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Ancestral Being, Part Two


The Norns by Johannes Gehrts, 1889

4,547 words

Part 2 of 4 (Part 1 here [2]; Part 3 here [3]; Part 4 here [4])

4. Tradition

Having now discussed the clannic being of the individual purely in philosophical terms, I now turn to a consideration of the treatment of this idea in the Germanic tradition.

The first thing we must note is what can be called the “primacy of the past” in that tradition. One of the best discussions of this is to be found in Paul Bauschatz’s seminal study The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, published in 1982. Bauschatz argues that within the Germanic worldview, the past is considered to be primary, with the present understood as deriving from and “feeding” the past. The future is hardly considered at all, at least in metaphysical terms. This early Germanic view of time is fundamentally different from ours. And where the conception of time is different, I would argue that everything else must be different as well. In other words, because the way in which time is conceived is so fundamental to a worldview, we must concede that if our ancestors understood time in a different way, then in a real sense they lived in a different world.[1] [5] If this point is unclear now, it will likely become more understandable as I develop the argument of this section.[2] [6]

What accounts for how we have fallen away from the view of time held by our ancestors – for why we live in a fundamentally different world? After all, it might be argued that deep down we are the same people, and deep within us we carry the potential to see the world exactly as our ancestors did. This is true – and elsewhere I have argued that the worldview of a people flows from its nature, which is heritable.[3] [7] And yet, while that potential remains dormant within us (and can be reawakened), the fact is that right now it is merely potential: we do live in a very different world from our ancestors, and think in fundamentally different ways. In large measure, it is Christianity that is responsible for the shift away from the traditional Germanic view of time. Specifically, as I shall discuss in more detail later, Christianity replaces the Germanic “primacy of the past” with a focus upon futurity. Before developing that point, however, I must sketch in some more details of Bauschatz’s account.

Bauschatz argues persuasively that the traditional Germanic metaphysics divides reality essentially into the past and the non-past. The non-past, moreover, is understood mainly as what is “turning into” the past. Here we may note that the name of the Norn Verðandi, often glossed superficially as “the present,” is the present participle of the Old Norse verb verða, meaning
“to become.” However, this word is ultimately derived from an Indo-European root meaning “to turn.” Thus, what is becoming is somehow what is “turning.” We can get the sense of this when we realize that becoming can often be seen as “turning into”: the child turns into a man, the caterpillar into a butterfly, the apprentice into a master, and so on.

Our inclination is to see this as a past form turning into a future form that was already anticipated. But obviously all “turning” happens in the present, and from the Germanic standpoint what is occurring is that a present form is turning into a past one, and being replaced by another, which will in turn pass away. Another, even more striking way to put this is that the present just is that which feeds the past. The present, in other words, is a dynamic process – “presentness” or “presenting” – in which a form presents itself, takes a stand, and then passes away, to be replaced by another. We are reminded of Anaximander’s famous words (the first extant quotation in Greek philosophy): “The things that are perish into the things from which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time.”[4] [8]

The past is thus continually growing, as our deeds fill it.[5] [9] And, indeed, it is pictured as a container: as the well of Urðr, the first of the three Norns, the one who represents the past. Urðr governs the “working out” of the past into the present: how past forms or deeds shape the present.[6] [10] The past functions to shape all that “turns” or “turns into” in the present. And pastness – past events, actions, precedents – serve as, in effect, “laws” that govern what may become. One sees the application of this metaphysics in, among other things, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of “common law” or judicial precedent.

The Old English equivalent of Urðr is Wyrd, sometimes treated as a kind of force or primal mechanism that affects events. Urðr is, it would appear, both the “keeper” of the past, as well as “fate” or “destiny.” This makes perfect sense, as it is precisely the past that fates, shapes, and destines the present. In this context, the sources also make mention of the ørlǫg. While I would translate this literally as “primal law” (with Old Norse ør- roughly equivalent to German, Danish, and Norwegian ur-, “proto-, primitive, original”), it is sometimes glossed, rather confusingly, as “fate” or “destiny,” just like Urðr/Wyrd. But we may simply see ørlǫg as another way of speaking of the function of the accumulated past as “primal law” governing the unfolding or turning of the present.

