Understanding the Fylgjur of Norse Mythology
What Are Fylgjur?
Fylgjur (plural of Fylgja) are supernatural guardian spirits, bound to a family line, who are 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" . 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) :
"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 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."
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 .
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." 
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.
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 its "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.
- Robert Kellog & Jane Smiley (Introduction), The Sagas of Icelanders - ISBN - 978-0141000039
- The Fylgjur - Guardian Spirits & Ancestral Mothers, Maria Kvilhaug
- Thorsteinn Gylfason (Introduction), Njál's Saga - ASIN - B00IGYQC0O
- The Story of Burnt Njal; From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga, By the Late Sir George Webbe Dasent - ASIN - B0095JTHZG
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones