Clara NiiSka
 

class paper - Cultural Semantics


Clara NiiSka
October 19, 1996
informant: Gauti Sigþórsson
                                                   
FATE AND DESTINY IN ICELANDIC


Geir Tomasson Zoëga translates fate (1932:217) as:

        n. forlög, örlög; ft. örlaganornir; fated l. ákveðinn af forlögunum; dauðadæmdur; fateful l. sem lýtur að örlagaspádómi; örlagaþrunginn; banvænn.

and destine (1932:153) as:
        s. ákvarða, ætlae-ð (til e-s, to, for); he was not destined to escape honum var ekki ætlað (hann átti ekki) að komast undan; destiny n. forlög; ft. forlagadísir ["The Fates"]

Zoëga (1910:144) defines forlög [in old Icelandic] as a plural noun, and translates the singular forlag as:
        n. (1) provision for living, means of subsistence; (2) settlement (in life, by marriage); (3) pl. forlög, fate, destiny.

Zoëga (1910:33) translates the old Icelandic ákvæði as a "decision, verdict."


Icelandic-English-French translator Gauti Sigðórsson provided (15 Oct 1996) the following translations of fate and destiny:

         Örlög: fate, that which cannot be changed, a notion of unchangeability, the eventuality of things, destiny.

         Forlög: fate, destiny, that which is decided beforehand.

When asked about the difference between the two words in a variety of ways, including substitution of örlög and forlög in Icelandic sentences, he insisted that they were very nearly identical.  He theorizes that the reason for the seeming redundancy of lexical equivalents was that there is an ancient type of Icelandic poetry which depends on alliteration and rhythm rather than rhyme, and that sets of semantically identical words are a heritage from this traditional oral poetry.

Gauti Sigðórsson gave me (16 Oct 1996) the following corollaries of fate/destiny, all with feminine inflection:

         Ætlað: a conception that someone was intended, that someone has a purpose or intention in life, so it's basically 'meant to be'.

         Auðna: has fatalistic connotations.  [There is] an expression, Að láta auðan ráða, which basically means 'letting fate or fortune take you where it wants to go.  Auðna is used as a proper name for women, although none of the other words [listed here] would be.

         Gæfa: has a more positive sense to it, it can either be fortune or good fortune; both have a fatalistic sense, that fortune has taken you where she wants to go.

         Ógæfa: the antonym of gæfna, bad fortune or ill fortune.



The first translation attempted was:


She was fated to be a failure.


Gauti Sigðórsson observed that "being a failure is a tricky concept" in Icelandic:

I don't have a concept for 'a failure as a person, a failure in life.'  One translation would be:

Henni var ætlað að mistakast,

'He or she was meant to fail,' but failure in this regard is not used for a person.  To call someone a failure has different connotations.  Failing in this translation means failing at some particular task, rather than a general failure.  A more accurate translation would be:

ætlað að verða undir í lífinn,

literally, 'he was meant to spend his life on his back,' a wrestling metaphor.  'Verða undir' is literally to be 'put beneath somewhere else,' so it means 'losing that bout of wrestling, so if you were the one who is flat on his back, you lose.'  ... It has several connotations, as does 'loser' in English.

I cannot give you a verb for 'fated,' there is no such thing as 'fating'--fate is something that is, it's not something that does something.  Fate just is.  One possibility would be,

Örlögin ætlaðu honum að verða glæpamaður,

'destiny meant for him to be the criminal,' and we're going back to the very ancient folk concepts of fate.  It's not a very active concept in modern-day Icelandic--I'm thinking more of Saga literature here.


Gauti Sigðórsson offered the Icelandic parable, Ömegt mun forlögin að flýga, "Fate or destiny is difficult to flee (an understatement)."  When asked if this implied a kind of motion to destiny, he replied:

Destiny is everywhere, it's a part of you, that's why you cannot escape from it.  It's still you, and no matter where you are, you are still yourself.  Icelandic concepts of fate all have to do with this life--there is no concept of afterlife with fate.  One is not fated for hell.  Basically the concepts for fate and destiny come from the Norse mythology, which doesn't have the heaven and hell concepts. ...

Valhalla is a totally different thing.  The afterlife is not much of a life.  They were more concerned with life than death, so death is not very central in Norse mythology, except for heroic death, and rewards for heroic death, like Valhalla, but in any other circumstances, you go to Hel, which is not hell, it's just a place of the dead.  Hel is both a place, and the woman who runs it--that's her name.  It's very cold.



I asked for a translation to the phrase:


It must be fate
.


