The Triple Soul in Ancient Scandinavia Part 1: The Hamr

One of the foundational teachings of Feri that is probably also one of the most recognizable is the concept of the Triple Soul. The average understanding of the soul in post-Christian America seems to be that the soul is the animating principle within each of us, and is our central “us-ness” that leaves our body after we die. In this model, our body is essentially a tool or machine that our soul drives around in until it abandons the physical body at death: presumably to go on to some form of afterlife.

Though that has become the popular idea of what a soul is, in most pre-Christian cultures the spiritual makeup of a person was often more complicated than this, and it was often believed that our soul was more of a complex of different parts that perform different functions than a single entity. Though traditions vary, my own research and interests have led me to systems which usually break these pieces into 3 essential parts. This is the case in Huna, which was a major influence on Victor and Cora Anderson (which itself seems to be a modern interpretation of Hawaiian Mysticism combined with Theosophical principles), but the triple soul can also be found in the pre-Christian beliefs of the Aztecs/Mexica (an article for another day?!), the Buryat Shamans, and Pagan Scandinavia.

A brief description of the three souls of Anderson Feri follows (though there are various names for these souls, I’m using the ones that I use most frequently):

Fetch: Corresponds to the subconscious or animal/instinctual mind. Is often imagined to reside in what many have described as the “astral body”, and is responsible for retaining memory and storing/generating vital force for the physical body. In Feri lore, stories of witches transforming themselves to hares, moths, cats, etc are explained as the witch sending forth their Fetch in a chosen shape to travel into the astral realm.

Talker: Corresponds to the conscious mind and the conscious will. Is sometimes imagined as residing in the auric body or auric egg around the astral body and physical body. This is the part of ourself that deals with abstract concepts and cognitive reasoning.

Godsoul: Corresponds to what many traditions refer to as the “higher self” or “superego”. This is the part of ourselves that is divine, directly connected to the greater forces of magic and creation, and acts in a guiding or guardian capacity.

Part of my inspiration for writing this article is because I often run into  misunderstandings of the Scandinavian soul complex from both Feri initiates and modern heathens. Since I have a background in both of these systems, I hope to dispel some of the recurring misinterpretations and hopefully give some food for thought for anyone interested in either Feri or Scandinavian magic. Admittedly, the details of how the soul was perceived by the ancient Scandinavians is often difficult to decipher due to a lack of primary sources, but I’ll do my best to wrap up what seems to be the most consistent interpretation based on the information I have.

The Hamr/Fetch

The Norse soul complex has been described in many ways by many modern practitioners, but there are essentially three primary “souls” that are mentioned over and over in our surviving sources: The Hamr, the Hugr, and the Fylgja.

According to Claude Lecouteux:

“During the time of the ancient Scandinavians and the Germanic peoples, at least three terms designated what Christians call the soul, without the semantics of the concepts overlapping exactly. These are the fylgja, hamr, and hugr.”

The largest misinterpretation that I often run into when looking at the soul complex is a confusion between the Hamr and the Fylgja, since their functions can sometimes resemble one another, though are actually quite distinct when examined closely. I often also see the Fetch of Feri confused with the Fylgja of Scandinavia, as Victor and Cora used the word “Fetch” to describe the first soul-part, accidentally linking it etymologically to the word “Fylgja“. Though the words “Fetch” and “Fylgja” are connected, I hope to demonstrate that when the Andersons are talking about the “Fetch”, what they are really describing is what Pagan Scandinavia knew as the “Hamr“.

How does Feri describe the function of this first of three souls? In her description of the Fetch (which she also calls the “Alpha Spirit”), Cora Anderson teaches us:

“The α spirit or soul is the one that inhabits that which is called the etheric body or double. This etheric body is denser than the next two. It is shaped much like the physical body, which it surrounds and partly penetrates. It extends about two centimeters out from the flesh on all sides of the adult human of either sex. It usually appears as misty blue-gray, but is often luminous with a lovely electric pink color. It emits a faint up like the sound of a bumblebee. In the man it is more feminine than his physical body, and in the woman more masculine.”

So in Feri, the Fetch is perceived as an astral double or astral body that fits over and into our physical bodies like a second skin. It is considered to be the body of the subconscious mind or “animal self” as it is sometimes described. In their descriptions of astral travel, the Fetch was also described by the Andersons as the part of our soul that can be projected away from the body and shape-shift into other forms. According to Cora, it accomplishes this with the help of Talker, or what she calls the Beta Spirit (who will be the topic of part 2):

“When the α and β spirits are united in mutual shared consciousness then and only then may one achieve fully conscious OBT.” 

Aside from this function, the Fetch is also considered to be the soul that stores vital force in our body and retains all of our memories. According to Serge Kahili King the primary function of the Unihipili (which he also calls the “Ku”) is memory:

“People think the subconscious is irrational because it acts contrary to what they consciously want in the moment, and because it seems to act that way without any apparent reason. The key word here is apparent. Your ku is always acting on the basis of an assumption – a belief about reality – accepted as true at some point in your life. And the ku will always follow and act out that assumption to its logical conclusions, whatever they are and whatever you consciously think about them at the time.” 