As in much of mythology, certain concepts have blended together – and we will see this again in the case of hamingja and fylgja. Indeed, Bauschatz argues that the three wells of Norse myth are actually one well, the primary identity of which is the well of Urðr. (He invokes the well-known mythological phenomenon of multiplication of one thing into threes, many examples of which are to be found in Norse mythology: e.g., the brothers Oðinn, Vili, and Vé, who Edred Thorsson has argued are three aspects of one god.[7] [11]) Bauschatz’s hypothesis about the identity of the wells makes conceptual sense: the well of the past (Urðr’s well) is most certainly a well of wisdom. This is true even though the “well of wisdom” is usually identified as the separate well of Mímir, from which Oðinn drinks at the price of an eye. The identification of the two wells makes even more sense if Mímir has something to do with memory (as is theorized by Rudolf Simek and others[8] [12]).

Regardless of whether Bauschatz is correct, it certainly makes philosophical sense to conceive the well of the past as a well of wisdom, since wisdom is a knowledge of sources. Aristotle writes in the Metaphysics: “all men suppose what is called wisdom [sophia] to deal with the first causes [aitia] and the sources [archai] of things” (981b28). The Greek archē (pl. archai) meant “source” or “origin” in the sense of “beginning,” but could also refer to the origin or head of a body of water. The Old Norse equivalent of this term is brunnr (as in Urðarbrunnr, Mímisbrunnr), which carries much the same range of meanings: well, spring, source, in both literal and figurative senses. Thus, as Bauschatz points out, we should not think of these wells as, in effect, cisterns into which we dip a cup and drink (which is the usual image). Rather, the wells of Urðr and Mímir are springs, ever flowing.[9] [13]

Bauschatz also emphasizes that the past must be understood as nutritive.[10] [14] After all, it is with the water of the Well of Urðr that the Norns nourish Yggdrasil. The spring/well flows into the present, nourishing the present: nourishing Yggdrasil and informing our lives and deeds; shaping what we are. Meanwhile, our deeds flow into the spring/well. It is continually being fed by the present, as the present recedes into the past. The cycle is simply this: the present nourishes/expands the past, and the past nourishes/expands the present.

It is obvious that this worldview is actually quite foreign to our own. We think of the past as over and done with. Our orientation is toward a present that we think has “overcome” the past, and toward a conceivably “better” future that we are trying to reach by slogging through the (usually dissatisfying) present. The idea of “overcoming” the past is a key component in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in the modern, progressivist worldview: both see the past as darkness steadily being overcome by the light. By contrast, the Germanic worldview holds that in a meaningful sense the past is not “over with”: in actuality, it is continually present, shaping what comes to be. The more we moderns live in denial of the shaping power of the past, the more we are at its mercy, as I shall discuss later.

5. Hamingja and Fylgja

Having now discussed the basic metaphysics underlying the Germanic view of time, we must now apply these principles to the focus of this essay: the being of the individual, understood as shaped by membership in his clan. There is a great deal about this in the Germanic sources, much of it centering around what we may call, following Stephen Flowers, the “hamingjafylgja complex.”[11] [15] The reason Flowers uses this construction is that while it is probable that these were once distinct concepts, over time they blended together so that it is now rather difficult to clearly mark the difference between the two.[12] [16] The hamingja and fylgja are “parts” of the Germanic “soul.” (My use of “scare quotes” is meant to caution the reader: these are not “parts” in any conventional sense, nor is it unproblematic to use the loaded term “soul” to refer to the beliefs of our ancestors.)

