Multi-part souls

Having written about the idea of a multi-part soul among the Norse, I suspect that some will think that such a system is too obtuse to be meaningful. So, I want to present — very briefly — a quick summary of two other cultural systems with multi-part souls.

Among the Lakota of the American Plains, the soul has four elements: the niya, the nagi, šicun and the nagila. The niya is the basic life-element, or life-breath. This is the soul that animates the body and allows it to move, although the body will not be able to move fully without the other souls. Proper care of the body nourishes the niya, while ritual cleansing and healing are designed to strengthen it. The nagi, on the other hand, is a more personal soul, although it is thought to be capricious. The nagi, typically in conjunction with the niya, can leave the body and journey to the spirit world. However, the nagi might need to be lured back from such a journey, and the return of the two requires reintegration of the niya. It is the nagi that is strengthened by a vision quest. Because all beings possess nagi, an individual on a vision quest can communicate with animals in the language common to all nagi. If the nagi leaves but the niya remains, the person might become ill or insane, or even fall into a coma or semi-consciousness. Like the Greek shade, it takes the form of the body and after death can become a ghost. Because it has a great deal of freedom, the nagi can be reborn, in which case it will retain the memories of its former life. The third part of the soul is šicun, the person’s store of spiritual power. This power can take the form of knowledge or wisdom, as well as the unique traits or strengths of a being. Some people possess more, and some less. The nagi on its journey may be given a part of the šicun of those he meets, along with instructions about its use, and ritual songs, dances and prayers to activate it. The fourth and final part of the soul is the nagila, or “little ghost.” It is the individual part of the energy that animates and the entire universe and binds the parts together.

Among the Ga of West Africa, the soul has two elements: the susuma and the kla. The kla is the life-force that pervades everything living. It has no individuality, but it can be gradually stolen by witches, who thereby add to their own store of it. Those who live to a very old age are often suspected of doing so by stealing the kla of others. At death, the kla returns to the heavens in the form of a shooting star to rejoin that universal store of kla from which all living things receive it. In contrast, the susuma is individual. It is the conscious personality. It might know more than the person does, and indeed it controls the individual. The individual can survive temporarily without it; it leaves the body in dreams. Illness can be caused by a struggle between the susuma and the kla. To this three-part individual, the Ga add two additional elements: the name and luck (gbeshi). A person can be injured through his name, which is kept secret for protection. On the other hand, a person’s own gbeshi might lead him astray and frustrate his good intentions.

Among the pre-technical cultures of the world, belief in a multi-part soul predominates. Generally, people are thought to have two, three or four souls, although there are examples of cultures that have as many as 30 or 40. The two systems, briefly outlined here, show surprising similitarities with the Norse system, although there are also significant dissimilarities. For those particularly interested in other theories about the Germanic system, Swain Wodening has a very interesting article online, Cosmology and the Soul: the Soul.


Arthur Amiotte, “Our Other Selves” in I Become a Part of It: Sacred Dimensions in Native American Life, D.M. Dooling and Paul Jordan-Smith, eds. (1989, 1992), pp 164-172.

William Howell, The Heathens: Primitive Man and His Religions (1962), pp. 151-52.

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