Book – Wyrd Allies: A Problem Of Fate

Few people like the idea of fate. Fixed, immutable, implacable, with no option for choice or chance or challenge: just fate, and nothing else. Some people, perhaps, would seem to accept this bleak ‘fatalistic’ view of the world – perhaps because they see so many others try to combat the fates, and fail in futility instead. But most of us will fight against what we see as the unfairness of fate – whether it works or not – so as to at least have the sense that we’re doing something. And that’s certainly what most approaches to personal-development seem to advise: for example, one well-known figure in the field claims that his book “will act as a magnificent and devastating battle-plan whereby you will win back absolute control of your life!” – which it can’t, because, courtesy of Murphy’s Law, control itself is a myth… Fate can be a problem.

At first sight it seems we have only three choices about fate: we can abandon ourselves to it – which leaves us with no choice at all, and hence no power either; we can try to fight against it – which we can’t, and hence tends to be an interesting waste of energy in support of an illusion; or we can try, very, very hard, to pretend that “it doesn’t exist really and it’s all a load of superstitious hogwash and I don’t believe it and I’m not going to believe it so there”… at which point Fate comes quietly through the back door and gives us another great big kick in the unfortunates – because there is such a thing as fate, and it doesn’t like to be ignored!

But there is another choice – a wyrd choice – which goes straight through the middle of that dilemma (trilemma?): understand what fate is, and how it works, in order to help it work with us. So yes, some of what we’ve seen so far could have been gleaned from the usual approaches to personal issues: but it’s here that we start to move off into what can only be called a weird direction…

Lessons in the weaving

Return for a moment to the Gryphon’s comments, way back in that imaginary garden: “everything that happens to us is a lesson”, it said; “if you don’t understand what the lesson is, you get to do it again. And again. And again…”. Sometimes the ‘lessons’ are comments on our own choices – feedback about the many choices we make which aren’t helping us express our ‘I’ – and sometimes they’re issues that seem to follow us around regardless of what we choose. Whatever it may be, our aim is, as the Gryphon suggested, “to get the lessons to lessen” – because each time we grasp a bit more of it, it doesn’t come back so hard!

Every thread – every possibility – passes through everyone, everywhere; and everyone has to face them all to some extent at some time. For each of us, most issues seem to come up just once or twice in a lifetime, often in a quiet, almost unnoticeable way, and rarely re-appear: sometimes they’ll only present themselves in our life in the ways in which we see them occur in others’ lives. But other issues, other threads, will certainly feel like ours alone – they’ll seem specific to us and to few, if any, others! Although in fact the same threads do pass through everyone – and hence anyone and everyone may be our allies in helping us face these issues – they are, in effect, our own special ‘lessons’, our very own course in the weird ‘university of life’ – in which we all get bent to some degree! So for me, for example, it’s obvious that for some threads – such as “how to convert a long-distance relationship into a tangible one without wrecking it” and “how not to set myself up as doormat and/or scapegoat” – I’m missing something in the ‘lesson’, because they do indeed keeping coming back, again and again…

No doubt you have your own ‘lessons’ too: what are they? What issues, for you, are ‘the lessons that don’t lessen’ – the ones that keep coming back, time after time? And why do these issues keep coming back?

It’d be easiest to blame it on fate, perhaps, but is there something in each ‘lesson’ that you’re missing? What choices are hidden in the twists of the wyrd – hidden behind the bars of your cage?

There’s a throwaway line in one of the old James Bond movies that illustrates well what’s actually going on here. “We meet again, Mr Bond”, says the villain, Goldfinger. “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action!” If something happens to me once: well, that’s just the weaving of the wyrd – ‘blind chance’, in the old Greek concept of fate. If it happens to me again: yes, sure, that’s coincidence. But three times? Enemy action, for certain!

Yet who’s the ‘enemy’? Good question… better not look too closely, though, or I might find the real answer…

I’d much rather say it’s ‘them’ – whoever ‘them’ might be. I’m their victim: ‘they’ did it to me. It’s all their fault, dammit! But, looking back, I can see that I’ve been treated like a doormat, or found myself set up as the fall-guy or the scapegoat, a lot more than Goldfinger’s ‘three times is enemy action’ – yet in each case it’s been with entirely different people, in entirely different places and in entirely different contexts. So who’s the ‘enemy’, then? The only common factor in all of these incidents is me… which suggests that my real ‘enemy’ is me… don’t like the sound of that at all!

