The Triple Soul in Ancient Scandinavia Part 3: The Fylgja

The last of the three souls I’ll be talking about is in my opinion the most interesting and abstract. The Old Norse word Fylgja translates to “to accompany or help”, “to follow”, but also (and perhaps most notably) to “lead or guide”. According to Raudvere, the word Fylgja is also related to the noun for caul or afterbirth.
In Old Norse literature, a Fylgja often appears as a female guardian spirit, which can either appear in a fixed animal form or as a beautiful woman. According to Simek, the Fylgjur (plural of Fylgja) have been understood as being related to the concept of the Christian guardian angel, and could appear to their charge in dreams or visions to give them guidance.  It may be that the Fylgja was transformed into the guardian angel in the Christianized, Germanic paradigm.

The animal guise of the Fylgja, while at times serving a protective function, also helped to reveal something about the true, inner nature of the possessor. I have sometimes seen the Fylgja being mistakenly talked about as a type of “power animal”. The biggest difference in my mind, is that the Fylgja isn’t truly an animal spirit. It would seem that the animal form it takes is unchanging, and expresses one’s true, inner nature rather than grant any kind of special abilities or lessons in the way some Native Americans talk about animal “medicines”. The Fylgja is literally a part of you that sometimes appears as an animal: not an animal spirit that comes to your aid. In the sagas, a Fylgja can sometimes also appear in the form of an animal that reveals the nature of future events: and like the true nature of any person, the nature of certain future events were seen as unchanging. According to Raudvere:

The animal fylgja was a symbolic image pointing at the inner qualities of its owner, a constant symbolic characterization. As metaphor the fylgja tells a lot about the person it follows. Strength, and evil mind, or social position was visualized in the image of a bear, a wolf, or an eagle. The animal shape was not supposed to vary over time and was therefore though to be easy to identify. In the texts fylgjur bring warning or advice. The animal fylgja is told of as appearing in front of its owner, often in dreams, and giving indications of events to come. As such it is a representation of the future itself, not the character of a person. Like a person’s fate the fylgja is not changeable, nor can it improve or act on its won. The animal fylgja works, as Else Mundal puts it, like a mirror. The identity of the two is absolute and therefore the death of a fylgja also predicts the death of its owner. 

An interesting story collected from Norway seems to agree with this interpretation of a Fylgja being an animal that represents one’s true nature. This anecdote talks about a woman who begrudgingly goes to a party. Rather than go in right away, she peeps into the window and sees a fascinating sight:

Just inside the window, a tall wretch was swinging his partner. She knew him quite well. He was the scoundrel who starved his horses during the winter. She caught a glimpse of something following behind him in the dimly lit room. It was a horse that was nothing but skin and bones, swaying from side to side, so emaciated that it could barely stand. Next, there came another couple, and the man leading his partner was a fat glutton from a big farm further down in the parish. His fylgje was a fat pig plodding along on all fours. The man in the third couple was nicknamed “Rosowld the fox” because he tried hoodwinking everyone he talked to. A fox was slinking along behind him. Next came a flow with a lively girl in his arms. He was called “lady killer” because he ran after all the girls in the parish. He was followed by a cock.
The girl almost fainted on the spot when she saw nothing but evil fylgje in animal shapes mingling with the dancers. So she returned home and never went dancing again. (Svideland and Sehmsdorf, 67-68)

There are stories in the sagas where the nature of one’s Fylgja also gives a clue to one’s personal character, origin, and destiny, as occurs in the Saga of Thorstein with the Cow’s Foot: 

Thorstein, a child thought to be one of the lowest of peasants, one day entered the noble house where he was born as the result of an act of adultery, then abandoned. He ran into the room where his maternal grandfather was, fell, and heard his relative burst into laughter. He asked his grandfather the reason and heard the man say: “When you came into the room, a young white bear was following you. He was coming at you in the passageway, but when he saw me, he stopped. In your haste, you kept going and tripped over him. I am convinced that you are not the son of Krumm and Thorbrunn. You must have more powerful ancestors. (Lecouteux, 46)

In later folk tradition, the Fylgja comes to be known as the Vardøger  in Norway and the Vård in Sweden. Interestingly, there are divinatory methods one could use to discover the form which ones Vardøger took:

The vardøger  is an animal that accompanies or precedes you. If you want to know what kind of vardøger  you have, there is a way to find out. You take your sheath knife, roll it up in a kerchief, and wrap it tightly. Then you pass this bundle from hand to hand, first in front of you, then behind you, three times. While moving the bundle, you say: 
“A horse as vardøger !”
If your vardøger  is a horse, the knife will lie outside the kerchief by the time you have passed it the third time. If it is not a horse, the knife will still be wrapped in the kerchief. You proceed this way until you discover your vardøger , naming animal after animal until you find the right one. (Svideland and Sehmsdorf, 66-67)

Just as the animal form of the Fylgja is tied to the idea of a personal destiny, when it appears in the form of a woman, the Fylgja is sometimes indistinguishable from other female spirits associated with fate, such as Nornir and Valkyrjar. According to Lecouteux:

The fylgja, psychic Double with tutelary functions, is closely linked to destiny in the Scandinavian tradition. A very lovely text, The Saga of Gisli Sursson, written around 1250-1260 but reporting events that happened between 960 and 977, tells of an outlaw, Gisli, pursued in his dreams by two women, one good, the other bad. The bad one, always seeking to rub him with blood, predicts only evil for him and begins appearing to him more and more often. These women are without a doubt alter egos: The good woman is Gisli’s alter ego, and the malicious woman is that of one of his enemies.

Lecouteux goes on to describe how the function of the woman Fylgja (not dissimilar from its animal form) is the protection and guidance of her charge:

An had a restless sleep. He was awakened and asked what he had been dreaming. He answered: “A woman came to me, repugnant, and pulled me toward the edge of the bed. She had a large kitchen knife in one hand and a trough in the other. She plunged the knife into my chest, opened up my stomach, and took out the entrails.” 
Soon after, An is seriously wounded in the stomach,. He is believed to be dead and is being watched over when suddenly his corpse sits up and says, “I dreamed of the same woman as before, and it seemed to me… that she was putting my entrails back in place and I felt good about this interaction.” The woman proceeds, therefore, with the inverse operation to the one that she had performed in the first dream, and it saved An’s life.

Raudvere echoes the interpretation of the woman Fylgja being connected to ideas of protection and fate. She also talks about a Fylgja as sometimes being seen as the protective matriarch of an entire family line, rather than just belonging to a single person. This might also tie the idea of a Fylgja to one’s ancestry (and what is ancestry if not an unalterable destiny?):

A fylgja in the shape of a woman is more of a guarding and helping spirit that protects  not merely an individual but a hole family. This is a more abstract aspect closely related to the conceptions of hamingja. The two are hardly separable even for analysis. The fylgja in this latter aspect is not even always given a physical form, but spoken of more diffusely as standing behind the family. Sometimes the fylgja is called spádís, indicating that the character had a function as a diviner for the protection of the family. When appearing in a dream she could be called dream-woman, draumkona. These aspects of fate are very concrete in their bodily appearance, showing themselves for a short while, but leaving no room for alternative interpretations.

In general, it seems to be certain that the Fylgja’s function (whether in the form of a woman or a specific animal) was that of a protector, a guide, and a granter of arcane information. Unlike the Hamr/Fetch, which is a type of astral body that can take any form through the help of the Hugr/Talker, the Fylgja seems to have a sense of personal agency while still remaining linked to her charge. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Fylgja is a being that can be separated from her charge or even be seen as completely distinct from them, as seeing the death of a Fylgja in a vision often predicts the death of her charge.

With all of this in mind, it seems obvious that the Fylgja is the same spiritual concept that is being described by Victor Anderson when he speaks about the “Personal God” or Aumakua of Huna and the Feri Tradition in almost identical language:

We Kahuna of my order put it this way. We have Ke Kino Mea (the body-thing of heavy matter), Ke Kino Wailua (the body of two waters), and Ke Akua Noho Maluna O Ke Kino (The God dwelling above the body). She is the personal holy Aumakua over each of us, whether male or female. The God Self is bisexual, both male and female in one, though usually feminine in aspect in appearance. This explains the popular image of the guardian angel as female. When male love and energy are needed, the Personal God can be the Heavenly Father part of you. She is the most blessed Neshamah of Jewish spirituality.
Among haole (non-Hawaiian) writers and investigators, there is a serious misunderstanding of the word Aumakua. Like many words, phrases and whole sentences in our songs and mele (chants), Aumakua has three meanings. There is the high spiritual meaning as applied to one’s Personal God, and a second meaning of a guide or helper, or even a household god or the patron spirit of a profession. A third meaning can indicate a servant who is most devoted to a master, or someone who lets themselves be sacrificed in order to serve an Alii (Chief). 

