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11.02.2020

The self and its parts

Today, we tend to think of the self as having two or three components: a body, a mind, and perhaps a soul. These few parts form a coherent single whole that can be clearly and cleanly separated from its environment, at least conceptually. The line that separates self and other is fairly absolute and unalterable.

In the Norse worldview, however, the self is a more complicated entity. While the Norse certainly had a concept of the self – there is no bland “oneness” in their perspective – that self is comprised of numerous different parts that are all semi-autonomous and can detach themselves from one another under certain circumstances.

None of these parts quite correspond to the concept of a “soul” in the traditional Christian sense – an absolutely unique and nontransferable essence of a person. The Old Norse word for “soul,” sál, was invented only after the Norse converted to Christianity, which highlights the prior lack of such a concept. (Various parts of the self were, however, thought to live on after death or be reincarnated. 

The Norse worldview never placed much value on a uniform set of doctrines, and, accordingly, it contains no comprehensive, systematic account of the parts that comprise the human self. This present article makes no attempt to do such a thing either, and instead offers descriptions of four of the most important and commonly-mentioned parts of the self in Old Norse literature: the hamr (“shape/form/appearance”), the hugr (“thought”), the fylgja (“follower”), and the hamingja (“luck”).

The Hamr

Hamr (pronounced like the English word “hammer”) literally translates to “shape” or “skin.” The hamr is one’s form or appearance, that which others perceive through sensory observation. Unlike in our modern worldview, however, that which is perceived by the senses is not absolutely and unalterably static and fixed. In fact, hamr is the most crucial word in the Old Norse lexicon of shapeshifting. The Old Norse phrase that denotes the process of shapeshifting is skipta hömum, “changing hamr,” and the quality of being able to perform this feat is called hamramr, “of strong hamr.”

The Hugr

Hugr can be most satisfactorily translated as “thought” or “mind.” It corresponds to someone’s personality and conscious cognitive processes, and therefore overlaps considerably with what we today would call someone’s “inner self.”

The hugr generally stays within its “owner,” but can at times create effects in faraway people just by thinking about them in a certain way. This is particularly possible for people who are described as having an exceptionally strong hugr.

The Fylgja

Remember the cats, ravens, and other familiar spirits who are often the companions of witches in European folktales? These are fylgjur (pronounced “FILG-yur”) in the plural and fylgja (pronounced “FILG-ya”) in the singular. The fylgja is generally perceived in an animal form by those with second sight, although human fylgjur aren’t unheard-of. It’s an attendant spirit whose well-being is intimately tied to that of its owner – for example, if the fylgja dies, its owner dies, too. Its character and form are closely connected to the character of its owner; a person of noble birth might have a bear fylgja, a savage and violent person, a wolf, or a gluttonous person, a pig.

Fylgja literally translates as “follower,” but, as often as not, it’s depicted as traveling ahead of its owner, arriving at the intended destination before its owner or appearing in the dreams of someone who will meet the owner the following day. Intriguingly, the term is also applied to the afterbirth, but the connection is mysterious and unclear.

The Hamingja

The fourth and final part of the Norse self that we’ll consider here is the hamingja (pronounced “HAHM-ing-ya”). The word is often used in an abstract sense to signify “luck,” but the Norse understanding of luck is very different from our own. In Bettina Sommer’s fitting words, “luck was a quality inherent in the man and his lineage, a part of his personality similar to his strength, intelligence, or skill with weapons, at once both the cause and the expression of the success, wealth, and power of a family.”

Luck, the hamingja, is a personal entity in its own right, is part of the self, and can be split off from the other components of the self in certain circumstances. When a person dies, his or her hamingja is often reincarnated in one of his or her descendants, particularly if the child is given the name of the original owner of the hamingja. Sometimes, as in Viga-Glum’s Saga, the hamingja bequeaths itself of its own accord to a relative of its original owner, without any special naming having to take place. The hamingja can also be lent to others during life to assist them in particularly perilous missions where luck is needed especially badly.

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