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Wyrd: A Specious Etymology, by Lisa Dickson

three hooded witches in profile pointing to the left

Something wicked this way comes. Three Wyrd Sisters on the Scottish moor pass between them a skull and caress with their long fingers the raphe, those suture lines, the seams that fuse bone to bone. The rhaptein, this sewing. It’s time to go to work, to rhapsodize.

They look like people but they are not. People are events, bobbing in their boats of flesh and bone on the rising and falling tide of time. The Wyrd Sisters, the Moirai, the Norn, the Fates, do not exist in time. Their presence is an incursion of the flux that our human minds are not constructed to process. The brush of their fingertips on the top of your head while you bend to dig a measuring cup into a bag of flour makes you shudder. You close the window against the chill. You work the heels of your hands into the dough, think of the comfort of bread, hum a nonsense song that you can’t remember learning.

The cryptic words the Wyrd Sisters speak to bakers and poets and would-be kings are only incidentally sensible, following the plodding of syntax from now to now to now, prophetic only from our point of view. To them, time is not time but a space they already occupy. They are not events that happen; they are the place where events happen. They speak in riddles because mere syntax cannot wrangle their being, which is not one word strung after another on a thread like pearls, but all words, all at once. An utterance is an event and they are not events. Their faces are young and old. They are weird (Old English wyrd, fate, chance, destiny). They are on your threshold, holding the door open to the darkness. They have bent time (Proto-Indo-European wer-, to turn, to bend) to tell you what will befall you (Old English weorðan, become, turn toward).

blue, red and gold fleece and spindles with the wrapped thread

For generations Old English leaned only very slightly on syntax, until the Vikings came. The light in the mead hall wavers when the wind shoves in through the door, and shadows prowl in the

hollows of eyes and in the open mouth of the scop (Old English, poet, bard from the Proto-Indo-European *skeubh-, to shove). The Moirai (Greek moira, lot, portion) spin the thread of destiny, measure it, cut it, winding fibres into lives. These Wyrd Sisters sit among the people, hunched over the spindle and the wheel. On their shoulder waits the daimon (Proto-Indo-European da, to divide). According to Plato, the soul, seeking to escape the repetition of its previous life, chooses its daimon at the moment of its incarnation. The daimon is the guide that keeps the soul true to its fatal choice (Latin fatum, prophetic declaration of what must be). We “turn into” what we chose, once, to become. The hard bones of the skull are stitched into the shape of who we are meant to be.

A barbed wire with a rope tangled around it


There is an agitation in the derivational field of wyrd. There is bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. It grows from its root, sprouting twisted branches that go awry, that diverge, revert, subvert, becoming converse. The Wyrd Sisters look askance at us, offer a wink to human resistance to foreclosure. There, we worm and worry, wring and wrestle, warp and writhe, demanding our worth. Old English wyrd, literally “what befalls,” converges with Old Irish frith, “against.”

We are uppity about fate, that which is spoken at us, of us, about us by gods (Latin fari, to speak). We sing. We speak, too. We rhapsodize, knitting bone to bone, the quick to quick, quickly, like the darting shuttle of a loom. The Wyrd Sisters run their bony fingers across the raphe of our skulls—sutures and seams where we came together inside our skin—but in the house of bone is a riot. Syntax plods from now to now to now, but language defies time. Past tense persists in the ever-present of the written word. The voice travels in all directions, conjures worlds in the subjunctive, “if.” The Wyrd Sisters are good at their jobs, but they do it with a twist (Latin versare, to turn back, convert, transform), a turn toward becoming that gives us prose and verse, these uncanny creations that look just like life but are something so different, so other. A story is not strictly an event, but a space where events happen, our own human wyrdness sizzling on our tongues.

In the mead hall, the scop plucks the strings of the tagelharpa (Latin plectere, to weave, plait) and his voice weaves a tale full of twists and turns. His fingers are bony and dextrous (Gaulish Dexsiva, a goddess of fortune). In the story, heroes (Proto-Indo-European ser-, to protect) struggle with demons (da, portion, fate), and the thread twists dextrose (to the right) and sinistrose (Old French senestre, to the left, contrary, illegitimate). Our stories twist toward fate and against it and the tension is the warp and weft of our being. On the one hand, the Wyrd Sisters are righteous, all-powerful, inexorable. On the other, they are illegitimate, liminal, subversive, wickedly ambivalent. The tales of fate and resistance surge around the Wyrd Sisters on the tide of human voices. They sit in the mead hall, weaving dextrously left-handed, smiling under their hoods.

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