Originally published in Idunna #70, Yule, 2006. A PDF version of this article is available.
You Can’t Keep a Dead Man Down
Draugar in Lore and Life
–by Lorrie Wood
Ragnhild stood on the moon-drenched battlefield, her tunic smeared with the black blood-sap of the day’s grim harvest. With her good knife in hand, she moved through the windrows of the slain and examined each face.
It might be this one. She squatted in the muck, reached under the corpse, and turned it face-up. Yes. His blood had drained to his face, kept barely out of the muck by a well-placed stone–black as Hel, blue as the inside of Odin’s cloak–but she knew the face, knew who had lived in it…and who might be called back.
She stood, allowed herself a thin smile, and wiped the blade on one of the few clean places of her tunic before rolling up one sleeve. The bared forearm was criss-crossed by scars and scabs, each from a spell that would only answer to blood.
A few of the raven feathers tied to her clothes fluttered, but there was no wind.
“Thorfin Ormson! Olaf’s wolves slink around our home once more! As you swore in life, your clan and kin wake you in our hour of need.” She slashed her forearm with the knife; the bright pain brought focus with the onyx-welling blood.
“Blood of your blood, I call you now: rise up!” As the first drop landed on the corpse’s face, the wild power woke around her: eager. Watching. Hungry. The body would wake to the blood, but if she did not succeed in calling some part of the man back as well, the desperate measure would backfire: the draugr would run heedless, savaging heathen and Christian alike with its superhuman strength–and it would start with her. This magic could not be tamed, but it could be directed. Channeled.
“By these risted runes, I remind you of the oath you swore!” She pulled a slip of wood from her belt pouch, slid it along her bloody forearm to redden the runes carved there, then jammed it between Thorfin’s stiffened lips.
“Valfaðir! I sing the spell to wake the man who rode the gallows! Let Thorfin loose, Glad-of-War, and the ravens and wolves will feast! Return him to this fight, and he will earn an honor guard for your hall!”
Something at her feet shifted and began to stir…but was it Thorfin? Or a mindless, ravening monster?
By this time [in this magazine], you should be reasonably familiar with some of the ways in which the afterlife has been seen by heathens through the ages.
However what you won’t find elsewhere here–or in Our Troth: Volume I–is the subject of this article: the undead.
Here, you will find descriptions of the draugar, their appearance and abilities, how to prevent the dead from walking, and how to put them back once they’ve started terrorizing the livestock. And I’ll endeavor to bring this material into the present day with some citations from modern literature, comparisons with the undead of other cultures, and, finally, how this has relevance to the modern heathen revival.
Haugbúi and Draugar
At this point, perhaps it ought to be said that undeath, as such, was not necessarily considered to be outside the natural order of things. A dead man within his barrow could defend his home or odal ground without causing much comment, right up until a passing hero became interested in the buried grave-goods. Such fights are fairly frequent in the more heroic sagas, such as this one from Grettis Saga, written down in the early 1300’s:
Grettir broke open the grave, and worked with all his might, never stopping until he came to wood, by which time the day was already spent. He tore away the woodwork; Audun implored him not to go down, but Grettir bade him attend to the rope, saying that he meant to find out what it was that dwelt there. Then he descended into the howe. It was very dark and the odour was not pleasant. … Grettir took all the treasure and went back towards the rope, but on his way he felt himself seized by a strong hand. He left the treasure to close with his aggressor and the two engaged in a merciless struggle. Everything about them was smashed. The howedweller made a ferocious onslaught.
Grettir for some time gave way, but found that no holding back was possible. They did not spare each other. … At last it ended in the howedweller falling backwards with a horrible crash, whereupon Audun above bolted from the rope, thinking that Grettir was killed. Grettir then drew his sword Jokulsnaut, cut off the head of the howedweller and laid it between his thighs. Then he went with the treasure to the rope, but finding Audun gone he had to swarm up the rope with his hands. First he tied the treasure to the lower end of the rope, so that he could haul it up after him. He was very stiff from his struggle with Kárr, but he turned his steps towards Thorfinn’s house, carrying the treasure along with him.
(Gretti’s Saga, ch 18)
Kárr had been seen out walking and scaring off anyone who wasn’t his kin, so his actions had been, if not necessarily benign, at least advantageous to his descendants. Grettir’s motivation was not to slay a monster on the rampage–at least, not here–but simple greed. When Grettir brings the results to Kárr’s living son, Thorfinn clears Grettir of wrongdoing, saying, “[S]ince I know that all treasure which is hidden in the earth or buried in a howe is in a wrong place I hold you guilty of no misdeed, especially since you have brought it to me.” This reinforces the idea that wealth should circulate around a community, and deals with any question of compensation in one neat package.
