Spirits, Premonitions, and Psychic Emanations in the Viking World (Norse Metaphysics pt. 3)


Whenever somebody asks me to give them a quick run-down of Norse religion, I start to sweat. Where do I even begin? Most people would wisely start by pointing out that Norse paganism was a polytheistic ethnic religion, with a varied pantheon of gods, descending from a Northern Germanic system ultimately derived from the same, Proto-Indo-European mythology as the Greeks and Romans, but sprinkled with local innovations and influences from neighboring cultures. They might further say that it was a religion based on public sacrifices and communal meals, a religious calendar of annual and seasonal festivals. Even then, we would only be scratching the surface.

How do you explain a worldview? A totally alien way of seeing reality, and the world around us. Not just a different way of seeing things, but a lost way of seeing things. One that we cannot quite grasp, because our language, society, ethics, sense of aesthetics, economy, and livelihood is so utterly different from theirs. They had all these wonderful and peculiar ideas that we can read about, explore, look at, but never we can never relive them or quite fully understand. In the end, much of what we know (which is not a lot) boils down to tedious source critical nerdery, discussion, and comparative analysis. This work might seem dry and uninspired to the uninitiated, but it opens up a world of new ideas you would not get by simply reading the Prose Edda in translation.

To the people who lived in the 9th century Nordic area, the term of "Norse religion" would have been an alien concept. This odd conglomeration of myths and practices were simply their si­ðr, their "custom". Norse religion was expressed, not just in grandiose and bloody animal sacrifices, or elaborate burial practices for the elite, but also mundane every day tasks, language, figures of speech, law, taxes, hygiene, taboos, ideologies, courtship rituals, family, art, work, play, names, movements, gestures, ethics, etiquette, and how they read the landscape. "Norse religion" covered the entire experience of existence, though by the term we usually mean just a handful of the symbolic gestures and events motivated by their society and worldview. To those who lived in pre-Christian Scandinavia, it was an ontological reality you were born into, with little room for the concept of faith, or the choice of belief. This was a place where every event was the cause of an act, either by seen, or unseen forces. 

The spirit in a concrete world

One aspect of day-to-day religious perceptions in the Norse world, was belief in spirits. In modern popular thought, we tend to think of spirits either as a individual and distinct category of being, such as a ghost, or as a property of something else. Like the "human spirit", or "the soul". In one case, we might consider a spirit to have its own personality, set of motivations, properties, and so on. A spirit can for example inhabit (or personify) a body of water, or represent a non-physical manifestation of an ancestor. In the case of the "human spirit", on the other hand, we may suddenly find ourselves engaged in a discussion about the relationship between mind and body. In the Western world of today, this conversation would soon touch upon cartesian dualism, and the idea of the separateness of mind and body.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. But this is not how thing were seen in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Had we taken the conversation back to Viking Age Scandinavia, however, we might find ourselves walking down quite a different intellectual path. A holistic, rather than dualistic discourse on spirit, where the mind-body dichotomy is far less clear. Where even if the spirit is tied to us, it can be both within ourselves, and beside ourselves, travel ahead, be simultaneously inside and outside of us, and be both ourselves and not ourselves at the same time.

Old Norse conceptions of spirits may seem outright irrational and strange at first, but they form quite a coherent, rich, and occasionally even empirical system of belief, though the edges are blurry, the waters muddy, and the ideas overlap and intersect all over the place. First of all, spirits aren't necessarily the same as "invisible entity". The Old Norse world had a large variety of unseen beings, whether naturally invisible, or stealthy by choice. While we can argue that some creatures, such as the so-called vættir (literally "things"), such as giants, trolls, dwarves, elves, and revenants, in fact constitute spirits in various forms, they will not be discussed here. Rather I will concern myself with perceptions on spirits in the narrow-yet-wide sense of "tools, properties, emanations, or companions of human beings".

The sensual world and the spirit world

Relating to the mind-body problem above, it feels redundant to point out that our experience of the world is mediated by our bodies. In the Norse view of the world, the body and its functions provides means for all manner of metaphorical thought: The world was created from the body of the pre-cosmic giant Ymir, and royal poets invoked a king's right to rule by portraying him as a god who has sex with the earth. But even without these culture-specific ideas, we can all relate to the basic truth that we perceive the world sensually, through sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch.

In Norse culture, the spirit world might have made itself quite tangible through a very simple, involuntary bodily action: The sneeze. How exactly you respond to a sneeze depends on your native culture. We have all probably heard countless bless yous and gesundheits in our lives, but there are also local, less heard of variants of such formulas. In Scandinavia we commonly say prosit, which is Latin for "may it be beneficial". But I grew up in West Norway, where a different version of the sneeze-formula also exists. Whenever I sneezed in childhood, many of the adults around me would say something along the lines of  "are you expecting visitors?", "your friends are coming over", and so on. Of course, my young mind was quite stirred by the fortunes my grandmother, mother, or nanny would tell each and every time snot exploded through my nostrils.

