In the time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the dead becomes blurred, I stumbled upon a ghost story that has some ancient ties to Norse mythology.
In the Veluwe region of the Netherlands, the story is still told of a ghostly white lady who lives in a hollow tree. There in that hollow beech tree in the forest of Soeren, she spins her threads. It has been said that she is none other than one of the Norns, the Germanic goddesses of Fate.
The spinning woman that haunts this tree may be the youngest of the Norns, named Urth. Usually, the Norns are three in number, but in this story there is only one. An old 855 AD charter from the Gelderland region of the Netherlands speaks of the Urthensula, the “Pillar of Urth”, found in the Veluwe forest.
Could the wood with the hollow tree be the same wood that was home to Urth’s pillar? Or, as van der Wall Perné asks in his Veluwsche Sagen, was this place once home to the World Tree, the great ash tree (or yew tree, many say), where the Norns weaved their threads of Fate for all the world?
But why, do I ask, does the lady reside in a hollow tree? That question made me ask myself why trees are hollow in the first place? Let’s first look at the folk tale and then let’s see to what realms our investigation takes us…
The White Lady of High Soeren
Gustaaf van der Wall Perné was a collector of old folk stories from the Veluwe. The name of this region with its dry forests and heathlands was said to come from the Vale Ouwe, “the Pale Old One”. In his time already, around the turn of the 20th century, these old tales were almost forgotten.
The tale of the Witte Juffer van Hoog Soeren, the “White Lady of High Soeren”, is one of several that he has collected around the hearth fire. The old people of the region told them that the tree was so hollow, that one could stand in it upright.
When one came into the forest at night, one could see a small light burning, and one could hear the Lady spinning inside the tree. Sometimes people heard knocking from inside the tree. At times, a black dog was seen with fiery eyes, prowling the forest.
Several folk tales relate how common people were punished by the lady for their pride and the rude intrusions into her domain. One fellow met the black dog, and a little girl was grapped by her hair when she dared stick her head inside the hollow tree.
Those who were more cautious and respectful towards the spinning lady would be rewarded rather than punished. As one story goes, a blue light and two black ravens reveal the location of Urth’s treasure, which lies buried in the ground in a big and heavy chest.
Through the centuries, the goddesses of Fate that we know from the myths have been remembered in later folktales. No doubt, this came with many later variations and ideas on how the Norns manifest themselves to us. First, let’s look more closely at the hollow tree – that tree which may be a late memory of the old Germanic World Tree known as Yggdrasil by the Norse.
What Makes Trees Hollow?
We can ask ourselves: what makes trees hollow? There are several natural factors that can damage the outer layers of the tree, and expose the tree’s heartwood. Once a hole is created, it can grow larger as animals further develop the hole using their break, teeth or claws.
The hollow tree in the Dutch folktale has a very large cavity, large enough for a grown-up person to stand in. Such large holes tend to form in older trees, so the hollow tree of High Soeren was probably an old one already when tales about the hollow tree formed. But there is something else that causes trees to become hollow, eating away the wood of decaying trees: the bracket fungus.
The bracket fungus eats away at both living and dead trees. When the fungus works its way into the wood of the tree, it weaves a tangled web of usually colorless threads called the mycelium. Just like the Lady in White, who spins the threads of Fate inside the hollow tree, the bracket fungus (some of which are white in color) weaves its web of mycelium.
The Fate of the Forest
Networks of mycelium can grow to gigantic proportions, covering hundreds or even thousands of acres of woodland. It’s the mycelium which determines the fate of the entire forest. It’s a gigantic network of tentacles and sensors which decides to which plants or trees the nutrients should be distributed, deciding the fate of the entire food chain. In turn, it takes nutrients for itself, feeding off dead organisms.
The mycelium gives and takes life through an intelligent network of colorless wires and visible fungi. There is one problem though in trying to establish a link between tree fungi and the Norn in the hollow tree. The threads of the mycelium are usually too small to be seen with the naked eye. Only when they form together in big lumps can they be seen more easily.