<>One could translate that, Það hljóta að vera örlög, but that's not something that anyone would say.  The problem is the 'must be'--usually fate is talked about in very absolute terms, like fate is unavoidable.  Örlögin réðu þvi is a very Icelandic sentence, 'fate decided that.'  It has been decided before, but by whom is not exactly clear. 
< style="color: rgb(22, 11, 5);">
< style="color: rgb(22, 11, 5);">There is very little idea of a who--it's almost as if fate or destiny is part of nature, part of the fabric of the universe.  There are the 'Normið' or 'Örlagnnornið', 'the Fates,' but they are bureaucratic and impersonal.  They spin the threads of life: each life is a thread in their cave.  They spin long or short threads, and when you die, it's because they cut the thread.  It's fate, and even the gods are subject to fate.  Örlög and forlög both have the word lög, which means 'law'.  Ör is a complex prefix, but for literally means 'pre,' so it's an idea of pre-determination.  Forlög literally means 'before the law,' something that has been decided and made law before, it's somehow mapped out.  ... Fate is a very neutral force, neither good nor bad.
< style="color: rgb(22, 11, 5);">
<>

He/she met his/her fate.

Hann maætti örlögum sínum.  That is a literal translation--he met his fate.


He fulfilled his destiny.


Hann uppfyllti örlög sín.  That's a sentence that I've seen somewhere.  The difference between the two is that Hann maætti örlögum sínum is an euphemistic phrase for dying.  It's a common phrase, like saying 'fate finally caught up with you.'  It's usually used for dying unexpectedly, so it's a phrase which has a connotation of the unexpected.  Hann uppfyllti örlög sín means that he did something that he was meant to do, something that it's obvious after the fact that it was intended.


Manifest Destiny.

I cannot formulate a sentence in good Icelandic, containing language that anybody would find graceful, saying that someone's Manifest Destiny is this or that.  We're talking about something that somebody decided, 'my destiny is to conquer the planet,' and goes about to do it, that's something that is announced 'destiny.'  It all goes back to intention, 'he intended to conquer the world.'  Bandaríkin héldu það vera örlög sín að sigra heiminn, the United States thought it was their destiny to conquer the world.


It was an ill-fated turn.

Það var örlagarík ákvörðun, 'it was a decision filled with destiny', or Það var ógæfuleg ákvörðun, 'it was a decision that did not attract good fortune.  Örlagarík ákvörðun is not necessarily negative.  The sentence can mean that it was something that led to disaster, or that it was something that led to great success, but nothing in between.  It has a be a turning point, a watershed with significant consequences.


Do you believe in predestination?

Trúir þú þri að allt sé ákveðið fyrirfram.  It would be a little sloppy to use örlög or forlög for 'predestination.' Predestination would be forákvörðun, so you literally say, 'do you believe everything is decided beforehand?'  Predestination is a strong word‑‑I wouldn't use it.


We were fated to meet.

Okkur var aætlað að hittast.  The back translation is 'we were intended to meet.'


To be tempted by fate.


The only way that I think of it would be exactly backwards, að freista gæfunnar, to tempt fate. ... Without any contextual information for the sentence, I would translate it láta freistast, 'to be tempted,' but fate would not be an actor in the sentence.  ... If I would be holding a lightning rod in my hand in a thunderstorm, I'm 'tempting fate' in English.  In Icelandic, I would be inviting ill fortune.  Að bjóða ógæfunni heim, to 'tempt fate,' that is literally to invite ill fate to my house, or to my home... to my personal space, heim has a wider application than 'home' in English.


The judge determined his fate.

Dómarinn ákvað örlög hans, 'the judge decided his fate.'


I asked, "So, even though fate is 'out there,' it can be decided, too?"


I think we've crossed into a different period of history.  Fate has, in conjunction with the judicial system, acquired the meaning of how your life turns out in the end, so if you look at at your moment of death, you see, 'that has been your fate, that is how your life was.'  So, yes, a person's life will probably be marked by a lifetime of imprisonment, so the judge had considerable influence over his fate, so in that regard, örlög means 'how your life turns out.  Örlög can refer to how your life turns out in its totality; it can also refer to something that has been decided beforehand, but is only revealed in its entirety at the moment of death, so your fate, or destiny, spans you whole life, your life's gestalt, and in that sense, fate can be decided by people, in terms of how they affect another's life.

If I decided to go out and bash the next person's head in, I would be deciding that person's fate, because I would be determining how that person's life in its entirety had turned out, by providing the end point.  It's another idea that this person's destiny was to have his or her head bashed in by me.  Örlög can refer to either or both, but it does not necessarily entail a belief in any fate in itself, just the totality of his life, so one is an option to the other.  You can tell from the context, and as with many other contexts, this is very fluid and changeable.  I am drawing on  a thousand year literary tradition, and because these are very old words, their signification has probably changed somewhat in the past thousand-and-something years.  These two definitions that I offer, they are not mutually exclusive, they are just like two facets of the same diamond.  ... I do not want to exclude any other usage of the term.  I am just one person speaking here, not the language community itself.  I am just one of the language community, and others might use the language in ways that I cannot predetermine.


 
A terrible fate befell him.