Some interest was invested in the amount of consecutive sneezes. Because, apparently, you would sneeze once for every visitor. Being a child, assuming somebody would come knocking in the afternoon wasn't boldly speculative, either. As far as I was concerned it was a cute, folksy expression, like a nursery rhyme, or some fable you tell to entertain the kids, or shut them up. Neither myself or any of my elders really thought any more about it.

It was only much later that I came to realize the apparent antiquity of this common phrase, and how it related to a much more complicated network of ideas associated with spirits, psychic emanations, forerunners, prophecy and fate. The epiphany came to me when I read Orkneyinga saga where the viking Sveinn Ásleifarson foresees an incoming ambush thanks to a sudden itch in his nose.

Breath, wind, spirit, mind

Essentially, the irritated nostril ties in with a Nordic folk belief that spirits can enter or exit a host body through the nostrils and mouth. In other words, through respiratory passages. The Old Norse terms ǫnd ("spirit") and andi ("breath", but also "spirit") share the same etymological root, and carries on into the Scandinavian languages. For example in Norwegian 'ånd' ("spirit, ghost") and 'ånde' (breath). There are similar etymologies from different roots in the Indo-European languages, such as Latin  , from whence the English 'spirit' derives, and Sanskrit ātmán. The association of spirit with breath is undoubtedly ancient. We observe that we breathe as long as we live, and when we don't, we die. Our bodies become lifeless, the spirit has departed, and so has the breath.

Though the notion probably dates back several millennia, simply judging from the comparative evidence, the earliest and most compelling evidence I can think of comes from the Migration Era, where odd spirals, arrows, shapes and animals often seem to emanate from the mouths of humans depicted on brooches and bracteates. 

 ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

ketch of bracteate from Tjurkö, Sweden. Note the mouth.

The belief that a spirit or psychic emanation could take the form of breath or wind is found throughout Norse literature. In the Prose Edda, Snorri explains that "Troll woman's wind" is a poetic metaphor meaning "mind" (the word here is hugr), and several such examples are attested in Skaldic poetry from the Viking Era. It's worth noting that the Old Norse vindr can mean either 'breath' or 'wind'. The term hugr is interesting, and as the case often is, it provides a wide selection of possible translations. Usually hugr means "mind, thought, consciousness, will", but in other contexts also "emotion, love, affection" or "soul, spirit". We will see throughout the course of this article that these three categories of meaning have a stronger connection than one might at first think, and their association with the "spirit = breath" complex have quite enchanting implications.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to control or send forth one's mind or spirit at will, is particularly associated with magical specialists, or people believed to have "strong minds". When such people died, folklore states that their departing spirit was able to extinguish candles or raise winds (Heide 2006a: 351).

There is also another, fairly widespread folk belief in Scandinavia, Iceland, Shetland, and Orkney, that the spirits of the dead were able to cause extreme weather. In Scandinavia this is associated first and foremost with the seasonal storms, often those occuring in autumn or winter, particularly around Christmas time. Then the wild hunt - the oskorei - flies around, picking objects, animals, and people, riding them through the air like horses, spreading fear and terror across the land. Other names for these storms of departed souls are, interestingly, 'gandferd' (Norway) and the Icelandic variant 'gandreið'. Gandr being an Old Norse term that essentially means "spirit helper, magical projectile", while 'reið' and 'ferd' mean "riding" and "journey" respectively. In Norwegian dialects 'gandferd' can also mean "flying coven of witches", and in Icelandic folklore it's specifically women who undertake the 'gandreið', snatch men in the night, and "ride" them to death (Heide 2006b: 213). 

The fylgja and hugr - psychic companions, thoughts, and forerunners

In my previous article on seiðr, we saw that a central aspect of seiðr was to produce and manipulate a spirit cord, which could be sent forth and used to pull or string along its target, whether literally or in a more euphemistic sense, but strikingly placed in the symbolic framework of spinning and textile work. Magic is the realm where the mundane meets the divine, and so many other analogies are possible (and made) that fit the same framework. In this situation, a magician's spirit helper or magical projectile, called gandr in Old Norse, could take many shapes. Often long an narrow objects like a string, rod, or even a penis.

