Heathen Concept of the Soul
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
Many people who convert from Christianity to Heathenry may carry erroneous perceptions of their former religion with them, albeit unconsciously and unintentionally. The concept of the soul our Heathen ancestors had and knew to be true is much more multifaceted than the simply body/soul split found in Christian thought. With the proper instruction, and the occasional use of the following concepts in spiritual practice, it should be possible to shed the presence of the Christian conception from our thought processes and replace it with the proper one.
Put simply (and to establish a more familiar frame of reference), the view of our ancestors regarding the soul is much more in line with (but by no means identical with) the body-mind-spirit position taken by many New Age religious practitioners, often used in "alternative" medical practices as a way to address issues that allopathic medicine (which views the body as physical and unaffected by the soul) cannot, though some traditional doctors are beginning to come around to the idea that the mind-body connection plays a more important for in treatment and recovery than was previously thought. They seem, however, to still be unwilling to take the leap and include the concept of the soul in this equation, given the materialist orientation that modern science has had for the last few centuries.
Though it inhabits a physical human body, the soul need not necessarily be "human." Actions taken or events affecting the person in question may have partially or wholly altered the astral and higher elements of this being, causing them to change in appearance, shape, nature, and substance. In certain cases, they may never have been human to begin with, but since the wights of the Elder Troth are intrinsically connected to the same greater folk-consciousness that permeates all of Yggdrasil, certain non-human beings belonging to the Northern European multiverse may for reasons of their own decide to inhabit a living human body. Thus, the appearance of the astral form may differ radically from that of the temporary physical body to which it is attached (via etheric matter.) Such variations may include animal forms such as foxes, wolves, bears, deer, otters, etc. Typically, these forms are bipedal, and are superimposed or "stretched" over the physical body. These animal forms retain the higher intelligence, abilities, powers of speech, and consciousness of humans, and yet are not human. They are generally visible to those who have a sufficient amount of their psychic senses awakened unless they are buried or "submerged." Other spiritual identities may include elves, dwarves, dragons, and other classes of being who no longer have a physical incarnate presence on Midgard (the physical realm.) Such people are referred to as "Otherkin" and represent a topic found in many other pagan religions and traditions (more information on this subject can be found in the section of this blog bearing the "Otherkin" title.)
Terms like "etheric, astral, etc." represent "layers" of the soul and can also be thought of in a vertical orientation, reflecting the soul's presence in the higher and lower dimensions of existence. The Hamr refers to the astral body which forms over the physical shape and is attached by the etheric layer. It is also known as the hide. It presents as non-human in shape and appearance for individuals who are otherkin, unless for some reason it has not been awakened and lies dormant within. In this case, someone with psychic sensitivity may perceive only occasional glimpses of it under certain sets of circumstances which "trigger" these appearances. A skilled seidh may be able to temporarily alter the shape of their hamr and "shapeshift." Terms for witches skilled in such an art are hamrammr (hide-mighty) and and eigi einhamr (not one-hided, meaning they can alter their hamr from human to some other creature's form and nature, but not on a permanent basis, as this is only the case when someone becomes "Otherkin.") This can also happen due to magic spells (sometimes curses) or some kind of contact with someone who is already "kin" to the creature in question (for example, transferred through the bite of a Wehrwolf.)
The Athem, Ond, or Blead refers to the etheric matter which connects the physical and spiritual parts of a being. It operates on the etheric plane, which resides between the third and fourth dimensions, and it is this ectoplasmic "quasi-matter" which is responsible for the appearances of ectoplasm, the physical manifestations of spirits, and the transformation of Wehrbeasts (a type of Otherkin) in the somewhat rare event it becomes visible to those who are not psychically sensitive. This is the force that animates the physical body and allows the spirit to use the body as a vehicle to interact with the physical world. Possession refers to a "hijacking" of the lich (physical body) whereby another spirit enters a perforation or weakness in the aura and takes control of the functioning of the athem. There are differing levels of completeness is a possession scenario, and not all possession is against one's will. Seidh practitioners invite friendly spirits or even gods into the body to communicate through them for a time, and many different types of witch practice channeling, in which a spirit is given limited control of the body in order to communicate. In some traditions, this part of the soul is the "silver cord" that keeps the soul anchored to the body. If cut, the body dies and the soul cannot return to it under ordinary circumstances (unless they do so as the living dead.) This can also happen if for some reason the athem is not fully severed, and is the more likely cause of undeath. The numinous life-force energies or Maegen residing in food and drink feed the athem as much as it does the physical body. The rush of vitality that psychically sensitive people feel sweeping over their body as they eat or drink is the life force coursing through the meridians (every channels that extend out from the chakras, or power points, along the spine and terminate at various points in the physical and astral bodies.)