Flowers offers a threefold description of the hamingja[13] [17]:

(a) It is a shape-changing force, which acts on the hamr (literally “skin”): to create a form (form in the sense of Greek morphē, a shape, as in “morphology” and “metamorphosis”). Claude Lecouteux writes of the hamr: “In the old texts, it is the inner shape that determines outside appearance. It so happens that a person could have several of these shapes. . . . Expressed here is the fundamental idea that man is not restricted to his body.”[14] [18] Simek theorizes that hamingja is derived from *ham-gengja, those who could let their hamr “walk” (i.e., project their hamr).

(b) The “luck” or “fortune” of the individual.

(c) “Guardian spirit.”

One difference between the hamingja and the fylgja is that the former can be “projected,” while the latter cannot be – it remains attached to an individual.[15] [19] The hamingja thus seems to be a kind of a fluid, magical force. It is with respect to the second and third aspects above that the hamingja and fylgja are hard to distinguish. One acquires hamingja through deeds of a particular kind – especially deeds of honor.[16] [20] It is thus the same thing as a kind of personal power, which may be increased. Hamingja can also be passed down from an ancestor.[17] [21] Indeed, it can be passed down through an object that belonged to an ancestor – as in the case of the sword Gram, which conveys the hamingja of Sigmund to his son Sigurðr.[18] [22] What complicates matters is that the fylgja also seems to be something that can be passed on. Indeed, Flowers’ entire book Sigurðr: Rebirth and the Rites of Transformation is devoted to the topic of “rebirth” through the inheritance of the hamingjafylgja (thus he argues that Sigurðr is the rebirth of Sigmund).[19] [23]

The fylgja is also conceived as a guardian spirit. The word itself is formed from the Old Norse verb fylgja, meaning “to follow” or “to accompany” (from Proto-Germanic *fulgijaną, “to follow,” from which comes Old English folġian, which gives us modern English “follow”). Thus, the fylgja is a being that follows or accompanies. In the lore, it often takes the form of a woman – indeed, sometimes a gigantic woman clad in armor (the fulgjukona; thus suggesting to Hilda Ellis Davidson that there is a link here to the concept of the valkyrja[20] [24]). At other times, the fylgja takes the form of an animal, usually one representing the type of person one is (a noble man, for example, will have a noble animal fylgja such as a bear, wolf, or eagle).

Dying men are sometimes able to see the fylgja in its female form. And individuals gifted with second sight are able to see the animal fylgja. Davidson cites the following example from Þáttr Þorsteins Uxafóts in the Flateyjarbók:

It happened one day that Þorsteinn came to Krossavík as he often did. The householder’s father, Geitir, sat on the dais and muttered into his cloak. Now when the boy entered the hall, he came in with a great rush, as children usually do. He slipped on the floor of the hall, and when Geitir saw this, he burst out laughing. . . . The boy went up to Geitir and said: “Why did it seem funny to you when I fell just now?” Geitir answered: “Because in truth I could see what you did not.” “What was that?” asked Þorsteinn. “I will tell you. When you came into the hall a white bear-cub followed you, and ran along the floor in front of you. Now when he saw me, he stood still; but you were going rather fast, and you fell over him – and it is my belief that you are not the son of Krum and Þorgunna, but must be of greater family.”[21] [25]

This example seems to suggest, interestingly, that the animal form of the fylgja may “grow” with the individual: little boy, little bear cub; presumably full-grown man, full-grown bear. And if this is the case, then the suggestion is that the fylgja is just the individual. In other words, the fylgja is the individual appearing under another aspect – and not a distinct “thing” that the individual “has.”[22] [26] This may seem puzzling, but as I noted earlier in this essay, both a philosophical understanding of personal identity, and one drawn from the Germanic lore, challenge us to rethink our idea of who and what we are. Again, I am not simply this “thing,” inside this skin, endowed exclusively with traits perceptible to the five senses. Indeed, as we saw in discussing the concept of the hamr, a man can have several “skins.” But if the individual is not distinct from his fylgja, then how can the fylgja be passed on? Why doesn’t the fylgja die with the individual? To explore these mysteries, let’s turn once again to Aristotle, who can give us invaluable assistance.

