I was raised a Catholic, and what meager instruction I received regarding the nature of the soul is this: the singular soul, created by God, is the immortal part of mankind destined to reside permanently in either heaven or hell after death, and it remains mostly passive in life. The soul is considered pure and closer to God, in direct opposition to the body and the corrupt material world. This Cartesian dualism and the materialism also embraced by modern science has served to cloud the earlier pluralistic soul beliefs of our ancestors - even if we follow a different spiritual path now, we have been influenced by these beliefs. One worldview teaches that the spiritual world of deities, angels and the dead is far removed from material existence, and the other teaches that all that exists is physical matter, that all phenomena arises from material processes. Humans in this understanding are comprised of body and soul/spirit, or body and mind.
Claude Lecouteux’s Witches, Werewolves and Fairies was the first book I read that opened my eyes to the soul beliefs of my own pre-Christian ancestors. The book uncovers the shamanistic, pagan roots of the medieval European soul cluster. The belief in the Double explains many of the phenomena we encounter in European folklore and mythology such as metamorphoses or shapeshifting, bilocation, premonitions, mythological twins, visions, unnatural illness, soul flight, etc. I certainly had many “light bulb” moments as I read the book, because it revealed connections I hadn’t previously recognized and I became obsessed with learning more about these Doubles and their relation to life, death, fate and sorcery. In particular, it led me to examine witchcraft narratives of the early modern period in search of the remnants of shamanistic visionary traditions. It also encouraged me to delve more deeply into the Germanic roots of witchcraft, and I have sought to learn more about the shamanistic sorcery that is Norse seidr in particular, because I believe within that lore is preserved much material that was once shared by other related European cultures. All of this will be discussed further in other blog posts.
In his book, Lecouteux explains that the Double is “an independent alter ego freed from the body when the body is dulled by sleep, frozen in trance, weakened by illness, or immobilized in coma”. Based on his readings of Scandinavian and Germanic material, each individual has three souls: a psychic or spiritual Double (fylgja, daimon, genius), a material or physical Double (hamr, shamanistic “bone soul) and a third soul which is the breath of life. The Double is able to travel to faraway places, both in the material living world and the Otherworld. Indeed, Lecouteux goes on to say this:
To the pagan Germanic and Celtic mind-set, man remains permanently in contact with the supernatural side of reality through the intermediary of his Double or Doubles - so apparitions, visions and dreams become not fabrications...but instead evidence of reality. If the soul connects the Christian to God, the Double links the pagan to the entire cosmos, including the otherworld. But the otherworld, it seems, rather than being the world of the gods, is that of the dead, from where all knowledge comes. It is the reservoir of the potentialities of each individual and each family.
The Doubles in Scandinavian and Germanic belief are especially interesting because of their clear connections with destiny and sorcery. The fylgja acts as a tutelary or guardian spirit to a living person and is closely tied to the concept of fate. This may be because of the nature of the otherworld of which the fylgja is a part. Lecouteux explains:
The otherworld appears as a reservoir of Doubles. Time there is nonexistent, and everything coexists at the same moment. The other part of ourselves, which comes from this other world without totally detaching itself from it, materializes our potentialities and our destiny.
As a spiritual Double permanently connected to the other world, the fylgja has knowledge of the destinies of others as well as of the living person it is bound to, and it is in many ways responsible for assisting us in manifesting our destiny or fate. In the sagas, the fylgja often appears in female or animal form in order to warn of upcoming events.
The Norse term hamr translates to “shape” or “skin”. There are many terms used in the sagas that link hamr to shapeshifting, such as skipta hömum, hamramr, eigi einhamr, and hamleypa. Lecouteux believes the hugr, which translates as mind or thought, can take on and animate the Double/hamr. This shapeshifting Double can travel outside the body if someone is dreaming, in trance, or under severe stress, in order to engage in various activities. One of these is the gandreidr (the “witches’ ride”).
In the next post, we will further discuss the use of the Double in witchcraft, sorcery and divination.
References and Further Reading:
Ellis, H.R. (1968). The road to hel: a study of the conception of the dead in Old Norse literature. New York: Greenwood Press.
Frecska, E., Móró, L., & Wesselman, H. (2011). The Soul Cluster: Reconsideration of a Millennia Old Concept. World Futures,67(2), 132-153. doi:10.1080/02604027.2010.532464
Kvilhaug, M. (n.d.) Fylgjur - guardian spirits and ancestral mothers. The fylgja-motifs in Norse literature. Retrieved from http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=14. [This is Maria Kvilhaug’s summary and translation of Else Mundal’s 1974 thesis Fylgjemotiva i norrøn litteratur.]
Lecouteux, C. (2003). Witches, werewolves and fairies: shapeshifters and astral doubles in the early Middle Ages. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Price, N. (2002). The Viking way: religion and war in late Iron Age Scandinavia. Uppsala: Dept. of Archaeology and Ancient History.