On the Soul (Again)

OK, I don’t claim to be some kind of expert in Norse theology, such as it may be. I state that, in part, because I have not studied any of it in depth. But I also state this because I don’t think there is very much in the way of “theology” that we either find from olden sources, or have developed in more modern times. I have never, for example, read a Norse treatise on the soul. In short, there does not seem to be much actual “theology” to it, which is actually fine because an extensive theology probably is not necessary to it. Yet, I can also empathize with anyone else who may feel the need for that today, and I think that the (unnamed) author I will be referring to may be in that latter category. All religions evolve, after all, developing theology along the way. It’s just what religion does, contrary to what fundamentalist-minded persons may insist is the truth. In short, it is absolutely OK for a religion to evolve and change.

Anyway, getting back to the Norse-type modern religions, no extensive theology, as far as I can tell, has been developed yet – nothing very complicated or that would require a great deal of thinking. Again, that is perfectly fine, in my view. That said, imagine my curiosity when I came upon a fairly extensive treatise on the nature of the soul with reference to the Nordic religions written by someone else. Naturally, as usual, I asked them to respond with a question like “where did you get this theology?” And I waited….

As I waited, I looked up each word the writer used for the soul in their treatise. This is fairly easy to do because, even though I don’t speak any form of Nordic or Germanic language, you can literally find most anything on Google. So, let us begin with each word that the writer used for “soul”. As in all instances where definitions and meanings are sought, there are always exceptions and additions that can be found, so I do not claim the following are definitive.

The first was “lik”. Lik can be defined as a person’s “form, shape, figure, appearance · image, effigy · character, persona (in a work of art)”.

The second was “ek”, which can be defined as “the energy of motion of a body, equal to the work it would do if it were brought to rest”.

The third, “hugr”, which can be defined as one’s inclination, sympathy, or very strong emotion.

The fourth, “wode”, which can be defined as one’s madness, craziness, insanity, possession, rabidness, furiousness, etc.

The fifth, “hamingja”, which can be defined as “a type of female guardian spirit in Norse mythology. It was believed that she accompanied a person and decided his luck and happiness”.

The sixth, “fylgja”, which can be defined as “a kind of guardian angel, guardian spirit, tutelary entity, which was held to follow each person or family and the relationship being affixed or bound at the process or ceremony of naming”. This, by the way, could be equated with the “diamonion” that Socrates mentions guided him so often.

The seventh, “mannsfylgja”, which can be defined as “the strengths and talents earned in prior lives or a prior life”.

And, finally, the eighth, “kynfylgja”, which can be defined as “family characteristic, peculiarity”.

Now, before we go on to more of what the writer stated, I must point out that, as a theologian with many years of training (mostly Christian), I have never encountered the human soul divided into so many separate parts in any theological system. Not saying that I have studied them all, but if it is divided thusly in any theological system, it certainly isn’t a Western system – maybe Eastern, perhaps Hinduism, but not Western. Do I need to point out that the Norse system would have to be Western?

Anyway, in so many words, in Western theological thought, the soul simply is never divided into so many parts. In fact, it really is never divided at all. This, not withstanding the evident confusion of certain segments of Christianity these days, some virtually defining the soul and spirit as one and the same, while others define them as separate, but somehow both going to heaven or hell. So, let’s actually define the soul, shall we? Miriam-Webster defines it, in part, as “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life”, and/or, “the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe”. Keep in mind here that there is no division of soul specified. It is basically that part of the human being that has consciousness and survives after the death of the body and is, thus, immortal. By extension, therefore, it is NOT the body, nor is it part of the body. Thus, again, it is NOT the body. The reason I emphasize this will become clear as we continue.

Now, if the reader has noticed that this all sounds very Platonic, then they may receive an “A” for class today. Indeed, our Western concept of the soul very much emanates directly from Plato’s teaching on the soul. That the concept has been corrupted by Christian dogma over the centuries is, however, a sad reality. This is partly the reason that some are confused as to the definition of, and/or the nature of, the soul.

