes even Zeus is bound by their decrees, but sometimes he is warned by their prophecies and is able to avoid his potential fate.
And that grouping of three prophetic women is now probably most famous from the Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. They appear to Macbeth and Banquo, with the famous lines: “All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!…All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!…All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!” and, to Banquo, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater…Not so happy, yet much happier…Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none”. Macbeth, his ambitions aroused, then goes about making this come true by murdering King Duncan and taking the throne for himself. And though we often refer to these three mystical figures as the three witches, they’re never called that in the play. In both Shakespeare’s text and his source, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland they are referred to as the Weird Sisters, that is to say the “fate sisters” since they tell Macbeth his fate—and, in a way, determine it, through their self-fulfilling prophecy. In Shakespeare’s time the word “weird” had mostly disappeared from the English language, but it had been preserved in the Scots dialect of English. A 16th century Scottish translation of Virgil’s Aeneid renders Parcae, the Roman Fates, as “werd sisteres”. Shakespeare used this unfamiliar term because his source Holinshed did, and he was certainly not one to pass up an unusual word. But the word was evidently a difficult one for Shakespeare’s readers, as the early and authoritative First Folio version of his plays prints it as “weyward” or “weyard”. Of course, in more recent times, the phrase Weird Sisters has become much more well known, especially in fantasy fiction, like Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters series of books, or the fictional band called the Wyrd Sisters in the JK Rowling’s Harry Potter.
There’s an interesting parallel to Macbeth’s Weird Sisters in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, in which he tells a version of the Norse story of Balder and Hother. Unlike the more well-known version of this myth told in the Prose Edda, Hother kills Balder not accidentally but because they are both in competition for the love of the same woman, Nanna, who loves Hother but with whom Balder has also fallen in love after catching sight of her bathing. In Saxo’s version of the story, Balder is not a Norse god, but a demi-god, and Hother is a human hero, who is helped by forest maidens who magically appear to him in a striking parallel to the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, and they may be the figures shown on the 8th century Franks Casket, which depicts several mythological stories from various different traditions, both Christian and pagan.
While we’re on the topic of Shakespeare’s plays, one of the conventions he uses to distinguish upper and lower class characters is to have the upper class characters, like Macbeth, speak in verse (as if they’re speaking in poetry), whereas the lower class characters, like the porter who guards King Duncan’s tent, speak in prose. Surprisingly, both of these words, verse and prose, come from the same “turning” root as weird, as Latin versus, meaning “turned”, and proversus meaning literally “turned forward” or in other words straight forward speech. The metaphor behind “verse” is that the lines of poetry are like a ploughed field, with lines that have to turn around at the end like the rows in the field.
And speaking of dramatic conventions in Shakespeare, the Bard and his contemporary playwrights drew on two distinct traditions of tragedy. The older descends from ancient Greek tragedy, like Oedipus the King, formalized by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book The Poetics. This focuses on the character of the tragic hero and his tragic error, or hamartia, which brings about the tragic outcome and arouses feelings of pity and fear in the audience in order to bring about catharsis. In this form of tragedy, the individuals can control their fate and prevent their tragic outcome, but they don’t, and thus bring tragedy on themselves. The other model for tragedy descends from the Roman world, and is most indebted to the Roman philosopher Boethius and his book The Consolation of Philosophy, in which we find the figure of Lady Fortune who blindly turns her wheel of fortune, raising some people up from misfortune to fortune and casting others down to misfortune. The emphasis here is on fate, which is completely beyond the control of the individual, who is, to borrow a line from another Shakespearean play “fortune’s fool”. Shakespeare, being the clever fellow he was, sometimes borrowed elements from both tragic traditions. Macbeth is given a prophecy, but he makes it happen himself because of his own ambition by killing King Duncan to seize the throne. Is he controlled by the self-fulfilling prophecy of the fates, the Weird Sisters, or is it his tragic error?
But if weird originally mean “fate”, how did it come to have its modern sense of “strange, odd or unusual”? Well it comes down to the fact that the word was so unfamiliar when Shakespeare used it. Basically, although the word traces its ancestry back to the oldest stock of English words in the language of the Anglo-Saxons, few people knew what it meant in the time of Shakespeare and shortly thereafter. And since the Weird Sisters were shown acting a lot like the early modern stereotype of witches— “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”— (the Elizabethan age was way more fascinated by witches & obsessed with witchhunts than was the medieval period that Macbeth was actually set in, by the way), people assumed the sense of the word had something to do with witches. So, supernatural and strange. And it seems to be another of English literature’s most famous poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who first popularized this new sense of the word, more familiar to us today. The phrase “weird fiction” was then used to describe the supernatural literature of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. And today the word has taken on an almost slangy sense of simply “unexpected” or “different”. It’s now everywhere, from film titles like Weird Science to the unofficial slogan of Austin, Texas, “Keep Austin Weird”. In popular music it appears in the name of Weird Al Yankovic and in the lyrics of Professor Elemental’s song “All In Together”: “There’s no such thing as normal, everybody’s weird”.
Speaking of Weird Science, a teen comedy from the 80s in which two nerdy boys create an artificial woman, another sense of weird is “odd or unusual in an unsettling way”. The near synonym “uncanny” is often used to describe the unsettlingly similar, as in the case of the uncanny valley, which describes the discomfort that one experiences seeing a representation of something that is similar but not similar enough to a healthy, natural human likeness, like an artificial human automaton.
But there’s another twist in this etymology. The word “worm” probably also comes from that same “turning” root. Makes sense when you think about a worm. But the word “wyrm” in Old English was used of a dragon or serpent, like the dragon that Beowulf fights at the end of his eponymous Old English epic poem. And that brings us back to the Old English word wyrd, which occurs some 12 times in the poem — such as “Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel”: “Goes always wyrd as it shall” — which some scholars have held up as another prime example, like Ragnarok, of fatalism in Germanic culture — the heroism of the great warrior Beowulf fighting a losing battle and sacrificing his life to save his people. Speaking of Old English, perhaps unsurprisingly the translation of Boethius’ Latin Consolation of Philosophy into Old English by King Alfred the Great uses the word wyrd to render the concept of fate or fortune, and some have argued for a direct connection between this philosophical work and the epic poem Beowulf, and a bridge between the old pagan worldview and the new Christian religion. But the word worm, in the sense of a small serpent, also brings us back to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who comments after his assassins have killed Banquo but allowed his son Fleance to escape, “There the grown serpent lies; the worm that's fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed, / No teeth for the present.”
And to bring us full *circle*, one other derivative from that Proto-Indo-European “turning” root is “anniversary” meaning literally “turning of the year”— and since April 23rd, 2016 is the 400th *anniversary* of the day that, to quote William Shakespeare himself, death “hath made *worms* meat” of him, it *turns* out that releasing this video now is *weirdly* appropriate!
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