Victor goes on to describe a vision of the Aumakua that even seems to hint towards it possessing an animal guise at times:

I am often asked if the Aumakua is an ancestral spirit guide. If you do not speak any Hawaiian, it is very easy to become confused. An ancient sailor could have said that the shark was his special Aumakua who helped him as he searched for new landfalls, and be quite correct.

Cora Anderson describes the Fylgja/God-Self in a similar fashion to what Freud called the Superego: a sense of higher or personal morality that guides the actions of the Id (cognate to the Hugr/Fetch). She describes it as the “Gamma Spirit”:

The spirit whose vehicle I call the γ body is the God Self. This body is very difficult to see. The γ spirit dwells in the top of the aura. When seen, it usually appears like a radiant blue ball of light. Sometimes it appears white or gold. Sometimes it will appear nine inches in diameter or less. 
Each of these parts of the soul has a conscious center located in the physical body. The center of the α spirit consciousness is in the solar plexus, the sex organs and the area in and around the heart. It also uses a center below the navel and another at the base of the spine. The β center is in the head above the nose and between the eyes, at a point usually confused as the “third eye”. As a rule, the γ spirit communicates more freely with the a spirit. This explains why people tend to separate logic from emotion.

In Feri, it is taught that the God-Self and the Fetch hold a special relationship with one another. The Fetch (as I have already demonstrated) rules over the part of the mind identified as the subconscious: the realm of animal instinct, symbols, dreams, and memory. This could explain why the Fylgja communicates with her charge through the medium of dreams and visions in the sagas: the Subconscious and the God Self speak in the same language. This is also the same justification for why symbol and imagery is so important in the performance of magic: we use the language of the subconscious so that the subconscious can communicate our desires to our God Self: which according to the Feri Tradition is the part of ourself that possesses the power to perform miracles. It’s also noteworthy that Feri’s image of the God-Self/Fylgja appearing as a sphere of light over the head hearkens back to the halo of the guardian angel of which the Fylgja was the precursor.

Serge Kahili King’s interpretation of the Aumakua is in perfect alignment with both descriptions of the Fylgja and the Anderson’s description of the God Self. King conceives of the Aumakua as a guiding spirit and also as a protector of one’s personal destiny, just as the Fylgja has been interpreted as granter of fate. Interestingly, all three of these concepts also resemble the Yoruba concept of the Ori, meaning both “head” and “destiny” and embodying one’s divine self:

The superconscious or High Self is a dual entity, both male and female in a special way. The word aumakua carries the idea of a “parental spirit” and a “guardian”. The aumakua can also be called the “Source Self”, since it is the source of individual life, purpose and expression. In that respect it is the God Within, and the kahunas treat it as an inner being rather than as a spirit that lives in the sky someplace. For the individual it gives guidance, information, and inspiration but does not give orders. It is sad to see someone waiting for his Higher Self to tell him what to do, because it just won’t happen. Once the person decides for himself what to do, however, the superconcsious makes available an abundance of ideas, knowledge, and energy to carry it out. Huna offers many ways of enhancing this inspirational contact. 
The superconcisous communicates through the channels used by the other two selves, as well as through direct inspiration. When this happens, you suddenly know something, and the knowing is accompanied by a deep sense of peace, or a peaceful kind of excitement.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what it is we’re dealing with when we speak of the Fylgja, that begs the question: What in Hel do we do with that information? What does it mean to have a “God Self”, and why is that knowledge even useful? While we have many strange words that describe aspects of the soul in Norse Cosmology, what we don’t have is any understanding of how the ancient Scandinavians regarded those concepts in a greater philosophy of magic in order to make them functional. While I can’t in full confidence give you clear answers to those questions, I can hopefully share some ideas that have made this a functional part of my spirituality and not just a theoretical concept.

Understanding what the Fylgja/God Soul is has perhaps been the most important aspect of my spiritual understanding of myself and how magic works. I would say that this concept holds a great deal in common with what Aleister Crowley called the Holy Guardian Angel. Crowley went as far as to say one of the most important goals of any magician was to consciously connect with one’s Holy Guardian Angel, who was a representative of one’s truest divine nature. I’ll try describe my current understanding of how this works as neatly as I can.

My Feri Training has introduced me to the paradigm that everything in the world (including our universe) is a manifestation of what the tradition calls the Star Goddess. The Star Goddess isn’t a single goddess in the way that most modern Polytheists might think of a deity, and the closest equivalent in Norse Mythology to this concept would probably be Ginnungagap or the Well of Urðr itself (trusting these aren’t two aspects of the same thing). S/He/They/It is the womb of black space, which current quantum research seems to support is the literal origin of everything. The consort of this witch’s Goddess is of course Lucifer: the light of consciousness born from darkness, who grants all living beings the double-edged gift of self-awareness. It is this objective sentience that gives us all the illusion of being separate from everything else, when in reality everything is still just an emanation of the original Zero, and everything still possesses the essence of that creative force.

One of Victor Anderson’s famous quotes goes something like this: “God is self, and self is god, and god is a person like myself”. I think that what Victor was trying to say here wasn’t just a self-empowerment quip about being your own god, so much as he was implying that the separation between ourselves and the void that created us all is an illusion. It also hearkens to the idea of a higher Self who clearly remembers its divine origins when even our ego doesn’t. This is the part of us which is most like God Herself.

Part of an initiatory path often contains a process through which the self we usually identify with (our egos, our personalities, our habits, etc) is dissolved and sacrificed so that we are able to gain knowledge of the Self that exists beyond our conscious awareness. Initiations are often designed to dispel the illusion that there is any real separation between ourselves and the mysteries. This sacrifice of self to Self is something which Óðinn himself might be speaking of in the poem Hávamál when he is describing what sounds suspiciously like an initiatory ordeal on the world tree Yggdrasil:

138. I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run. (Larrington, 35)

The God-Self, in that case, is the aspect of ourselves that remembers that it is a piece of the infinite, and has access to the power and information of the All: whether you see that as Wyrd, Urðr, fate, Ginnungagap, the Star Goddess, Chaos, the void, or whatever title you prefer. In Yoruba spirituality, the God Self would be akin to the personal Ori or destiny and the belief that all incarnated beings are here with a goal in mind: a purpose or mission to fulfill. Our Fylgja/God-Self remembers what that mission is, because it possesses the scope of all of creation. Often, our Hugr/Talker/Consciousness doesn’t remember what that mission is when we are born, and sometimes we veer off course and forget what it was we were supposed to be doing here. It is then that we use methods like initiation, meditation, or magical practices to quiet our egos and the endless parade of memories, complexes, and insecurities provided by the unconscious to make room for the voice of the Fylgja/God-Self

The Fylgja is the spiritual partner we tap into when we either intentionally or unintentionally gain insight into knowledge the conscious mind doesn’t have access to: when we perform divination, create through magic, or have flashes of insight or inspiration. When you feel inspired to go to work a different way than you usually go and avoid an accident, when you find yourself in the right place at the right time, when your mind opens to epiphany, when you feel that you are in proper alignment with your personal destiny: these could all be conceived of as whisperings from the Fylgja.

More Things to Think About

There is an episode within both Völsunga saga and Sigdrífumál that I personally see as a useful metaphor for the awakening of an initiate to their higher Self:

“Sigurd now rode a long way, until he came up on Hindarfell; then he turned south towards Frakkland. Ahead of him on the mountain he saw a great light, as if a fire were burning and the brightness reached up to the heavens. And when he came to it, there stood before him a rampart of shields with a banner above it. Sigurd went into the rampart and saw a man lying there asleep, dressed in full armor. First he removed the helmet from the man’s head and saw that it was a woman. Se was in a coat of mail so tight that it seemed to have grown into her flesh.
He sliced through the armor, down from the neck opening and out through the sleeves, and it cut like cloth. Sigurd said she had slept too long.”  (Byock, 67)

