Originally published as 'Inevitable Tales' in 'Unsettling Wonder' Issue 6, September 2017
Nothing, they say, is sure but death and taxes. By creating a comic equivalence between two such different but universally unpopular processes, the maxim succinctly acknowledges the trials of life and the inevitability of death. It's a bleak lookout – and so there are many traditional stories in which the impotence of humanity in the face of what seems a hostile or indifferent world is mitigated by endowing the universe with purpose.
Kismet – fate, destiny, quadr, karma, doom, wyrd – across the world these similar yet subtly different concepts have sprung up as responses to the same anxiety. They reassure that whatever good or evil may befall us is somehow meant to be, intended, written in the stars. Kismet is the opposite of luck. Luck is happenstance, the random fall of the dice. Kismet is destiny ordained by a higher power. In ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf tells Frodo it is so unlikely that the Ring would abandon Gollum only to be picked up by Bilbo from the Shire, that some mysterious purpose must be involved:
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put in no plainer than by saying Bilbo was meant to have the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’
Possession of the Ring is a calamity. When times are bad, it helps to hold on to the idea that there is meaning behind it all, but how, or whose? Answers vary according to the ways different cultures, philosophies and religions express their world-views.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘kismet’ is derived from the Arabic kisma(t), meaning ‘portion, division, lot’. From the outset then, kismet implies something received, not chosen: your allotted measure, your just deserts.
One of the neatest tales of kismet is to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, c. 500 CE. In sukkah 53a, 7-16, Rabbi Johanen tells a story to illustrate the saying: A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.
King Solomon had two Cushite scribes, Elihoreph and Ahyah. One day the King noticed that the Angel of Death was looking downcast. ‘Why are you so downcast?’ he asked. ‘Because the lives of your two scribes have been demanded of me,’ replied the Angel. In order to save the scribes, Solomon spirited them away to the district of Luz, where both men immediately died. On the following day the Angel of Death was in a cheerful mood, and again Solomon asked him why. ‘Because,’ said the Angel, ‘you sent your scribes to the very place where I was meant to slay them.’
The story shows that there is no escaping what God has ordained, for although he is not directly mentioned it cannot doubted that it is God’s demand which the Angel of Death is bound to fulfil.
Other stories of kismet begin at a child’s birth and concern themselves with prophecies of his or her future. Despite or even because of efforts to prevent them, prophecies in stories always come true. In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’ (KHM 29), a prophecy is made at the birth of a poor boy that he will grow up to marry the king’s daughter. Learning of this, the king persuades the parents to give him the child, promising to adopt him, but instead places him in a box and throws him into a river to drown.
The baby is rescued, however, and brought up by poor but kindly millers: when he is grown the king discovers him and tries again to have him killed by sending him to the queen with a sealed letter ordering his execution. On the way, robbers shelter the boy, examine the letter and alter it to command the boy’s immediate marriage to the princess. And so the king’s efforts to confound the prophecy actually bring it to pass.
This kind of story is Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 930, ‘Prophecy’. Closely related to it is the tale of Oedipus (AT 931). Laius, King of Thebes, learns from the Delphic Oracle that his son will murder him. According to different versions of the myth, Laius either pierces his baby son’s feet and exposes him on Mount Cithaeron, or seals him in a chest and casts him into the sea. In either case the child is adopted by the queen of Corinth, who pretends to have given birth to him. Growing up ignorant of his parentage, Oedipus kills Laius in an altercation on the road and marries his mother Jocasta. Once again the prophecy is fulfilled through the king’s very efforts to avert it. Much of the fascination of tales of this kind comes from watching the machinery of destiny inexorably at work.
If prophecies predict the future, can they be said to cause it? The answer to that depends very much on context. The Delphic Oracle spoke for the god Apollo, but there is no sense that Apollo takes a personal interest in Oedipus’ misfortunes. For the God of the Old Testament the case is less clear. The story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis is thick with prophetic dreams: not just those of Joseph himself but of Pharoah too, and his baker and butler. Joseph famously dreams that while binding sheaves in the field, his sheaf of corn stands upright while those of his eleven brothers bow down to him; also that ‘the sun, the moon and the eleven stars’ bow down before him.