Seidhs who are "hide-mighty" can also put themselves into a deep trance and then send their hugr forth in the shape on an animal or otherworldly being. Sometimes the animal form will be the "Elder Kin" form that runs on all fours, but it can also be of the bipedal, anthropomorphic "Wehr" variety. They can also take the form of phenomena in nature such as dancing flames or rolling mists. If the hugr is seen by an enemy in this state and attacked, the wounds will translate directly to the physical body of the Seidh. Death can even result from these wounds. This practice of "sending out" the astral part of the soul (the Hamr) is called hamgalen, or "ham-madness" and used to describe such shapeshifters.
Our Heathen Anglo-Saxon ancestors used the term "ferth" to describe the non-physical parts of a being. The temporary physical body is shed at death, freeing the ferth to travel in the otherworlds permanently. Living, incarnate Seidh practitioners can temporarily leave their bodies to do the same thing (see the Seidhcraft section of the blog for more on this.)
Simply put, many modern people sadly think that their physical bodies and the contents of their brains represent the totality of their being, which is extinguished at death. This is why death holds such terror for them. Even people who claim to be Christian tend to have a very nebulous understanding of the soul and the afterlife, and no direct experience with it. Suffice it to say that it is the ferth, and not the body and cells of the brain, which form the "true self"; it is this which is eternal. The body IS part of the self, but only temporarily so. It is affected by the workings of the soul, and serves as a vehicle for experiencing this world and allowing the soul to grow from these experiences.
Rather than the brain, it is the Mynd (also called the Hyge in Old English and the Hugr in Old Norse) which serves as the seat of our thoughts, memories, and emotions. The Mynd/Hugr includes not only thoughts of a being but their personality and desires as well. It is this deeper spiritual identity that is responsible for the chemistry two people close to each other feel, romantically or platonically (something just "clicks"). Others may have an aversion to one another rooted in the realm of spirit, a seemingly irrational dislike or hatred for one another which may be brought about through malevolent magic, through past life experiences in which one of these people grievously wronged the other, or by virtue of the fact that one of these people are fundamentally "good" and the other is "evil." The person with a good soul will likely find the evil person insufferable and feel an urge to lash out at them or avoid them even if they have just met them or barely know them. This may seem foolish or wrong to many modern people, but the soul knows things that the conscious mind does not, causing the experience most people have problem had at some time or another of almost immediately taking a liking or dislike to someone we have just met.
As the part of the soul which governs the intellect, the Mynd interfaces with the physical brain to coordinate the actions of the ferth with the actions of the body (called the Lich or Lyke.) Damage to the brain can impair its ability to perform this coordinating function, but does not result in the total loss or destruction of the intellect, which is seated in the ferth/soul. Those born with brain damage or deficiency are not necessarily unintelligent, but merely limited and inhibited in their ability to house, access, and use the intelligence and greater experience of the Mynd.