All right, all right, I admit it: more than a few times it must be truthfully said that I’m ‘my own worst enemy’! I’d probably have a lot less trouble with my tax-return if I kept my paperwork in something more systematic than my usual ‘sedimentary filing-system’; and I’d probably have a lot less trouble with Mary – and far too many others – if I actually listened sometimes to what they’re saying…

If ‘three times is enemy action’, then in what ways do you know that you’re ‘your own worst enemy’? How do you get in your own way, so to speak? In what ways do you find yourself blaming others for what are more likely to be the wyrd’s feedback on your own choices? What happens to your relationships with others – and with yourself – as a result of this? (And no, it isn’t comfortable to explore this…)

But this is true for everyone: it’s not just us. All around us – everywhere around us – there are people who, by any objective standard, are their own worst enemies. They make mistakes – the same mistakes – time and time again, until eventually they find a way for the lessons to lessen. The mistakes are often different for different people: even though we each have our own ‘preferred mistakes’, between us all we find some weird way to make – and re-make – every mistake there can possibly be… no wonder it’s such a chaotic mess out there! Slowly understanding just how true this is, we begin to grasp the meaning of the word ‘compassion’…

The wyrd weaves through everywhere; it also weaves its way back – which is often just what we don’t want to happen! Every choice has its echoes in the wyrd, with the result that our ‘preferred mistakes’ will often have predictable echoes. Since this is the wyrd we’re dealing with, the form those echoes take will vary – sometimes imperceptibly, but often radically – yet the fact of the echo will not. This general principle is known throughout the world under a variety of different names: in the common, if rather simplistic, Western interpretation of the Indian concept of ‘karma’, for example, every action has its equal and opposite reaction, and every inaction leads to an equal and apposite re-enaction, another ‘lesson’; whereas the witchcraft tradition, by contrast, argues that whatever we send out to others – for good or ill – comes back threefold. Either way, they all suggest it’s a good idea to be careful of what we say and do!

What’s your experience of ‘karma’, or of the witchcraft notion of the ‘threefold return’? Both suggest a fairly simple linkage of cause-and-effect: in that sense, if you think that something that happened to you was an effect of your karma, what was the cause?

The wyrd is a little more twisted than cause-and-effect: in what weird ways did your karma – your wyrd – weave its way back to you, no matter how much you might have tried to block it? What choices did you have in this? If you can’t change the fact of that karma, what choices did you have about the form that it takes? There’s always a choice, there’s always a twist: but that means there’s always some choice about the twists too…

“Issues weave through me on the threads of wyrd: are unchanged by how much I am unchanged” – that was a comment in Positively Wyrd, which also applies here. Whether I like it or not, I’m responsible for the threads that make up these repeating patterns. (That’s not the same as saying that I’m to blame for them – we’ll be looking at the distinction between blame and responsibility later – but it certainly means that I can’t blame others for them either!) And my personal work on those threads, those issues – how I accept them and work with them – changes the visible choices for everyone. I change my wyrd, and the wyrd as a whole – change what happens to me, and to others – through changing myself, and by my example: not by trying to ‘make’ others change!

We always have choice, though there’s always a twist… But there’s an even more twisted layer to this, because not all of these repeated patterns can be traced back to our own choices, our own ‘preferred mistakes’. It’s a layer which the mythology of wyrd describes as ‘geis’ – a layer in which we discover that there really is such a thing as fate.