So in other words, the Fetch/Subconscious mind stores memories of past experiences and much like an animal or child, will build meaning from past association. Like Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to associate the sound of a bell with food, we also unconsciously build associations that may seem illogical to our conscious minds, but make perfect sense to Fetch.

Turning our attention to the Hamr, I’m sure the reader will begin to see why there is a logical association between the two concepts. In Old Norse, the word Hamr translates as “skin” or “slough”. Interestingly, the word Hamhleypa or hleypa hönum can either refer to a snake when it sheds its skin, or when a magician shape-shifts into an animal. The similarity between the Hamr as a second or astral skin and the Anderson’s description of the Fetch are immediately apparent, but the similarities don’t stop there.

Claude Lecouteux describes the Hamr as such:

“In the case of the physical Double, the hamr, things are perhaps a little clearer because the examples in the texts are both numerous and telling.
Certain individuals, called hamrammr, ‘having a powerful Double,’ or eigi enhamr, ‘not possessing only one Double,’ are born with the ability to double themselves. The act of doubling is expressed in several ways, proof – if any is required – that it is well anchored in the mind-set of these times, for language is always a reflection of beliefs. We find vixla hönum and skipta hönum, “to change form,” and the verb hamask, which indicates that the subject of the doubling is simultaneously active and passive. Hamhleypa means, more or less, “to flow into one’s Double” or “to let one’s Double run,” and is a synonym of the phrase springa af harmi, literally “to go or spring out of oneself, or one’s skin.” 

A further explanation of Hamhleypa is provided by Catharina Raudvere in her article Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia, and it bears a strong similarity to Cora Anderson’s description of OBT (“out of body travel”). She also comments on the similarities between a separated Hamr and the Fylgja in Old Norse literature and helps us to understand the subtle differences:

“Hamr, literally ‘skin’, was the name of the temporary guise the hugr could take for its movements while performing trolldómr. The ability to change shape and act out of the ordinary body in a new guise was an inborn character or acquired through learning. The materialized will, power, or lust is a common theme in many texts. A person who was called a hamhleypa could let the hugr leap into the hamr.
No absolutely clear distinction can be made between a fylgja on a special mission, often in a guise characterizing the owner’s intention, and the hamr. Technically it is the same kind of appearance. The former is more of a mythological character while the latter indicates a human. Furthermore, there is a relationship between the hugr and the hamr, that is quite different from that between the fylgja and its owner. The focus is on the personal will when hamferð, a traveling urge, is described. Different hamfarir and were-animals appear in several appearances, while the fylgja is a never-changing symbolic image of inner qualities or a guarding spirit.” 

Just as the Fetch of Anderson Feri is responsible for generating and storing vital force (which the Andersons often refer to by the Huna term “mana”), there seems to be a connection between the Hamr and the Norse concept of Hamingja linguistically. According to Rudolf Simek:

“There seems to be a second meaning to hamingja which occurs for the altered appearance of people who are able to change their shape. The word is probably derived from *ham-gengja and originally referred to people who could let their hamr (‘shape, shell’) ‘walk’. This motive of shape-changing is especially popular in Scandinavian folk-tales.” 

Hamingja is commonly understood to mean one’s personal luck or power, which was a renewable resource that could be either lost or gained through positive or negative actions, or stored with the help of specific rituals. It seems to resemble what the Anderson’s would have called Mana, or what the Buryat Shamans would have called Hiimori (“wind-horse”), all terms for one’s personal or psychic power.  There is some overlap with the Fylgja being considered to be one’s personal guardian angel and the Hamingja sometimes also appearing as a protective spirit, adding to the frequent confusion of the Fylgja and the Hamr. As a quick aside, those interested in the Runes may find inspiration in comparing the concept of personal power and gather-able energy to the mysteries of Fehu: there is much food for thought there.

While I will be discussing the Fylgja more in-depth in part three of this series, I would like to drive home the subtle distinction between the function of the Fylgja and the function of the Hamr, because they sometimes do behave similarly. My research has brought me to an understanding that the Hamr is what has been described as the astral body or astral double. It is a second skin that through the will of the Hugr/Talker (conscious mind), the magician is able to separate their consciousness from their physical body in a practice called Hamhleypa (“skin leaping”) in Old Norse or what Cora calls “OBT” (out of body travel). This astral skin is malleable, and may take the form of the person in question, but also can be manipulated into the shapes of objects or more frequently animals. This practice is the basis of of shape-shifting in Old Norse mythology.

Alternately, the Fylgja is directly connected to its owner as a type of higher-self or guardian angel. Though it often also takes the form of an animal, in Scandinavian folklore it usually takes the form of a specific animal that somehow expresses the inner nature of its charge. The Fylgja also often takes the form of a lover (especially a woman) who provides a hero with divine knowledge in a way that is sometimes indistinguishable from the Valkyries (a topic I’ll get into more in part 3).

