The Northern Spirit Part 1

In addition to “Fiction and Spirituality Part 2” I will be writing today about the Northern Spirit as well. This is because I wanted to get a jump start on a month worth of articles, for the simple reason that the next month or so is quite busy for me. Every weekend until November is filled with either hunting and/or some kind of fall activity. As such I won’t have time for regular posting until at least Novemeber, so I am posting a couple of articles now so that my readers have something to chew on until I get back.

As an animist, I believe that all things (or the vast majority of things, as there are some I have encountered that do not appear to. This could user error though, perhaps they are just too small for me to detect) have spirits, so I spend a good deal of time contemplating the nature of the spirits. As will all questions worth asking, there is not definitive answer to this question and the best that I can come up with is; it’s complicated. As far as the Northern Tradition is concerned, the spirit is made up of numerous pieces, each of which has various degrees of will and autonomy. Some are completely subject to my will, while others are independent of me, yet are still a vital piece of what might be called the self. As far as my tradition is concerned, perhaps selves is more accurate.

As I have said, the spirit in the Norse tradition is made up of several pieces. I have seen a range of anywhere from 3 to 18 pieces, but in my opinion there is not a correct number of parts. The reason for this is because, like cells in our body, the number is not fixed, but changes through time. Pieces of the spirit can depart, be loss, or be gained. They are always in flux, cycling, moving around, changing in arrangement, influence and power. During a discussion, I once heard them described as “blocks”, not unlike Legos. Pieces can be interchanged and mixed, and so much like Legos, they are lost and found over time. Different shapes and colors can be used, pieces rotated and moved, all that help to define the spiritual and physical being that is me.

Let us start with a conceptual introduction; “ In Scandinavian folk tradition the human soul is usually referred to as hug(r)…. it refers to the mental life of the individual – to personality, thoughts, feelings and desires. There are various and complex conceptions of the hugr imbuing the greater part of Scandinavian tradition…. It was believed that the hug could affect both animate and inanimate objects – including other people – either consciously or unconsciously. The deliberate manipulation of the hugr is the basis of all magic. The hug can manifest itself invisibly or can take on a shape (hamr). In some instances the shape assumed by the hug has developed into an independent supranormal being, as exemplified by the many traditions about the nightmare (mare).
Other important projects of the hugr include the vordr, which is a kind of presence accompanying the individual; the dream-soul, which leaves the body during sleep; the vardöger or fyreferd, a visual or auditory experience presaging a person’s approach; and the free-soul, which is the soul sent from the body in magic flight.” (Kvideland, pg 45.)

Now we can see a few parts that deserve further exploration; the hugr, the vordr, the hamr. It is important to mention at this point that the different parts of the spirit are deeply interconnected, and they can overlap to a greater or lesser degree. This can cause confusion, so I will try my best to untangle them. We are going to start with the hugr.

Hugr – This is the closest thing, in my opinion, we have to a personal self. An Old Norse word that is close to “thought”, just like Odin’s raven, Huginn and Muninn, thought and memory. Raven Kaldera has this to say on his website; “Hyge (Hugr) is the rational part of the cognitive process; it is the thinking, reasoning left-brain part that can examine input and draw conclusions.” The hugr is the “I” in the spiritual equation, as stated above, the sum total of our personalities thoughts and feelings. Our wills and feelings. Perhaps it is the “core” around which all other pieces revolve.

Vordr – Strömbäck says; ” In Sweden we have a definition of the vård given us by the famous Swedish folklorist Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius in the middle of the last century and well worth citing in this connection. What he says refers to his home district, southern Småland, where he was a keen observer of folk-belief and folk customs. He says: “The vård (literally: the guardian) is a being attached to the individual, a spirit who accompanies a person wherever he goes, and sometimes reveals itself either as a glimmer or in the form of the person as a second self (hamr), a phantom. The presence of the vård can even be felt, both by other people and by the individual himself when he is out of doors at night…. This term corresponds to Norwegian vord, Old Norse vordr and originally denotes ‘guardian’. You have the same word in Anglo-saxon weard, ‘guardian’ or modern “watch and ward…. ”

My personal Vordr is a wolf, a constant companion, like a loyal pet, and a second-self part of my spirit. She overlaps into ideas of the hamr, which I will get to. We can add a bit from Wikipedia here; “At times, the warden could reveal itself as a small light or as the shape (hamr) of the person. The perception of another person’s warden could cause a physical sensation such as an itching hand or nose, as a foreboding or an apparition. The warden could arrive before the actual person, which someone endowed with fine senses might perceive.” Here we see a spill over into the vardöger concept, whereas your vordr actually runs ahead of you and informs someone else you are on the way. As the vordr is quite independent of my own will, except when she actually listens to me, she can run on ahead with messages or information. This idea overlaps a lot with fyglje here as well, and I will come back around to that. Suffice to say that a vordr is a very specific type of fylgje.

