Friday, March 16, 2012

F is for Fylgja

So apparently my last week's post pissed off an arrogant eclectic or two who took offence to the suggestion that everything in the world is not theirs to steal. Who'd've thought. So this week could have been F for Fluffy, but that's a bit too much holding-forth for a fortnight, I think, so instead we will talk about Fylgjur. This is a subject on which I am not terribly well-versed; it's one of those vague sort of Heathen spiritual concepts, and so I'll be learning a bit more about them myself as I exhaust my current knowledge and dig up more information.

A fylgja (plural fylgjur) is something in between an animal totem and a guardian spirit. It's one of those Norse concepts that, to be honest, we're not sure about. We can't go back and ask about all the ins and outs so we make do as best we can with the sources we have, and some of the info we have is a bit contradictory. Suffice it to say that a fylgja is one of those spirit concepts akin to the Dísir and hamingja (or familial luck).

They are, essentially, a spirit and an element of the self, most often in the form of an animal. You might see it when asleep; seeing it when awake, as seeing your doppelgänger, is an omen of your possible impending death. Animals can apparently run in the family, and tend towards important animals in Germanic cultures such as wolves and bears. (As an aside, this is one of my theories as to the prevalence of wolves as "spirit animals".) In some ways they are similar to the animal companions in that book Northern Lights, as they accompany one (though one cannot see them). 

There are those who have linked "fylgjur" with the term "fetch", which is sort of popular in Trad Craft circles. In Irish folklore, a fetch is usually a human figure, more of a doppelgänger than an animal spirit. Then there's the whole concept of Familiars, which I may or may not end up talking about next week in detail. Familiars, or Familiar spirits, are... well, familiar spirits. That is to say, spirits with whom one is friendly and with whom one works witchcraft. A spirit guide, if you will. They're not your pet. More on this next week - I have a book from which I will provide citations! (Exciting, eh?)

The word "fylgja" means "follower" or "someone that accompanies" and is something like a semi-independent thing; a part of oneself and animal expression of one's nature, as well as an entity in its own right - this is where parallels with Northern Lights become apparent (although admittedly, I haven't read them, so wouldn't know for sure). It can also appear as a person of the opposite sex - but is this a fylgja or one of the Dísir, or what? Lines become blurred. We're talking such a span of time and location here, after all, that different perspectives aren't surprising - but when it comes to determining what was believed, and what these things actually are, things get very tricky. Particularly with the modern tendency to categorise things and draw lines of definition. (I am very guilty of this myself - I like words to mean something and I get uncomfortable when a proper distinct definition refuses to materialise.)

Fylgjur might be the distributors of hamingja, and maybe you could send them out to gather information for you. Perhaps they might tell you things in dreams, or give you warnings. Sometimes you are that animal in a dream and you Go Forth to do things. These things all get confused because sometimes the word just means a spirit ally, and sometimes it's the semi-independent animal manifestation of oneself.

I confess that this is one of those things I have trouble with, partly because the definition isn't as solid and defined as I would like. I do believe in familiar spirits, and animal guides. I'm bang alongside the concept of a family or tribe's animal totem. I'm not sure about the fylgjur, though. They are reportedly attached to you, in the sense that they follow you around, but you can't see them. You might see someone else's, but not your own - bad omen, like I said. How can one tell, then, what shape they are, unless one sees them in a dream? Does one make contact with something that is in some ways a part of oneself? Now, I have met some guides of mine - are any of these my fylgja? They can't all be. How would one tell which one it is? As a fylgja can sometimes mean a spirit of the opposite sex to oneself, does this mean that any female animal guides I have would thus be ruled out, or does that only count if it's in the guise of a human?

More questions than answers. It does make life difficult if one wished to work with one's fylgja when things are so unspecific. I think generally, it was simply something that hovered around and watched out for you, and isn't something one need think of unless one happens to see it. This is a little upsetting, as I like to work with spirits and if something is hovering around watching out for me, I'd like to thank it for its troubles. 

