Patreon Topic 21: Fylgja v Spirit Animals

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From Leslie comes this topic:

“”Fylgja v. ‘Spirit Animals’ and Why Fylgja is probably the word you mean.”

I’m going to break this up into two parts, the first covering what Fylgja and spirit animals are, and then “Why Fylgja is probably the word you mean.”

Fylgja translates as “to accompany”, “to follow” or “follower”. Fylgjur is its plural form. Huginn’s Heathen Hof has a good overview of what a fylgja in Part 1 and Part 2. A fylgja is a vaettr, a spirit, who follows. Boiled down to its essence, that is it. A lot of authors and scholars interpret the fylgja as a fetch or wraith, and while that interpretation has some merit, I think that is hardly the whole of it.

To start, as with anything regarding ancient Heathen sources for our religions, it has to be noted that most of our source material in the written works comes from a small spread of time. We also need to note that, generally, what we have is not from Heathens, is not in any way a religious text, and is transmitted by Christians. Archaeology has very little to say regarding fylgjur from what I have read and seen. However, it is clear from what we have that the ancient Heathens would have seen their world alive with Gods, their Ancestors, and vaettir.

It is also legitimate that our own perspectives may not line up exactly with what scholars purport the ancient Heathens believed. A lot of academic work with regard to ancient Heathen sources of knowledge, when it is not directly sourced in the materials themselves, is educated speculation. Again, given the sources we have are relatively few and widespread literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon historically, most information would have been given orally. As many of the everyday and religious items were fashioned from organic materials, namely wood, it is little wonder we have little to no evidence of cult objects.

All of this is to say that I follow a very expanded idea of fylgja that may be at odds with stricter interpretations of what they are. What some authors and scholars refer to in the role of fylgja, namely as fetch or wraith, I look more to the idea of vörðr, guardian. So, how do I understand fylgjur?

A fylgja is a vaettr that accompanies you, that has some kind of vested interest in you whether that be to teach you something, to guide you, to guard you for a time, or to observe you. They may or may not be attached to your familial line. This is where I make the distinction here of fylgja and kinfylgja. A fylgja or kinfylgja can take a variety of forms, human and non-human.

Why would a vaettr accompany you if not because it is part of, embodies, or is a member of your family? A given vaettr might be attached to a God or Goddess that you worship. It might be part of your family, eg a vaettr that adopted your family or has had dealings with them. It might be a vaettr interested in watching your potential in a given profession or work grow. It might be a vaettr who wants to make new ties not unlike the ones traditionally associated with fylgjur. It is important to keep in mind that you are likely the first person in a very long time to pay any attention at all to the Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir, so there’s any number of possible reasons for a given Being to come forward.

Contrast the view of what a fylgja is and does with that of a spirit animal. When folks use the term spirit animal they are usually saying something to effect of “That is my spirit animal.” I understand the term as it used today to mean that this is an animal that has claimed a person or has been assigned to them after a vision quest or some kind of deep spiritual work. I generally only see it seriously referenced regarding certain Native American tribes. This Metis-Anishinaabe breaks down why spirit animal is appropriative in non-Native contexts in this post. Given the connotations of Native American cultures and how one comes into relationship with a spirit animal I do not use the term and encourage others to not use the term.

Given that fylgja has its own cultural connections with Heathenry I would rather not see it become the next internet catch-all when what people are generally talking about is something completely unnatached to Heathenry. When folks use the term spirit animal in a spiritual context vs a meme one, they are usually talking about some kind of tutelary spirit, a spirit they have a deep affinity for, or a spirit they identify with/as on a soul level.

Instead of fylgja or spirit animal, I would far rather have folks who are not Heathen or Heathen-adjacent use tutelary spirit or spirit guide to mean a spirit that instructs or guides them. For those spirits they have a deep affinity for, perhaps a beloved spirit. For those who may identify with/as on a soul level to another spirit, perhaps the term kin spirit may work.

What I hope to do is clear up the waters of terminology rather than muddy them. I see part of that muddying is made when folks use terms that do not apply to them. To put it plainly, if you are not Native American then there are other words to use rather than spirit animal. If you are not Heathen there are other words to use in place of fylgja/fylgjur.

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