For now, the most important distinction between the Hamr and the Fylgja  that I want to get across is:
– The Hamr is malleable, can be consciously projected from the magician, and often takes a form of the magician’s choosing: often animals.
– The Fylgja resembles a guardian spirit that often takes a few set forms and has a protective function. It is also often the source of special information.

More Things to Think About

The next associations I’m going to make are mostly speculative on my part, but are hopefully still useful jumping-off points for people interested in the three souls.

I’ve yet to find a source that directly ties the Hamr to the function of memory in the way the Fetch is described by the Andersons or the Unhipilli is described in Huna. I have however drawn a personal association between the Hamr and the Munr (Old Norse for “memory”) and thus Óðinn’s raven Munnin (also derived from the word for “memory”, as is the name Mimir, for the giant who guards the well of memory). The Hugr (literally meaning “thought”, which I will be discussing in the next article) is the basis for the name of Óðinn’s other raven, Huginn. This triplicity of Óðinn, Huginn, and Muninn could therefore be taken as yet another symbol of the triple soul, with Óðinn representing the God-Soul, Huginn representing the conscious mind, and Muninn representing the subconscious mind/memory/Hugr. Alternately, Óðinn sending out his two ravens to gather information for him certainly seems to resemble the art of Hamhleypa or “astral travel”, which Cora and our Scandinavian sources agree is a joint effort of the conscious mind entering the skin of the Hamr and faring forth.

A second place in our Old Norse sources where we see a triplicity of divine beings is in Völuspá’s creation of Askr and Embla. These three deities are Lóðurr (who I have defended as another byname of Loki’s) , Hænir, and Óðinn.

“17. Until three gods, strong and loving, 
came from that company to the world; 
they found on land Ash and Embla,
capable of little, lacking in fate. 

18. Breath they had not, spirit they had not, 
character nor vital spark nor fresh complexions;
breath gave Odin, spirit gave Hænir,
vital spark gave Lodur, and fresh complexions.” 

I have considered the idea that the three gifts that these gods give to humanity (Önd, Óðr, and Lá ok litu góða in Old Norse) may correspond to the idea of the three souls. Lá ok litu góða (sometimes translated as “blood and good color”) seems to imply some kind of vital force or spark, corresponding most closely to the Hugr, which Huna and Feri also link most closely with the creation and storage of vital force. This would perhaps make Loki/ Lóðurr the deity who is most closely linked to this particular soul-piece. For a source of the subconscious and animal soul, the subterranean fire/trickster god feels like an obvious fit to me, but that of course is up for the individual to decide for themselves.

A third place where the triple soul of Feri could be compared to Old Norse literature is in the animals that are specifically mentioned as making their home in the world tree Yggdrasil: the dragon Níðhöggr at its roots, the eagle with the hawk Veðrfölnir on his head at the top, and the squirrel Ratatoskr passing gossip between the two. In Feri, the seat of the Fetch is considered to be in the area of the pelvis or solar plexus, which corresponds to where the famous Kundalini energy is also thought to reside, represented by a rising serpent. As the first humans are said to be created from two fallen trees (and trees of all kinds are used as kennings for humans in Icelandic literature) I personally favor the interpretation that the human body is intended to be understood as a microcosm of the greater world tree Yggdrasil. The dragon residing in the underworld of the tree (perhaps symbolic of the lower half of the body as well as the subconscious) could be used as an archetype of the Fetch and its power as it is understood in Feri.

In conclusion, I hope that I have successfully been able to demonstrate that in Scandinavian witchcraft/Trolldómr, the model of the triple soul was also an important concept. Not only was it an important concept, but with the understanding that the Hamr and the Fetch share almost identical functions, it is easily comparable to the Anderson’s conception of the soul complex.

Details aside, I hope that the similarities between the many systems that utilize this “triple-soul” model point to the idea that there seems to be a consistency of experience here, across time, language, and cultural barriers. That kind of consistency often signals to me that there is a useful, spiritual truth in play.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Bibliography

Anderson, Victor H – Anderson, Cora, Etheric Anatomy: The Three Selves and Astral Travel. Acorn Guild Press, 2004

Jolly, Karen- Raudvere, Catharina- Peters, Edward, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages. Athlone Press, 2002

King, Serge, Mastering Your Hidden Self: A Guide to the Huna Way. Quest Books, 1985

Kvideland, Reimund- Sehmsdorf, Henning, Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. University of Minnesota Press, 2010

Lecouteux, Claude, Witches Werewolves and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Inner Traditions, 2003

Larrington, Carolyne, The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 2008

Simek, Rudolf, Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer, 2007

Zoe͏̈ga, Geir, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. University of Toronto Press, 2004

Image by Peter Jackson

 

2 thoughts on “The Triple Soul in Ancient Scandinavia Part 1: The Hamr

  1. Reblogged this on A Trickster's Path and commented:
    A really thought inspiring series of blogs dealing with the “Triple Soul” concept. Granted, that is a very over-simplified explanation, but I believe to be effective.

    Like

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