Our hugr serves as a thought and action modifier or filter; our words and deeds manifest in different ways according to the aspect our Hugr presents. Someone with an "uneasy" or "downcast" Hugr (which often results from one's previous words and actions not matching with one's inner convictions and core identity) may experience mental and emotional aberrations. If steps are not taken to repair our reputation with our "higher selves" then the problems can even extend to the manifestation of physical illnesses which affect the body. Someone with a "whole" or "bold" Hugr, by contrast, is more sure of their steps, more comfortable with themselves, and more at ease with their words. It can often take long years of work and struggle to repair the damage done from not being "true to ourselves," whether the damage was wrought in this lifetime or in a past one. Sadly, if nothing is done to correct the imbalance over a very long period of time, an initially good person can become truly evil (to the depths of their soul) and then little hope is there to bring them back to the light unless there can be found a small part of them which is not wholly corrupted and which is amenable to change. Depending on the individual, this may or may not be possible by one who seeks to help them. They may possibly do so at their peril and to their detriment, while the evil being laughs and gloats at their attempts. While such a situation may sound very frightening, it should serve as a lesson in the importance of listening to our conscience, the "inner voice" of our higher selves
Someone with a bold "hugr" can bring to bear a state of modr, or bravery. When such a state of mind and spirit is accessed, the individual can call upon all of their abilities and strengths to prevail over a danger they face. This is akin to "pulling oneself up by the bootstraps" and reaching deep down inside for inner strength which then seems to well up from the depths of the soul with such force that it appears to be a form of possession (giving rise to the perplexed statement of people who experience such things "I don't know what got into me!") It is similar in some ways to the Wod-fury that berserks call upon when they enter the berserk's-gang, but this is a gift of Odin bestowed upon his warriors, and often comes naturally to those who are Otherkin to predator beasts like the fox, the wolf, the bear, and certain types of big wild felines who hunt in the northern lands. Berserks were known to wear the skins of the animals they identified with and enter a wild animal rage, but while not all of them were necessarily otherkin, a good number of them likely were. The wod is also associated with the ecstacy, inspiration, and genius of the poets and perfomers (Skalds). It is one's ability to control the wild, primal, Odinic Wode-force that separates madness from genius and brash acts of foolishness and stupidity from awe-inspiring feats of might and bravery. As the god from whom this force ultimately descends. The Anglo-Saxons knew Odin as Woden, the Germans as Wotan, and the Lowland Dutch as Wodan.
The Mod is the spiritual center of the emotional level of being. It's emotional manifestations range from the most simple to the most complex and from the most mild to the most overpowering. In addition to the bravery and boldness with which it is often associated, it is also closely tied to the store of honor "Are" and luck "Hamingja" in an individual's soul.
The Hugr or "High" can be further divided into the following:
Angit (these are the physical five senses that serve as a means for the physical body to function and interact with the world around it. It is a means to gather knowledge. The eyes, ears, taste buds, olfactory receptors, and sensory nerves in the body serve to transmute "input" through the brain and into the non-physical angit.
2. Sefa: this is the part of the soul which interfaces with the brain by interpreting and applying it. It refers not to "brain power" in and of itself, but to the epiphenomenon of consciousness which is a phenomenon that continues to go on even after the brain dies. The brain merely coordinates consciousness with the actions and function of the physical body while it lives. All thinking and reasoning is done in the sefa.
3. Wit- this refers to one's ability to store information, call it up, and use it at will when an occasion that demands its use arises. Again, this refers not to the actual brain cells, but to the higher self, to the soul that interacts with the cells. Spirits can still remember events that occur and knowledge they acquire even after the death of the physical body. It is not wholly dependent on the brain. Damage to the brain impairs the soul's ability to interact with and work through the body.
Tied to the concepts of Modr and Wod are "Mattr ok Meginn", meaning "might and main." This concept refers to the combined physical and spiritual strength of an individual. Since spirit "trumps" matter in the cosmic scheme, it can be said that great spiritual strength (meginn) can shape and augment muscular strength, endurance, and general fitness (mattr.) This is why individuals who perform incredible feats in battle or other dangerous situations sometimes remark after the fact that they felt like they received a rush of strength and courage that "seemed to come from someone or something else." In reality, it is usually the person's OWN strength that was responsible; their physical being received through a rush of might from their higher self that gave their physical capacities a boost. It is under these circumstances that the individual enters a state of Modr which enhances their Meginn, while Wod, which also affects one's Meginn and Mattr, refers to a power that comes from the god Odin. Someone with a powerful build but a weak meginn will often find that their blows lack the concentrated force that those with a strong meginn can impart, and may find themselves clumsy, unbalanced, lacking in reflexes, and less able to absorb blows from an enemy. They would also generally lack in courage and confidence in battle and other situations that require bravery and swift, decisive action.
The Mynd/Hugr can be divided into the following:
The Min/Gemynd: This refers to the memories taken from experiences and actions undertaken in the current incarnation (the Fjor, or present lifetime) of the being in question. It encompasses all of their current knowledge and worldly (or spiritual) wisdom as well as their luck.
The concept of "luck" refers to one's likelihood of success in the tasks they undertake, governed by a store of psychic power the person carries both at the individual and clanic levels. Clanic luck is inherited from one's ancestors and personal luck comes from past lifetimes as well as deeds performed in this one. The two forms overlap in the cases where we actually were our own ancestors in a past incarnation. It can also be transferred through a willful act of magic, sometimes by the giving of a name, weapon, or sacred object, or by the transferrence of one's fetch or fylgja shortly before death. One's store of luck increases and decreases based on the cumulative honorable or dishonorable deeds one performs. In Old English, the haminja is referred to as "speed", which is why to this day someone who is about to perform a great undertaking is often told "good luck and godspeed,"although in a Christian context: rather than rely on one's own luck and "speed," the Christian calls on that of their god, since they deem themselves powerless without him.
The Min is animated by Ond, the breath of life that Odin bestowed upon Askr and Embla, the first man and woman. This event, which we are told of in the Voluspa section of the Elder Edda, details the moment that the gods brought the Germanic folk into being, quickening life-forms with higher consciousness and awareness and bringing the destiny of the Germanic peoples in line with that of the Gods. The Ond is one of the aspects of the soul that can be reborn with each incarnation, and in some ways it connects the Min with the second aspect of the Mynd, the Orthanc. The life-span of a current incarnation was called the Aldr, the number of years set by the Norns initially at a person's birth (see the blog entry on "Nornir.") Evil deeds (mentioned earlier) can have a detrimental effect not just on one's core identity but on one's luck and even lifespan, as "fate" is usually able to be altered by the various greater and lesser cosmic forces at work in the multiverse. Aldr refers not just to the length of time currently alloted to one's Fjor (life) but also the quality thereof; evil deeds can harm the personal Wyrd of an individual, resulting in health problems and unlucky life events.
2. the Orthanc (Ur-Thought): This segment of the Mynd goes further and deeper than the Min; it encompasses the largely unconscious knowledge and wisdom of the soul acquired through ALL of its incarnations and lifetimes. Often such intuitive, instinctive wisdom affects the thought processes and decisions of the person even though they do not know exactly why. People often refer to these as "gut feelings" and "hunches;" things that they "just know." In addition to these personal incarnations, the Orthanc also allows the individual to draw on the collective wisdom of their ancestors, though it is possible for someone to be the reincarnation of one of their own ancestors. In fact, this is the case more often than most people would think. The fetch (another part of the soul which will be discussed later in the course of this blog post) has much to do with the Urthanc, which contains the orlog of the individual person and all of their ancestors (sometimes called "clanic" orlog.)
Orlog (Ur-Law) also called primal or first layers, refers to a part of Wyrd, whether personal or clanic, which affects and conditions all events and situations that follow in the life on an individual or a clan. When Odin, Vili, and Ve found the ash and elm logs on the beach (from which they made Askr and Embla), they bestowed them with Orlog (a purposeful life and a destiny) as well as with Ond.
Finally, there is the physical body itself, the only part not deemed "ferth." This is called the Lich or the Lyke. Despite the fact that the Lich is temporary, it still should be considered part of the whole individual, not separate from the ferth. Both are necessary for someone to be "whole" and to function in this world. A Lich without the spiritual Ferth would be nothing but a mindless zombie. In popular fantasy, a Lich (zombie) is often confused with a Draugr, a Ferth inhabiting a deceased Lich through dark magic, divine will, or an extremely powerful individual will. The Draugr are a type of living dead (distinct from vampires), who maintain all of their mental and spiritual faculties and who exist somewhere between the third dimension of matter and the fourth dimension of lower spirit (the astral.) They reside on the etheric plane, and their ability to materialize and dematerialize make them more akin to ghosts and vampires than to the zombie-like Liches.
Ordinarly, the Lich refers to to a LIVING physical body, with the ferth intact. The ferth without a lich would not be able to learn the lessons necessary for their spiritual evolution in the way they could if they were incarnate. There is a transfer of power and wisdom that flows to the realm of spirit upon death that spirits cannot duplicate if they remain earthbound but discarnate. Spirits, however, can still exert influence on physical matter (living or otherwise) through the force of their will (similar to how certain living people can use telekinesis and other psychic abilities to affect the world of matter.) They can act upon, but are not bound by, the physical laws of the third dimension.