As for Plato’s understanding of the soul (from Wikipedia in order to quickly obtain the information), “Plato’s theory of soul, which was inspired by the teachings of Socrates, considered the psyche (ψυχή) to be the essence of a person, being that which decides how people behave. Plato considered this essence to be an incorporeal, eternal occupant of a person’s being. Plato said that even after death, the soul exists and is able to think. He believed that as bodies die, the soul is continually reborn (metempsychosis) in subsequent bodies. Plato divided the soul into three parts: the logistikon (reason), the thymoeides (spirit), and the epithymetikon (appetite)”. Plato was the first person in the history of Western philosophy to hold that the soul was both the source of life and the mind. In fact, he was the first in the Western world, as far as we know, to really attempt to formulate an understanding of the soul in writing. Thus, all concept of the soul really comes from Plato’s writing.

Now, one may have already noticed that the above statement says that Plato “divided” the soul into three parts. That, however, is not exactly the case. Plato was not stating that the human soul had three distinct parts to it, each of which had it’s own life and existence separate from the other two. Instead, these were three “essences” or “aspects”, if you will, of the single soul. These were “the logos (λογιστικόν), or logistikon, located in the head, which is related to reason and regulates the other parts (the actual mind/thoughts of a person), the thymos (θυμοειδές), or thumoeides, located near the chest region, which is related to spirit (feelings), and the eros (ἐπιθυμητικόν), or epithumetikon, located in the stomach, which is related to one’s desires (intentions and actions). Thus, the soul thinks, feels, initiates action, and sometimes acts upon desires. It is, in short, the thing that allows us to be active, unlike plants. Without the soul, we might have life, but it would be a subsistence life with no action involved (most religions posit that a person receives their soul at birth, not at conception). There would also be no part of us which would be eternal. And, by eternal, he meant forever with no beginning and no ending, like the universe itself. The soul always existed and always will exist. It cannot be harmed, destroyed, or die by definition because it is immortal. Thus, it becomes either reincarnated as another human being, or transmigrated into an animal, over and over again throughout eternity. If one lives well, then one is reincarnated into a better state than during one’s previous human life. If one lives badly, one may be transmigrated into a worm, for example, and from there have to work back up to human level!

THIS is Western thought, as far as is known, concerning the soul, for the most part, prior to Christianity. So, one would have to assume that the Norse had a concept similar to this even though, I suspect, none of them ever read Plato. Why? Because my studies have led me to the understanding that Plato was not the first person to come up with this; he was simply putting down in writing the understanding that was already prevalent in the world as he knew it. Basically, this was the common system that everyone held to already (one has to understand that there was some form of common religion in Europe and adjasent areas in primordial times, represented by the various “Venus” figurines found by archaeologists). It is obvious that reincarnation and transmigration were concepts that predated Plato in the Western world. How much they had actually contemplated the soul prior to his writings, I cannot guarantee that anyone really knows. But, his concepts concerning the soul fit perfectly with these other concepts in any case.

Now, back to the post in question. The writer first states that “the milti part soul” is one of the most confusing aspects of Norse religion for the “convert”. My confusion there, in reading it, was that I had never heard of the milti-part soul to begin with (nor are people “converted” to any form of Paganism). The writer continued with “[t]here are several parts of the soul that make us ‘one’, or ‘whole’. Some are  parts that die when we die. Some are parts that go on to live in the halls of the gods. And others are  parts that get passed down to be reincarnated into your family bloodline”. Here is where the writer made his first error (but not the only one found here). THE SOUL CANNOT DIE! Therefore, no part of the human soul dies, period. What dies is the human body.

He went on to define “lik” as the physical body itself. Based on what I found myself, I would agree that “lik” means the physical body, or at least the perception of other people concerning the physical body. Therefore, it is by definition physical and NOT soul. He states that it dies. He is correct. The body does die. The soul, however, does not. Therefore, this cannot be a “part” of the human soul.

He goes on to define “ek” as ego, which does not correspond with the definition, but does seem to correspond with Plato’s thymos (θυμοειδές), or thumoeides.

The writer’s definition of “hugr” would correspond with the Greek Logos (to mind), which, frankly, is the soul. The writer continues by stating that this is the part that lives on after death to “visit the gods”. That would be correct. The soul, or mind, does live on after the death of the body.

