The Fylgja-Motifs in Norse Literature
Summarized and translated by Maria Kvilhaug from Professor Else Mundal`s dissertation: “Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur” (Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 1974)
Summary by the translator - The fylgjur as they generally appear in Icelandic sagas and poetry
Fylgja= Old Norse for “Follower” (female singular)
A woman fylgja is a female supernatural entity who acts as a guardian spirit for the clan, and especially for the chief of the clan. They were also attached to individuals, but were immortal and appear to have been attached to particular lineages following a person from each generation. Mundal believes that they represent the spirits of ancestral mothers, a part of the ancestral mother worship we know existed among the Vikings.
Every human being may have one or more woman fylgja. Some are visible whereas others are invisible. Of the visible fylgjur a person has a limited number (2-3-9), of the invisibles a whole flock. The followers are carriers of an individual`s or the clan`s fortune. The woman follower appears often in dreams but also in visions.
Sometimes seeing one`s fylgja is an omen of death – that is if she rides a grey steed or invites a person home to herself. To say that someone has been invited to the home of the dísir/fylgjur is the same as saying that this someone is about to die. (Thus the fylgja, as I, the translator, see it, is related to Hel, Ràn or her nine daughters, as they also invite people home to them before death. One could also say that the fylgja lives in the realm of the dead, and that she is the spirit of a dead person – a concept that strengthens Mundal`s hypothesis; That the fylgjur are ancestral mothers).
Counseling and guardian spirits
She may counsel her people and let them know that if they do not take her advise they may end up dead. As long as people have the aid of their fylgjur, they will have luck, but if she leaves them, they will suffer and soon die. People know/recognize their fylgja when they see her.
The fylgja may help in the defense and attack against enemies. They stayed close to their person and may appear to others as a warning that her person is soon to arrive. They answer prayers for help, and they hurt their people`s enemies. To her person or clan she is very beneficial and helpful, even when she comes to take a person to the world of the dead she is described as a friendly being, often grieving the dying person herself.
So one side, she is a helpful counselor, protective and luck-bringing, on the other hand she is a bringer of death. Before battles or violent deaths fylgjur appear as grim-looking ogresses.
Goddesses, souls or ancestral mothers?
Some have seen the fylgjur in connection with the soul and alter egos. This because the distinction between fylgjur and hamingjur is very fluid and overlapping. The hamingjur (singular: hamingja) are parts of the soul of a person that may change shape and walk outside of the body (hamingja= ham =”shape” + gengja = “walker”). These are always female as well.
Others see them as parts of the great collective of dísir – “goddesses” – the female powers. The reason for this is because the disinction between fylgjur and dìsir are, again, overlapping and fluid: like all other female entities, a fylgja may also be called a dìs. She is often called a spàdìs – “prophetic goddess” – reflecting her role in visions about fate and the future.
The latter would also connect the fylgja with another kind of dìs – the nòrnir, goddesses of fate. According to Snorri, every person was born with a nòrn who followed him or her throughout his or her life, spinning our fate. Snorri based his description of the personal follower norns on descriptions in the Poetic Edda where the fate of the individual depends on whether your personal norn is divine, elfin or dwarfish. The dwarf norns spin random fates, as they are the “daughters of Hibernation” – sleepwalking. I, the translator, see this in connection with the countless stories of heroes who through initiation attempt to wake up a sleeping maiden associated with death and fate.
Others again, like Mundal, see the fylgjur solely in connection with the cult of the ancestral mothers. We do know that worship of the ancestors, especially kings, were common, and the worship of the dísir is reminiscent of ancestral worship. (I, the translator, personally believe that we must attempt to be as fluid in our distinction between the various powers as the Vikings obviously were. We are confused about the way the Norse sources seem to “mess up the order of things” when describing mythical entities because we are conditioned to see everything as separate entities in separate boxes. Meditating on Old Norse art may help us to understand that in the Old Norse mind, entities were fluid, shape-shifting, gradually overlapping. We may have to realize that the distinction between fate goddesses, death goddesses, personal guardian spirits, the spirits of the ancestors and our personal souls may simply not have been clear-cut and that this is why the sources are so confusing to us).