Kárr is not the only haugbúi who normally stays (relatively) put, and there are several tales of beneficial ancestors, draugar in a strict sense, who grant wisdom and blessings to their descendants, to dwell in the saga records–and several dwell within the Eddic poems as well. Unfortunately, space does not permit an exhaustive survey of these here, although N.K. Chadwick makes a reasonable assay in her essay in Folklore 57, and of course you can read more about all of these in Hilda Ellis-Davidson’s The Road to Hel.
Of more concern to the folk of Iceland were undead of a more active and self-directed sort, and it is these proper draugar that we shall be considering here. Grettir has a run-in with one of these later in his saga, and they may also be found causing a ruckus in the Laxæla Saga. Eyrbyggja Saga is thick with them.
A Field Guide to the Common Draugr
One dead man on the move was known as a draugr (“dry log”1) or aptrgangr (“after-goer”2) or haugbúi (“howe-dweller” 2) if at home in the barrow. If one were so ill-starred as to see more than one, then they were known as draugar. This is often translated in the sagas as “ghost” but, as Winifred Hodge Rose has explained in her article [part of her excellent series on heathen soul lore] here, “ghost” fails to convey the proper meaning at several key points.
So, how does one identify a draugr?
The first and greatest problem with using the word “ghost” to translate draugr is that, while they are necessarily capable of passing through the solid earth and stone of their burial ground, and some few also have the knack of shape-changing, draugar are quite definitely solid creatures: this is literally a dead man walking. While some other species of undead familiar to the modern mind may come to mind as more appropriate choices for translation than “ghost”, they too have their shortcomings, as we shall see.
Common to all accounts is the idea that a draugr on the march will leave a mark on his neighborhood, even when in his howe for the day: there will be places, particularly near his burial place, that do not suffer the presence of the living. Animals that stray there may be driven mad, or simply fall over dead, as happened to any who drew near the place where Þórólf Halt-Foot lay uneasy in Eyrbyggja Saga.
At night, the draugr may rise and work even greater woe. Glamr in Grettis Saga enjoyed the sport of “house-riding”: straddling the roofs of local houses and breaking open their doors. He was another plague to local livestock and humans alike, and set nearly all the inhabitants to flight (small wonder, with the livestock and doors gone!).
And yet, this disruption to the natural order was not the only weapon in the draugr‘s unholy arsenal. As Hilda Ellis-Davidson notes in The Road to Hel, the powers attributed to the draugar had significant overlap with those accorded to living magic-workers: shape-changing, weather-working, and so on.
Glamr in Grettis Saga is an example. Grettir’s life takes a decided dive as a result of this rather nasty curse:
You have expended much energy, Grettir, in your search for me. Nor is that to be wondered at, if you should have little joy thereof. And now I tell you that you shall possess only half the strength and firmness of heart that were decreed to you if you had not striven with me. The might which was yours till now I am not able to take away, but it is in my power to ordain that never shall you grow stronger than you are now. Nevertheless your might is sufficient, as many shall find to their cost. Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you3. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death.4
(Grettis Saga, ch?)
A draugr actually on the rampage is a frightening sight. While the draugr may be bloated to enormous size, and smell horrible, he does not rot. Second, his color is only rarely the pale shade of a drained corpse (ná-folr). Much more common is the more sinister hel-blár–the “black (or blue) 5 as death” color that recalls the deep maroon of livor mortis, Hella’s face, and Odin’s cloak. Hel-blár, whenever seen in the sagas, is a sure sign of trouble for somebody.
However, most fearsome of all a draugr‘s features are its eyes, although they are never described directly. When Þórólf Twist-Foot dies in Eyrbyggja Saga, his son Arnkel “crossed the hall to get behind Thorolf, warning people to take care not to pass in front of the corpse until the eyes had been closed [and then he] wrapped some clothes around Thorolf’s head.” (Ch. 33) This serves two purposes: one, it doesn’t give the nascent draugr any ideas on who to choose as a target, and second, it’s an excellent storytelling device: a clearly seen, directly described horror is always less frightening than the fiend unseen, scrabbling at the door on some wind-lashed winter’s night.
Think on this before scoffing: whatever lies in a dead man’s eyes, whatever it was that the moonlight caught from Glamr’s face for Grettir to see, haunted the hero for the rest of his ill-starred days.
