On fylgias, 4-2015, by Cara Freyasdaughter. Revised April 2015.
(Note: A fylgia is not a “Norse totem animal”. “Fylgia” is a distinctly Norse concept, and bears little resemblance to the stereotypical Native American concept of a animal totem.)
Summary: What is a fylgia? A fylgia is, in general, one of two things: the animal shape a person’s spirit takes when he or she journeys; or a semi-autonomous human-shaped entity who is attached to a person’s soul. Both types have strong connections with a person’s ancestral line, and can represent (or work on behalf of) an entire family.
The Norse cultures of the Viking age understood the non-corporeal part of a human being to be very complex. A person had a fylgia (fetch); orlog (tally of deeds; the foundation upon which one’s wyrd, or fate, is based); and hamingja (luck) are just a few of the many parts that make up the human soul. Because the roles and definitions of the fylgia and related concepts of dis (female ancestor spirit) and hamingja often overlapped and changed over the years, however, it is difficult to give one coherent definition of what a fylgia is and what one can do. That said, fylgias, as the people in the Old Norse cultures would have recognized them, are still actively showing up in many people’s spiritual practices and lives.
The term fylgia literally means “follower” (as in, “one who follows”). In fact, “fylgia” (the word and the concept) is what later Europeans termed a witch’s “fetch” or “familiar”. A fylgia can take either an animal or a human shape (if human, it will usually show up as a pretty young woman or an old hag—or, at least in one case, as an old troll-woman). Sometimes the fylgia belongs to an individual, and sometimes it belongs to the ancestral line (for example, a “kin-fetch”); if so, the shape that it takes represents that family. A family of berserkers might have a Wolf as their fylgia, and take the shape of a wolf when they go berserk. Those who shape-shifted, such as while berserking, were though to have an “astral body” called a hamr underlying their physical one that could take the form of their family animal. Fylgjur were relatively rare back in Old Norse times; usually only a hero, king, or a witch/priestess seemed to have one version or the other. There are no instances (that I know of) where a person had both a human-shaped and animal-shaped fylgia.
A fylgia usually carried out several roles dependent on the form that it takes. If it was animal-shaped, it is the shape that one’s soul takes when he or she has left her body, for example when doing any kind of shamanic-type journeying. Accounts in the lore tell of a person’s fylgia showing up in the real world in their animal form far from where the person’s body actually is, indicating that the fylgia’s owner was trying to send a message or help out in some way. The fylgia can appear in dreams as well.
A fylgia can also take a human shape. One way a human fylgias is represented is as a protector, of either a specific hero or of his entire family line. The other role a fylgia can take is to warn a person of their approaching death or prophesying the deaths of those in the family. Either way, the human fylgia appears to a given hero, and he must choose to accept the fylgia into his life. If he does not accept her (as in the Hallfredar saga) she must go on a hiatus and wait for someone else in the family to accept her. Though the fylgia appears to know a hero’s fate, she does not seem to be able to directly change it, though she can influence the hero to act in one way or another. (In one example from Vatnsdaela Saga, a hero’s fylgia causes him to get sick and thereby avoid attending an event at which he would have been killed.) Still, there is no actually escaping one’s set fate, in the Norse worldview. Eventually what the Norns have decreed will happen.
The human version of the fylgia can sometimes overlap in form and function with certain Valkyries who become romantically attached to specific heroes and/or their family line. This version of a fylgia likely helped to give rise to the concept of “fetch-wife” or a “swan-wife”. A good example of the fetch-wife/Valkyrie comes from the “Helgi poems”, for example, the Saga of Helgakviða Hundingsbana. “Helgi” is a hero who dies and appears to be reincarnated three times, and each time his Valkyrie or “fetch-wife” is reborn with him, though with a different name (Svava; Sigrun; and Kara). In the Helgi poems, the Valkyrie/fetch-wife becomes the hero’s wife and protect him in battle, but she ultimately cannot keep him from his doom. Still, in all but a very few instances, fylgias—both human and animal—appear to be wise and work on behalf of the human who they are attached to.
Examples of fylgjur in modern times
The concept of a fylgia can be a hard one for modern minds to really grasp. An entity that has its own district shape and personality and yet is inextricably woven into an individual or family’s soul? It can help to look at pop culture for a few example of these type of characters.