There is clearly an overlap between the above, particular understanding of spirits in the context of seiðr, and the more general idea of spirits or psychic emanations as wind and breath. In the third chapter of Hrólfssaga Kráka, there is a particularly interesting account of a seeress (seiðkona) who "yawns much" (geispar mjǫk) before she cites her revelations in verse, implying she breathes in the source of her vision. This, in turn, bears a striking likeness to the belief in spirit companions called fylgjur ("followers, escorts", singular fylgja) and the aforementioned hugir (psychic emanations. Literally "thoughts, minds", the plural of hugr), which are widely attested in the sagas.

There appears to be a twofold, but fluid perspective on the nature of these spirits: The first is that spirits can be either a separate entity, a helper or construct, that interacts with, or protects the individual, and can enter their body with his or her breath. The other is that the spirit is your own mind and spirit, detached from your body. We can also speculate that both can be the case at the same time, and in varying degrees. Such is the case among the Sami, where the ritual specialist, the noaidi, sometimes had a spirit who was his very own mind, yet simultaneously the soul of a dead person, which could travel around and do what the noaidi was thinking, sometimes without him even knowing it (Heide 2006b: 215).

In terms of agency the fylgja is at least a semi-separate entity. She acts as a sort of spirit alter ego vaguely comparable to the idea of a guardian angel, that every person seems to have. Some individuals have several fylgjur, as was ascribed to the powerful 10th century heathen leader Hákon Sigurðarson (Oláfs saga Tryggvasonar ch. 3), but in other cases a fylgja can be shared by an entire family, or even inherited (cf. Hallfreðar saga ch. 11). The term fylgja literally means "something that follows", but can also mean 'afterbirth, placenta', supporting the notion of the parallel fate of the person and their fylgja.

Killing a fylgja or hugr can kill the person they were attached to, suggestive of a certain oneness between them, but meeting your fylgja - whether in a dream or in person - often foreshadowed your death. It's important to state that, counter to what the name implies, the fylgja is usually described as going before the individual. This can cause premonitions in people he or she will encounter, and also warn enemies (Ström 1960: 37). This is certainly accidental, as the fylgja tries to act in accordance with a person's interests.

In several sagas, the fylgja or hugr can make an enemy yawn or fall asleep, which would arguably benefit the invader. The opposite is obviously true if it fails, and the victim becomes aware of not only the fylgja, but the impending attack, as happened to Sveinn in Orkneyinga saga when we was saved by his itchy nose.

It's no coincidence that a person's fylgja could approach others and give itself away in the form of a yawn or nose itch, as the respiratory organs served as the spirit's main point of contact (and entry) with a person. The belief that the respiratory organs are vulnerable to supernatural attack, seems attested in a Southern Norwegian folk tradition where mothers, if they saw their child yawning, would do the sign of the cross in front of their mouth and say "in Jesus' name" (Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 2). 

 Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway.  See the whole thing here

Detail of mask ornaments on a Migration Era brooch from Fonnås, Norway. See the whole thing here

The sagas don't give a clear answer to whether the fylgja's attack constitutes a form of combat ma gic, or if the fylgjur act on their own agency. Both were probably the case. The fact that the fylgjur or hugir are frequently clumsy and give themselves away, may well tie in to a person's ability to curb their own thoughts. In Nordic folklore, intense thoughts about a certain person can sometimes harm, or even kill them. This is probably derivative of the very same concept of detached spirits and psychic emanations found in Norse texts, as the term hugr (Norwegian 'hug') has been used in this context as late as the 20th century.

I've found that there are several terms in Norwegian folklore tying respiratory reflex symptoms to the idea of somebody else's thoughts, such as 'nasahug' (literally "nose mind"). Psychic emanations were even believed to cause heart disease, in which case it was called 'hugbit' ("Mind bite". Reichborn-Kjennerud 1927: 1-2). The verb 'hugsa', which means "to remember" in Swedish and Norwegian, has the secondary meaning of "through one’s thoughts make someone ill or sick" in the Swedish Dalecarlian dialect (Heide 2006a: 353). This is all similar to the contemporary Sami and Northern Scandinavian tradition of cursing people with one's mind, 'gann'. The word itself was borrowed into Sami from Old Norse gandr, described above.

There appears to be a subconscious, involuntary component to these spiritual attacks: They minds really do what their host person is thinking. The spirit's give-away, uncouth behavior, or sudden attacks may be analogous to the intensity of the host's emotions, neurotic thoughts, and overall lack of cool. Sometimes a victim will se a woman implied to be a fylgja in a nightmare, where the victim's death is simulated. The character of Án Hrísmagi ("Án Brushwood-belly") in Laxdæla saga, who got his name after a dream where a woman approached him, slit his abdomen, pulled his intestines out, and stuffed him with twigs. His peers laughed, but not for long, as he was horribly disemboweled in the next chapter.

Psychic emanations, emotion, and eros

The varying expressions of a fylgja seem appropriate if the fylgja is to be understood as a voluntary or involuntary psychic emanation. As the fylgja sometimes seems to do what a person thinks, it makes sense that they would approach a person's object of hate or fear, seeing that these emotions are difficult to control. On the flip side, we may not be surprised to find that the fylgja also expressed erotic desire. In Gísla saga Súrssonar one such approaches the eponymous Gísli in a dream and tries to "ride" him. It takes a more sinister turn in Eyrbyggja saga, where the character Gunnlaug is found witless outside of his home, bruised around the shoulders and with the flesh torn off his legs, having been ridden in the night, apparently by a beautiful widow by the name of Katla. It seems reasonable to think that wet dreams, nightmares, and supernatural erotic encounters, could be seen as caused by the psychic emanation, the roaming hugr, of a woman. Here we find an example motif attraction or overlap between the belief in hugir/fylgjur, and the mara who expressed the danger, and hence power, of unfettered female sexuality (cf. Berzina 2017)

When it comes to curbing the spirit or emanation, I cannot help but be reminded of the emphasis on controlled breathing in many ecstatic and meditative spiritual traditions, from shamanism to contemporary astral projection. Though his idea of magic certainly differs from that of the vikings, the 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley raised an interesting point in his book Magick Without Tears (1954):"

Why should you study and practice Magick? Because you can’t help doing it, and you had better do it well than badly.

Sound advice if you live in a world populated by unruly spirits, and mischievous magicians. 

What does a spirit "look" like?

Though spirits are prone to move about unseen, they were certainly able to manifest visually. During a seiðr-séance in Eiríks saga rauða, the seeress tells that she is able to "see" the entities (náttúrur) that help her, but does not say anything abut their appearance. Otherwise, spirits seem to take a variety of forms.

Gandr, as mentioned, could mean a variety of things, and their specific, cosmetic appearance (say, a long string), might only serve to illustrate points and analogies in terms of how they operated. Presumably, a spirit's exact image was contextual.

However, the fylgjur were conventionally thought of as women. The exceptions are animal fylgjur, who only really appear in dreams, taking the form of animals that symbolically reflect the characteristics or attitude of their host. There, the fylgja of an enemy can take the shape of a wolf, for example, but it's hardly reasonable to believe that temporal conflicts dictated the permanent form of a fylgja, or even that the fylgja had a concrete, literal form.

There are other cases where spirits sent by magicians latch on to or scratch their victims, as if they have claws, which may imply animal form even if the victim is unable to see them. Yet, we should be wary of thinking too literally about a spirit's exact appearance. For the sake of analogy, we can turn to the later Norwegian witchcraft tradition surrounding the "troll cat". This was a spirit envoy or familiar that would go forth steal milk for their owner. It would suck the milk out of other peoples' cows, which they vomited out upon their return. The "cat" itself usually looks like a ball of yarn. 

Owing to the explicitly feminine nature of the fylgja's human form, some scholars such as Else Mundal (1974), have argued that the fylgja originated or functioned as a maternal ancestral spirit, whose purpose was to protect the living members of the family. It's not a massive stretch to associate the fylgja with fate, as she often foreshadows or simulates events that have not yet come to pass. Sadly, this is not the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion on the concept of fate in Norse culture and religion. In the next part of our series on Norse Metaphysics, we will take a closer look at spirits in light of out of body experiences, possession, and zoomorphic shape-shifting.

If you haven't already, feel free to check out the previous entries on magic below:

In Defense of Magic (Norse Metaphysics pt.1)

Sex, drugs, and drop-spindles: What is Seiðr? (Norse Metaphysics pt. 2)

Sources and suggested reading:

  • Bek-Pedersen, Karen (2011). The Norns in Norse Mythology. Dunedin Academic Press: Edinburgh 
  • Berzina, Inga (2017). "Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro." In: Maal ogMinne 1, 2017. Novus forlag: Oslo
  • Heide, Eldar (2006a): "Spirits through respiratory passages." In John McKinnel et. al. (eds.): The Fantastic in Old Norse / Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint Papers of The 13th International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August, 2006
  • Heide, Eldar (2006b): Gand, seid og åndevind. PhD dissertation. The University of Bergen
  • Mundal, Else (1974): Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur. Universitetsforlaget: Oslo
  • Reichborn-Kjennerud, Ingjald (1927). "Hamen og fylgja." In: Syn og segn 1, 1927. Oslo.
  • Ström, Folke (1960): "Fylgja." In: Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 5. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen