What is a Fylgja?
The Fylgja is an interesting Norse conception, though one not peculiar to that region.
It is the belief that the soul or one of the souls which, in primitive belief, a man is supposed to possess, could leave the body and become visible to its owner or another person, either as a double of the man or as an animal. It was commonly seen in dreams and in waking life.
Such a soul tended to become a separate entity, connected, however, with its owner and mainly appearing before his death. So it was with the Norse Fylgja or Follower.
The Fylgja was a kind of guardian spirit most usually in the form of an animal, fairy and sometimes human form.
Tales of Fylgja
In one of two examples of a Fylgja in the Poetic Edda, that of Helgi appeared to his brother Hethin as a Troll-wife riding a wolf bridled by snakes.
He refused her advances, and she threatened vengeance upon him at the king’s toast’ that night during the Yule feast.
At this toast Hethin vowed that he would have Svava, the beloved of Helgi.
Then grief seized him and he fled until he found Helgi and told him of his vow. Helgi bade him not to grieve, for he was about to fight a duel and feared he would not return.
Hethin now knew that he had seen Helgi’s Fylgja or, as the poem puts it, his Fylgjur (plural), as if he had more than one.
The other reference is in the poem Atlamal.
An eagle was seen flying through the hall by Kostbera, who interpreted it as the hamr of Atli, betokening an evil fate, for with blood it sprinkled those present.
Hamr is literally “skin” or “covering”, but here perhaps signifies Fylgja, Atli’s soul in an animal covering.
Fylgja in animal form
The animal Fylgja often had some corresponding aspect to that of the character of its owner: bulls and bears attended great chiefs, foxes people of crafty nature.
In the Njals-saga, Hauskuld saw in a dream a huge bear going out of the house with two cubs, and entering another house.
He knew that its match was not to be found and so regarded it as the Fylgja of the peerless Gunnar.
Einar dreamed that he saw a huge ox going to the farm of his powerful brother Gudmund. At the high seat it fell dead. From this he was able to foretell his brother’s death.
The boy Thorsten Ox-foot rushed into a room where an old man called Geite was sitting and fell on the floor. Geite laughed because, as he explained to the boy:
“I saw what thou couldst not see” -a white bear-cub over which Thorsten had fallen, his Fylgja in that form.
A bear which fought by the side of Hrolf Kraki was regarded as the Fylgja of Bjarki, one of his herocs, who was meanwhile asleep. When Bjarki himself appeared on the battle-field, the bear vanished.
Eyjolf slew his enemy, but was himself lamed by a fall from his horse. He was told by a seer that the Fylgjur of his enemy’s kinsfolk had caused this, whereupon he indignantly asked if they were stronger than those of himself and his friends.
An Icelander dreamed that a pack of wolves fell on him and his followers. Two of them were killed by him. A seer, who explained the dream, said that the wolves were Mannahugir, “men’s spirits”, hostile to him.
At the fight which followed close upon this dream, the Icelander slew two of his foes. Mannahugir is thus an alternative name for Fylgjur.
Thord saw a goat wallowing in its gore and told Njal of this. Njal could not see the goat, and said that Thord must be fey, as he had seen his Fylgja. Next day Thord was slain.
A man who was near death or who was fey was apt to see his own Fylgja. Dreaming of attacking animals also foreshadowed a fight with the men whose Fylgjur they were.
A man’s Fylgja protected him, but its death was followed by that of its owner, though whether this means that the Fylgja never survived its owner’s death is doubtful.
The Fylgjukona, “following woman”, always had woman’s form and was even more definitely a guardian spirit than the animal Fylgja.
She might be guardian of an individual or of a family, and there might be more than one of them, three, nine, or a multitude. The name Hamingjur was also applied to them.
Hamingja (singular) is from “hamr”, which meant “a caul” as well as “skin” or “covering”, and as the caul was supposed to bring good luck to the child born with it, so the word Hamingja, as applied to fortune-bringing guardian spirıts showing themselves in a certan form, came to be used in the abstract sense of happiness, good luck.
These guardian spirits accompanied men, shielded, warned, consoled, and cheered them. They appeared to their protégés urging them to action. When one member of a family died, his Fylgjukona would pass from him to another kinsman.
In Viga-Glums-saga, Glum dreamed that a huge helmeted woman, whose shoulders touched the mountains, came up from the sea.
He asked her to come into his house. On awaking he explained the dream as meaning that his mother’s father, Vigfuss, must be dead. This woman was his Hamingja, for he had been held high in honour. She must be seeking to take up her abode with Glum. Soon after came news of the death of Vigfuss. This helmeted woman resembles a Valkyrie.
Other examples of family guardian spirits, called Oettar-fylgja or Kyn-fylgja, Occur in the Sagas.
As the skald Hallfred lay dying on board ship, he saw a huge woman wearing a birnie going over the waves, his guardian spirit, whom he now knew would pass from him. She asked his brother to accept her, but he refused, whereupon the skald’s son Hallfred said that he would take her, and now she vanished.
The Troll-woman, Helgi’s Fylgja, who desired Hethin’s company, may have wished to be his guardian after Helgi’s death.
Christianity arrives and changes the nature of Fylgja
With the coming of Christianity, the belief in these female guardian spirits was apparently altered. They were divided into white and black groups, the former those of the new Christian faith, the latter those of heathenism.
This is illustrated in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Thidrandi, son of Hall, heard a knocking at the door. Opening it, he saw no one; but going by the woodpile he heard the noise of people riding into the horse-garth from the North.
These were nine women in black with drawn swords. Others were heard coming from the South, nine women in white. Before he could return to the house, the women in black wounded him.
In this condition his friends found him, and before his death he told what he had heard and seen. The seer Thorhall said that the black women were the Fylgjur of Hall and his kinsmen (more properly Hamingjur), who followed the old faith, and they had attacked Thidrandi because it was about to be overthrown.
These Disir had foreseen this and they were angry because the usual respect would not be paid to them. The brighter spirits, now about to connect themselves with the family, must have wished to help him, but had not been in time.
Here, as in other examples, these Kynfylgjur resemble Valkyries, and the name Disir, “goddesses”, is applied to them as it was to Valkyries and Norns.
In the Gisla-saga, Gisli was visited by two dream-women (draum-konur), one of whom, described by him as a Valkyrie and sent by Odin to speak his will, was evil and foretold evil. She seems to represent the dying paganism.
The other was milder, and appeared almost as a Christian guardian angel.
Gisli was standing midway between the two faiths, pagan and Christian.
Once he saw a hall with his kinstolk. In it were seven fires, some burning brightly, others were low. The milder dream-woman told him to leave the old beliefs and witchcratt and to be good to the poor and weak.
The fires were symbols of his life: those burning brightly indicated the number of years that he had to live.
On one occasion she rode a grey horse, and bade him follow her to her house, where he saw benches with pillows of down. Here, she told him, he would come when he died.
The evil dream-woman often came to Gisli, wishing to sprinkle blood over him and to bathe him in it, and looking spitefully at him. She appeared more often as his death drew near, saying that she would prevent what the other had foretold from coming to pass.
In this story the belief in Fylgjukonur has been infuenced by the Christian conception of good and evil angels, associated with a man’s soul, for which they fight over.
In Njals-saga, Hall, a pagan, would only consent to become a Christian if Saint Michael became his Fylgju-engill or “guardian angel”
The resemblance of the Fylgjukona to other kinds of spirits, such as Valkyries, is interesting. Valkyries also guarded chosen heroes and came to their aid when called upon.
The Fylgjukonur are sometimes callcd Spa-disir, “prophetic women”.
Fylgja in modern Sweden, Norway and Iceland
Such beings as the Fylgja are still known in lceland, Norway, and Sweden. Their names are as follows: in Iceland, Fylgja; in Norway, Fölgie (usually an animal) and Vardögr; in Sweden, Välnad or Värd.
They are generally good, protective spirits, and care is taken, such as when a man leaves the house, to allow his protector to leave with him, lest danger meet him, especially from his evil spirits.
Sometimes they are warning spirits, telling by knocking or rattling the latch that their owners are coming, or that death or mistortune is at hand.
Such a spirit will appear as a double of its owner, even to the person himself, as his double was seen by the hero of Stevenson’s Ticonderoga, giving thus a warning of his death.
This Highland superstition of the double, used in Ticonderoga with such ettect, or, as the Reverend Robert Kirk, Episcopal minister of Aberfoyle in the seventeenth century, called it in his Secret Commonweallh of the Elves, the “co-walker” seen by persons with second-sight, resembles that of the Vardögr. Kirk, however, thought that the co-walker was a fairy.