When we see the fylgja, what we are seeing is the essence of the individual – where “essence” is the Latinate translation of Aristotle’s to ti ēn einai, literally “the what it is to be.” This essence is what the individual is (thus, Þorsteinn’s essence is a bear). Further, we are compelled to say that the individual and his essence are not distinct, since if they were, that would mean that the individual is not what he is.[23] [27] This is entirely correct – and yet in another, equally meaningful sense we can say that the individual and his essence are distinct. To see this, set aside, for just one moment, how one’s essence can be a bear and consider a simpler, and very Aristotelian example: the essence of Socrates is to be a rational animal. Since this expresses what Socrates is, Socrates and his essence are one. Yet, it is also the essence of Plato to be a rational animal – and also the essence of Xenophon, Alcibiades, Critias, and all other human beings. So, Socrates both is and is not identical with his essence. Exactly the same may be said of Þorsteinn and the fylgja that expresses his essence: it is him, yet it is not, for it may also be or become the fylgja of his son, or some other descendent.

Claude Lecouteux writes:

[The examples from the sources] suggest that human beings have corresponding selves, perhaps doubles, in the otherworld and that communication is possible because there is really no border between that world and this. “The living body,” writes Régis Boyer, “would be only the material, visible intervention of a reality whose true essence would be in the kingdom of the dead, and which helps and follows each individual. The soul, here [in this world], would be a reflection.” This is one more proof that we take part as a microcosm in the life of the macrocosm, the world of the spirits, the dead, the ancestors, because the fylgja does not vanish with the disappearance of the one to whom it is attached and does not die out with a family.[24] [28]

But we must also address the specific issue of why the fylgja appears as an animal or as a woman. Lecouteux tells us, again, “we take part as a microcosm in the life of the macrocosm.” This is true in many senses. For one thing, man recapitulates in himself the animal – in a literal sense. Gestating in the womb, human embryos go through stages that suggest the recapitulation of pre-human structures: e.g., a “fish-stage” in which the embryo exhibits gill-like slits.[25] [29] Aristotle in De Anima speaks of a “vegetable soul” and an “animal soul” in the human being, which recapitulate functions found in plants (nutrition, growth) and animals (sensation, locomotion) – alongside the “rational soul,” which only human beings possess. In my essay “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origin of the Human Species [30],” I suggested that we have been aware of this for millennia.[26] [31]

This is yet another example of the influence of the past on the present. Thus, it is not unreasonable to think that certain individuals have an “animal nature” archetypally like that of a specific animal. This nature is the “essence” of the individual. Again, it is both one with him and not one: capable of being “passed.” It exists all the time “with” the individual, “following” him. It is not perceptible in “this world,” because it belongs to another. But since, as Lecouteux observes, there is “really no border” between that world and this, then there is no gulf between the individual and his fylgja. This “essence” is not a separate “thing” (though, as we have seen, it can be perceived under certain circumstances as if it were a distinct thing). Rather, it is the individual seen under another aspect.

Further, it is reasonable to treat the female form of the fylgja in a similar manner. Perhaps just as the animal form may “grow” over time (e.g., from bear cub to adult bear), it makes sense to think that the fulgjukona would mature along with the individual. Man, again, is the microcosm reflecting in his being the macrocosm. Since I am what I am in relation to (among other things) the animal and to the female, in a sense I “have an animal in me,” and I “have a woman in me.” C. G. Jung writes that:

the whole nature of the human male presupposes woman, both physically and spiritually. His system is tuned into woman from the start, just as it is prepared for a quite definite world where there is water, light, air, salt, carbohydrates, etc. The form of the world into which he is born is already inborn in him as a virtual image. Likewise parents, wife, children, birth, and death are inborn in him as virtual images, as psychic aptitudes. These a priori categories have by nature a collective character; they are images of parents, wife, and children in general. . . . They are, in a sense, the deposits of all our ancestral experiences.[27] [32]