The ancestral mother is a guardian spirit for her descendants
According to Else Mundal, the most important function of the woman fylgja is to be a guardian spirit for the clan, and there are several examples on how they are connected to ancestral worship, as they appear exactly like ancestors do and with the same functions. The example of Torgerd Hordabrud is important here: she was the ancestral mother to the earls of Lade in Norway, who was worshipped as a goddess by her descendants and who acted as the fylgja (guardian spirit) to the head of the Lade clan.
The ancestral mothers gather the dead
The ancestral spirits and ghost, just as the fylgja, had the function of taking people to the land of the dead. In one example, the ghost of a woman who recently dies appears riding the same grey steed that the woman fylgja rides when she is an omen of death – and the ghost indeed is an omen of death. In many sagas, the spirits of the dead are busy trying to gather people to their side (death), and thus have the same function as the ogresses that appear before battles, the woman fylgjur and the valkyrjur –all gatherers of the dead. Sometimes, the dísir are described as konur daudar – “dead women”. Sometimes they appear looking dead and are then omens of death. The woman fylgja must, according to Mundal, thus be the semi-deified spirits of dead ancestral mothers and must be seen in connection to the clan society.
That the guardian spirits of the clans are women is in itself very interesting.The sources point to the concept of a mater familias deified after death. We cannot ignore the possibility that the belief in the dísir originated in a societal order that was more matriarchal than the one we have in the Norse era.
Introduction (Else Mundal)
There are two kinds of fylgjur in the Old Norse sources; the animal and the woman fylgja. The animal fylgja, also female, has animal shape. The woman fylgja was thought to be a woman. The animal fylgja can be introduced as a human alter ego or double, the woman fylgja as a helping spirit. These two entities have not much more than the name in common (according to Mundal).
The belief in fylgjur is a survival from an older cultural phase than the Norse, but it is a survival that has adapted to changed societal orders and still had a function. Thus the belief in fylgjur is a “living survival” (of a time when ancestral mother worship reflected the matrilineal succession within each clan – a fact which is testified to in communal graves of Scandinavia reaching back millennia – the women of a communal clan grave were all related, the men were not, showing that the men moved into their wives` families and not the other way around, as it was during the Viking Age. The animal fylgja may be a remnant of shamanistic beliefs).
The noun fylgja (feminine singular) is derived from the verb fylgja. This means “to follow”, “to accompany”, “to belong”, “to help”, “support”, “align”, “need”, “keep inside”, “have”, “to follow as a concubine”. As a noun, it is translated as “support”, “help”, “(female) companion”, “guardian spirit”, “protective spirit”, “follower”.
The fylgja-motif exists in various written Old Norse sources, both in the sagas of Icelanders, the förnaldarsögur, the sagas of kings and in poetry. The literary fylgja-motif may build directly on Old Norse beliefs in fylgjor, or on a fairy-tale adaption of the same.
Folk beliefs are slow to change, and only at the time when the Norse literature was written down is it possible to note that the change in religions that happened 200-300 years earlier start to influence certain presentations of this motif. The changes in the belief in fylgjur – and probably in many other folklore motifs – one may register at first a period when the North apparently had adapted and stabilized as a part of a European cultural community. On the surface this period is one-sided. Beneath the surface one may register the effects of the Conversion on the folklore. Heathen motifs were the objects of Christian influence wherever possible.
If one looks at the two fylgja motifs, the woman fylgja motif and the animal fylgja motif, it appears that only the woman fylgja is represented in the contemporary literature. This may point to the woman fylgja having maintained a stronger position than the animal fylgja in people`s beliefs [and thus survived longer].