The most noticeable way in which the fungus network reveals itself, is in the fruiting bodies that it sprouts on the surface that it lives on. These are what we would call the fungus or mushroom itself.
A nice analogy can be drawn between the threads of the Norns and the (almost invisible) threads which mushrooms weave through the forest, and through the wood of trees. But that doesn’t suffice to prove any connection between the Norns and (white) mushrooms growing on trees.
There are a more clues to be found though, when we look at the myths and folklore, and their implied connections with all that grow, including fungi…
Gods and Trees
In the Eddic poem called Völuspa, the Norns were said to reside in a dwelling beneath the Tree. There, as the poem says, they carved into wood . One could see the poetic link between the carving Norns and the mushrooms that eat their way into the tree.
David Mathisen, who explains the myths by showing the correlations with the stars, also suggested the possible link between the Norse god Odin and the mushroom. Odin is one of the gods who is strongly associated with the World Tree, and with all the flora and fauna that dwell in its roots and branches.
It is not too far-fetched to suggest a link with that other forest-dweller: the mushroom. The mushroom often grows between the roots of the tree in a symbiotic relationship, and it’s from the roots of the Yggdrasil Tree that Odin carves his runes.
The Norns share the same strong link with the Tree as Odin does, and as they live at the base of the tree, they also live in the same place where mushrooms tend to grow. There, they are said to control life and make the laws of nature, either by spinning, carving on wood, or by singing.
Mushrooms could be called protectors of the forest. But when they appear on a tree, it’s usually a sign that the tree is becoming old, and decay starts setting in. But the Norns were said to protect the Tree of Life by spraying snow-white clay onto its trunk to prevent it from rot. When mushrooms cause white patches to appear on a tree though, it’s called “white rot”. It’s a sign of decay rather than something that keeps the tree healthy.
Be that as it may, we do find some more clues in the realm of the fairies…
The Fair Folk
The Goddesses of Fate are not only similar to other gods, but they also have strong links to the fairy faith that is found in later folklore. In fact, the very word fairy has been derived from Fata, one of the Roman goddesses of Fate. The name Fata can be derived from Latin fatum: “fate, lot, destiny, death…” etc. This in turn comes from fatus: “having spoken, said”.
Urth and other goddesses of Fate have their counterpart in the Queen of the Fairies of the fairy faith that was prevalent across Europe. Like the Norns, the fairies were regarded as “beings of light”, or as “white beings”. Fairies are also called “the Fair Folk”, because they share this same luminous quality. This connection to light and brightness is found among the elves of the Old Norse faith, who are also described as supernatural beings of light.
In Scandinavia, the fall was the time when ancestors were worshipped. In this time of year, the sacrificial feast called the Álfablót was held behind closed doors. The Álfablót is the sacrifice to the elves – the sacrifice to the ancestors. And as Fjorn the Skald points out in his podcast called Fjorn’s Hall, the fall is also the time of year when mushrooms start popping out of the ground. Helped perhaps, by a sacrifice of blood.
There is a link between elves, ancestors and fertility. The earth provides the fertility of the land. The earth gives life, but it was thought necessary to nourish the earth with a sacrifice to give it something in return. New life can only grow out of the old, out of the ancestors who dwell beneath the earth.
It was thought in old folk belief that when one died and was buried, the deceased ancestor would continue to watch over the living from the grave. As the ancestor became one with the earth, the ancestor would also receive the powers of fertility, and help the living by providing them with all that grows.
The fairies too were said to live underground, in hollowed-out hills. The fairies of Ireland were once proud gods who were driven underground when mortals took over. This reminds us again of the White Lady living in the hollow tree. Even the afterlife of Odin, the great Valhalla with its army of the dead, was thought to be located in a hollow mountain or under the ground in older times.
In the realm of fairies, which is so much bound to the earth and fertility, we also find a lot of clues that would link them to mushrooms. We have all heard of those rings of mushrooms called fairy rings or witches’ rings. In Ireland, the psychedelic Liberty Cap mushrooms are also called pookas, linking them to the Puck, the trickster spirits of the earth.
Spirits in the Sky
The Otherworld of gods, elves, and fairies can be found beneath the ground, in dreams, in psychedelic visions, and most probably in the stars of a moonless night as well. In the darkness of the night, the lines between sky and earth become blurred. They merge in the absence of light, with only the stars to guide the way.
As David Mathisen has convincingly demonstrated in Star Myths of the World Volume Four, the Norns and their weaving may also be seen in the stars. There, the Norns can be seen spinning where the Milky Way is brightest, near the Core of our own Galaxy. And there too we may see the hollow mountain of Valhalla, and perhaps also the hollow tree of the Lady in White of Dutch folklore.
In the sky, we may even see the black ravens of the folktale reflected in the celestial birds Cygnus and Aquila. And the dog with its burning eyes is perhaps none other than the dog of the Underworld, the hound of Hel, which we can find in a constellation with a fiery red star. And between the ravens and the dog, you may just find the chest of treasure that is alluded to…
As I found out by reading the experiences of people who have used psychedelic substances like magic mushrooms, some interesting things can happen when combining the effects of psychedelics with stargazing. Many users have reported seeing lines appear between the stars in an interconnected web.
This too reminds us of the fact that we can see similar phenomena on different planes of reality. Here too, the Norns can be seen “weaving their threads”.
The fairies, who are so similar to the Norns, were not only said to reside underground, but also in the air. Sometimes they were said to be engaged in aerial battles with shimmering armor and a clamour of weapons. This again, is a late echo of the former cosmic battles between the different tribes of gods.
Perhaps the ancients also saw the weaving and spinning of threads in the multiple tails of bright comets, which from time to time pass the earth. Coming closer to the sun, they often flare up like a torch, gliding slowly through the air like a white ghost. Or perhaps like shining gods, witches in white ( like Hecate with her torches), like shining elves or as the spirits of ancestors…
The myths are written like riddles, and to truly understand them, we have to look at them from various different perspectives. The language they are written in is likely linked to the stars, but I suspect that they contain additional layers of meaning on different levels.
One critique that I have encountered in trying to find explanations for the myths is that these explanations are “naturalistic”, and distract from the profound metaphysical truths that they want to convey. But I would like to object by pointing out that nature is the way in which these metaphysical laws manifest themselves to us, and this language of nature is what has been used to explain in metaphor that which is beyond words.
David Mathisen too emphasizes that while the myths are found in the stars, they are not merely about astronomy. The stars are used as a metaphor for explaining the world beyond our own, that world which is more spirit than matter. When looking for natural or celestial explanations, it’s good to be reminded of the spiritual value of myths.
The inhabitants of the Veluwe saw the Norn Urth in the hollow of a tree. In the eastern parts of the Netherlands, the Norns are also linked to the banks of mist that form above the ground when the days are getting colder. Here they are called witte wieven, “the women in white” or the ghosts of “wise women”, who were often said to dwell amid the old grave mounds as the spirits of dead witches.
Seeing the Norns manifested in so many possible ways, we can conclude that all along, they are not really of this world, yet they are still part of it. They are of a world that is not our own, yet the threads that they weave manifest in the physical reality that we find ourselves in.
As the Dutch folk tale shows, the powers of Fate are neither good nor bad. They can both reward and punish. They tend to treat those well who do well, and punish those who had it coming.
We find the same moral ambiguity among the Irish fairies, who can both help and hurt. The laws of cause and consequence are essentially those of past, present and future. This trio is found again in the three Norns Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld: “Origins” (Past), “Becoming” (Present) and “Debt” (Future).
By understanding the ways in which the powers of Fate manifest themselves, we can enrich our understanding of how the laws of this world work, and how those transcend the world of matter. As a consequence, we may better understand the poetic minds of ancient peoples, and how they shaped history and myth.
Featured Image: Samlede Eventyr, the “Gathering at Dusk” by Theodor Kittelsen (1907) – source
 Perné, Gustaaf Frederik Wall. Veluwsche sagen. Sirius en Siderius, 1993.
Veluwsche Sagen by Gustaaf F.W. Perné
Bundle 1 (contains the Lady in White Saga)
Fairies and Psychedelics