Norse souls

I don’t like the idea of reincarnation as it’s normally presented, but I have no problem with the idea that some part of the soul can be reborn.

Many cultures believe that at death an individual joins his or her ancestors. Although there is some debate, most heathens I know believe that at death they will join the ancestors of their particular kindred, going to live in their ancestral halls in the otherworld. This belief is poetically captured in a prayer from The 13th Warrior, a movie based in part on Beowulf:

Lo, there do I see my father
Lo, there do I see my mother and my sisters
and my brothers
Lo, there I do see the line of my people
back to the beginning
Lo, they do call to me
They bid me to take my place among them
in the hallowed halls of Valhalla
Where the brave shall live forever!

This belief differs from some of the sources, which say that Óðinn and Freyja divide the souls of warriors slain in battle between themselves, Rán gets the souls of those who drown, Thórr gets “the kin of slaves” (see Hárbodsljód), the souls of those who die of old age and sickness go to live with Hel, and women who die unmarried go to serve Gefjon. However, some scholars believe that these beliefs were late innovations. More likely, the older, general belief was that the dead went to live with their families in Hel’s realm. Snorri Sturlusson tells us that Óðinn was called Valfödr, father of the slain, because everyone who falls in battle is his foster-son. This explanation emphasizes the usual connection between death and joining one’s family. However, I think the idea that the dead join their ancestors might be oversimplified. Although scholars disagree sharply among themselves, I think there is some justification for thinking that the Norse believed in a multi-part soul.

If the idea of a multi-part soul seems unusual, it shouldn’t. Many cultures have the idea that the soul is composed of parts that separate at death. I’m told that the Chinese, for example, conceptualize two souls, the Hun (superior soul), which strives for Heaven, and the P’o (inferior soul), which is malign. In the west, Plato tells us that Socrates believed in a three-part soul (or mind), the parts of which govern desire (sensation and appetite), emotion (spirit and will), and reason (intellect). He used this division to explain why an individual might have conflicting desires. The division was accepted by the early Christians. St. Paul called the parts (in translation) body, soul and spirit. We retain Plato’s tripartite division in popular discourse about body, mind and spirit (soul), although we no longer think of them as three souls.

In the 9th century, the Christian church rejected the idea of a tripartite soul in favor of a simple duality between body and soul. Interestingly, we also get from Socrates (or his mysterious teacher) the idea that the spirit is pure, the material world is corrupt, and therefore our souls are polluted by living in this world. It’s proven to be a curiously popular idea. This is how most of the people I know think of themselves, as a soul inhabiting a material body.

The clue to the idea that the Norse believed in a multi-part soul is, I think, their creation story. The dwarves fashioned the first humans, Ask (“ash-tree”) and Embla (“vine,” or perhaps, “elm-tree”) from pieces of driftwood, and the gods gave them life. According to Völuspá, Lódhr gave them lá (vitality or blood), Hœnir gave them ódhr (passion or inspiration), and Óðinn gave them ónd (breath or spirit).

These are the parts I believe separate at death. Without a scholarly examination of the subject, I’m guessing about which part plays which role, but it seems likely to me that one part passes on to an afterlife with the ancestors or gods, one part is reborn in a later generation of the same family, and one part stays with the body, perhaps to be reabsorbed into the landscape. If so, the system would be similar to the shamanism of the Russian steppes. It would also be analagous to the Platonic system of body, soul and spirit.

The Lá

First, the body itself, which is not completely lifeless after death but perhaps still retains the lá, the vitality or blood given by Lódhr. Before the gods animated Ask and Embla, they were “fateless” and “capable of little.” This passage might suggest that the first humans already possessed a minimal life even before the gods gave them souls, but another translation reads, “empty of might.” I think it is likely that this passage is an example of the laconic style of Norse poetry. Probably, Ask and Embla were capable of nothing. Yet, a dead body could be animated by what we would might a shade, without higher faculties and perhaps even dangerous. I suggest that this shade is the lá. It would have been similar to the shade in Homer’s poetry, where it descended to Hades to lead a much diminished life. This faculty can also be equated with the lowest of Plato’s souls, which governs desire, sensation and appetite.

The sagas and folklore have several examples of a haugbúi, a mound-dweller, essentially an animated corpse living in splendor in his burial mound, guarding his wealth and feasting at the head of a warrior band. Burial mounds were generally stone chambers, roofed, then covered with dirt. A family’s burial mounds stood near its dwelling. The heir to a farm had to name the ancestors who held it before him, and be able to point to the burial mound of each. These mounds were the family’s doors to the other world and were the places at which the owner would perform sacrifices and pour libations to honor his ancestors. A fire not usually visible surrounded the barrow and formed a boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. To see the fire was to know that its occupant was active. At Júl the dead return to the world of the living, where they are especially honored.