The Animal Fylgja
The animal fylgja motif is sometimes blended with the húgr-motif. [Húgr (masculine singular) means “intent”, “desire”, “thought”, “soul”, “heart” and seems to have been a part of the human soul that could move outside of the body in animal shape]. Manna hugir ["the intents of men"] sometimes replace the term manna fylgjor [the “followers” of men] and usually then appear in the shape of wolves. Wolves, being associated with fierce passion and desire (or greed and hunger) are closely connected to the húgr. The other animals appear as manna fylgjor.
The animal fylgja motifs in the sagas mostly take the form of warning dreams. Sometimes, however, the fylgja in the dream is a bird. In Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungi, birds are called fylgjor and a swan appears to be the fylgja of a beautiful woman. But birds do not exist as real animal fylgjor in the fylgja-tradition and are thus false fylgja motifs of continental influence just like when the fylgja appear as a leopard, lion or dragon…[I disagree with Mundal on this point, I believe the bird fylgja is deeply set in Scandinavian traditions although they may have had a Finno-Ugric origin. Translator´s note].
The animal fylgja in the literature seems to symbolize the character and/or rank of a person. Great men and chiefs may have oxen fylgjor, while smaller men had smaller animals. Peaceful men could have a goat, sly men a fox. King Hrolf Gautreksson had a lion, and lions are known by the kenning “konungs fylgja”. Kings often had rare and foreign species while commoners must make do with native creatures. The animal fylgja is a steadfast attribute. If a man has a black bull for a fylgja, the black bull will follow him through life from birth to death. The fylgja of a person always remain the same kind of animal.
When the animal fylgja appears to someone else than her owner, this normally happens in a dream. Clairvoyant people can also see other people`s fylgjor while awake. When the animal appears to its owner, it is always a clear omen of death approaching. It can happen awake or while dreaming. In the vision, the animal will act exactly like the human itself will act a bit later.
Example: When Eyolfr in Ljósvetninga saga dreams that a red bull and a rabid grey bull leading a herd of cattle against him, he knows that his enemies, who are the owners of these fylgjor, will do the same. When Einarr in the same saga in a dream sees this bull acting exactly like he knows that his brother Gudmund the powerful uses to, and at last sinks dead into the high seat, Einarr knows that his brother is doomed.
The animal fylgja seems to be identical to its human, sharing its destiny, dying with it (or more correctly, a bit before). The thought was that it actually went before the human through life. When the animal fylgja was dead, but the human still was alive, that human was soon to die. A part of the human had already moved over the borders of death and her human was now existing in a liminal sphere on his or her way into another world. In this condition, people change behavior and attitude, the careful person could become very courageous and the brave person could become very frightened. By acting very unusually, the surrounding world would conclude that the person was about to die.
Folke Ström believes that the animal fylgja could also be a protective spirit: “The animal fylgja – the inner self of the person, her soul, acting sometimes outside of the body in the shape of an animal, perceived as an alter ego or a protective spirit.” Jan de Vries had a similar approach: “Denn wohl kann hamingja “Schutzgeist” bedeuten, aber das wird doch eigentlich durch das Wort fylgja ausgedrückt, d.h. die Seele, die in unsichtbar Gestalt dem Menschen folgt.”
In many primitive religions there are entities that could fit, but on the Norse area Mundal cannot find that the animal fylgja had this function, if one is to base oneself on the literary fylgja motifs, and other material we do not have to base ourselves on. [By this, Mundal sticks strictly and scientifically to the Norse source material alone, while Ström and de Vries interpreted the motif in light of other comparative mythologies. Personally I believe that Ström and de Vries were right, but they cannot be proven on the basis of the Norse sources alone, which is what Mundal is, correctly, pointing out. Translator`s note.]
The fylgja animal that appears in Norse literature is completely without its own identity and will, a indivisible part of the human it belongs to. They have no mutual influence on each other – the one is just a mirror image of the other. The actions of the fylgja animal is only a reflection of what the human is doing.