Wyrd and geis

The word ‘geis’ – pronounced variously as ‘gesh’ or ‘gayas’, and with the plural ‘geasa’ – roughly translates as ‘bond’: a commitment, a promise. Just who the commitment is made by, or to, though, is rarely clear…

In one sense, the term is used to describe the milieu into which we were born, our ‘place in life’, over which – in principle at least – we had no apparent choice: the bond, but also the promise, of threads such as our genetic inheritance, our family, sex, race, place of birth, education, historical period and so on. Each of these do affect – often strongly – the relative ease for us of some choices compared to others: given my body-shape, for example, I’ve never had any realistic chance of choosing to become a champion athlete! If I’d been born as a girl a hundred years ago, I’d have had little chance to study, and even less chance of being taken seriously if I did; if I’d been born as a boy at that time, my most likely fate would have been to die as ‘cannon-fodder’ in someone else’s war. Such is our wyrd: and it’s worth reflecting on just what we have been ‘given’ – or not given – as the background to our own lives.

What have you been given as the background to your life? What have you inherited, or learned, or gained, from your family? What advantages – and there are always some – have you gained from being born male, or born female, as a member of your racial group and social background? What has happened – or not happened – to you because you were born when and where you were born? What options were opened to you because of the educational and other choices that others took on your behalf, in what they saw as your ‘best interest’, without your informed involvement?

And what have you not been given? It’s easy enough to notice the things that you think you missed out on – a more stable home environment, perhaps, or the apparent advantages you see held by the other sex – but there are others that are harder to see simply because they’re not there. War or plague or poverty, for example, or physical handicap, or no access to education or health-care: what advantages have you gained from these not being part of your own background?

An interesting question, though: if that’s what we’ve been given, who’s doing the ‘giving’? Christians, Jews and Moslems alike might argue that these things are in the gift of God alone; those who believe in the continuation of ‘I’ from life to life, such as Buddhists or Hindus or the ancient Celts, might agree in some ways, but would suggest that ‘our’ choices in previous lives – whatever that might mean – also play their part in this. Just how much we choose our parents, for example, is arguable indefinitely! But at the same time, the common New Age misconcept of ‘poverty consciousness’ – “you chose to be poor in this lifetime, so it’s entirely your fault and your problem” – owes more to the selfishness of paediarchy than to anything else… We may not be responsible about our past, or what happened before our (current) past, or for what others chose for us before we could choose for ourselves, but we’re always responsible for our choices now.

The Celtic version of geis is complex and multi-faceted. In one sense it’s a bond or commitment lasting well beyond death: the Celts legally could, and did, borrow in one lifetime under bond to pay it back in the next – a somewhat extreme idea of a mortgage as a literal ‘death-pledge’! But in another sense it’s also a challenge, or a dare, which inevitably places the bondee in a double-bind. This is well illustrated by a key segment of the Irish legend of Diarmid and Grainne. The lively young chieftain’s daughter Grainne had agreed to be married to the great hero Cuchullain, whom she’d never met: but at her wedding-feast she’s realised that it’s not what she wants to do – at all. Either as ‘love at first sight’ (as some versions of the legend insist) or as an escape from her ill-chosen promise, she picks out the young warrior Diarmid; and whilst the others are drinking, demands that he rescue her from her situation – or elope with her, which comes to much the same thing. “I put you under bond”, she says; in Celtic terms, she places a geis upon him – uses his sense of honour to pass the problem to him.

And he cannot refuse the bond: the concept of honour is so deep in that warrior society that to do so would be to have failed as a human being. So he’s caught in a double-bind: he cannot refuse to go with her; yet to do so is to betray his own oath of loyalty to Cuchullain. Despite her betrayal of others, the formal statement of the bond means that it is now his problem: and the only way out is to break through an unbreakable barrier – either his own, or that of the society in which his lives. So whatever he does now, it’s wrong: and the results of his choices will echo everywhen within the wyrd, to haunt his soul through the lifetimes – and, as myth, will weave its way throughout the ‘collective unconscious’ of all humanity. In that sense, geis is a weird variant of the biblical notion that ‘the sins of the fathers are fetched even unto the seventh generation’ – except that, as Celtic legend shows, its results are nothing like so simple, or so limited, as to affect a mere seven generations of only one family…

“You must, but you mustn’t; you mustn’t, but you must”: what’s your experience of being caught in that kind of double-bind in which, whatever you do, you know it will be wrong? What were the circumstances that led to that fate for you? What did you choose? In what ways have your choices come to ‘echo everywhen within the wyrd, to haunt your soul through the lifetimes’?