And he told it to his father and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him and said unto him […] Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?’
Genesis 37, 10
To prevent the prophecy from coming true, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave into Egypt, a course of action which initiates his rise to power as Pharoah’s most trusted servant and governor of all the land; when famine strikes, Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt in search of grain and do indeed bow down before him.
There seems no particular reason why any of the characters in the stories we have looked at so far should be singled out by fate. None are especially good or bad. We are told nothing about the characters of Elihoreph and Ahyah, we only see that their time has come. Oedipus did not want or intend to murder his father or marry his mother. For the young hero of ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’, it’s not so much that he deserves to succeed as that the wicked king deserves to fail, and the same is true of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s story is in style, and affect, a fairy tale. He reports his dreams, and correctly interprets those of others, but he is not required to act upon them. His father Jacob was touched by holiness: spoke to God, even wrestled with him – but Joseph has no one-on-one relationship with God, and his qualities remain those of a fairy tale hero: ordinary morals and a good work ethic. He does not earn his destiny, it is bestowed upon him, unfolding as a consequence of the actions of others and the mysterious will of God.
A story which does require some action on the part of the dreamer is ‘The Pedlar of Swaffham’, an English tale first recorded in the 17th century. A pedlar of Swaffham in Norfolk dreams that if he travels to London and stands upon London Bridge, he will hear good news. At first he doubts the dream, but after its third repetition he puts it to the test. Arriving in London he stands day after day on the bridge, but nothing happens. Finally a curious shopkeeper asks the pedlar what he is doing, the pedlar explains his dream and the shopkeeper bursts out laughing.
‘I’ll tell thee, country fellow, last night I dreamed I was in Swaffham, where me thought behind a pedlar’s house in a certain orchard and under a great oak tree, if I digged, I should find a vast treasure! Now think you,’ says he, ‘that I am such a fool as to take such a long journey on the instigation of a silly dream? No, no, I’m wiser.’
Naturally the pedlar hurries home, digs a hole in his own orchard and finds the treasure. Significantly, while the pedlar dreams only of unspecified ‘good news’, the shopkeeper’s dream contains every detail needed to find the treasure. The pedlar however, trusts in and acts upon his dream, while the shopkeeper’s scepticism and failure to act deprives him of the treasure and brings the pedlar his reward. The town of Swaffham celebrates the story to this day:
The story certainly is not asking us to believe that God was concerned in enriching the Pedlar of Swaffham. (Unless, as I sometimes wonder, it began life as a sixteenth-century pulpit parable, with the good news turning out to be the Gospels and the treasure explained as salvation.) At any rate, in the form we have it the tale sends a more general and cautious message: ‘Trust, and all will be for the best’. But trust in what, or in whom? Need providence be a personal Providence? To put it another way, do we live in a moral universe? What about karma?
Karma may be a bit of a sixties buzz-word, but its original Sanskrit meaning refers to a spiritual principle of cause and effect: the events of a person’s life, good or bad, are the consequence of his or her actions and intentions in previous lives and are therefore quite literally earned or deserved. In one of the Buddhist Jatakas a princess, Rujā, explains to her father King Angati why it is that in spite of appearances Alāta, a general, is in a worse moral state than Bījaka, a slave:
I will tell thee a parable, O king. As the ship of merchants, heavy through taking in too large a cargo, sinks overladen into the sea, so a man, accumulating sin little by little, sinks overladen into hell … Formerly Alāta’s deeds were righteous, and it is as their result that he enjoys this prosperity. That merit of his is being spent, for he is all intent upon vice…
As the balance properly hung in the weighing house causes the end to swing up when the weight is put in, so does a man cause his fate at last to rise if he gathers together every piece of merit little by little, like that slave Bījaka intent on merit.