There is as such no help for a man to have a strong and powerful fylgja animal. If he does, it is just because he himself is strong and powerful. The fylgjor who in the Norse era may be characterised as helping spirit, do not have an animal shape, they are women.
Next to the animal fylgja motif we have the motifs of hamferdr (journey in a changed shape) and the húgr-motif. This is part of the conceptions of the soul and the alter ego, and of some people`s ability to take another shape than the human body. These show similarities to the animal fylgja but include the change-shaping aspect. [In my opinion, they are just different ways of saying the same thing. Mundal keeps more literal distinctions. Translator`s note]
Hamferdr- (soul-traveling) motifs in the sagas and the Norse conceptions of the soul
In Vatnsdæla saga, ch.12, some Sami sorcerers travel to Iceland in the shape of animals. In Kormáks saga, ch.18, a woman sends out her soul in the shape of a whale.
Both the animal in the hamferd-motif, the húgr-motif and the fylgja- motif are human souls in animal shape, but there are clear literary distinctions between the three motifs.
The hamferd is closely associated with shamanism, a way of sending the soul out on a mission. The human body remains as a lifeless form while the soul is out in a form more able to complete the mission. If the soul does not return to its body, the human dies. The principle is that humans have a bodily soul that may sometimes leave the body and be a free-soul. When this happens, the body is without a soul and therefore lifeless.
In the húgr-motif, it is the bad thought or intent that appears in the shape of a wolf. The húgr is not controlled and sent out by a ceremony, it just appears on its own when its human is in a certain (destructive) mood. It cannot act on its own, kill or be killed like the hamferd-animal. It will usually just be a shadow being appearing in dreams.
The animal fylgja on the other hand appears like an outer soul that humans have in addition to the body-soul/free-soul. She cannot act on her own, is but a mirror of her owner, but exists outside. She seems to be closely associated with the fate of the person. We see thus that like in many shamanistic traditions, the Norse believed in a variety of souls or aspects of the soul in one single person.
The Woman Fylgja
When it comes to the woman fylgja, they are also known by many other names such as:
Ófridarfylgja, óvinarfylgja, kynfylgja, ættarfylgja,[“unpeace-follower”, “enemy-follower”, “friend-follower”, “clan-follower” - describing what kind of fylgja she is] and fylgjukona draumkona, dís, spádís and hamingja [follower-woman, dream-woman, goddess, prophecy-goddess, shape-walker].
The animal and the woman fylgja share a name and one common function: They may appear to others before her human person arrives, thus warning others of her human`s approach.
Different sources describe the woman fylgja differently. In the förnaldarsögur, she is usually described as a dís [goddess]. This choice of words I [Else Mundal] see as an example of a conscious attempt to make the stories appear more archaic.
In the king sagas, the dominant way of describing a woman fylgja is by the word hamingja [shape-walker]. What a hamingja is, we do not actually know [it is commonly seen as derived from the words ham (shape, body, form) and gengja (to walk)], but in the Norse era the word had became synonymous with “fortune”, and a hamingja is a particularly good and luck-bringing fylgja.
In the poems, the word dís is almost completely dominant. Hamingja is also acceptable in poetry, whereas the word fylgja is not. It is used once, but characteristically not in a verse but in a prose text introduction to a verse.
There are motif groups as well. In one group, the fylgjor are invisible and act in a collective. If they are hostile, they let their presence be felt through atsókn – that is, making their enemy tired and sleeping. The common naming here is fylgja and ófridar- and óvinarfylgja.
The second group is also a collective of fylgjor, invisible, but helpful rather than hostile. They may help a person by making his enemies fall. They are usually called fylgjur, dísir, or spádísir.
The third group is like the second group only that their main purpose is to help women at childbirth. Here their function overlaps those of the nornir and it is difficult to distinguish nornir from fylgjor [however, Mundal believes it is important to make this distinction. I do not.]
The fourth group is visible and the women appear to human beings. They are often called ættarfylgjur or kynfylgjur, naming that emphasize that these are fylgjor that belong to the clan lineage. They may also be known as hamingjur.