The body in the tomb could be helpful to its living relatives. Through úitseta (out-sitting), an individual could contact the ancestors and seek their advice. In Grettirs Saga, Kárr, although dead, helps his son Thórfinnr extend their family’s influence over the surrounding countryside. Moreover, the haugbúi might have magical powers, including the ability to shape-shift, to move through rock, to foretell the future, and to give dreams and poetry to the living. For example, in Flateyjarbók, the shepherd Hallbjörn receives the gift of poetry by sleeping on the burial mound of the poet Thórleifr, who appeared to Hallbjörn in a dream. In Laxdæla Saga, a church was built on the grave of a dead seeress, who appears in a dream to complain of being disturbed by the living. In Landnámabók, Ásólfr, a dead Christian, appears in two different dreams, once to complain about a girl wiping her muddy feet on his grave mound and then to complain about having his peace disturbed when his bones were dug up.

The dead were not always benign. The dead, particularly those killed by violence, might leave their barrows as draugar to roam the countryside. Being jealous of the living, they could be dangerous. Moreover, a barrow was thought to be a dangerous place if the occupant was not kin to those in the region.

It would seem that the body, with its lá, retains vitality as long as it receives the offerings of the living, but otherwise fades, even though it is never entirely dead.

The Ódhr

Second, ódhr, which means “passion” or “inspiration.” I equate this faculty with the second of Plato’s souls, which governs emotion and will, and with our concept of “mind.” I’ve already pointed out that the earlier, general belief was probably that individuals join the dead of their family in an ancestral hall in another world. Helgakvidha Hundingsbana II tells us that “In olden days it was believed that people could be reborn (væru endrbornir), although now that is reckoned an old wives’ tale.” The two ideas seem to be related.

From Ibn Fadlan’s Risala, his account of the time he spent among the Rus in 921, comes an eye-witness account of a viking funeral. He says that the companions of the dead man raised a slave girl three times to look through something like a door frame. Each time they raise her up she reports what she sees:

Lo, I see here my father and mother;

Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting;

Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in paradise.

Paradise is so beautiful, so green.

With him are his men and boys.

He calls me, so bring me to him.

In Eyrbyggja Saga, Thórsteinn Thórólfsson drowns with his crew while fishing, and a shepherd sees them entering Helgafell, the holy mountain of Thórsteinn’s family. Inside the mountain, men are drinking in a brightly lit hall. Thórsteinn’s father, Thórólfr of Mostur, welcomes him and leads him to the high seat. There is no hint here that the mens’ bodies rest within the mountain, so this scene is quite different from that of a haugbúi in his burial mound. It is, however, not entirely clear whether the company is actually within the mountain or whether the mountain is a nexus that connects this world to another.

These two passages show that the dead were welcomed by their relatives. Norse iconography is filled with images on gravestones of a mounted warrior being handed a horn by a woman. Conventional interpretation has it that these images show the deceased warrior being welcomed to Valhöll by one of the valkyries, and this is no doubt true of many or all, but the symbolism would equally fit the welcome of any man to his ancestral hall by the dísir (female ancestors). Indeed, the image of a warrior being welcomed to Valhöll might have evolved out of a more general idea of being welcomed to an ancestral hall.

The dead not only receive their relatives at death, they are concerned for their well-being in life. In Víga-Glúms Saga, Glúm offends the god Freyr, then has a dream that his kinsmen intercede on his behalf. He sees Freyr sitting on a chair by a river, with people massed around him. Glúm is told that these are his dead relatives, begging that he not be driven from his land. The ties betwen living and dead are reciprocal. At Júl, the dead would return to the world of the living to be honored by their living family. Very likely there is a sub-text in Víga-Glúms Saga that the dead did not want to lose their own connection to the land or the honor that Glúm would pay them there.

The ódhr seems to be connected, to some extent, to a person’s name, and it was probably this part of the soul that was concerned about its good name and its lasting fame. In Svarfdæla Saga, the young Thórólfr receives a mortal wound. Dying, he asks his brother to perpetuate his name: “My name has lived but a little hour, and thus I should be forgotten as soon as you are gone, but I see that you will increase the family and become a great man of luck. I wish you would let a son be called Thórólfr, and all luck (heillir) I have had, those will I give him; then I think my name shall live as long as men dwell in the world.” Thórsteinn promises: “This I will gladly promise you, for I look that it shall be to our honor, and good luck shall go with your name as long as it is in the clan.” He keeps his promise, and the new Thórólfr grows up to be much like his uncle.

In Flateyjarbók, Thórsteinn Ox-foot sleeps on a burial mound and is invited to enter by a man in red. He obtains the charm he sought, and as he was leaving the man in red begs Thórsteinn to give his name to a son, so that the dead might “come under baptism.” The incident makes sense only if we understand that giving the red man’s name to a new child would bring him back to the world of the living.

Among the Norse, a baby could be rejected by its father and be exposed, or be given a name and be accepted into the family. In this practice, repugnant as it is to modern sensibilities, I see evidence that a child was not fully human until it received a name, which might therefore have been connected with receiving the final part of its soul. Moreover, I think it is significant that the giving of a name was coordinated with acceptance into the family, that the name conferred was a family name, and (arguably) that there was a taboo against using the name of a living relative. To me, the conjunction of these elements suggests that the Norse thought of names as connected to a part of the soul and that to confer a particular name was to confer that particular soul on the new child. I suggest this part might have been the ódhr, the mind, because it could have been seen that lá (vitality) and ónd (breath) were present in the child from birth.

For this part of the soul, life is a revolving door, in which the dead spend their time feasting in the barrow on their ancestral farm, then return to the same family when their name is reused among their descendants. So, at any given time, part of the family was in this world and part in the other world. The Romans had a similar idea. The genius (or juno) of the individual was already one of the family’s lares prior to birth, and would return when its name was given to a member of the gens.

It seems possible to me, perhaps even likely, that the ódhr remained connected to the physical body until it was conferred on a new child. If so, the dead who feast in their tombs, who receive offerings, and who might sometimes be seen by the living would be those who still have their ódhr.

The Ónd

Third, the ónd (breath or spirit) or sál (soul), which was conferred by Óðinn himself and must have been the most important part of the soul. I equate this faculty with Plato’s highest soul, which governs the intellect and reason, and with our modern idea of the soul or spirit. It seems to me that this is the soul that joins the gods, whether Óðinn or Freyja or some other. It might, in fact, be a faculty that humans share with the gods.

Three stories might suggest that it is the ónd, not the ódhr, that is reincarnated, but I do not think they are persuasive. First, in Völuspá, we learn that Gullveig, who some equate with Freyja, was born three times (þrisvar borin), and burnt three times (þrisvar brennd) by the gods. Nevertheless, she is still alive. Because Gullveig is clearly not human, I do not think we learn anything about the nature of the human soul from her successive births.

Second, Helgakvidha Hjörvardhssonar tells the story of two lovers who repeat their doom over the course of three lifetimes. As proof of reincarnation, this story has been much criticized. I think properly so. Helgi retains his name and family connection through all three lifetimes, but the name of his beloved changes from Sváva to Sigrún to Kára and there seems to be no connection between the families into which she was born. Sváva-Sigrún-Kára was a valkyrie, not a mortal woman, so I question whether she can properly be said to have had an ódhr. Moreover, I see the recurring name and family connection of Helgi as emphasizing the completeness of his continuity from lifetiem to lifetime. I read the story as poetic and heroic, not as indicative of the normal fate of humans. It seems likely to me that the portion of the soul reincarnated for both the lovers was the highest part, the part that would normally have joined the gods.

Third, the story of Saint Óláfr. In Flateyjarbók we learn that Saint Óláfr II of Norway was thought to be a reincarnation of his ancestor Óláfr Geirstadaálf, but the idea disturbed him. According to the story, Saint Óláfr’s mother had a difficult labor. She was delivered only after the sword, sword-belt and ring of Óláfr Geirstadaálf were brought from his burial mound, and the sword-belt was placed around her. The new child was given the name Óláfr. He grew up to become king of Norway as Óláfr II and became a Christian. While riding past the barrow of Óláfr Geirstadaálf, one of the king’s men asked him if he was his ancestor reborn. The king answered, “My soul (ónd) has never had two bodies; and cannot, either now or on the day of resurrection.” It is significant that Óláfr speaks of his ónd, when (as I argue) his retainer meant his ódhr. To me, the twist is deliberate. As a new Christian, the king must think only of a duality between body and soul. So, he uses the word ónd, even though he would have been perfectly aware that in conventional belief it was not his ónd that would have been reincarnated. I acknowledge that my argument here is circular. Having decided that the ódhr is the soul that is reincarnated, I dismiss Óláfr’s explicit reference to his ónd in the context of reincarnation. Absent other evidence, I’m not entirely comfortable with my interpretation, but I’m willing to rest here for the time being.

The Fylgja

In addition to the three souls, each person had a fylgja, a fetch or double that acted as guardian throughout life. It seems to have been born alongside a child, and was personified as an animal. The fylgja could appear in place of the person. In Hrólfs Saga Kraka, the warrior Bödvar Bjarki sleeps through the beginning of a battle, but a huge bear fights alongside his men. When they wake Bödvar, the bear disappears and the battle turns against them. The fylgja could also appear in times of crisis or impending death. In Njáls Saga, Thórdr sees a goat covered in blood, but the goat is invisible to Njáll. Njáll suggests that Thórdr has seen his flygja and is doomed. Njáll was apparently correct; Thórdr was killed shortly thereafter.

