Draugr, The Nordic Living Dead


The Fearsome Draugr (plural draugar), also called draug, dréag, draugar, draugur, dreygur, or draugen, is a fearsome, ugly living dead who would rise from the grave to torment the living.

The Old Norse meanings of the word are revenant, undead man, and ghost. Draugar live in their graves, often guarding treasure buried with them in their burial mound. They are reanimated corpses - unlike ghosts, they have a corporeal body with similar, physical abilities as possessed in life.

These beings could rise from the grave and increase their size at will, possessing a vast strength. The draugr is not an ignorant creature. It could exhibit supernatural powers and possessed knowledge of the past and future.

While in the Norse society the female shaman known as Völva were attributed with the power to foretell future events, some sagas also describe draugar who mastered prophetic visions.

One of the best-known draugr is Glámr, who appears in The Saga of Grettir the Strong.

Glámr was a Sheppard that died during Yule, raising soon after and causing such havoc that some people fainted at the mere sight of him, while others went out of their minds".

The draugr is defeated, but manages to curse the hero with its supernatural powers, because "Glámr was endowed with more evil force than most other ghosts", causing all sort of bad luck and forcing the hero to live as an outlaw for the rest of his life.

The Draugar are “generally hideous to look at”, bearing a necrotic black or bluish color, either hel-blár (“death-blue”) or nár-fölr (“corpse-pale”). They have a foul stench, a reek of decay, and possess supernatural strength, with the ability to increase their sizes – and mass at will. Some of them were also capable of shape-change, such as the undead Víga-Hrappr Sumarliðason (Killer-Hrapp) of Laxdaela saga, who is said to roam around his old farmstead of Hrappstaðir, sometimes in the shape of a seal, with human-like eyes.

In the saga he appeared as such before Þorsteinn svarti/surt (Thorsteinn the Black) sailing by ship, and was responsible for the sinking of the ship to prevent the family from reaching Hrappstaðir. The draugar in Icelandic folktales collected in the modern age can also change into a great flayed bull, a grey horse with a broken back but no ears or tail, and a cat that would sit upon a sleeper's chest and grow steadily heavier until their victim suffocated.

Some authors speculate that the very definition of nightmare - from old English maere, meaning an evil spirit - originates from the draugur, as nightmares also originally seated over their victims during sleep, suffocating them.

After a person's death, the main indication that the person will become a draugr is that the corpse is not in a horizontal position. In most cases, the corpse is found in an upright or sitting position, and this is an indication that the dead might return. Any mean, nasty, or greedy person can become a draugr.

Aside from its corporeal nature, draugar share some similarities with ghosts in many Western mythologies: ghosts are generally portrayed as people with unfinished business or those who are so evil their spirit makes an impact on the place they lived. Ghosts and draugr refuse to follow the prescribed path of death, selfishly staying on Earth when they are supposed to move on.

Draugar also share more than one similarity with the classical “horror story zombie”: they can create other draugar.

When Glámr arrives in the haunted valley in Grettis saga, "the previous evil spirits are relegated to the sidelines and, when Glámr is found dead, they disappear, whereas he takes over their role as ghost of the valley. Although Glámr is an arguably marginal character to begin with, it is only after his fight with the first malignant spirit that the first spirit leaves the valley, and Glámr takes its place wreaking havoc. Similarly, in Eyrbyggja saga, a shepherd is killed by a draugr and rises the next night as one himself.

The Norse people believed that even if one person was dead, their body could still move and harm other people. A draugr would go around and hurt anyone on his way unless precautions were taken to prevent the draugr from wandering around. Straw would be put under the shroud and a pair of scissors would rest in the chest of the dead. The big toes of the dead were tied together so that he couldn't move and long nails or needles were used to pierce the deceased feet.

Viking age burial from Hringsdalur in western Iceland, found in 2006

When the funeral came to the part of transferring the coffin to the grave yard, the bearers would stop before stepping out of the house. They stopped inside, lowering and raising the coffin in three directions. The dead was then carried outside for burial through the “copse door”, which was simply a hole in the wall which was covered as soon as the dead crossed its threshold. This was done due to the belief that the dead could only return through the way that they came out.

Archaeologists have discovered several runestones that mention the Draugr. The most famous ones are the Karlevi Runestone and the Nørre Nærå Runestone.

The Nørre Nærå Runestone is interpreted as having a "grave binding inscription" used to keep the deceased in its grave.

The Karlevi Runestone is dated to the late 10th century, and is the oldest runestone on the island of Öland, Sweden. The belief in the existence of draugr is very old. To stop the draugr, large boulders were placed on graves, or sometimes directly on top of the corpse. In some Viking graves, archaeologists discovered that the dead person’s weapons had been made impossible to use.

On the Karlevi Runestone, the inscription is almost a warning of a dead man still living in his tomb. Fourth line, In old Norse:

Fulginn liggʀ hinns fylgðu,
flæstr vissi þat, mæstaʀ
dæðiʀ dolga Þruðaʀ
draugʀ i þæimsi haugi;
munat Ræið-Viðurr raða
rogstarkʀ i Danmarku
[Æ]ndils iarmungrundaʀ
uʀgrandaʀi landi.

Karlevi Runestone

Recent video-games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bloodmoon) brought back the image of the tomb-dwelling draugr to the pop culture, and one can argue that the Whitewalkers, from the Game of Thrones series are heavily inspired by the Fearsome Draugr.

From the videogame Skyrim

 

Sources:

Smith, Gregg A. (2007). The Function of the Living Dead in Medieval Norse and Celtic literature: Death and Desire. ISBN 9780773453531.

Scudder, Bernard (tr.) (2005). The Saga of Grettir the Strong. ISBN: 9780140447736

Pálsson, Hermannn; Edwards, Paul (1973). Eyrbyggja Saga. Google Books

Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall.

Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2

Anthony Faulkes (1995) Snorri Sturluson, Edda. 3rd. edition. London, England: Everyman J. M. Dent. ISBN-13 978-0-4608-7616-2

Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis (1943). The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. University of Michigan Press. ISBN-13: 978-0837100708

Jón Árnason (1972). Simpson, Jacqueline (ed.). Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-520-02116-7

 


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