Hamr – The second self, usually as some form of animal. Kaldera has this to say; “The hame (hamr) is the part of your soul that can be shapeshifted into another form, with work and training.” A great deal of work and training. A word of warning here, do not try this at home. This kind of thing is very advanced stuff. I have been trying, with a lot more failure then success. You’ve been warned. My vordr overlaps here, as she is much hamr as vordr, a guardian and a second self.

Fyglje – Kvideland and Sehmsdor say; “The fylgje (cf. the verb fylgja ‘to follow’) is a projection of the hugr that accompanies the person. It either takes human shape or that of an animal.” (Kvideland pg 66.) In my experience, these spirits can be about anything, gods, ancestors or spirits. They are more, general purpose, than the vordr. In my interpretation, each person only gets one vordr for their whole life, whereas fyglje are what might be called spiritual allies. They are followers, and can a wide range of functions and responsibilities. While the vordr is the primary protector, fylje can have much the similar functions. They can send messages, aid in protection and work, or pretty much any thing else. Also, there is nothing, in my experience, that prevents fyglje from becoming hamr, seond-third-forth ect. selves. Once again, really advanced stuff.

Wikiepedia says; ” In Norse mythology, a fylgja (Old Norse, literally “someone that accompanies” is a supernatural being or creature which accompanies a person in connection to their fate or fortune. Fylgjur usually appear in the form of an animal and commonly appear during sleep, but the sagas relate that they could appear while a person is awake as well, and that seeing one’s fylgja is an omen of one’s impending death. However, when fylgjur appear in the form of women, they are then supposedly guardian spirits for people or clans (ættir). Both Andy Orchard and Rudolf Simek note parallels between the concept of the hamingja—a personification of a family’s or individual’s fortune—and the fylgja.”
As mentioned, there is a dark side to fyglje as well, as some of the lore indicates that seeing your fylgja is an omen of your impending death. However, I have “seen” my fylgjur, as well as my hamr, on several occasions, and have not yet died, at least any faster than the normal rate. My thoughts are that stories of this type refer to a specific type of spirit, that is often confused with the more general term fylgje. I have not yet found a specific name for fygje of this type, but I would suspect they are closer to the draugr (living dead/walking dead) than a spiritual follower. Perhaps something akin to an “angel of death/grim reaper?” A special type of spiritual follower that says “it is time to go.” I also suspect you would know fylgje’s of this type if you saw them.

Hamingje – This concept overlaps quite a bit with fylgje and kinfylgje (the ancestors of your own fylgje, or the fylgje of your ancestors). In its more general sense it means “luck”, but it not inherent. Hamingje is something that is created and earned, and thusly can be lost and taken as well. It comes from those around you, from keeping good relations with friends, family and spirits (fylgje, vordr, ect). It is a type of community fortune or power, the kind that is only made with good relations. The willingness of a dear friend to always be there? That is hamingje. Kaldera adds; “For example, a gift has more hamingja than something that you bought, because it has the energy of the giver’s intention and good wishes behind it. A gift that was used frequently by someone or worn on their body has even more. An heirloom passed down over time has yet more hamingja, for the same reasons. Gifts given by children out of real feeling for the recipient seem to have an inordinate amount of hamingja. A bride was considered to have a great deal of hamingja, and the wife was the keeper of the household’s hamingja, because she was closest to the hearth, the center of the home.” (Kaldera)

IF you’ve made it this far you deserve a cookie. Go and get yourself a cookie.

Part 2 coming soon, because this is going to be much longer.

Kvideland, Reimund & Sehmsdor, Henning. Editors. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend.

Kaldera, Raven

Strömbäck, Dag., from the book “Sejd” (2000 edition), pages 220-236. The Concept of the Soul in Nordic Tradition


About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

One response to “The Northern Spirit Part 1

  • Sarenth

    Well done; I really enjoy reading your work. You provide good citations and note where you differ from established lore, and are clear about your impressions from what you have found in the materials you otherwise cite. Well done!

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