Whether the valkyrie is called Sigdrífa or Brynhild, the spiritual marriage that takes place between her and the hero Sigurd is reminiscent of the description of the Fylgja as taking the form of a protective, winged, female figure. One might even imagine the Fylgja as a bride (or husband) with whom it is desirable to engage in a union with. Upon awakening her, Brynhild is able to give Sigurd a goblet to drink from, and shares him secrets of Runes and their magical uses in the form of poetry:

“Beer I give you, 
Battlefield’s ruler, 
With strength blended
And with much glory” (Byock, 67)

Those who know of Óðinn’s exploits to win the mead of poetry know that alcoholic drinks were often used as metaphors for enlightened states of consciousness in both Norse and Celtic cultures. Poetry itself is then a channel for this heightened state: poetry being the language of the gods, which both the subconscious and the Higher-Self speak fluently. It would appear that after he is offered a drink from his Fylgja, Sigurd becomes privy to higher mysteries which his union with her made him able to unlock.

The Fylgja’s associations with higher enlightenment and divine speech cause me to associate this soul most closely with Óðinn, who gives the gift of Önd to Askr and Embla in Völuspá. Önd can either be used to mean “soul” or “breath” in Old Norse, and interestingly also appears in the word önd-vegi (“high-seat”). The high-seat was was where the völva Þórbjörgr sat in in Eiríks saga rauða before going into a trance and passing on wisdom about the future. Óðinn also sits in a high-seat called Hliðskjálf which he sits on to gain insight into the goings on in the 9 worlds.

Önd would therefore seem to carry implications of spirit and spiritual insight, which are also within the realm of the Fylgja. If we consider that the first thing that links us to this world is when we take our first breath, there is also an element of destiny to the concept of Önd which might be significant to the Fylgja as the protector of one’s destiny (and as the caul or afterbirth). The elements of breath, wind, and winged figures that are connected to the Fylgja might also be implied by the unnamed Eagle who sits at the top of the world tree Yggdrasil. According to Snorri in Gylfaginning, a hawk called Veðrfölnir, meaning “wind bleached” sits on the eagle’s head between his eyes. Whether or not the placement of this hawk in the region of the 3rd eye (which Vedic culture associates with enlightenment) has any significance is anyone’s guess. The eagle’s placement at the top of Yggdrasil might be of significance to those interested in Feri, as Feri imagines the seat of the God-Soul to be on top of the head.

A Fylgja Story 

For those interested in the animal aspect of the Fylgja, I wanted to share a personal story. I wanted to know the animal form that my Fylgja took, and remembered that in Scandinavian folklore one could find the answer to that question through signs and divination. I had a sneaking suspicion from prior dreams and experiences that  I knew the answer, but wasn’t really thrilled with it. I prayed to the powers one night that by the next day I would see a sign that I couldn’t refute to reveal the identity of my Fylgja to me. I went to sleep and promptly forgot my prayer. The next day, I went to visit a friend of mine, who unexpectedly decided to gift me with a pelt of the animal in question he just happened to have lying around his house: the same animal I had been dreading. I performed a yes/no divination later that day to confirm the answer, but of course it was “yes”.

However, in my experience, one has to go beyond just modern associations of what animals “mean” to get to the root of the significance of a Fylgja. If you discover the animal form of your Fylgja (or already know it) study that animal: it’s habits, temperament, characteristics, because that is where you will find clues to help you understand your own nature. And don’t forget, the Fylgja isn’t your “power animal”, it is literally a part of your own soul, and the form it takes says something about who you are. S/he is your partner and guardian in life who will never lead you astray.

Bibliography

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

Byock, Jesse, The Saga of the Volsungs. Penguin Classics, 1999

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

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

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

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

Sturluson, Snorri – Faulkes, Anthony (Tr), Edda. Everyman Press, 1995

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

 

 

 

1 thought on “The Triple Soul in Ancient Scandinavia Part 3: The Fylgja

  1. Thank you so very much for this series and the insights provided. You have given me quite a bit to “chew” on and realize within my own path, including a surprising bit of revelation of some tasks that I have been undertaking without quite understanding the why. As with any revelation, more questions open up, but that just keeps one moving forward I think.

    Like

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