A fifth group is quite similar to the fourth but they may appear alone as individuals as well as a collective. They may be visible or invisible. They are luck-bringing and often called hamingja.
These motifs emphasize that luck will be with a person of the fylgjur are with that person. She advises her person. If she leaves, the person will suffer. Situations where the fylgja leaves her person if she does not like him happen and usually lead to death soon after she has left.
Helgakvida Hjörvardssonar: Fylgja appears in a prose interlude as a woman riding a wolf, forewarning of the death of Helgi.
Vafthrudnismál, Poetic Edda: hamingjor einar/ther i heimi ero/tho ther med iotnom alaz” – “(Luck-bringing) Shape-Walkers alone/ are in the world/ yet they were fostered among giants”
The number of fylgjur in a collective is mentioned a few places, and then the number is nine. In the Sagan af Nikulasi konungi leikara it is said that each human being has nine fylgjur. The same number is found in Tháttr Thidhranda ok Thórhalls, where the loss of nine fylgjur leads to mortal illness.
The sixth group is the fylgjur as death-warnings. If she is an ill omen, she rides the grey steed of death (horse or wolf), or she invites people home to herself. In these motifs she is always visible. She is usually called dís [goddess].
In these functions the fylgjur approach the valkyrjur. The valkyrjur are Odin`s dísir or fylgjur. In Krákumál the distinction between valkyriur and fylgjur is non-existent, and they come from Odin. It also says: “heim bjóda mér dísir” – [which means: “The dísir invite me home”, which actually means: “I am about to die”].
The Relationship between the Woman Fylgja and the Dísir
We have seen that the woman fylgja often is called dís in the sources. It seems obvious that we have to do with the same female entity both where she is called fylgja and where she is called dís, but the word dís is not necessarily connected to the woman fylgja.
My [Mundal`s]thesis is that the woman fylgja belongs to the same category as the nornir and the valkyrjur. Dís is a common name for all the supernatural female entities (p.79).The word is also used for its poetical value. If one is to make a distinction between the woman fylgjur and the dísir, it is that the word dís has a wider meaning.
The noun dís (pl.dísir) is etymologically connected to the Old Indian dhisanas – used to describe female goddesses of fertility [translator`s note: I believe it is more accurate to say that they are goddesses of abundance, and they are also connected to intelligence and thought, and are the guardians of the sacred drink soma, just like the Norse dísir guard the precious mead. The dhisanas are all hypostases of a unifying goddess, Dhisana Devi, a pantheist concept that seems to have been present also in the Norse cult of the dísir.]
The word also exists in the Germanic languages. Old Saxon: ides, Old High German: itis, Old English: ides.
According to Folke Ström, the dísir, nornir and valkyrjur have an inner connection, whereas the woman fylgja stands outside. She originates in conceptions about the soul and thus has a different origin than the dísir although they sometimes are blended. According to Ström, the valkyrjur are specialized dísir with the task of choosing those who are to fall in battle, the nornir are specialized dísir with the task of deciding fate. At the same time, the ásynjur are also dísir. Adding to these, there are more unspecialized dísir who could be defined as protective spirits of particular clans, a blending between the dís and the animal fylgja.
Several scholars (especially Turville-Petre and Anne Holtsmark) emphasize the difference between the dísir, who were the objects of cultic worship, and the other female entities, who apparently were not. Others, such as Ström to a certain degree, (but making an exception out of the fylgjur) and P.A.Munch, argue that they are all called dísir and that they were all worshipped together as dísir. They seem to separate the dísir from the fylgjur by saying that the former were deities worshipped in a cultic setting, while the latter were connected to the souls of people and thus more related to the animal fylgja.
In the Norse written sources, the use of the word dís is quite wide – poetically it can even be used to describe a human woman [a great compliment to the woman in question] and in the Christian literature it is used to describe female saints (as in Sólarljód where they are the dísir who speak with the Lord). In younger Icelandic, landdísir [land goddesses (f.pl.)]describe female spirits of the land, replacing the word landvættir [land spirits (f.pl.)].