In the aspect of an ancestral fylgia, fans of the Harry Potter series will see similarities with the Patronus spell. A fylgia may well be described as a sentient “Patronus”; as with the fylgia, the Patronus spell takes on a shape representative of that individual or family, and it protects the one who casts it, and appears when danger is at hand.
A good example of an individual’s (non-romantic) fylgia are the “dæmons” from Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. These are semi-autonomous animal-shaped spirits whose form is directly shaped by the personality of the human with whom it is partnered.
Modern experience with fylgias
In modern times, fylgjur are somewhat rare, but do show up in both animal and human form. Our Troth, the chapter on “Soul, Death, and Rebirth,” notes that both male and female, human and animal fylgias are showing up. It also points out that the human fylgia may be used as an intermediary between oneself and the god/dess to whom one is closest. My experience with my own fylgia backs this up.
My experiences with my fylgias and my understanding of what and who they are continue to evolve based on new experiences I have and new information I gather from other people about their fylgias.
I have both the animal and human forms of the fylgia. I first became aware of my animal fylgia (the shape my soul takes when I journey) in a shamanic journey I attended about ten years ago. Once the journey started, I realized I had hooves instead of feet, and galloped rather than ran. I also noticed I had a rack of antlers, which I could tell by the unusual way I balanced my head and that I instinctively used them as a defensive weapon whenever I was nervous or surprised in that journey. Pair this up with the fact that I was already working in the old Norse spiritual tradition (which was tradition of 95% of my pre-Christian blood ancestors), and that the stag was me and not some external entity I met on the way who gave me wisdom or guidance, and it added up to me having a fylgia. This stag form has stayed with me ever since. I had used a stag as my symbol for years, and I’ve always loved the horned or antlered figures in mythology and folklore, so it was not entirely surprising to me that my fylgia would be stag-shaped. I remember when I first saw the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban, which came out not long after I had my first experience with my fylgia. He and Hermione had been experimenting with the time-rewind gadget, and he sees a white, glowing stag figure across a lake. I almost had a fit when I saw it! I hadn’t expected to ever seen such a dead-on representation of my fylgia up on a movie screen. (That is that kind of thing that happens when you work with the Gods, in my opinion—“coincidences” like this happen a lot.)
About ten years later, right after I had gone through some significant life changes, and right as I was diving back in to regular, intense work with the Norse Gods, I received my human fylgia. A group I was with had started a series of journeys to all of the Nine Worlds. As we got ready to start our first trip, to Svartalfheim, the person leading the journey asked us to contact all of our helpers and allies.
I had never had “allies” of any sort—even the Stag was my fylgia, not an external “ally”—so I didn’t expect anything or anyone to show up. But I went ahead and opened up to see if anything was there. And, rather like an overexcited puppy, “He” appeared, right behind my left shoulder blade, radiating such tangible love and warmth and complete happiness that I actually popped out of my journey headspace, opened my eyes, and looked behind me to see if someone was there. (No one was there—the entire house and yard were completely empty behind where I sat.) I was a tad confused, to say the least, but as He—whoever it was—appeared to be friendly, I decided not to worry about him again until we were finished with the journey. “He” followed me as I went into journey, and he stopped at my Home Base (the place inside my psyche where I start this kind of journeywork) and settled in there. I didn’t see him again until I returned to my Home Base on the way out of the journey.
Through much research and discussion, some more journeywork, and the help of a modern spirit worker, I was able to contact the entity directly, and we were able to figure out what he was. He is a human fylgia. He was originally a human, and has a name, a parentage, and a history. He is sentient and protective of me, though he is not a defender per se. He can travel away from me to do errands; usually, I use him to find or reclaim and pieces of myself or my energy that get left behind (due to surprise or trauma) or have run ahead (due to worrying and obsessing). He is a guide through all of the unseen worlds, and can rescue me from dicey situations in journeyspace (though not in the real world). He is one of the collected spirits that Freya (the goddess to whom I am dedicated) has chosen, and he can take me to Her whenever I need his help.