Whatever form it takes, the commitment required by the bond demands the completion of an apparently impossible task. So a geis is also an ending, a closure of the wyrd – or in Greek terms, the fate associated with hubris, with over-reaching oneself too far into ‘the pride that comes before a fall’. Every thread of the wyrd has its ending: the difference is that, through the weird twists of geis, we can even know what that ending would be – though the warning can often be too twisted to make sense until it’s far too late!

Every wyrd has an ending…

This is the fatalistic aspect of wyrd: in the Nordic myths, even the gods were subject to their wyrd, meeting their end in the Gotterdämmerung, the cataclysmic Ragnarök which marks the end of the world. The same fatalism comes up often, too, in early Anglo-Saxon poetry, which merges older myths and the then-new Christian symbolism in some very strange ways. Alluding to the death of Jesus on the cross, the poet-author of the seventh-century Dream of the Rood, for example, comments, “I have endured many terrible Wyrds upon the hill”; and elsewhere in the same poem, there’s a similar comment that “the corpse grew cold, that fair house of the soul; then men began to fell us to the ground – that was a terrible Wyrd!” Anglo-Saxon scholars often translate ‘wyrd’ as ‘trials’ or ‘experiences’, but it somehow loses the intensity inherent in the aside made by another early poet: “lo, we suffered many dreadful wyrds that night…” The ending implied by a ‘dreadful wyrd’ is not necessarily a death: though it’s definitely an ending of some kind – a death of the soul, the death of hope, the death of what might have been.

There’s a strange Welsh word, pronounced ‘heraeth’, that could describe one common response to this aspect of wyrd: it’s almost untranslatable, but approximates to “a longing and a grieving for that which never was, which cannot be, and never will be”. I sometimes find myself mourning for lost possibilities in past relationships, or the sense of loss in the hope of relationship with Nicky, which seems so much blocked by the weavings of the wyrd: for what past or present issues are you still caught in ‘heraeth’, in ‘a longing for that which can never be’? How much does this hopeless grieving for the past, or for the impossible, affect your choices in the here-and-now?

Every thread of the wyrd has its ending; a geis describes and delimits that moment of ending, when the twists and turns of the thread finally fold back upon themselves. And a geis usually carries some kind of weird warning of its presence: so great is the tension created by the tangled predicament that it’s as though the fabric of reality itself is twisted, and creates a characteristic echo throughout the wyrd. If we know what we’re looking for, we can recognise this: and that means that we do have some choice as to how best to respond.

The twist is that these echoes are described in symbols – “a sword and a rope over water” – and often make no sense if we try to interpret them literally. There’s one famous historical example of this, in the story of James, Duke of Monmouth, a seventeenth-century pretender to the English throne. As a child, a geis was identified for him: he was warned that he would meet his end at the Rhine. So throughout his long exile in France, in the middle of the century, he was careful never to cross that river: as long as he didn’t do so, he would be safe – or so he thought. But in 1685 he led a rebellion in southern England; and after the battle of Sedgemoor, where his army was finally defeated, he was captured whilst hiding in a drainage ditch, and was executed soon after. So where does the geis come in? Those drainage ditches on the Somerset levels around Sedgemoor are known locally as ‘rhynes’: the geis was indeed explicit, but perhaps not explicit enough…

“We have no geis that we know for you”, says a character in Marion Campbell’s weird historical novel The Dark Twin. In the midst of the chaotic maze of symbols and images which fill my dreams and my inner life – suburban trains, a deer, a twisted ring – the only geis I know for myself concerns a ferry, or travel over water. I have no idea what form it will finally take: I’m expecting a typically wry weird twist, like the story of the Duke of Monmouth, when it finally comes…!

This is perhaps asking a bit much at this stage, but do you have any known symbols which describe your ending, or the ending of something which means a great deal to you? If you know this, how much does it affect your choices? In what ways does it already affect your relationships with others?

