Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Family Resemblances: Textual Sources of Animal Fylgjur in Icelandic Saga

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Family Resemblances: Textual Sources of Animal Fylgjur in Icelandic Saga

Article excerpt

This article examines potential textual sources for the animal fylgjur (guardian spirit-creatures) in fornaldarsogur and islendingasogur. It compares fylgja-scenes in such sagas with possible analogues in scripture, bestiaries, and the so-called Pseudo-Daniel, a catalogue of dream symbols, in order to discern what influence these foreign texts might have exerted upon the nature of animal fylgjur (sg. fylgja) as we encounter them in the sagas. The article will also examine the notion that, especially amongst the fornaldarsogur, foreign influences constitute a primarily ornamental rather than substantive aspect of these texts.

At present, no scholarship exists on textual influences on animal fylgjur, though some useful information may be gleaned from research on the related topic of dream visions in medieval Icelandic literature. This dearth of research constitutes a deficit in saga scholarship, since not only are animal fylgjur found pervasively throughout a considerable number of sagas and across a very wide range of subgenera, but they are also an extremely common and eloquent motif by which saga authors deepen, expand upon, and enrich our understanding of their characters' inner nature.

The scholarship on fylgjur in dream visions presents a useful context in which to ground much of the study of the fylgja's textual sources. By far the most systematic treatment of fylgjur is by Else Mundal, who examines both animal and female varieties (Mundal 1974). Unfortunately, this text has not been translated from Norwegian into English. However, one of the more helpful, if brief, overviews in English is also supplied by Mundal in her entries under supernatural beings in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia (Mundal 1993, 624-5). By necessity, these entries are short, descriptive, and synoptic, and so cannot offer much critical depth about the sources of fylgjur in Old Norse literature.

In addition, there exist a number of dated, haphazard, or generalized descriptions of Scandinavian spirit-creatures from a range of disciplinary perspectives, primarily in German (Blum 1912; Rieger 1898; Rochholz 1860; Tuppa 1968). However, another brief but more systematic overview in English can be found in Gabriel Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of the Ancient Scandinavians (Turville-Petre 1975). Turville-Petre also published two more specific articles on landdisir and fylgjur, dealing with them in connection to how they manifest specifically in dreams (Turville-Petre 1958, 1972). This article, then, will draw at various points upon the research of these scholars, though often the investigation will have to move into largely unexplored terrain.

In order to investigate these sources more productively, a brief definition is necessary. Dictionary definitions of fylgja typically cover both verbs and nouns (e.g., Fritzner 1954; Cleasby 1969). The verbal sense of fylgja denotes "to accompany," "to guide," or "to assist," and in a more neutral vein, merely "to follow." The definition of the noun has three subcategories. The first is "guidance," but the second, "a supernatural woman or animal attendant," is the meaning with which we are primarily concerned in this paper; it clearly has connotative and denotative connections to the other senses. The third definition of the noun fylgja is afterbirth, a suggestive conflation, since the fylgja connects to many characters at birth and follows them thereafter as a sort of other self that had been "born" alongside them (Turville-Petre 1958, 99). In some post-medieval conceptions, the fylgja takes the form of the first creature that walks over to or devours the afterbirth of the child, though how far this conception predates surviving records is difficult to say (Sigfus Sigfusson 1925, 241; Jonasson fra Hrafnagili 1934, 261; Jon Arnason 1930, 355, 357). However, more often, the fylgja takes on a form that directly communicates core aspects of the person's character. …

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