Although I think the fylgja was a separate life-element, it is possible that there was a connection between the fylgja and the ódhr, and that the fylgja rather than the ódhr was the part of the personality (speculatively) projected by seers. It is also possible that the fylgja rather than the lá was the shade or double that stayed with the warrior in his burial mound. I leave these questions for future consideration.

The kynfylgja seems to have differed from the fylgja. The kynfylgja was personified as a woman, and was perhaps originally one of the dísir (ancestral mothers) who protected members of the family. The surviving sources are late and have already begun to confuse the hamingja and the kynfylgja (if indeed there was not always a great deal of overlap between the two).

Other Elements

Finally, I want to mention in passing three of the other elements that play a role in human life: ørlög, heillir and hamingjur. Although perhaps not part of a person’s soul, they are nevertheless discrete elements attached to families and individuals.

Ørlög is the fate of families and individuals. In Völuspá, we learn that when the gods animated Ask and Embla, were “fateless” (without ørlög). In its most basic form, fate consists of living out the consequences of past actions, both one’s own actions and the actions of one’s ancestors. The first humans had no past, so they had no fate.

Heillir (“luck”) can help a man meet his fate, and in some cases turn it aside. A man whose luck has run out is feigr (“fey”). He rushes blindly to his death. Unable to heed the counsels of his friends, he makes bad decisions and and cannot turn aside the rush of events. In Njáls Saga, Njáll’s luck runs out and his fate unfolds, until at last his enemies surround the house. His son Skarphedinn recognizes that the end has come, and says, “Our father is marked for death now.” Njáll’s sons choose to die with him, and the family is burned inside their house.

In Grettirs Saga, an old woman curses Grettir, “Here I declare over you that you shall be forsaken of luck, of fortune and blessing and all guardian strength and wit, the more for all your length of life.” Yet, the outlawed Grettir has already lost his luck. The old woman merely declares his predicament, “These men [Grettir and his brother] might yet be luckless in their boldness. Good terms are offered them, but they thrust them aside, and nothing leads more surely to evil than being unable to accept good.”

The hamingja is the embodiment of luck attached to a family, perhaps something along the lines of a family soul. At death, it leaves the individual to attach itself to another of the same family. In Víga-Glúms Saga, Glúm dreams of an immense woman striding across the countryside toward his house. He interprets the dream as meaning that his grandfather Vígfús has died and Vígfús’ hamingja is coming to dwell with Glúm. It might have been a special attribute of the head of the family. Glúm, although a maternal grandson of Vígfús, was his grandfather’s heir.

Seidhr

In seidhr, certain powerful women could commune with spirits. I’m skeptical, but some scholars suggest that seidhr was a form of shamanism, and that the völva (seer) projected a part of herself on a soul-journey (hamfarir). The idea is speculative, depending as it does on theories about the ways that the Norse might have been influenced by the Sámí (Finns), whom they regarded as great magicians. Against it is the story in Eiríks Saga Raudha, in which a seer communes with spirits without any suggestion that she has made a journey to reach them. In fact, a singer is required to call the spirits to the seer. Likewise, in Laxdæla Saga, it does not seem that Gríma or Kotkell make any type of journey.

If seers did project a part of themselves, I suggest that part was the ódhr, essentially the mind. Although it is the faculty given by Hœnir, the word ódhr is cognate with the name Óðinn, who was a master of seidhr and his ability to undertake soul-journeys is mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga. The idea of projection also has a corollary in Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”), the ravens Óðinn sends throughout the world to gather information about it. Moreover, for human seers it could have been seen that lá (vitality) and ónd (breath) were still present in the seer, just as they were in a new-born child, although the personality itself was apparently absent.

Conclusion

It seems to me that the Norse believed in a multi-part soul. One part stayed with the body, perhaps to decay at death. A second part stayed connected to the family, awaiting rebirth. And, a third part joined the gods in another world. There is no idea here of a pre-existing soul, or of the individual as a soul incarnated into a physical body or succession of bodies. Instead, the essential parts of the individual come together for the first time at his or her birth, and at death they separate forever.

I’ve had to keep this account at a very simple level. I’m aware that there are many different interpretations even among those who agree that the Norse believed in a multi-part soul. Many of them are much more complicated than mine. In fact, my own thoughts have developed since I wrote the core of this entry many years ago. I’ve been tinkering with this piece for years. I’ve polished a bit and placed it here to serve as the basis for future entries on this subject.

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