A geis is an end-point in a thread of wyrd: it describes something that we’re certain will never happen – or, if we’re forewarned, often try to make sure can never happen – but which somehow, in the weird twists of fate, always finds some way to transpire. Faust makes his pact with Mephistopheles: he will be free if he never once in forty years says the words ‘Linger, thou art fair’ – and yet, with only moments left before final freedom, Faust finds himself saying the fateful phrase. No matter how much we’d want to blame others, some things are our wyrd: everyone is trying to avoid the end, yet everyone has their geis…

…but there’s always a choice!

There may always be an ending: but sometimes, listening to that strange sense ‘impending wyrd’, we can know in time to change to another thread, another choice of action, and hence avoid it – for a while, at least! And even if we cannot avoid the ending, we do still have choices about how we face it – and about what we do in the meantime. Not all of our wyrd can be said to be truly our choice: and yet within those weird twists there are always choices available to us. Our ‘lessons’ are ours, and it’s up to us to find a way to make them ‘lessen’ – not just for us, but for everyone.

There’s one example that immediately comes to mind. A few years ago I was on a training course, one of whose themes was about ‘making a difference’. There were about thirty of us on the six-month course, from all different backgrounds, and all different age-groups. One of the others was a man named Alan: an odd character, struggling hard against the harshness of his wyrd – which included a minor physical deformity – and trying as best he could to make something of his life. In his mid-forties, he’d never had any kind of intimate relationship – not even a date, as far as we could gather – and he spent his nights working as a taxi-driver, and his days studying in private, though he was at last beginning to have a social life in the form of amateur theatre. The course ended, as these courses often do, with each of us making a statement about ‘our purpose in life’, and we each went on our separate ways.

I forget what Alan had said his ‘purpose’ was, but it soon didn’t matter: six months after the course ended, he was dead, murdered in his own taxi by a couple of kids, in an adolescent robbery that went horribly wrong. A futile waste of a sad and lonely life…

And yet… and yet…

Our group reconvened over Alan’s death: we agreed that it had been a shock, in this quiet city, and yet it hadn’t been a surprise – somehow, almost all of us had been expecting it. A group of strangers, including one of my friends from the course, met by chance in a café: it turned out that every one of them knew Alan, or had been involved in the incident – one was a social worker assigned to the boys in the past, another was a lawyer working on the case, another had known Alan from the theatre, and so on. Weird… I’d first known about the murder when I saw Alan’s face on the front page of the newspaper; yet in the months that followed, his photograph was often on the front page of the newspaper, in any article on risks to taxi-drivers, or juvenile crime, or the problems of social workers – even once, by accident, wrongly captioned in an article about psychiatric patients who’d died on the streets. Weird indeed…

Alan had ‘made a difference’, even continues to make a difference to the lives of others – but in his own way, and more in the manner of his dying rather than in the manner of his living. Most of us would probably prefer to ‘make a difference’ whilst still alive: and yet in some weird way it seems that even that is in our choice. There’s always a twist, perhaps, but there is still always a choice…

Do you have any sense of your own ‘weird purpose in life’ – the purpose of your wyrd? In what direction do those repeated ‘lessons’ seem to be pushing you?

To fully resolve those ‘lessons’ from the wyrd means accepting that they are part of our wyrd, and that our most constructive response would be to learn to work with them, rather than fighting in futility against what is evidently our fate. What would accepting that demand of you, and of your relationships with others? What would you have to give up – your pride, perhaps, or your certainty? – in order to work with the weavings of your wyrd?

We each have our own wyrd; and each wyrd, interweaving though it always does with every other, has its own endings, and its own geasa. So we could say that our ‘weird purpose in life’ is to learn how to resolve our geasa constructively: for ourselves, for others and – if we happen to believe in such things – in all our other lives past, present and future, anywhen within the wyrd. It’s not easy – but probably easier than having the same ‘lessons’ come back again and again, never lessening in their impact on our lives… And it does need to be understood as a quest rather than an achievable goal: we do what we can, but “let us live a little while we may”!

So the next five chapters explore a variety of ways in which we can better understand how our wyrd interweaves with others’ – and what we can constructively do about it. Some of it may be heavy going at times – there are some important threads which few of us want to face – but it will help us to find the tools with which we can learn to work with our wyrd, and share that power with others wisely. Time to open the toolkit, then – and to find out more about the subject and the object of this exercise!

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