Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Gods and Orishas: On Fate, Destiny, and Free Will

In the world of divination, the concept of fate, destiny, and free will is commonly discussed. Can we know the future? Is the future set in stone? Do we create our own future? How able are we to influence or change what is foreseen in the cards?

Opinions surrounding this topic vary from reader to reader. My own perspective is informed both by personal experience and by the sacred stories of the two religions that live in my heart: Ifá/Santería, and the Northern Tradition.

Destiny, in a general sense, is actually treated quite similarly within both religious frameworks, and my own experiences in divination reflect the complexities and mysteries present there.
Elekes and mjölnir
To start, I’ll recap the story of Baldr’s death, as per the Poetic Edda:

Frigg, wife of Odin, is said to weave Wyrd (the Anglo-Saxon term for the Norse "Urd"), to be a seeress who seldom speaks of what she knows. When her son Baldr begins to have dreams of his own death, Odin travels to Hela and raises a dead witch in order to ask about it. He sees that the hall of Hela seems to be prepared to receive a new soul, and the witch confirms that they are waiting for Baldr. When Odin tells Frigg what he learned, she travels the worlds securing oaths from all things big and small that they will not cause Baldr’s death. Even though she is a seeress she still does what she can to prevent that tragedy from occurring. And yet she fails to secure an oath from mistletoe because she feels that it is too unassuming to be a real danger. Loki ends up using his notoriously deceptive means to learn of this. Later, when the Gods are playing a (really dumb) game to see how, when thrown at him, axes and arrows and swords fail to hurt Baldr, Loki gives a mistletoe dart to the blind God Hödur. Of course, when he throws it, Baldr falls dead. Even then Frigg sends another son to Hela to ask if there is any way to send Baldr back from the dead, and Hela says that if Frigg can prove that all beings in existence weep for Baldr, then she will release him back to the living. But there is one creature who refuses to cry: Loki (yet again) in disguise, and so Baldr stays put in Hela until after Ragnarök.

What this story shows is how inevitable some events are. Frigg is a seeress and that (of course) doesn’t stop her from doing all she can to try to prevent the death of her son. And despite all of her remarkable efforts, she loses him anyway. (There is a greater part of the story here of course, in that after the world ends, Baldr is released from Hela to bring light, peace, and love to the worlds once again. In that sense, Baldr’s death had a greater ultimate purpose for the well-being of the universe.)

In Wyrd, there are things that make up certain aspects of your destiny that you are bound to, that are unlikely to be greatly altered no matter what you might do. There are other aspects of your future that you live out according to your past: the consequences of your own actions, for good or for bad. And within Wyrd there is some room to improve your Wyrd, to influence your own path, whether that be through actions taken, or “simply” by an alteration of perspective. Interestingly, even the Gods, who we often assume to be omnipotent, are at the mercy of Wyrd (as we see with Baldr and Frigg).

Similarly, in Ifá, there is the concept of orí, which is one’s personal destiny, connection to divinity – in a sense it is the part of each person that is an orisha, that is holy. There is also Orí, a divine being that “owns” all orís. Like Wyrd, there are ways to live in “right relationship” with your own orí – to honor it, respect it, be open to it. And there are ways to influence your destiny via “being seen by Orula” – mirarse con Orula (a consultation with a babalawo) - whereby you may be instructed to tend to particular orishas, to your ancestors, to your orí, even to such things as the cleanliness of your home, in order to improve your overall environment, and invite better fortune. And like the Northern Tradition, one’s own orí trumps the influence and intercession of the orishas. There is a sacred story that tells of a man being dragged by the foot through a village by his own orí. He shouted for Chango to come help him. When Chango heard the man’s calls he came running, weapon in hand, prepared to fight in the man’s defense. But when Chango saw that it was the man’s own orí that had hold of him, he knew there was nothing he could do, and he went back home.

These stories and myths suggest that there are many layers to our future, to our destiny, to time as a whole (which is decidedly non-linear). Some aspects may not be significantly changeable, no matter what we do to influence them. Other aspects relate to our own free will – the choices we make in life, the attitudes with which we approach the circumstances that arise on our paths. Our ultimate freedom lies within our own perception. There is great power in that.
In the Havamal, stanzas 55-56, Odin (who won the wisdom of the runes) says: “You should be only a little wise, never too wise. A wise man’s heart is seldom glad, if he’s truly wise; You should be only a little wise, never too wise. It’s best not to know your fate beforehand; you’ll live happier if you don’t.”*

I get that. Sometimes I just don’t want to know. I’ve had experiences where I have seen the future laid out the cards, and it’s not always a pleasant experience, though my experiences have differed according to the degree of event foreseen. Once I saw a minor money glitch in a line of Lenormand that helped me prevent an overdraft fee – that was ultimately a good thing, and I was able to change the outcome there (though it could be considered relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things). Another time (recently, in fact) I saw that a person that I was in the process of hiring would ultimately be denied at the last moment due to the school’s financial constraints. That was not at all what I wanted or hoped to happen, but seeing that gave me the opportunity to consider alternatives, and to get used to the idea, and by the time the official announcement was made I was feeling perfectly okay with it all. In that case I couldn’t change the outcome, but was able to receive it with a positive attitude. In yet another instance I saw the illness of a friend’s mother in the cards, about three months prior to it coming about. In that case I was troubled by it because there was really nothing that could be done, other than perhaps to prepare financially for a visit (in this case you couldn’t really even be “positive” about it, so it was unpleasant all the way around). Odin’s advice is sensible because, as in the case of Frigg, even the wisest of individuals can struggle at times to come to terms with unpleasant outcomes.

And as a card reader, my general sense of things is that many clients don’t know how to process undesired future possibilities (though that usually doesn’t prevent them from asking). These days, when reading for others, I tend to place the greatest emphasis on the past and the present, above all. Setting aside the idea of those future events that may be inevitable, there is space to positively influence our own lives, right now. By understanding the past, the root of our current dilemmas, and by looking at ways to embrace our own agency – our power over our present – we accept our responsibility to ourselves and our communities, we invite in growth and evolution, we honor our orí, and we work to improve our Wyrd.

My uncle said, over 20 years ago: “Attitude is everything.” It etched itself on my psyche and I’ve never forgotten it. Our greatest and truest sense of “free will” lies in our willingness to invite in new perspectives, to see the grace in challenging circumstances – to be positive even when it would be simpler to be otherwise. It is hard, at times, but therein lies our deepest power.

*Translation by Jackson Crawford, 2015.


  1. And once again it is often not the circumstances which define us but how we respond too them. I fully agree on using the tarot to empower us to face the future whatever it holds in store for us

    1. Thanks, dear Ellen! Tarot has been such an amazingly helpful tool for navigating life's twists and turns- a most trusted guide :-)

  2. This is a beautiful post, Olivia! I like the way you weave your traditions into your understanding, as well as the wise words of your uncle. I'm very much into addressing the mindset aspects of how we face life. Yet, I also recognise that we can't change everything, even with the best will in the world. As you say, we can work to improve our Wyrd, to honour ourselves and our communities, and accept what we cannot change :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Chloe! Attitude is such a powerful and I think at times underestimated tool for making positive improvements in our lives. It is one thing that is always within our influence! Many blessings your way!