Hraðileg örlög biðu hans.  It's sort of a cliche, 'a terrible fate befell him.'  It's something you would put in a romance novel, the foreshadowing of the hero's, or the bad guy's, horrible death.


She had a great destiny.


Hennar biðu mikil örlög.  In both of these sentences we are using biða, 'to wait,' this is something that lies in the future and waits, so these people are ambushed by the future--they didn't know what was coming to them.  It can be either good or bad. ...  The future is feminine, and is definitely animate.  There is a phrase, 'the future is pregnant with': franmtiðin ber i skauti sér, literally the future carries in her womb--the future is pregnant with the coming of the 'now,' so the now is constantly being born of the future.'  It's a dead metaphor, but by talking about it in English I brought it to life in my mind again.  The future is very definitely an animate being, and she is a woman, and the gender of the term is antiquated.


I asked for Icelandic phrases relating to "fate" and "destiny."

Það var mikil gæfa, auðna ræður, að láta auðna ráða. 'Whatever will be, will be,' whatever happens, happens--things will go the way that fortune hits us.


I also asked for the word for seer, noting that the idea of being able to foretell the future had to do with concepts of "fate" and "destiny."  I guessed that there wasn't a deep tradition of fortune-telling in Iceland because "if the future was already a fait accompli, if was a part of the immutable fabric of the universe, then there wasn't much anybody could do about it, anyway."  Gauti Sigðórsson told me:

There is fortune-telling, it is used as foreshadowing in the south.  The words are sjándi, seer; spámaður, a male fortune-teller; and spákona, a female fortune-teller.  They are people who can see the future, and that's too restrictive, to say that the future is a fait accompli.  The role of a seer depends on that.  The future is already decided, and the seer is someone who can see that.  The idea of a seer is inherent in the future being mapped out--it's just that very few can read the map.  (There's also a new-age kind of fortune-telling, which is somewhat underground.)

The old tradition conceptualizes destiny as something that is a part of you at birth, mapped out before.  That's the heroic spirit of the Sagas--they do what they do in spite of their destiny.  There is an idiom, að storka örlögunum, to spite destiny, to act contrary to what you know will happen, or what you know is some sort of fact of life.  When one refuses to acknowledge that, it happens anyway--it has to happen.


Within the constraints imposed by the parameters of this paper (and with the observation that Gauti Sigðórsson strongly disagrees with the assumptions inherent in such definitions), I tentatively propose the following partial definitions in accordance with Wierzbicka:


Örlög1:

(a) different things happen to people 
(b) not because they want it
 
(c) these things can be good or bad
 
(d) sometimes these things are very good or very bad
 
(e) one cannot think: these things will not happen to me if I say: 'I don't want it'
 
(f) it is good to say 'I don't want it'
 
(g) I imagine I know that someone can say of all persons: 'these things will happen to this person, one after another'
 
(h) this someone is a woman, or many women
 
(i) this woman or many women is/are not a part of this world
  (j) what this woman or many women want(s) is part of this world 
(k) if this woman wants something, it cannot not happen

(l) after a person dies, they know all that this woman wanted to happen
 
(n) some people can know: this is what will happen to this person



Örlög2: 
(a) different things happen to people 
(b) not because they want it
 
(c) these things can be good or bad
 
(d) sometimes these things are very good or very bad
 
(e) one cannot think: these things will not happen to me if I say: 'I don't want it'
 
(f) it is good to say 'I don't want it'
 
(g) I imagine I know that someone can say of all persons: 'these things will happen to this person, one after another'
 
(h) one can say that it is something, or someone
 
(i) if this someone or something wants something, it cannot not happen
 
(j) after a person dies, they know all that this someone wanted to happen
 
(k) a person can be a part of something that happens
 
(l) some people can know: this is what will happen to this person
 


Forlög
: 
(a) different things happen to people 
(b) not because they want it
 
(c) these things can be good or bad
 
(d) it cannot not happen
 
(e) one cannot think: these things will not happen to me if I say: 'I don't want it'
 
(f) I imagine I know that someone can say of all persons: 'these things will happen to this person, one after another'
 
(g) after a person dies, they know all that this something wanted to happen
 
(h) some people can know: this is what will happen to this person
 


Ætlað
: 
(a) different things happen to people 
(b) not because they want it
 
(c) these things can be good or bad
 
(d) one cannot think: these things will not happen to me if I say: 'I don't want it'
 
(e) I imagine I know things happen to all people because someone wants it
 
(f) this someone is a woman, or many women
 
(g) this woman or many women is/are not a part of this world
  (h) what this woman or many women want(s) is part of this world 
(i) if this woman wants something, it cannot not happen
 
(j) some people can know: this is what will happen to this person
 



References Cited

Zoëga, Geir T.  A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. 1910. Oxford.
-----.               English-Icelandic Dictionary. 1932. Reykjavik.





 
BACK

NEXT

INDEX

HOME







The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.