In Norse mythology, a fylgja (or fylgia) is a spirit animal or a supernatural being that accompanies a person and decides their fate or fortune.
A fylgja would typically appear during sleep and be in the form of an animal or a human. They could also occur while someone was awake and were believed to be a premonition of the person’s imminent death.
Fylgja means “accompaniment” or “companionship,” like “fetch” in Irish folklore. It also means “afterbirth.”
Some accounts describe the fylgja taking on animal form and appearing during childbirth or as a creature that consumes the afterbirth.
What Is A Fylgja?
Fylgja (plural fylgjur) is a spirit being or animal that lives outside the body. It usually takes the form of an animal or woman connected to the host’s personality, destiny, or luck in life. A warrior might have a wolf or a bear as its fylgja.
A fylgja is only visible to certain people and may transfer to another person after death, usually a family member.
In some Nordic literature, the fylgja can also take the form of dogs, cats, foxes, mice, and birds of prey. There is a particular association with carrion eaters because fylgjur are supposed to eat afterbirths.
As stated, the fylgja acts like a totem animal and bears some relation to the character of the person they represent. A gentle nature would show a goat, boar, or ox, while a more aggressive person would have a bear, lion, snake, or wolf.
The animal fylgja appears in front of the person, sometimes in a dream, and offers hints of future events. A fylgja cannot change or act by itself; some believe only those with second sight can see an animal fylgja.
What Does Fylgja Mean In Old Norse?
The Norse fylgja can mean four things in English:
- accompaniment, companionship
- guardian angel, or guardian spirit, acting as a tutelary or protective spirit
What Does A Fylgja Look Like?
Fylgjur usually take the form of an animal or a human. A warrior would have an aggressive animal like a wolf or a bear, whereas a gentler person’s fylgja would be a horse or a goat.
Gabriel Turville-Petre, the English philologist and expert in Old Norse studies, gives numerous examples of foxes being the fylgja of evil wizards.
Some sources, including Professor Else Mundal, state human and animal fylgjur are always female.
Can You Have More Than One Fylgja?
Every person can have one or more fylgjur, with some being invisible. The number of visible fylgjur is limited, while the invisible ones can be numerous.
Understanding The Norse Afterlife
After death, the Viking religion believed the soul split into four parts, but not all went into the afterlife. Legend stated that some sections became a part of a newly born body, usually a relative.
According to Old Norse literature, the soul had four components:
- Hamr: “Skin” or “shape,” i.e., your physical appearance. Shapeshifters were called “hamrammr” in Old Norse.
- Hugr: “Mind” or “thought,” i.e., your personality and character. The hugr could leave the body while the person was asleep or in a trance, often as an animal. Waking the person up or interrupting the reverie would return the hugr to the host’s body. Hugr would continue into the afterlife after the person’s death.
- Fylgja: A spirit being or animal that lived outside the body. It usually took the form of an animal or woman connected to the host’s personality, destiny, or luck in life.
- Hamingja: “Luck.” The hamingja was a female guardian spirit responsible for a person’s luck and well-being. This trait could also pass on to other people, especially a family member with the same name.
The hugr was the only part of the soul that continued into the afterlife, although all the components played some role in the legacy the deceased person left.
Viking life decided the soul could only undertake the journey to the realm of the dead when the body had disappeared due to cremation or decay.
Fylgja In The Sagas
In many sagas, the spirits of the dead attempt to draw people to them, like ogresses appearing before a battle. The tales mainly describe animal fylgjur as appearing in symbolic dreams, sometimes as birds.
In Gunnlaugs saga ormstungi, a beautiful woman has a swan as her fylgja. In the Ljósvetninga saga, Eyjólfr dreams that a red bull and a rabid grey bull lead a herd of cattle against him, so he realizes the owners of these fylgjur will also fight against him. In the same saga, Einar dreams about a bull acting in a way that reminds him of Guðmundr, his brother. When the bull dies later in the same dream, he knows his brother will meet the same fate.
In the Kormáks saga, Kormák kills a walrus described as having the eyes of a witch called Thorveig. The following line of the tale tells us the witch fell ill and died, a possible reference to the witch using the walrus as her fylgja.
However, this event may only be an example of shapeshifting, as the two situations often overlap. It is challenging to distinguish berserkers shapeshifting from examples of fylgja occurring while the subject is awake.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki mentions Bodvar Bjarki turning into a bear, and Egil’s saga features Egil and Skallagrim shapeshifting into bears and wolves.
In the Vatnsdæla saga, Lappic Sami sorcerers adopt the shape of animals while on a journey to Iceland. The Kings’ Saga uses the term hamingja to describe fylgja.
The Nikulás saga leikara and the Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls describe human beings having groups of nine fylgjur, a commonly recurring number.
Note: Fylgja in Modern Technology
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