What is a fylgja? A fylgja is one of two things: the animal shape a person’s spirit takes when he or she journeys, or a semi-autonomous human-shaped entity who is attached to a person’s soul. Both types have strong connections with a person’s ancestral line, and can represent (or work on behalf of) an entire family.
What a fylgja isn’t: A fylgja is not a “Norse totem animal”. “Fylgja” is a distinctly Norse concept that bears little resemblance to the stereotypical Native American concept of an animal totem.
The Norse cultures of the Viking age understood the non-corporeal part of a human being to be very complex. A person had a fylgja (fetch); orlog (tally of deeds; the foundation upon which one’s wyrd, or fate, is based); and hamingja (luck) are just a few of the many parts that make up the human soul. Because the roles and definitions of the fylgja and related concepts of dis (female ancestor spirit) and hamingja often overlapped and changed over the years, however, it is difficult to give one coherent definition of what a fylgja is and what one can do. That said,fylgjas, as the people in the Old Norse cultures would have recognized them, are still actively showing up in many people’s spiritual practices and lives.
The term fylgja literally means “follower” (as in, “one who follows”). In fact, “fylgja” (the word and the concept) is what later Europeans termed a witch’s “fetch” or “familiar”. A fylgja can take either an animal or a human shape (if human, it will usually show up as a pretty young woman or an old hag—or, at least in one case, as an old troll-woman). Sometimes the fylgja belongs to an individual, and sometimes it belongs to the ancestral line (for example, a “kin-fetch”); if so, the shape that it takes represents that family. Fylgjur were relatively rare back in Old Norse times; usually only a hero, king, or a witch/priestess seemed to have one version or the other.
A family of berserkers might have a Wolf as their fylgja, and take the shape of a wolf when they go berserk. Those who shape-shifted, such as while berserking, were thought to have an “astral body” called a hamr underlying their physical one, which, when they berserked, that could take the form of their family animal. There are no instances in the Lore (that I am aware of) where a person had both a human-shaped and animal-shaped fylgia.
A fylgja usually carried out several roles dependent on the form that it takes. If it was animal-shaped, it is the shape that one’s soul takes when he or she has left her body, for example when doing any kind of shamanic-type journeying. Accounts in the lore tell of a person’s fylgja showing up in the real world in their animal form far from where the person’s body actually is, indicating that the fylgia’s owner was trying to send a message or help out in some way. The fylgja can appear in dreams as well.
A fylgja can also take a human shape. One way a human fylgja is represented is as a protector, of either a specific hero or of his entire family line. The other role a fylgja can take is to warn a person of their approaching death or prophesying the deaths of those in the family. Either way, the human fylgja appears to a given hero, and he must choose to accept the fylgja into his life. If he does not accept her (as in the Hallfredar saga) she must go on a hiatus and wait for someone else in the family to accept her. Though the fylgja appears to know a hero’s fate, she does not seem to be able to directly change it, though she can influence the hero to act in one way or another. (In one example from Vatnsdaela Saga, a hero’s fylgja causes him to get sick and thereby avoid attending an event at which he would have been killed.) Still, there is no actually escaping one’s set fate, in the Norse worldview. Eventually what the Norns have decreed will happen. Still, in all but a handful of instances, fylgias—both human and animal—appear to be wise and work on behalf of the human who they are attached to.
The human version of the fylgja can sometimes overlap in form and function with certain Valkyries who become romantically attached to specific heroes and/or their family line. This version of a fylgja likely helped to give rise to the concept of “fetch-wife” or a “swan-wife”. A good example of the fetch-wife/Valkyrie comes from the three “Helgi poems”. In the Saga of Helgakviða Hundingsbana. “Helgi” is a hero who dies and appears to be reincarnated three times, and each time his Valkyrie or “fetch-wife” is reborn with him, though each time with a different name (Svava; Sigrun; and Kara). In each of the Helgi poems, the Valkyrie/fetch-wife becomes the hero’s wife and protect him in battle, but she ultimately cannot keep him from his doom.
Modern representations of Fylgjur
The concept of a fylgja can be a hard one for modern minds to really grasp. An entity that has its own district shape and personality and yet is inextricably woven into an individual or family’s soul? It can help to look at pop culture for a few example of these type of characters.
In the aspect of an ancestral/family fylgja, fans of the Harry Potter series will see similarities with the Patronus spell. A fylgja may well be described as a sentient “Patronus”; as with the fylgja, the Patronus spell takes on a shape representative of that individual or family, protects the one who casts it, and appears when danger is at hand. Another good example from pop culture, this time of an individual’s fylgja, are the “dæmons” from Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. These are semi-autonomous animal-shaped spirits whose form is directly shaped by the personality of the human with whom they are partnered.
 According to scholar Rudolf Simek, in some sagas the terms “dis” and “fylgja” were used almost interchangeably. (For example, Njall’s Saga the dísir were once called fylgjur.), He also argues that the hamingja is “the personification of the good fortune of a person…. a kind of soul-like protective spirit, and thus is closely associated with the fyljur.” He says that dís and fylgja might both be translated loosely as ‘guardian-spirit, attendant’. E.O.G. Turville-Petre, another noted Norse scholar lore, adds that “[fylgia] is nearly synonymous with gipta and 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.” According to Our Troth, a person, such as a king, who had a very strong hamingja could share some of it with others—i.e., literally giving them some of his luck.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Elves, Wights and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry, Vol. 1. New York: iUniverse, 2007.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf, ed. Our Troth: Vol. 1: History and Lore, 2nd ed. Charleston: Booksurge, LLC, 2006.
“Spirit Beings in the Helgi Poems,” by Sara Axtell. Idunna #101, pp. 13-17.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.
Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North. London: Praeger, 1975.
Heathen wiki: http://heathen.wikispaces.com/Fylgia
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