Jataka 544, tr. E.B. Cowell and W.H.D. Rouse, 1907
So… is anyone in charge, or is this just how the universe works? It’s not entirely clear. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (7th century BCE), speaking of the self or soul, explains: ‘As is its desire, so is its resolution; and as is its resolution, so is its deed; and whatever deed it does, that it reaps.’ What goes around comes around: the idea that karma means reaping what you sow has proved attractive to Western audiences accustomed by Christianity to ideas of judgement, reward and retribution. Less easy to grasp is the tranquil assertion that follows these lines: in order to escape the world and be united with the non-personal ultimate reality, Brahman, the self must be free from all desires, good or bad. Brahman is a difficult metaphysical concept. It must be distinguished from the Hindu creator god Brahma, who – scholars suggest – may have emerged from it at a later date, a personification people found easier to engage with, and more comprehensible.
In a story collected by G. R. Subramiah Pantalu in ‘Folk-Lore of the Telegus’ (1905) not only is karma inevitable, but Brahma seems to control it. The god Siva and his wife Parvati see a poverty-stricken Brahmin priest making his way home. Parvati wishes to gift him with gold, but Siva tells her that Brahma has not written that the Brahmin should enjoy wealth in this life. To test this, Parvati throws a thousand gold coins on the path, but as the Brahmin approaches he finds himself suddenly wondering whether he could walk along like a blind man. So, closing his eyes, he passes the coins and never sees them…
Perhaps it’s always easier for people to believe in a directed, personal fate than an impersonal one. For in this unfair and difficult world of ours, don’t we yearn for good deeds to be rewarded, evil deeds to be discovered and punished? ‘The Cranes of Ibycus’, a story found in the 10th century Byzantine Encyclopaedia, tells of the murder of Ibycus, a Greek poet:
Captured by bandits in a deserted place he declared that the cranes which happened to be flying overhead would be his avengers; he was murdered, but afterwards one of the bandits saw some cranes in the city and exclaimed, ‘Look, the avengers of Ibycus!’ Someone overheard and followed up his words: the crime was confessed and the bandits paid the penalty; whence the proverbial expression ‘the cranes of Ibycus’.
Trans. David Campbell
In this story there is no supernatural intervention: the birds do not speak and their flight over the city might be providence or coincidence, but here – at least in the sense the West understands it – we find karma’s cause and effect at work in the space of a single life-time. The satisfactory neatness of the murderer revealed by his own involuntary exclamation might belong to a modern detective story – a genre which itself relies on and reinforces our yearning for justice and right to prevail.
Precisely because fairy tales are not meant to be realistic, they can satisfy that yearning for justice. In the make-belief world of fairy tales everyone gets what they deserve. Many are the stories in which a simple youngest brother or orphaned maiden shows pity to some animal, injured or trapped, or shares a last crust with some poor old woman. In ‘The White Snake’ (KHM 17) a kind-hearted prince who understands the speech of animals returns three stranded fish to the water, avoids trampling on an ant-hill, and feeds some starving ravens (by killing his horse, which may seem rather to undo the good deed, but in this tale the horse must be regarded as an extension of himself). In gratitude, the animals help him in a number of difficult tasks. Generous acts in fairy tales are almost always rewarded. In the Grimms’ tale ‘Mother Holle’ (KHM 24) the pretty, hardworking girl who jumps down the well into Mother Holle’s otherworldly land behaves with courtesy and kindness even to the inanimate objects which plead for her help. She takes bread out of an oven so that it won’t burn, and shakes down apples from an apple tree so the branches won’t break, and she works so diligently and well for old Mother Holle that her reward is a shower of gold which covers her from head to foot.