I [Mundal]agree with Ström when he says that the nornir and the valkyrjur are specialized dísir, but I wish to point out that the dísir in an era before the Norse were a group of their own, that they no longer are in the Norse era. By then, the original group had separated into groups of more or less specialized dísir, and the new groups had received new names. I also believe that the woman fylgja belong to this category of specialized dísir. The only thing she has inherited from the animal fylgja is the name.
This transition of names may have happened as such: In a changing culture, the specialized dísir received new names just as the old name was still maintained. [Mundal basically says that the original dísir had all the various functions but now were reduced to specialized groups and the fylgjur became more like protective spirits]. There are very few similarities between the animal and the woman fylgja except this: they could both possess the function of a vardøger [this is a modern Norwegian word I could find no translation for. It refers to the part of a human being that may arrive before the body so that other people can hear and even sometimes see a person a while before he/she arrives].
Folke Ström believes that the woman fylgja is a secondary mixed product of the age old cult of the dísir and concepts of an alter ego. I would say that if the woman fylgja was, like the animal one, an alter ego, she would have been the strictly one human`s property. This is not the case with the fylgja: she has her own identity and her own will, she belongs to a world outside the human world, and she does not die with her human but appears to be immortal. She may move from generation to generation and may be more connected to the clan than to the individual.
Contrarily, she has a lot in common with the nornir and the valkyrjur. It is impossible to draw a sharp distinction between these.
The hamingja and the woman fylgja.
Hjalmar Falck has in his article “The Soul in Heathen Faith”(1926) given an etymological explanation of the noun hamingja (f.sg.). He claims that hamingja really is ham-gengja , that is, “someone who walks in a (strange) shape”. Jan de Vries accepted this interpretation with certain modifications, seeing it as ham-hleypa “to run in a shape”. Turville-Petre pointed out that the word hamingja was used synonymously with fylgja and believes it must be referring to a “fetch”, a double (doppelganger). Anne Holtsmark writes that a hamingja was perceived as a bodily manifestation of the human húgr (the thought, intent, desire,soul). It may take an animal shape, and someone who owns a hamingja is called “hamram” and can use it/her, for example, to attack an enemy. If the hamingja is hurt or killed, this will also happen to its/her owner. A strong hamingja is a luck and thus the word also came to mean “luck” or “fortune”.
Hjalmar Falck saw the word hamingja as almost identical to the word hamhleypa, which refers to a person who could change shape or send the soul out in a different shape.
I [Mundal] think that there is no proof in the written sources that the hamingja could wear animal shape, or that a person owning it is hamram (someone who can send it against an enemy). In hamram, it is the soul that takes a shape, not the hamingja. Nowhere do we see an example of the hamingja being hurt or killed[Translator`s note: I believe that the reason why the owner of a hamingja may be identical to the hamram is because the hamingja may have been identical to the soul (that takes a shape), Mundal does not see it this way because:] That the hamingja has anything to do with alter –ego concepts is not verified in the sources. Contrarily, there seems to be a connection between the hamingja and the guardian spirit. In fact, wherever a hamingja is described she seems to be synonymous with the woman fylgja.
In the sources, a person could have several or just one hamingja, just like with the fylgja. She belongs to the collective of dísir.
Most scholars have translated the word ham that with gengja makes up the word hamingja as “shape”, “form”, “body”. But the word ham has also survived in Norwegian dialects where it means “ghost”, and I [Mundal] believe that this is the meaning of the word ham in hamingja. Thus the hamingja is the ghost of a dead person [“walking ghost” – in Norwegian the word ghost is gjenferd which means to “travel/walk again”]. They are dead ancestors who have become guardian spirits of their clan. Only women ancestors could become guardian spirits, and the reason they are also called dísir is because they are female supernatural beings, and all such beings were commonly known as dísir.