Welcome to the Mean Moon issue, with Episode 5 of Ingrid Fischer’s Germanic Soul-Lore. This part is on Dreams, and how they can manifest one’s fylgja for guidance and warning.
Dreams played a significant part in the lives of the Germanic peoples, and elaborate descriptions of dreams can be read in the Eddas, as in the Second Lay of Gudrun, the Atlamál and the Baldrs Draumar, and also in Old Icelandic saga literature. Dreams in Old Icelandic literature were a favourite means of developing and taking forward the story, especially if they served as prophecy of what was certain to happen later on in the tale. However, it would be all too simple to state that dreams were used as a stylistic device only, far from it. The Germanic peoples believed strongly in the prophetic nature of dreams and it was even considered a disease not to have dreams (ON draum-stoli means a dream-stolen man, a man who never dreams). One’s own fylgja would appear in one’s dreams and warn of striking disaster, or one would see one’s enemy’s fylgja (mostly in animal shape) approaching and would thus know that the enemy was near. Dreams often supply that which is lacking in a person’s conscious attitude and their contents may be seen as the individual’s psychological self-guidance. The prospective function of dreams is an anticipation of future achievements arising in the unconscious – this is Urdhr and Verdhandi necessarily leading to Skuld, or Urdhr and Verdhandi meet and the dreamer can see that which is to become. Dreams are a combination of all perceptions, thoughts and feelings which have escaped consciousness and, furthermore, they have the help of traces of memory which lie below the conscious threshold and are no longer accessible to the conscious mind.
Dreams in saga literature often serve as a means of conveying the inevitability of fate. Man’s feeling of helplessness and powerlessness against fate is shown in many dreams and frequently it is man’s fylgja that warns of doom. It seems almost as if the fylgja would want to offer man a way out – a way of challenging and defeating fate. And indeed, the fylgja is that part of the body/soul complex that brings hidden resources and powers to the fore and offers them to the individual to absorb them into his conscious traits, thereby almost putting them on a higher level and transforming his life – if the individual is open to this. Dreams in present time may be seen much like the ones described above. They frequently show us a way out or more accurately, a way forward, if we are open to listen to them. It will always be our own soul which shows us the way, and dreams are the window to gain us access to its hidden depths.
In the following I shall give you two famous examples of dreams in the saga literature; I recommend that you read some of the better-known sagas in order to get a fuller picture not only of dreams but of life in olden times in general.
Not only fylgjur in animal shapes appear in dreams, but we also find the expressions draumkona and draummaðr, namely dream-woman and dream-man. The most famous ones are probably Gisli’s1 two draumkonur, who are two rival dream-women, one good and one evil, one believed to represent the new faith, i.e. Christianity, and the other one the ancestral belief. It is true that Gisli gave up sacrificing after coming under Christian influence when visiting Viborg in Denmark but, more strongly, the saga shows how Gisli adheres to the old ethics to the end and his belief in an inevitable fate is unbroken. The Saga of Gisli stands out from other sagas in that it describes in clear words the strong emotional bonds that finally lead to Gisli’s death, it speaks about feelings and thus goes further than other sagas, which put the emphasis on outer events, leaving the psychology of the hero in between the lines for the reader to guess. As much as the two opposite dream-women foretell Gisli’s untimely death, they even more show his inner turmoil. He has killed his brother-in-law, his beloved sister’s husband, and even though he was honour-bound to do so, he caused grief for his sister and therefore for himself and his family. Also, he is not by nature violent but is calm and considerate and a loving family man. The saga goes even further and describes how much Gisli has come to fear the dreams of the evil dream-woman; his anxiety grows to such an extent that he is unable to stay on his own and he risks discovery by his enemies rather than being apart from his loving wife and her comfort. One might say that Gisli’s slaying of his brother-in-law is a deed which is out of character and goes against the conscious traits of the hero. The blood and gore which plague him in his dreams accentuate his opposite side and as he is unable to balance the opposites in ways that would lead to him growing as personality, they seal his fate. This is made quite clear in the text where we can see the hero’s increasing inner exhaustion. It is never his courage that fails him, he becomes too weary and there is something self-resigning and passive in the way he faces his hopelessness. In the end, it seems that Gisli is glad to have arrived at the action of his last fight and his death is welcomed as bringing long desired peace.
Another well cited example of dreams in the saga literature can be found in Njal’s Saga. Gunnar of Hlidarend, lifelong friend of Njal, has the following dream: ‘…and in my dream I saw a pack of wolves coming out at me. I retreated down to Rang River, where they leapt at me from all sides, but we fought them off. I shot those that were in the lead, until they pressed so close that I could not use my bow. Then I drew my sword and fought with sword in one hand and halberd in the other; I never used my shield and did not know what was protecting me. I killed many of the wolves, and you were protecting me, Kolskegg; but they overpowered Hjort and ripped open his chest, and one of them seized his heart in its jaws. Then in my dream my rage was so violent that I sliced the creature in two behind the shoulder; and with that the rest of the wolves fled.’2 Later that very day of Gunnar’s prophetic dream events took place just as he had described them. Again, we see animals as the bearers of what is to come, and in this example they are wolves as the fylgjur of Gunnar’s enemies. Not long after this bloodbath with the feud ongoing, Gunnar is made an outlaw for three years and ordered to leave the country. He refuses to do so, as he cannot bear to give up the beauty of his homeland. This and the treachery of his wife, Hallgerd, eventually lead to his untimely death – just as his prescient friend Njal had foreseen.
Having concentrated on the core triad for the last two weeks, you should now start keeping a dream diary (if you already do so, even better). Watch out for any symbolism or very realistic dreams about the three components of your soul’s core triad. Are there any animals appearing in your dreams? Do you feel they could hint at your animal fetch?
1 The Saga of Gisli, translated by George Johnston, notes by Peter Foote. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1963.
2 Njal’s Saga. Translated with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, Penguin Books, 1960