The Frisian Well Of Urd?

When you think of the Well of Urd (Urðarbrunnr) with its two swans and three Norns, the holy place where the Gods hold court each day… you probably don’t immediately think “Frisian.” I didn’t either until reading Poetry and Law In Germanic Myth by Stephen P. Schwartz. It’s a small paperback from 1973, one I recently found online for about $5. Since it is out-of-print, though, some unscrupulous folks try to sell it at exorbitant prices. Beware of that.

One of the first things I appreciated about this slim book was that it heartily validated my gnosis that Forseti originally was a Frisian God (Fosite) grafted onto the Norse pantheon. I’ll go more into the author’s discussion of that in a bit. Now, I’m a mystic and I talk to my Gods. Forseti’s always been firm about about the fact that He has Frisian origins, and this has had a huge impact on how I relate to Him and on the course my life has taken, especially being sworn to Him in the way I am. However, I’ve occasionally seen people on both the “Old Norse” side and the “Frisian” side get their britches into a real twist over the very idea that there could possibly be any overlap between Forseti and Fosite. Probably not the sorts of folks who would have any truck with someone who’s a sacred celibate anyways, so best to leave them to their own devices. For me personally, though, I think Schwartz does an excellent job articulating academic reasons to support a connection between Forseti and Fosite.

Another piece of UPG/gnosis I have–in truth, it’s shared gnosis at this point–is that Fosite was the head of His pantheon in at least some areas.

Helgoland, photo by author, 2018.

Schwartz theorizes that the Frisian God was important enough that His worship was carried north. Remember, the old North Sea was itself a highly-trafficked nexus of trade and cultural exchange. Further, he argues that a surviving legend of how the Frisians got their law, with one main figure giving the law to twelve lawspeakers, has deep pre-Christian roots that directly relate into later understandings of the Well of Urd.

While I won’t make a vain attempt to summarize a complex book in a lone blog entry, one of the basic ideas Schwartz presents is this: very old Germanic (a.k.a., Frisian) understandings of a “chief lawgiver” who is connected to a holy spring dispersed northwards and intermingled with later Norse lore. Odin–as the leader of His pantheon–thus took up a newer judicial role. We have twelve lawspeakers plus a thirteenth in the Frisian legend (which may have been about Deities originally); we have twelve Aesir plus Odin meeting in judgement beside the Well of Urd. The Frisian story references Eswei, the Way or Path of the Gods, and the Norse legend has the Gods crossing Bifrost each day for Their gathering beside holy waters.

Schwartz compares the lists in Gylfaginning and Skaldskaparmal: one leading God (Odin) plus twelve Gods appointed as judges meeting together at the Well of Urd. The first five Deities are the same, with Odin at the very top, followed by Thor, Njord, Freyr, and Tyr… indicating Their fixed prominence in the Norse pantheon. The middle names have some variation. But the last two names are always Forseti and Loki. Schwartz theorizes that the lack of much material about Forseti in Norse lore, combined with His consistently being mentioned as a judge, albeit at the bottom of the lists, points towards the possibility that He “was not a part of the original Scandinavian pantheon, but a late addition to it.” Schwartz adds: “What is striking about Forseti is not the few minor citations, but the fact that [H]e is mentioned at all as belonging to the thirteen Aesir. This lowly position in the Norse hierarchy is not surprising, if [H]e is regarded as having been introduced from a foreign culture, after the formation of the Scandinavian pantheon.” (p. 19)

As a sidebar, I have likewise come across some fascinating discussions about Loki potentially coming from outside the Norse pantheon originally. It would be quite interesting if the two “foreign” Gods were grouped last together in the judges’ lists.

Let’s return to the Well of Urd. Schwartz makes a good case for Snorri “overrefining the Norse cosmos into a consistent threefold pattern” (p. 21), that is, giving three different names to what was originally one Holy Spring or Source. Later in the book, he details how poetry, wisdom, and law are not as separate as we might think nowadays. Schwartz argues that the Well’s incarnation as the scalding and boiling Hvergelmir was written to be familiar to Icelandic audiences and to invoke the ordeal by hot water which was once a form of judgement. (p. 22)

This brings us to an important concept underlying the Well, be it the Norse Well of Urd or the Holy Spring of Frisian legend: law comes from or is learned at the waters. The twelve who speak laws are not creating laws, but rather voicing the truths drawn from those currents. “The court, that is, the Aesir do not make law, they render decisions based upon what has existed in precedent. Yggdrasil is the bar of justice, while the Urðarbrunnr furnished the precedents…. The Urðarbrunnr is the fons juris of Norse mythology, as is the brunna [well, spring, or source] opened by the thirteenth god and the spring on Fositesland [the Frisian God Fosite’s ancient holy island, often identified as Helgoland].” (p. 21, notes in brackets are mine)

There is so much in the book that I have not been able to cover or even briefly touch upon. One of many points that stood out for me was that in the Gesta Danorum Baldur (“Baldurus”)–Forseti’s father in Norse myth–pierces the ground and creates a spring, rather akin to the Frisian myth (p. 20).

If this subject matter interests you, I highly recommend Stephen P. Schwartz’s Poetry and Law In Germanic Myth when you can actually find it at a reasonable price, which to my mind would be under $30. It is a slim volume, but it is full of rich detail.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting read. Especially when on Ameland, which was dedicated to the Frisian God(dess) Fosite, there were wells that were sacred to them. When getting water from these wells people would be silent. Both out of respect, but also out of fear, because apparently Fosite could react quite violently to people who couldn’t hold their tongue at the sacred wells.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, love Ameland! It holds a very special place in my heart, because that is where I went on my first pilgrimage for Forseti (Fosite), which was also a part of my very first trip to the Netherlands, flying in from the United States. Here’s an old article about my visit to His holy well:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, that is so amazing! I have to admit, I’ve never been, but it is definitely on my bucket list.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I read you older post. How amazing! Such a deeply spiritual experience. And that place is gorgeous. Ameland just went up on my go-to list haha

        Liked by 1 person

      3. LOL, that is wonderful! I am so glad you enjoyed the older post!

        The well is very close to Parkeerplaats Bramerduinenpad in Nes. Just go north past Begraafplaats Nes and hang a right on Duinlandsweg and you’ll quickly see it on the left just after the trees, by the soccer field. I was very lucky the VVV could help. Trying to research from the U.S., I originally thought it was on the other side of town. 🙂

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