Or maybe it's a fucking metaphor. That'd be right, eh? A metaphor for one's own personal, familial and spiritual inclinations. That makes sense, but I'm not sure it is true. However, perhaps the word could be used in a metaphorical sense; Turville-Petre says in Myth and Religion of the North:
Although the word fylgja is generally used in such concrete senses as those quoted, it also developed a more abstract meaning, and thus became nearly synonymous with gipta, gæfa, words which are often translated by ‘luck, fortune’, but imply rather a kind of inherent, inborn force. When a man says of his enemies: hafa þeir brœðr rammar fylgjur, he does not mean that they have ‘strong fetches’, but rather that they are gifted with a mighty, inborn force.
A fylgja as a metaphor for one's own soul and self I do understand, though that appears to be only an element of the way the word was used. 

Lecouteaux (Phantom Armies of the Night.... I am pulling random books off my shelves at present and dragging through them for information) calls them "a tutelary spirit of men" and notes overlap with the Dísir (p191). Chisholm (True Hearth) defines them as "a numinous being... the respository of all past action and which accordingly affects the person's life: the personal divinity" (p113) which confuses the issue still further (and sounds more like hamingja than fylgja). The Journal of Contemporary Heathen Thought (vol I) suggests "a fetch may well represent our own personal Norn" and identifies it as "a being in its own right attached to an individual at birth" (p161).

Gerrard's comments are more complete and interesting. She notes that the fylgja is either a part of the spirit, or a helping spirit attached to one at one's birth (or naming as others have suggested), and that the role of the fylgja was apparently exploratory; that it went ahead of one, either as a vanguard or to announce one's arrival somewhere. This is an interesting idea, and makes me think of a place or situation in which one gets a wary feeling; perhaps this is the fylgja scouting ahead and sending back a warning. In this scenario, pleasingly, the fylgja could be either a part of one's own soul and self - one's instincts and so on - or a separate entity, and it wouldn't matter. She cites some various passages and examples - of people becoming sleepy before a visitor arrives, among others - and suggests one becomes tired when the fylgja frees itself from the body to explore or identify something. An interesting idea; I'll make more of a note of when I am feeling strangely sleepy in the future. (Although I feel sleepy nearly all the time so who knows how useful that would be.)

I think a part of my problem with this concept is that I have the idea of a single soul, whereas the Nordic view is more layered. Part of the soul resided with the body, at least for a period of time, and a part of it lives on with us in memory and tale. Krasskova lists quite a few "parts of the soul" but to be honest, I've never been sure how much credence I gave that idea. She doesn't cite sources and even before I became a Heathen I viewed that whole chapter in Exploring the Northern Tradition with some degree of suspicion. I still feel as if that was not unwise, however, the multi-faceted soul is still worth proper consideration.

There's also the whole parallel with the daimon of the Greeks (particularly Socrates). There could theoretically also (and this is pure speculation) be a relation to those people who have a feeling they are not human, but have the spirit of an animal.

Waaaaaait. Wait. Wait. HOLD THE FUCK ON. 
Haha, do you know, my fylgja was right in front of me the whole time and I just wasn't paying attention. I was off concentrating on something else and digging through other things and never clicked. It sometimes happens when you take new knowledge and don't properly assimilate it with old knowledge. How interesting. I think I understand the concept more now that I've identified my own, and what it means to me. In doing so, it's more clear that this isn't a separate spirit or thing that you honour, or even, say, an animal you would want to be, but a part of yourself and a thing with which you identify, even if perhaps you would rather identify with something else. I have a guide who is a wolf, I have run in spirit-form as a wolf, I have had interesting wolf-spirit interactions. But as it turns out, my fylgja is not a wolf. 

I feel much better now I've sorted that out. The whole concept is a lot more clear. Sort of. Well not really. At any rate, I think I am beginning to iron this out in my head.

Wasn't that fun, gentlemen and ladies? Did you not enjoy that brief flurry of research? I did. In fact I may need a cigarette.


  1. This was a very enjoyable read! Thanks for sharing! :)