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FYLGJUR are fetches and guardian spirits in Old Norse literary tradition. The term apparently derives from the Old Norse verb fylgja (to accompany), but it is homonymous with, and perhaps identical to, the word for "afterbirth" or "placenta." The singular noun fylgja denotes two distinct groups: fetches in animal form and guardian spirits in female form.

Fylgjur in animal form are most often wolves or bears, but many other animals are attested, such as oxen, boars, and such birds as eagles, falcons, and hawks. These figures appear to people primarily in dreams and warn of impending death, danger, or some future event. Frequently the fylgja is that of the doomed or threatened man's enemy.

These conceptions appear to reflect notions, common in Norse and later Scandinavian tradition, of the soul operating out of the body. In their textual context they must be viewed as part of a broader tradition of portents and dreams, but the animal form of the fylgjur may relate to the phenomena of the werewolf and the man-bear. The emphasis on beasts of battle suggests the cult of Óðinn, the most important shape-changer of Scandinavian myth and religion. Óðinn was known for his ability to send his soul out from his body and for sending his companion ravens out into the world as scouts. The animal form of Óðinn's berserkers may also be relevant.

The female fylgjur share many features with ídísir and hamingjur, and more distantly with landvættiræ, Norns, and valkyries; there is little terminological consistency. Unlike the animal fylgjur, they are not the alter egos of individuals. Their actions are to some extent comparable to those of the animal fylgjur in that they sometimes appear in dreams and portend death or foretell the future, but they generally act in sympathy with a central individual rather than in enmity, giving counsel, good fortune, or aid in battle. These fylgjur may attach to a single individual or an entire family. They may be related to the cult of the matronae, attested from the Roman period in Germany.


A full treatment of the literary evidence is provided in Else Mundal's Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteraturø (Oslo, 1974). Helpful for the larger context are Dag Strömbäck''s Tidrande och diserna (Lund, Sweden, 1949) and Folke Ström's Diser, norner, valkyrjor (Stockholm, 1954). On the Indo-European background of the cult of Óðinn and the role of animals, especially dogs and wolves, see Kris Kershaw, The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Männerbündeäü (Washington, D.C., 2000). E. O. G. Turville-Petre''s "Liggja fylgjur þínar til Íslands," originally published in 1940 and reprinted in his Nine Norse Studies (London, 1972), distinguishes between the primarily concrete fylgja and the primarily abstract hamingja.

John Lindow (1987 and 2005)