He defines “wode” as the breath of life, akin to the “chi” in Eastern cultures. This would, more or less, be the human spirit. Neither in Platonic philosophy, nor in most Christian theology, is the spirit and soul seen as one and the same, or the spirit seen as being a part of the soul. Again, even the author states that it is the “breath of life”. Therefore, it cannot be classified as an eternal entity that continues on after the death of the body. Therefore, it cannot be seen as the soul or any aspect of it. And it really does not correspond with the above definition. However, if one wishes to equate soul and spirit in some way, I have no overt issue with that since it is generally understood that one’s soul enters the body at the time of birth, just as the air we breathe does.

The writer’s definition of “hamingja” is, for me, actually pretty interesting. I don’t think that Plato would argue against it. The reason for this, as already stated, is because reincarnation/transmigration is a system in which good begets good results and evil begets bad results. Thus, it is something that the soul incorporates as part of itself during each successive lifetime. This, by the way, is what would allow the soul to eventually escape the “eternal wheel of reincarnation”, as Neitzsche would refer to it, and dwell in bliss with the eternal ones. However, it does not correspond with the above definition in any way.

The writer’s definition of “fylgja” includes the statement that it is “a part of the soul, that seems more ‘attached’ rather than wholly apart of the soul”. He further describes it as a “guardian angel” that often manifests itself as female, sometimes as a Valkyrie, and sometimes in animal form. Well, first, the soul does not “manifest” itself into any form. It’s form is the body into which it inhabits at any given time or any given reincarnation. Also, the soul is not sort-of, kind-of attached to itself. It simply is itself. The writer’s definition here almost corresponds with the above definition, but not quite. The fylgja is a separate entity and is not the person’s soul. It may be bound to the person, but it is not the person’s soul. This also has no correspondence with Platonic thinking. In fact, it sounds decidedly Christian; and Christians would call this a demon spirit. Socrates might have referred to it as his diamonion (demon spirit). But it still wasn’t his soul.

The writer’s definition of “mannsfylgja” is “an individual fetch. It is the part of the soul which is a summary of all one has done. All your acts of bravery, courage, and cowardice!. Kind of like your scorecard”. Frankly, it would be more logical and reasonable to state that mannsfylgja and hamingja are one and the same.

Finally, the writer defines “kynfylgja” as “the family fetch that represents all your ancestors who have come before you”. He adds that it is gigantic and “[i]t represents the great deeds and actions of everyone in your bloodline who has come and went (sic). All their deeds that still flow through your blood, and a part deep within your own psyche.  Its a part of what helps make up your DNA,  what determines your temperament, your fears and desires”. Well, just no. If this is a part of a person’s soul that represents everyone in a person’s bloodline who physically came before them, with all of their attributes attached to it, then that defeats even the concept of soul itself. And, frankly, why would there be a need, or desire, for everyone else’s deeds and works to somehow be attached? It would have to include their bad deeds along with their good deeds. This would make the process of reincarnation entirely self-defeating. It also barely corresponds with the above definition.

Monotheistic dogma has clouded clear Western theological understanding for over 2,000 years. But, it’s really pretty simple. The universe is eternal – has always existed and always will. The soul, likewise, is eternal in the same way. The soul is not somehow created by some god when we are conceived or birthed. In fact, there is no “creation” and no creator god, period. Myths are for teaching, not for literal belief. So creation narratives in them are strictly mythical, to teach lessons. You are, therefore, one with the universe and with nature. The soul abhors matter and flesh and always wants to escape it. It loves to be pure thought and knowledge. However, the combination of soul and matter is a universal design meant to improve both. That is partly why we must take care of nature itself and not destroy it. Frankly, death would never happen if the soul enjoyed being attached to the physical realm. But death is necessary for life. Birth and rebirth are simply a part of the eternal system. Everyone knows that birth comes from the female, not the male. The feminine aspect is necessary to creation. We all know “it takes two to tango”. That is, in a nutshell, why polytheism is logical and monotheism is not. Creation cannot come from nothing and the male cannot give birth. Neither can a virgin. The Earth herself is our mother, providing us with both soul and matter. There is no eternal heaven or hell. There is only life, over and over again forever. Even when and if a soul reaches total enlightenment and is allowed to dwell with the Immortals, this is so rare as not to upset the balance in any way. And none of this works under a monotheistic, patriarchal system.