Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Norse Concept of Luck

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Norse Concept of Luck

Article excerpt

THE FICKLENESS OF LUCK is a standing motif in our culture. For many, luck is defined by unpredictability more than anything else. In Norse culture, the case is quite the opposite in that luck had nothing to do with what we would refer to as coincidence or chance. On the contrary, luck was a quality inherent in the man and his lineage, a part of his personality similar to his strength, intelligence, or skill with weapons, at once both the cause and the expression of the success, wealth, and power of a family. Luck expressed itself partially in skills, beauty, and other desirable characteristics, but also in events shaping themselves according to the wishes of the lucky man. One might have luck in specified areas but not in others, such as fishingluck or weatherluck for example. But the so-called "man of luck" was the man who possessed luck generally, not just in one specific area. People possessed luck in different measure and one was helpless against an opponent who had greater luck. Kings especially were great men of luck to the degree that they were able to send forth their luck to assist others. Luck was not a thing to be sought or found by coincidence; one had the luck that one was accorded by fate. Yet, in certain cases luck could be diminished or lost, a phenomenon on which I shall elaborate later.

As to the more specific details of how the notion of luck was perceived, not much is known, and scholarship on the topic has been relatively limited. I find that the view of luck as part of a man's inherent nature sets the Norse concept of luck uniquely apart from a more modern conception, and it is this aspect of luck that I will investigate in this article.

More specifically, I shall attempt to elucidate an aspect of luck that has only been touched upon by a few scholars and not for many decades: the view of Norse society on luck and the lack of it. I find that the concept of luck has certain implications for society's view of the luck-man and his counterpart, the luckless man. If luck is one of a man's personal qualities, it may possibly affect the judgment of his character. Luck may be considered not as a morally neutral factor as in modern Western society, but a requisite part of an ideal personality. Certain Norse texts seem to imply a degree of moral condemnation of the luckless man, and it is this aspect of luck--society's view of the lucky and unlucky man--that I will investigate. Was luck an essential and required part of the personality of the ideal or "heroic" male? Was the luckless man correspondingly considered morally impaired? Was there an element of condemnation attached to lucklessness?

The conception designated in modern English by the word "luck" is highly complex. This fact is reflected in the Norse terminology used to describe the various ideas of luck. The main terms are as follows: gipta, gofa, heill, fylgja, and hamingja. The words audna, sola, and hugr are also used in connection with luck but are less important to the central questions of this article. The meaning of these terms ranges from the "abstract luck-quality, inherent in a man, which he may send forth for the assistance of someone else" to a "guardian goddess of a certain family;" a diversity that witnesses the complexity of the concept of luck.


The various terms for luck figure so frequently and widely in Norse literature--predominantly in sagas--that there is no reason to doubt that luck played an important role in the culture. The question is whether we may consider our sources, which are texts written in a Christian age, to be reliable sources of pre-Christian Norse thought and religion. In this case, one may conclude that the concept at least to some degree accurately reflects a pre-Christian mode of thought since large parts of its content and use clearly do not correspond to Christian ideas and thus cannot derive from them. Though the idea of guardian spirits might be borrowed from Christianity, the idea of luck as a force emanating from a person could hardly be. …

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