My being is formed (pre-formed, really) in relation to “the Animal” and to “the Woman.” This may seem to imply some kind of relation to Platonic ideas, but what the Germanic lore actually suggests is this: Just as the individual is truly individual and not an abstract idea of “individuality,” so his “Animal” and his “Woman” are individual; they are archetypal, but not “abstract.” Archetypes are not abstractions: Achilles is an individual, not the abstraction “the Hero.”[28] [33] But the lore also suggests, quite mysteriously (and quite unlike Jung’s views) that these archetypes exist in a parallel world, and that they are not “virtual images” of some kind, but rather “beings” endowed with agency. Edred Thorsson has also drawn on Jung in discussing the fylgja, specifically Jung’s theory of the “anima/animus.”[29] [34] These are reasonable speculations. However, I should admit that I know of no evidence in the Germanic sources which suggests that women have a male fylgja.

To make matters even more complicated, our sources indicate that one’s fylgja is not limited to the aforementioned aspects (the animal and the female). Also, we are not limited to one and only one fylgja. In fact, the lore suggests that a man can acquire multiple fylgjur.[30] [35] One distinction we must make – which is especially important for the topic of this essay – is between the mannfylgja and the kynfylgja (or atterfylgja). As the name implies, the mannfylgja is the fylgja of an individual person; by contrast the kynfylgja belongs to the kin, clan, or family.[31] [36] A man may possess both, in fact. He can have his own fylgja, and also be the carrier of his family’s fylgja. The kynfylgja seems to become attached to an individual, and is capable of being transferred.[32] [37] Further, the two are bound up with each other: the more fylgjur a man acquires, the more powerful his kynfylgja becomes.[33] [38]

There is no evidence from our sources that the animal fylgja survives the death of the individual, but the female fylgja – the supernatural woman guardian – does. The hamingja and/or fylgja is generally (but not always) passed along when a child is named after a dead relative, an event known as the nafnfestr.[34] [39] The hamingjafylgja could also be passed along in other ways, and we have already noted how in the Volsunga Saga it is passed by means of a sword.[35] [40] In any case, the hamingjafylgja is passed down within a clan, and this makes perfect sense: the “soul” would have a natural proclivity for its own kind.[36] [41]

It is interesting to note, however, that in the sources it is often later generations of a family that exhibit real greatness.[37] [42] The best-known example of this is in the Volsunga Saga: it is Sigurðr who represents the perfection or consummation of the Volsung clan. This also makes sense: if one can acquire multiple fylgjur, which strengthens the kynfylgja, and if the hamingja is fed by heroic deeds, then clearly something builds or grows across several generations.

The role of individuals as “carriers” of the kynfylgja strongly suggests the philosophical conclusions arrived at independently in the earlier sections of this essay: the clan can be thought of as the true being, of which the individual person is a moment or an expression. The clan has no concrete existence without its members. But those members are the unfolding of what the clan is – the progressive self-specification of the clan’s being, the flowering of its potentialities. The kynfylgja is obviously a way of concretizing this clannic being, which gets “transferred” from individual to individual, and “strengthened.”

Aside from this, the hamingjafylgja conception strongly indicates the importance pre-modern Germanic peoples placed on inheritance. Many thousands of years ago, human beings recognized that they inherit a wealth of traits, including behavioral characteristics. In general, we see in the Germanic sources a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the complex issue of inheritance – a recognition of our great debt to the past. No doubt some moderns will express surprise that our ancestors could have had this without a knowledge of genetics. But this is ridiculous. The phenomenon of inheritance was well-known to them; they simply lacked the modern (and quite possibly incomplete) theory of the mechanism of inheritance. Indeed, it is clear that they understood the importance of inheritance better than we do. We are only just now rediscovering the role of inheritance in making us who we are, as we continue to shake off the pernicious Enlightenment myth of the “blank slate.”



[1] [43] For a discussion of the concept of “world,” see my essay “The Ninefold [44]” in What is a Rune? and Other Essays [45]ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2015).