My current thought is that he was assigned to me (or he had the chance to choose me) at my birth, but didn’t show up until a few years ago because he wasn’t needed until then. (Or perhaps I just wasn’t ready to accept an entity like him into my life until then.)
He keeps me company and sends unconditional love and support, and every time I enter journeyspace I find him either right behind me or waiting for me in my Home Base. (It’s not a bad deal. I definitely think that I get far more out of this relationship than he does, but he just laughs.)
Other traits that I’ve found to be true of my fylgia:
He is connected to me and only me—he might be connected to my family in the larger scheme of things, but currently I am his only focus. In a way, he did offer himself to me and I accepted, as happened to fylgias in the sagas.
His job, as I understand it now, is to be my guide while journeying. He knows where to go and can help make sure I come back all in one piece. When I leave bits of me behind or have inadvertently sent parts of me ahead, he can find, collect, and reintegrate these pieces for me.
He’s a gift from Freya. He’s one of Her chosen ones from way back when, and he chose to pair with up me. (Other journeys have revealed that several of my ancestors ended up in Vanaheim with Freya; it seems to be a family pattern.) He has a direct line to Her and to Vanaheim, and he can take me there whenever I need to go.
He also loves me with a great heart-based passion (not an earthy, lusty passion), and his physical connection to me (such as it is) is at my heart. I’m not sure if this is the usual way of things (they were called fetch-wives for a reason) or if that is because he’s a gift from Freya, and everything connected to Freya tends to bring with it overwhelming love and emotion of one kind or another.
As I said, he’s connected to my heart—emotionally, physically, and spiritually. His first (and only) request to me when I accepted him was that I “always keep my heart open”. (This is easier to do on paper than it is in real life, I’d like to point out.) Shutting down my heart actually hurts him; he withers. I have decades of experience muting/shutting down my emotions and any extrasensory input that I received, so this has been a hard lesson to unlearn.
He is not a protector or a teacher (again, not a stereotypical Native America-type totem).
Unlike any other entity or power in my life, he always goes with me wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Whenever I shut down emotionally for whatever reason, he gets locked inside with me, whereas everyone else—gods, ancestors, wights—get locked out. I often find him camped out in the home base that I pass through each time I do any journeywork. As he says, “Where else would I be?”
And the list is always evolving. Fylgias are awesome. If you are working within the Norse worldview and don’t know if you have one, you probably actually do. I highly recommend doing some work to uncover what or who yours may be. The animal type is more common in the sagas, though both types have show up in modern times. My thought is that most people who are active spirit workers of one kind or another probably already have one attached either to them specifically or to their ancestral line as a whole. Think of finding and connecting with your fylgia as receiving an unexpected inheritance. I’m pretty sure I would be a mess if I were doing the work I am now and didn’t have mine. J Heil to the fylgias!
Personal experiences from 2003 onward
Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Elves, Wights and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry, Vol. 1. New York: iUniverse, 2007.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf, ed. Our Troth: Vol. 1: History and Lore, 2nd ed. Charleston: Booksurge, LLC, 2006.
“Spirit Beings in the Helgi Poems,” by Sara Axtell. Idunna #101, pp. 13-17.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993.
Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North. London: Praeger, 1975.
Heathen wiki: http://heathen.wikispaces.com/Fylgia
 According to scholar Rudolf Simek, in some sagas the terms “dis” and “fylgia” were used almost interchangeably. (For example, Njall’s Saga the dísir were once called fylgjur.), He also argues that the hamingja is “the personification of the good fortune of a person…. a kind of soul-like protective spirit, and thus is closely associated with the fyljur.” He says that dís and fylgja might both be translated loosely as ‘guardian-spirit, attendant’. E.O.G. Turville-Petre, another noted Norse scholar lore, adds that “[fylgia] is nearly synonymous with gipta and gæfa, words which are often translated by ‘luck, fortune’, but imply rather a kind of inherent, inborn force. When a man says of his enemies: hafa þeir brœðr rammar fylgjur, he does not mean that they have ‘strong fetches’, but rather that they are gifted with a mighty, inborn force.” According to Our Troth, a person, such as a king, who had a very strong hamingja could share some of it with others—i.e., literally giving them some of his luck.