Karma brings like for like, however. The lazy, ugly stepsister who ignores the pleas of the oven and the apple tree and refuses to work for Mother Holle is showered with pitch, not gold. In fairy tales truth always comes to light and evil deeds are discovered and punished. ‘The Singing Bone’ (KHM 28) tells how two brothers go out to find and kill a dangerous boar. The younger boy, whose heart is ‘pure and good’, kills the boar, but his jealous elder brother murders him. Burying the body under a bridge, he takes the credit for killing the boar and marries the King’s daughter.
‘But as nothing remains hidden from God, so this black deed also came to light. Years afterwards, a shepherd was driving his flock over the bridge and saw lying in the sand beneath, a snow-white little bone...’
The shepherd makes the bone into a mouthpiece for his horn, and when he blows on it the bone begins to sing and denounce the brother for his murder. The rest of the skeleton is found and the guilty man is put to death, while ‘the bones of the murdered man were laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in the churchyard.’
In fairy tales, helping a dead man is the most unselfish of acts, for surely the dead can never repay you? Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Travelling Companion’ tells of young Johannes who gives away all his money to prevent evildoers from abusing the corpse of a man who was in debt to them. Shortly afterwards he is joined on the road by the ‘travelling companion’ of the title who befriends and guides him, and helps him to marry a princess whose luckless suitors must answer three riddles or die. Reading the tale as a child I was thrilled when the wicked princess flies out of the castle on black wings to visit her lover, a troll king… During the course of the story the travelling companion teaches Johannes how to answer the riddles, and succeeds in killing the troll and disenchanting the princess. When Johannes thanks him and begs him to stay with them for ever, he replies:
‘No, I must go. I have but paid my debt. Do you remember the dead man whom you protected from wicked men in the church? You gave all you had so he might rest in his grave. I am that dead man.’ And with that he vanished.
A similar tale is ‘Beauty of the World’, told to William Larminie by Patrick Minahan of Mainmore, County Donegal and reproduced in ‘West Irish Folktales’ (1893). A king’s son gives all the money in his purse so that a body can be buried, and soon after is joined by a red-haired man who helps in his quest to find the beautiful woman on whom his heart is set. After many adventures the woman is won and the ‘red man’ declares:
It was I that was in the coffin that day. When I saw you starting on your journey I went to you to save you … Health be with you and blessing. You will set eyes on me no more.
Stories of the Grateful Dead (AT 506) have antecedents going back as far as the apocryphal Book of Tobit. They proclaim that good actions will always be rewarded, sometimes by God, sometimes by the less explicit workings of a mysterious yet morally weighted universe.
As people have thought about fate or destiny, different metaphors have emerged. Your deeds may be weighed in scales to determine your fate in the next life. Or destiny may be something measured out to you like grain: your portion or lot in life. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, 7:2), Jesus combines measurement and judgement with the words, ‘with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ He speaks also of ‘the reaper drawing his pay and gathering a crop for eternal life’ (John 4, 36). Like ‘kismet’, it seems the Arabic term al-quadr, ‘divine fore-ordainment’ or ‘predestination’ is also derived from a root which means ‘to measure out’. Implicit in these metaphors is an imagery of field-workers or servants judged worthy or not worthy of their hire. In a patriarchal society the one who decides on and doles out the wages is perceived as the ultimate Master, and so this metaphor mirrors the unequal relationship between the human and the divine.
But there’s another equally ancient metaphor for fate and it comes not from field-work, but from house-work. It compares the course of a human life to a thread which is first spun, and then woven into cloth, and ultimately cut with shears. Weaving was a woman’s work, and the Weavers of destiny were women.
The Greek Moirae or ‘Apportioners’ were envisaged as three old women, Clotho, ‘the spinner’, Lachesis, ‘the measurer’, and Atropos, ‘she who cannot be turned’. Clotho spun the thread of a person’s life on her distaff, Lachesis measured it with her rod, and Atropos cut it with her shears. In her book on the prehistory of weaving, ‘Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years’ (1994) Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out a stock couplet that appears ‘almost verbatim’ twice in the Iliad and once in the Odyssey and which is probably older than either:
He shall endure all that his destiny and the heavy Spinners
Spun for him with the thread at his birth, when his mother bore him.
Odyssey Book 7, 197-98; Iliad Book 20, 127-28 & Book 24, 210, tr. R. Lattimore
An imagery of spinning and weaving produces a different effect from one of harvest, wages and worth. Judgment and payment are performed at the end of a task, but spinning and weaving are tasks: dynamic, creative, ongoing processes. Yes, the weaver holds the pattern of the cloth in her mind, but she is free at any point to change it and do something different. Moreover, there is no place in the weaving metaphor for blame or judgment. The woven pattern is what it is: it is simply ‘what happens’. It cannot easily be made to represent reward or punishment.
In Norse mythology the Norns are three maidens who sit under Yggdrasil the World Tree, and ‘shape the lives of men’. Their names are Urðr (‘that which has come to pass’), Verðandi (‘that which is happening’) and Skuld (‘that which is owed’). The Poetic Edda tells of them setting up a huge loom, with threads that stretch across the sky, to weave the destiny of a prince. In her book ‘Roles of the Northern Goddess’ (1998) Hilda Ellis Davidson provides a translation:
It was night in the dwelling. The Norns came,
those who shaped the life of the prince.
They foretold him to be the most famed of warriors,
who would be reckoned the best of rulers.
They twisted firmly the threads of fate…
Set in place the strands of gold,
held fast in the midst of the hall of the moon.
East and west they hid the ends…
while Neri’s kinswoman knotted a cord
fast to the north, and forbade it to break.
The northern valkyries too, the ‘choosers of the slain’, were known as weavers of destiny. ‘The Saga of Burnt Njal’ tells of a man of Caithness named Dorrud, who on Good Friday saw twelve valkyries working on a warp-weighted loom, using severed heads for the weights and intestines for the thread. As they wound the finished cloth on to the loom beam, the women chanted a battle poem called ‘The Song of the Spear’ including the lines ‘Valkyries decide/who lives or dies.’ They then pulled down their cloth, tore it in pieces and each holding a piece in her hand climbed on their horses and rode off – presumably to war.
When in Old English poetry we meet the concept of ‘wyrd’ – ‘fate’ – there is often an interesting tension between it and the idea of a Christian Providence. Though the Old English poem Beowulf is likely the product of an 8th century Christian court, it harks back to the heroic and pagan past, and much of its material probably existed in earlier oral forms.
Wyrd oft nereð/Unfaégne eorl ƿonne his ellen déah.
Fate often spares a man not fated to die, when his courage is strong.
The modern English translation of this line appears to produce a tautology. Two different terms are translated as ‘fate’. ‘Unfaégne’ means ‘not fated to die’. But if a man isn’t fated to die, why is the state of his courage even relevant? ‘Wyrd’ is not the same as ‘unfaégne’ however. Wyrd is the Old English cognate of the Norse Urðr, the first of the Norns: not an abstraction but a personification who might choose to spare a man. (Shakepeare’s Weird Sisters are ‘wyrd’ not because they are strange, but because they can show Macbeth his future.) I sense that for the Beowulf poet, destiny was not unalterably written in the stars, but something much more like a real-time decision that Wyrd might make. The Norns do not foretell destiny, they weave it, so a display of courage might influence them to change the pattern… In the same poem, Hrothgar complains of the misery that the monster Grendel has inflicted on him and his war-band:
Is min fletwerod/wighéap gewaned; hie wyrd forsweop/on Grendles gryre. God éaƿe maeg/ƿone dolsceaðan daéda/getwaefan.
[My hall-companions fail me, my war-band wanes; fate has swept them into Grendel’s grip. God may easily put an end to the deeds of this deadly foe.]
Here, wyrd – again translated as fate – is used by Hrothgar to describe things that have already happened, not things yet to come. His dead warriors were doomed to die: whatever has happened in the past was clearly ‘meant to be’: yet God if he wishes can easily alter the course of future events. And in contrast to kismet and karma, there isn’t any sense that Hrothgar’s warriors deserve their fate. Wyrd is ‘what happens’; it is not transactional, not linked to personal morals. ‘Cattle die, kinsmen die,’ says Odin in the poem Hávamál in the Poetic Edda:
Every man is mortal,
But the good name never dies
Of one who has done well.
Tr. Paul Taylor and W.H. Auden
In the Norse world you had better behave well, because good behaviour wins you fame – but in the end nothing can ward off wyrd. Wyrd/Urðr arises from a world-view that believed even the gods would eventually perish at the hands (or teeth) of monsters on the day of Ragnarok.
Finally: that word doom. We now think of doom as a terrible fate lying in wait for us, but the word was originally without its modern connotations of disaster. It is derived from Old Norse dómr, a law or sentence. A kingdom is a land subject to the doom or law of a king. God, however, is Lord and King of all Christendom, and as Christianity spread to the Anglo-Saxons, the day of final judgement became known in England as ‘Domesday’ or the Day of Doom. For those whose Last Day was to have been Ragnarok, I can see the attraction of one in which God’s wrath would be softened by mercy towards repentant sinners. In this new context wyrd became archaic and finally obsolete, its meaning swallowed by Biblical concepts of measurement and justice.
It seems to me that concepts of kismet and karma, destiny and fate, have been driven by two things. One is a desire to make narrative sense of our time in the world and reconcile ourselves to inevitable death. If the Fates or Moirae or Norns spin the web of our lives, we know there must be a pattern even if we can’t see it. And stories such as the Rabbi Johanen’s parable, with which I began, make the point that since Death is bound to come, there’s no sense worrying about when: moreover, as the personified servant of God, endowed with human emotions such as sadness and cheerfulness, he loses some of his terror.
The other driver is a very human desire for fairness and justice in a demonstrably unfair world. Fairy tales provide us with make-belief utopias in which the innocent and generous are rewarded and the wicked punished. In an exactly balanced moral universe, karma delivers perfectly measured consequences for all our actions – if not in this life, at least in our next incarnation. Meanwhile, in a harsh northern world, wyrd urges sturdy acceptance of life’s hardships.
I will leave you with a short story by Somerset Maugham which has resonances of Rabbi Johanen’s parable with which I began. ‘The Appointment in Samarra’ comes at the end of Maugham’s 1933 play ‘Sheppey’. It epitomises the blend of humour, grace and resignation with which Tales of Kismet approach our mortality. The eponymous Sheppey is a kind-hearted barber who wins the Irish Lottery and gives all his money away over the course of the three acts. In the final scene a woman enters who looks like Bessie Legros, a prostitute whom he has helped, but really she is Death. She and Sheppey have a long conversation. Towards the end Sheppey asks, ‘You ain’t come here on my account?’. ‘Yes,’ says Death. ‘You’re joking,’ says Sheppey. ‘I thought you’d just come here to ‘ave a little chat … I wish now I’d gone down to the Isle of Sheppey when the doctor advised it. You wouldn’t ‘ave thought of looking for me there.’ And Death replies:
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions, and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned I saw it was Death who jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra, and there Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down into the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said, ‘it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
The Angel of Death by Evelyn de Morgan, 1881, wikipedia
Moses in his basket [the Child Cast Adrift] by Charles Foste: public domain, via blog Under the Influence
The Murder of Laius by Oedipus by Joseph Blanc wikipedia
Joseph Recognised by his Brothers by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois wikipedia
Pedlar of Swaffham Town Sign wikipedia
The Cranes of Ibycus by Heinrich Schwemminger wikimedia commons
The Princess Flies on Black Wings by Anne Anderson, The Mammoth Book of Wonders, author's possession
A Golden Thread [The Moirae] by John Melhuish Strudwick, wikipedia
The Norns by Arthur Rackham wikipedia
Odin and Fenriswolf, Freyr and Surt by Emil Doepler, 1905 wikipedia