[2] [46] I have already explored the idea that we live in a fundamentally “different world” from our ancestors in three essays: “What is a Rune? [47]”, “The Fourfold [48],” and “The Ninefold.” All are collected in What is a Rune? [45] 

[3] [49] See my essay “Ásatrú and the Political [50]” in What is a Rune?

[4] [51] A Presocratics Reader, Second Edition, ed. Patricia Curd (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2011), p. 17.

[5] [52] Paul Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree (Amherst, Ma.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982), pp. 15-16.

[6] [53] Bauschatz, ibid., p. 11.

[7] [54] See Edred Thorsson, Runelore (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1987), p. 179.

[8] [55] Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall (Rochester, Ny: D. S. Brewer, 2000), p. 216. Also Thorsson, ibid., p. 180.

[9] [56] Bauschatz, ibid., pp. 18-19.

[10] [57] Bauschatz, ibid., pp. 18-19.

[11] [58] See Stephen E. Flowers, Sigurðr: Rebirth and the Rites of Transformation (Smithfield, Tx.: Rûna-Raven, 2011), p. 47.

[12] [59] On this, see Flowers, ibid., p. 52; also see H. R. Ellis Davidson, The Road To Hel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 130.

[13] [60] Flowers, ibid., p. 50.

[14] [61] Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2009), p. 169.

[15] [62] See Davidson, ibid., p. 130.

[16] [63] See Flowers, ibid., p. 52.

[17] [64] Flowers, ibid., p. 52.

[18] [65] See Flowers, ibid., pp. 94ff.

[19] [66] Flowers’ book is a reprint of his M.A. thesis. See also Lecouteux, who quotes the author of the Poem of Helgi: “Once upon a time it was thought that men were reborn. . . . It was said that Helgi and Sigrun lived again” (Lecouteux, ibid., p. 163).

[20] [67] Davidson, ibid., p. 135.

[21] [68] Davidson, ibid., p. 127.

[22] [69] Flowers writes that “the fylgja as well as the hamingja must not be thought of as forms, but rather as aspects of the ‘spiritual’ essence itself, which was originally equated with the procreative power and potency of a man” (Flowers, ibid., p. 53).

[23] [70] For the general argument sketched here, see Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Zeta.

[24] [71] Lecouteux, ibid., p. 167. Quoting Boyer, “Hamr, Fylgja, Hugr: L’Ame pour les anciens Scandinaves,” Heimdall 33 (1981), pp. 5-10. Italics added, as well as material in square brackets. Earlier in the same text, Lecouteux compares the fylgja to the Egyptian ka and the Greek eidolon (pp. 163-164). Davidson (p. 130) refers to the fylgja as the “shadowy double.”

[25] [72] Rupert Sheldrake, The Presence of the Past (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 1988), pp. 15-16.

[26] [73] The essay appears in What is a Rune?

[27] [74] Quoted in Sheldrake, ibid., p. 251. Italics added.

[28] [75] For more information on this point, see my discussion of Vico’s distinction between imaginative and intelligible universals in “What is a Rune?” in the volume of the same name.

[29] [76] Thorsson, ibid., pp. 172-173.

[30] [77] See Flowers, ibid., p. 55. See also Lecouteux, ibid., p. 166.

[31] [78] See for example the Volsunga Saga Chapter 4, in which Signy is warned against marrying Siggeir by her kynfylgja.

[32] [79] See Flowers, ibid., p. 53; Davidson, ibid., p. 131.

[33] [80] Flowers, ibid., p. 53.

[34] [81] Lecouteux, ibid., p. 162. Lecouteux also notes (p. 163) that a child who is not given the name of a dead relative can be vulnerable to an illness known as elsk.

[35] [82] See also Davidson, ibid., p. 132.

[36] [83] Although the hamingjafylgja passes within a clan, it appears it may pass between individuals who are not actual blood relations. Davidson (p. 132) cites an example of a hamingja passing from a man to his son-in-law.

[37] [84] Flowers, ibid., p. 70.