Orlæg (ON: orlǫg, Icelandic: örlög, from Proto-Germanic *uzlagą) is a word literally composed with the components or- (‘original’, ‘fundamental’) and -læg (‘that which is laid’, ‘law’), the word orlæg is often glossed in modern English with concepts of “fate” or “destiny”. As is all-too-common in the translation of ancient concepts this definition is unsatisfactory for the purpose of informing Germanic cosmological context and worldview. Along with wyrd, the concept of orlæg is a fundamental aspect of reality and being.
The usage of the word “fate” is ultimately unhelpful in the definition of all that encompasses the concept of orlæg: it is loaded with foreign baggage from Classical Antiquity and intimates a fixed and predestined endpoint in what is a linear progression of events constituting the sum of one’s existence. What we find when engaging with the cosmology and Germanic conceptions of time is that this is an unsuitable and dangerous association.
Orlæg is intrinsically tied to the Norns who, in the Voluspa, are said to perform three important tasks in the continuation of the cosmos: they make (speak) the laws, choose life for men, and set and mark fate. All of these speak to the totality of orlæg in the life of an individual and of all existence across the cosmos. Orlæg is the law of reality once it is spoken, and in consideration of it, the Norns choose the lives of the beings of the cosmos, and make their fates. By the act of speech, the law operates within all of reality – all the worlds that hang within the Tree – which gives reality the sustenance it requires for it’s persistent renewal and regeneration. This is a core theme in Germanic cosmology.
Speaking orlæg, the Norns draw the actions of all of reality back into the Well of Wyrd. The actions of all beings are laid down as they are completed, forming an ever-expanding continuum of reality. Past actions never truly fade, but exist in stratified layers within the well. Orlæg is called the “original law” because the earliest layers of strata are results of actions from this primal, spoken law.
The concept of orlæg is tied to the “past” in the Germanic manifestation of the term, which exists in a fundamentally different way than is commonly understood by modern practitioners of Heathenry. Similar to wyrd, which exists as a force that has and is yet to happen, the orlæg regularly impacts the world because it is continuously spoken by the Norns.
Orlæg is all that happens with respect to all that has happened already; it is already that which has been known. In this way, it is not the “fate” of a predestined point in some future, not some grandly explosive or whimperingly quiet climax to a man’s life. The Well of Wyrd consists of all actions which have occurred, which are structured and layered because of the spoken orlæg. The events of reality are clearly related, clearly connected to the actions of the past, and the ever-growing tapestry of events is woven together not unlike a loom.
We say that there is an interrelated and interconnected nature between the events of the “past” and the events of the “present”. Current, present-day events occur and return into the Well of Wyrd, adding their events to the complexity of the ever-growing past. But it is important to recognize that the past is not unaffected in this; it is not a static thing which is confined to stone. Present actions, in part, restructure or reformulate the actions of the past. In this way, the present maintains interrelated features with the past while the past intrudes quite forcibly into the present with all of our actions.
Or, to continue the loom analogy more simply: reality is a loom, wyrd are the individual threads, and orlæg is both the structure and shuttle, the vehicle to build the layers which form the tapestry.
Source and Further Reading: Paul C. Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, (The University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst), 1982.