The Fylgja is the mysterious Norse spirit that threads with us all our lives. Often showing itself in our final hour. That’s not to say they wouldn’t appear earlier in the lives of Vikings as well. However especially around the time of someone dying the Fylgja would be close.
In the history and stories of the old Norse world, there is a strong sense of individuality. Even the gods are figures with their own identities, personality, flaws and journeys to go on. But when we discuss the era of Vikings, this individuality shows above all in their attitude towards death.
Ragnarok would not just be the end of men, but gods, too. It is set in stone that even gods die and will, one day, all die. But the Edda and sagas are full of an almost light-hearted, almost intimate relationship with it.
Many vikings looked forward to deaths in battle. Believing they would be spirited away by the Valkyries to join the ranks of the Einherjar in Valhalla. There hey could feast in Valhalla until they could die again fighting alongside Odin at the end of the world. But even those who didn’t often have a certain appreciation for the poetic nature of the end of our lives.
What are the Fylgja?
The name ‘Fylgja’ roughly translated into ‘someone who accompanies’.
In most stories, the Fylgja are seen during a birth or a death. Their name and much of what we know about them tells us that they are constant, if not unseen, companions.
It is likely there were varying beliefs on whether a Fylgja belonged to an individual or a family, and how it is passed on. However the Fylgja is best defined as a feminine spirit that acts as a guide and protector.
Its nature is matriarchal, watching over the family and the individuals in it. And, because they take the form of a woman, the most common belief is that they are the spirits of matriarchs in the family. Deceased mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and so on.
The Fylgja holds a certain level of reverence. They are considered Disir, meaning simply feminine ancestral spirits, and this means they are held in very high regard. But, whilst the Disir may serve many roles, Fylgjur are the ones who watch individuals. The forms they take reflecting the nature of the individual.
Forms the Fylgja Might Take
The Fylgja’s forms are a point of extensive discussion. Possibly part of what has seen them gain some popularity amongst people interested in mythology and Norse myth. However, it is important to note that the form they take can vary. It is not necessarily reflective of the person’s nature in a way someone might expect.
A king could have a Fylgja that is a goat, because of his focus on domestic diplomacy and peace, but a stern and strong stance. A housewife might be a wolf because she has strong passion and desire.
And, a Fylgja can take the form of a woman. They appear to take this form most often in the dreams of the person they are the passenger of. Really, a Fylgja wouldn’t be best described as an ‘animal spirit’, and the animal form they take is not the most important thing about them. Rather, they simply take the shape of an animal, but fundamentally the female ancestors passed.
Spirits Of Death?
Their presence at the time of death is the way Fylgjur most often appear in the sagas. Very often, they are not seen by the dying person, but instead by a loved one. This has led some to believe the Fylgja are spirits of death, but that is incorrect. In fact, a Fylgja is there for our lives, to watch over us and protect us like mothers and grandmothers do.
In fact, they are not bonded to our souls. A Fylgja may abandon the one it protects if they deem them immoral or dishonorable. And, carrying on from the assumptions of them as the spirits of death, they are often assumed to be individual companions. Rather, someone may have more than one Fylgja, some seen, some unseen.
Their most important connotation in death is not that they are there for when we die, but that it is the women we have lost that are there for when we live. Those who have lost mothers and grandmothers often feel lost without them. But for the Old Norse, and many who still believe in the old stories and folklore, the mothers and grandmothers never left.
Perhaps your mother is watching over your little sister. Maybe your grandmother is watching over you. And, regardless of whether you believe in Fylgja or not, it is easy to understand why the Fyalgja were sacred beings.
Spirits Of Dreams?
Perhaps the time when someone can meet their Fylgja most is in their dreams. The old Norse people took dreams very seriously. It was acknowledged some could be meaningless, but it was believed some could be used to divine the future. Or, to speak to higher beings, like spirits and elves and gods.
This communication during dreams was very important. Fyalgja were not just passive beings that were swept by. Rather, they were conscious spirits watching you, and wanting what’s best for you. And, as the spirits of feminine ancestors passed, the advice they gave in those dreams were incredibly precious.
Fylgja As Women
And that means we cannot discuss the Fylgja without discussing women in old Norse society. It is easy to romanticize Norse life, but we cannot forget that the society was still a patriarchy in which only men could appear in court right through the middle ages.
Still, in comparison to other societies of the age, Norse women had a level of respect and freedom rarely seen in Europe or even the world. Whilst women were expected to be housewives, Norse women had far more choices over their husbands, homes, and personal choices. Even if refusing their family’s wishes was said to end poorly.
But they had powers of divorce, such as in cases of domestic violence or poverty, or abandonment. Interestingly, the history and sagas are full of powerful women that seem to be respected. There were queens and seers and even mention of great female warriors, whose reputations did not seem tarnished by the fact they were a woman.
This is to say that the old Norse attitude towards women, whilst still far removed from a modern conception of feminism, certainly held them in higher regard than other cultures of the age. Often to the surprise of the Middle-Eastern traders with which the Norse peoples had a long-standing trading relationship with. And this certainly helps us understand both the Disir but especially the Fylgja better.
They held the Fylgjur in very high reverence, and their culture reflected it.
The Fylgja Beyond the Norse Tradition
As with many parts of Norse myth and legend, the Fylgja underwent a transformation when in contact with Christianity that would go on to shape Norse society during the middle ages. Especially in England, they changed to be associated with witchcraft, being called ‘Fetches’.
However, this is far removed from the original beliefs, and the Fylgja are closer in similarity to the Catholic belief in ‘guardian angels’. Whilst not codified by the church, the idea of a spiritual being assigned to watch over and guide a soul isn’t too far removed.
The Fylgja Today
In some Nordic communities, tales of the Fylgja continue to pass from generation to generation. They have also drawn the fascination of those who want to know what their Fylgja would be. It is a popular trend, fitting alongside your Hogwarts house or Native American spirit animal.
It is worth noting, however, that these modern conceptions and games often have little to no link to real folklore. As already mentioned, you may have more than one Fylgja, but also that they are not animal companions. They are mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and matriarchal figures held in reverence and respect. What form they took was a sacred thing; and even today, the Fylgja have strong cultural and spiritual importance.
The Fylgja Today
In modern-day Iceland, the Fylgja plays an important part in understanding the cultural attitude towards grief towards lost mothers and grandmothers.
So, whilst it is fun to speculate what Fylgja your inner nature may draw, it is very much like Native American spirit animals; it is not accurate to the culture or history or stories, and many people still hold these spirits and what they represent in high reverence.
Because, whatever form the Fylgja take, their shape, be it woman or wolf or wombat, is not what makes them hold the spiritual significance they hold. It is the knowledge that they are watching over you. Protecting you. Guiding you. Your mother, grandmother, on and on and on, that these countless great women of your ancestry live on through your family, and each member of your family may have different Fylgja watching over you. And, when you understand the old Norse attitude towards death, and you understand that you realize the Fylgja are a very special and sacred thing, as are the women that would one day become them.
Featured Image Credit: honrando.os.nordicos