Understanding the Fylgjur

Updated on April 22, 2016
Pollyanna Jones profile image

The occult has always interested Pollyanna. Her specific areas of study are traditional witchcraft, folk magic, seidr, & shamanic practices.

"True Fox Spirit"
"True Fox Spirit" | Source

Fylgjur (plural of Fylgja) are described as supernatural guardian spirits, bound to a family line, said to accompany a person throughout life. Like many concepts in Norse mythology, the Fylgja is sometimes hard to comprehend or explain.

Fylgja, translated from Old Norse, means "someone that accompanies" [1]. They can appear in two ways.

The first is an animal form, which can be described as an extension of an aspect or characteristic of a particular family. They seem to embody the spirit, and guide the one they choose, or work deeds for them.

Maria Kvilhaug translated and summarised Professor Else Mundal's academic paper on the topic, “Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur” (Fylgjur Motifs in Norse Literature) [2]:

"The animal fylgja motif is sometimes blended with the húgr-motif. [Húgr (masculine singular) means “intent”, “desire”, “thought”, “soul”, “heart” and seems to have been a part of the human soul that could move outside of the body in animal shape]. Manna hugir ["the intents of men"] sometimes replace the term manna fylgjor [the “followers” of men] and usually then appear in the shape of wolves. Wolves, being associated with fierce passion and desire (or greed and hunger) are closely connected to the húgr. The other animals appear as manna fylgjor."

"The White Lady"
"The White Lady" | Source

The second description from “Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur” explains how Fylgjur are female entities. They act as a guardian for a family, and attach themselves to an individual at birth, following through the generations down a certain lineage. They are likely to represent an ancestral mother. We know that the mothers were celebrated, with female ancestral spirits being described as "Dísir" (meaning "Ladies"). These female spirits are bound to a family of which they are matriarchal ancestors, and can be both benevolent or malevolent. The Dísir will be discussed and explored in their own article in the near future.

The term Dísir covers a wider spectrum of female spirits and beings within Norse mythology, but the Fylgja is specifically a spirit that guides and protects a person, and is tied with their fate and "hamingja". It is widely thought that a Fylgja may abandon their chosen mortal if their behaviour is poor, wicked, and would bring the name of the family into disrepute.

Maria Kvilhaug adds:

"A woman fylgja is a female supernatural entity who acts as a guardian spirit for the clan, and especially for the chief of the clan. They were also attached to individuals, but were immortal and appear to have been attached to particular lineages following a person from each generation. Mundal believes that they represent the spirits of ancestral mothers, a part of the ancestral mother worship we know existed among the Vikings.

Every human being may have one or more woman fylgja. Some are visible whereas others are invisible. Of the visible fylgjur a person has a limited number (2-3-9), of the invisibles a whole flock. The followers are carriers of an individual`s or the clan`s fortune. The woman follower appears often in dreams but also in visions."

"Spirit Guide"
"Spirit Guide" | Source
A page from Njál's Saga
A page from Njál's Saga | Source

Fylgjur in the Sagas

These spirits appear in the Story of Burnt Njál, from the Icelandic Njál's Saga. A tale of feuds and revenges, it is thought that this work dates from between 1270 and 1290 [3].

In the 1900 publication of this saga, Sir George Webbe Dasent, describes "The Superstitions of the Race" in his introduction to the works and mentions the role of the Fylgja in the society featured in this tale;

"The Northman had many superstitions. He believed in good giants and bad giants, in dark elves and bright elves, in superhuman beings who tilled the wide gulf which existed between himself and the gods. He believed, too, in wraiths and fetches and guardian spirits, who followed particular persons, and belonged to certain families—a belief which seems to have sprung from the habit of regarding body and soul as two distinct beings, which at certain times took each a separate bodily shape. Sometimes the guardian spirit or fylgja took a human shape; at others its form took that of some animal fancied to foreshadow the character of the man to whom it belonged. Thus it becomes a bear, a wolf, an ox, and even a fox, in men. The fylgjur of women were fond of taking the shape of swans.

To see one's own fylgja was unlucky, and often a sign that a man was "fey," or death-doomed. So, when Thord Freedmanson tells Njal that he sees the goat wallowing in its gore in the "town" of Bergthorsknoll, the foresighted man tells him that he has seen his own fylgja, and that he mustbe doomed to die. Finer and nobler natures often saw the guardian spirits of others.

Thus Njal saw the fylgjur of Gunnar's enemies, which gave him no rest the livelong night, and his weird feeling is soon confirmed by the news brought by his shepherd. From the fylgja of the individual it was easy to rise to the still more abstract notion of the guardian spirits of a family, who sometimes, if a great change in the house is about to begin, even show themselves as hurtful to some member of the house." [4]

Not only are Fylgjur mentioned in this saga, but their role as "fetches" also appears when they are described as visiting characters in the tale in their dreams.

These beings also appear in the Ljosvetninga Saga, and are used in a form of spiritual warfare. If a character had a more powerful Fylgja than the person crossing them, that individual would suffer some kind of misfortune. It seems that this is the result of their own Fylgja not being as strong, or not being able to defend them from that of their enemy.

Witches identifying their familiar spirits.
Witches identifying their familiar spirits. | Source

Fylgja, Fetches, and Witchcraft

In the Anglo-Saxon and later English superstitions, an animal Fylgja became known as a fetch. Whether this was originally the same creature that appears in Icelandic literature, or whether this is a similar concept, it is hard to tell. A fetch in the British witchcraft tradition is an animal spirit, or living animal, that would allow it's "owner" to travel with it or send it on errands for magical workings or spirit travel.

It is more common for us to see the witch's fetch depicted as a familiar; a physical animal that aids the practitioner in her works. Many folk tales describe how these animals might also be the witch transformed, and physical injuries suffered by the animal matching those of the witch once she is restored to human form. This shape-shifting also appeared as a Norse concept.

In modern reconstructed Heathen spirituality, a Fylgja can be seen as an attendant female spirit or animal, which may visit you in dreams, or appear if you are practising Seiðr, trance-working, or going on a spirit journey. People sometimes feel that their Fylgja has run on ahead of them when travelling in a physical sense.

Caution would be advised for the curious who wish to discover these beings. Their powers are well documented in the Icelandic Sagas, telling how they may bestow hamingja or luck upon those who they attend, even helping to shape a person's fate. If you displease them, they can leave you, or the benefits they bring could be reversed.

Sources

[1] Robert Kellog & Jane Smiley (Introduction), The Sagas of Icelanders - ISBN - 978-0141000039

[2] The Fylgjur - Guardian Spirits & Ancestral Mothers, Maria Kvilhaug

[3] Thorsteinn Gylfason (Introduction), Njál's Saga - ASIN - B00IGYQC0O

[4] The Story of Burnt Njal; From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga, By the Late Sir George Webbe Dasent - ASIN - B0095JTHZG

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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      • profile image

        4 months ago

        What about the dove of christ?

      • profile image

        Mike 6 months ago

        You mention that these spirits may leave a person. If possible, how would one earn their trust again?

      • profile image

        Ulysses 14 months ago

        I have 2 spirit guides a man+ a woman. I am Icelandic and have been told by strangers about the 2 people behind me. It is a woman who comes and speaks to me in my dreams, sometimes to help comfort other times to warn me.

      • profile image

        Jinna 14 months ago

        I know of these spirits I've seen one on my right and one on my left side but what through me was the group that was behind me. yes, the first time I saw them I was dead, but I came back, know I still see them from time to time, I feel safe, but the group to me are funny something always goes silly when I feel them, the right side and the left seem to always have there arm around my arm I feel them more, some people think I'm weird but, I know I'm not my fav saying is the eyes are the window to your soul, read that line a few times and think, I have a hard time looking in peoples eyes because of this, I've scared more people away because of it thank you

      • profile image

        Sunshine 21 months ago

        Hello, I would like to know if by chance you happen to have info regarding Elven Guardian Angels. I was just informed that I have one and would like to learn as much as I can.

        Everytime I search, I'm led back to Norse history and the "Fylgjur"

        Thank you in advance for any information, assistance and resources you can provide.

        ~sunshine

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

        Yes, it really is belief shared by many cultures around the world, much like the sacred tree. It makes me wonder how widely travelled the older ancestors were, and whether they shared these ideas with each other, or developed their own on a more organic localised level.

      • SpiritRune profile image

        SpiritRune 2 years ago

        I also love the less obvious folklore, you can get a lot of insight from even the simplest of stories and folk customs. All around the world it is common for cultures to have some form of shrine to honor the household spirits. In some cases those spirits are bound to the hearth or the place the house is but in many cases also they are the spirits of the family line. I wish there was more lore preserved about how these spirits appeared to people.

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

        I'm glad you mentioned that, Brenda. The banshee are certainly linked to a family line (have a read of the piece on Blarney Castle as there's a bit in there about which family that is!) and I would agree that they have the association with the matriarchs that so many cultures venerate. Thank you for posting!

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        Brenda 2 years ago

        The matriarch spirit you mentioned (terrific piece) reminds me of our irish banshee who followed a particular family and warned of death. The norse lady sounds far more likely, the banshee has a v limited role and i wonder was she accidently "dumbed down"? Im v interested in folklore and comparisons with other countries thank u v much really enjoyed ur posts:-)

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

        It does sound formidable. It is a fascinating aspect of this folklore, and one I enjoy studying.

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        Thrymur Sveinsson 3 years ago

        I mentioned Þorgeirsboli (bull of Thorgeir) as one of most terrifying fylgja in Icelandic folklores. Fylgja is complicated thing.

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

        This is something I wonder a lot myself, Avalon. The Ancestors are a big part of my personal path, and to live to honour them, and seek their guidance when I must. Whether or not one is spiritual, we can't cast aside that they will influence us in one way or another. Everyone is different, but this just "feels" right for me to connect with them. I wish you all the best with your quest!

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        Avalon Edvardsdottir 3 years ago

        Thank you for this info! I am working on trying to discover and interact with my kinfylgia myself. Both for its own merit and because even though I am female, i have never been "in touch" with my feminine aspects or goddesses as much as gods. We are all aspects of both, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation, and I feel the need to balance out my rather male-oriented lopsided natures.

        I am a person of Swedish (among others) decent, and through long search and study, I have gratefully found my way to the honor of The Old Gods of my paternal line. I was actually led there by a long (since 6 years of age) relationship with ravens and crows, and since Odin is my patron god, it makes perfect sense to me.

        The Norse Gods, more than any other I have encountered (and I have sought out and encountered MANY) and their associated ways and runes, have felt like "home" to my wandering soul. I do not feel a person needs a genetic component to follow any god, goddess, or path, but I do believe it helps make a connection. At least for me....

        I wonder how much my kinfylgia might have had to do with my search and ending up right where I need to be. I also wonder, as I find that there are more connections in the world than we can see at first glance, if fylgia might literally follow a person in their mitochondrial DNA. A fascinating thought, no?

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Hmm, that link to Carolyn's article didn't work. Let me try again. If this one doesn't, look for "Huldufólk - Iceland's Belief in Elves" https://exemplore.com/misc/Hulduflk-Icelands-Elves...

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Elves were very important to the Norse peoples; there's a nice little summary on the website below. There are a lot of variations and ideas about the "Light Elves", also over the years, a lot of folklore describes these beings as shrinking (for example, the Elves in Iceland - see this Hub written by Carolyn Emerick for more info - http://carolynemerick.hubpages.com/hub/Hulduflk-Ic...

        I'll see what I can find for you! Maybe an article is in order? ;-)

        http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/elve...

      • profile image

        alan 3 years ago

        You are very welcome, Pollyanna. Any insight you may have regarding Tumpdorby would be very much appreciated.

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

        That's fascinating, Alan, and interesting to see that these sort of beliefs still continue in our day in some form or other. Thank you so much for sharing your tale.

      • profile image

        alan 3 years ago

        My son who studies norse mythology posted this. Awesome. My dad Gunnar was 100% Swedish but unfortunately is deceased used to speak of what you described as a bright elf. He called it Tumpdorby (my spelling as I never saw it in print ...just verbal history) According to Gunnar, Tumpdorby was one of the "little people" and saved my father from death or serious bodily injury on at least two occasions over a 60 year period, the two stories he shared with me that I still recall. Fascinating that my dad's cultural history has such beings ie. bad elves and such....very interesting in deed.

      • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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        Pollyanna Jones 3 years ago from United Kingdom

        Kevin, and Amy, I am so glad that you enjoyed this.

        There are so many concepts from Norse lore besides the ones we hear so much about! There is a strong practice of honouring the mothers of your line, which is not unlike the Roman Matrones - that I will cover more fully when I write about the Dísir. And of course, the Roman pantheon has a lot of similarities with the Greek. Thanks for commenting!

      • profile image

        Amy Holman 3 years ago

        I enjoyed this article. The animal spirit attached to a family is most interesting and made me wonder about the origin of family crests. Of course, it is similar to Native American animal medicine, also. The woman spirit that protects the female reminds me of how the goddess Artemis in Greek mythology is protector of girls from infancy to maturity -- her twin Apollo is for boys. This is creatively inspiring info. I'll look up your books. Anyway, I want a fylgja.

      • kevin murphy-87 profile image

        kevin murphy 3 years ago from Ireland

        Wow this is awesome!

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