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 were converted to Christianity, which highlights the prior lack of such a concept.[1] (Various parts of the self were, however, thought to live on after death or be reincarnated. See below and Death and the Afterlife.)

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

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,[5] 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,”[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] The hamingja can also be lent to others during life to assist them in particularly perilous missions where luck is needed especially badly.[10]

The Paradox of Individualism and Social Embeddedness

There’s a fascinating paradox in the Norse view of the self. On the one hand, Norse culture was strikingly individualistic in the sense of placing a very high value on individual accomplishment (although this particular brand of individualism didn’t have much of a place for the “anything goes” tendency within its modern cousin). The Norse went to incredible lengths to be celebrated and remembered on an individual basis as great warriors and heroes – consider the almost-fearless Viking raiders, or the legendary explorers who discovered and settled in such far-flung places as Greenland and even North America. The Old Norse poem Hávamál advises its listeners,

Wealth will pass,
Men will pass,
You too, likewise, will pass.
One thing alone
Will never pass:
The fame of one who has earned it.[11]

And yet, as we’ve seen, the Norse view of the self was actually rather diffuse and fluid. How are we to make sense of this tension?

We’ve seen that the Norse would have rejected our modern view of the self as a monad – something which, in the last analysis, is unique and cleanly distinct from its environment, and whose core characteristics aren’t really separable or transferable to others. (Of course, we do make an exception for the transmission of genes to one’s children, but that’s a purely physical and involuntary process.) Instead, the Norse saw the self as a locus of spirit, will, and perception – that is, more of a strong tendency than an absolute. As such, the self could be readily related to and thought of as a single thing in addition to its various constituent parts and a member of a group.

In other words, the self was defined by its social position and deeds rather than by a detached essence. Even the spiritual parts of the self were social and active entities. As much as the Norse stressed competitive individual success, that success (or failure) occurred within a particular social framework, and was defined in social terms – not as “following one’s passion” or “fulfilling one’s dreams,” but as earning fame.

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References:

[1] Raudvere, Catharina. 2002. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. p. 101-102.

[2] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 59.

[3] Ibid. p. 60.

[4] Raudvere, Catharina. 2002. Trolldómr in Early Medieval Scandinavia. In Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 3: The Middle Ages. Edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. p. 102.

[5] Price, Neil S. 2002. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. p. 59.

[6] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 132.

[7] Sommer, Bettina Sejbjerg. 2007. The Norse Concept of Luck. In Scandinavian Studies: Volume 79, No. 3. p. 275.

[8] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 138-147.

[9] Víga-Glúms saga 9.

[10] Ellis, Hilda Roderick. 1968. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. p. 132-133.

[11] The Poetic Edda. Hávamál, stanza 76. My translation.

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