Over and above appearing as a humanoid creature in that ill-omened hue, with eyes beholding some sight too terrible to be borne by even the stoutest heart, some few draugar have the ability to change into an animal shape. These animal shapes are all obviously deformed in some way (flayed, broken-backed, and so on), but fortunately, instances of this are rather rare. Draugar can also kill by sheer physical mastery, by driving to madness as an indirect cause of death (those eyes!), and by consuming their victims alive.
A Spot of Re-Planting
The one common thread across nearly all all successful dispatchments of draugar is decapitation and reburial of the remains, usually after a hero has used his superhuman strength to wrestle the thing into submission. The body may or may not be burned; this was not always feasable in tree-scarce Iceland and fell into especial disfavor after the conversion, which is when most draugar stories take place. It is certain, though, that cremated corpses never rise. Too, there seems to be some inherent limitation that a draugr may only fare a little forth from his howe, as several are not permanently disposed of, but simply reburied where no human or livestock are likely to draw near.
However, Eyrbyggja Saga has draugar that break both of these “rules”–not difficult as there’s a new draugr to dispatch every few chapters. In Chapter 51, a Christian woman (!) gets out of her coffin and cooks dinner for her burial party when the evening’s hosts refuse to feed their guests, and in Chapter 55, a group of drowned men come back home and try unsuccessfully to dry themselves at the fire. The crew causes little of the disorder that some of their more notable cousins do above, but as they are not only dreary, but continually damp and squidgy, the only thing to do is to have a trial–although as it’s a Christian priest presiding, it’s also a bit of an exorcism. As each man is found guilty, he speaks a few words for the defense as he gets up and politely (!!) leaves the house. It should be noted, however, that while the “rule” of requiring a rather active form of dispatch is broken, the larger “rule”, that the the salient personality traits held in life continue, but are magnified after death, is certainly upheld throughout.
Draugar Outside of Iceland
While all instances cited thus far have drawn on Icelandic material, some folkloric and archaeological evidence indicates that tales of the walking dead went far indeed:
A certain man died, and, according to custom, by the honorable exertion of his wife and kindred, was laid in the tomb on the eve of the Lord’s Ascension. On the following night, however, having entered the bed where his wife was reposing, he not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body…. [D]riven off from his wife, he harassed in a similar manner his own brothers, who were dwelling in the same street…he rioted among the animals, both indoors and outdoors, as their wildness and unwonted movements testified.
[T]here were some who said that such things had often befallen in England, and cited frequent examples to show that tranquillity could not be restored to the people until the body of this most wretched man were dug up and burnt.
Sound familiar? It should by now–but this is a report from William, a canon in the Augustinian priory of Newburgh, circa 1198, as reported in Book 5, Chapter 22, of Historia Rerum Anglicarum (The Church Historians of England). While this is two centuries before any of above-referenced sagas were written down, William is still writing long after the events described took place. According to Jacqueline Simpson’s examination of these two accounts in the journal Folklore, this–and a similar account written two hundred years later–are somewhat of an anomaly in the corpus of English ghost stories It may explain things a bit to note that Newburgh is in Yorkshire–squarely within the former Danelaw, and therefore culturally much closer to Scandinavia than the rest of England. On the other hand, Simpson further points out that decapitated remains have been found throughout the island, and from as late as the eleventh century, so this may have been a frequent precaution. She also does not believe there to necessarily be any connection between these incidents and the Icelandic draugar, but I am not so sure.
Meanwhile, as for the revenant William reports, the local bishop had no heroes near to hand and would have no truck with cremation in any case, so he settled the matter by sending a letter of absolution, to be placed on the dead man’s chest. Leave it to the Church of Rome, I suppose, to turn a rip-roaring adventure into a job for bureaucrats…
Chadwick’s paper in Folklore Vol. 57 has an extensive survey of posthumous goings-on around the rest of Scandinavia, although as cited above these tended to be more beneficent.
Keeping the Dead from Walking
It is, however, universally the case in the Icelandic material that draugar who go about wreaking havoc are people who had been of poor character in life: the author cites Glamr’s surliness, bad manners, and poor hygiene at some length, and in this he is joined by Hrapp of Laxdæla Saga, Thorolf of Eyrbyggja Saga, and–according to Hilda Ellis-Davidson, draugar in several other sagas. Persons of good character, should they rise, are expected to stay more or less where they’ve been put and/or do well by their descendants.
Given that, what options were available to keep a dead man safely in the grave, assuming cremation (the surest preventive measure) was not an option, and decapitation was not in keeping with local tradition?
One practice is cited in Eyrbyggja Saga: Thorolf Twist-Foot has proven himself such a dishonorable character that even his own son is fairly sure he’s going to rise, and so the family takes the rather startling precaution of knocking a hole in the wall behind the place where he died, and dragging the body through it.
However, what may be most striking about this practice is that it appears to have persisted across the breadth of Scandinavia for centuries. Writing in 1907, Doctor M. F. Feilberg, reports how, in his youth, he happened upon the following:
I distinctly saw the outline on the wall of what looked like a bricked-up oven-door; and as it evidently was the outer wall of the best or company room, I wondered how that could be. So I went inside, and after greeting the people asked them if they had an oven in their best room. Oh no! they said, it was not a baking oven, it was a “corpse-door.” There were very few such left now, but in olden days it had been the custom that the coffin, which was always placed in the upper room, was carried out through this opening, which was bricked up again as soon as the processon had started for church, so that on their return they could again assemble in the room and partake of the funeral meal. As the doors in these old-fashioned houses are low and narrow, this seemed to be a practical way of getting over the difficulty.
This was, however, the only one remaining in his village, and it was already of some unknown age.
Feiberg then goes on to relate a series of complex funeral traditions that seem to have the intent of inhibiting a draugr in one wise or another, which he culled from the traditions of many different families over the years.
- “a pair of open scissors is laid upon the dead person’s chest;” The efficiacy of iron and/or steel against supernatural entities is seen in cultures around the world: the Sidhe under England’s hills are well-known for it, but they are certainly not alone in this. Moreover, the opened scissors would form a cross, a symbol of some power in a Christian household.
- “small pieces of straw laid crosswise under the shroud.”
- Symbolically Bound Feet
- “The great toes were tied together so that the legs could not be separated.” Clearly, this was intended to keep the draugr from swimming up through the soil, let alone walking on it.
- Walking on Pins and Needles
- “Needles were run into the soles of the feet,” Again, this seems to be a way to inhibit any sort of walking movement–and with more of that nasty cruel steel–although as the correspondent is in Denmark, I can’t help but also think of the price Andersen’s mermaid paid for her feet.
- The Corpse Makes the Cross
- “the bearers, just within the threshhold of the door, raised and lowered it three times in different directions so as to form a cross” One might surmise that this could disorient the draugr, and moreover as it is also made to pass through the motions of a holy symbol, this would help counter any undeath in the first place.
- “[A]ll chairs or stools on which [the coffin] had rested were upset, all jars and saucepans turned upside down” Clearly, this was to give the spirit no place in which to hide!
- Heels before Head
- “The dead are always carried out feet-foremost; were they carried head-foremost they would see their home and the door, and find the way back.”
- Migratory Door
- “If a ghost has begun to haunt a house, it is generally sufficient to alter the position of the door, then he has to remain outside.”
- Opening a Window
- “a window was thrown open the moment a person was dead….in some places they take a sod or tile off the roof; on both occasions it is to give a soul free exit, and when the openings are again closed, the soul having once come outside won’t be able to find its way back.”
Feiberg goes on to relate how many societies throughout the ages, both throughout Europe and on other continents as well, appear to have an established tradition of some sort of corpse-door, or even a corpse-hole, through which corpses (at some times, only low-status corpses) are to be carried.
The Dead Keep Walking: Modern References and Cultural Parallels
The home-bound haugbúi, and his peripatetic cousin the draugr, are fairly well moribund in English (and, by extention, American) culture.
But, as one would expect when dealing with the undead, these tales are not quite dead. Many of you may recognize this:
‘Here!’ said a voice, deep and cold, that seemed to come out of the ground. ‘I am waiting for you!’
‘No!’ said Frodo; but he did not run away. His knees gave, and he fell on the ground. Nothing happened, and there was no sound. Trembling he looked up, in time to see a tall dark figure like a shadow against the stars. It leaned over him. He thought there were two eyes, very cold though lit with a pale light that seemed to come from some remote distance. Then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones, and he remembered no more.
When he came to himself again, for a moment he could recall nothing except a sense of dread. Then suddenly he knew that he was imprisoned, caught hopelessly; he was in a barrow. A Barrow-wight had taken him, and he was probably already under the dreadful spells of the Barrow-wights about which whispered tales spoke.
This, of course, is from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, pages 184-186 in my unusual edition (see Bibliography). Professor Tolkien, of course, could have recited everything I’ve quoted so far, and several other relevant passages besides, all in their original languages from memory while standing on one foot.
No discussion of the living dead within a Germanic context, while mentioning their ability to feast upon the living, would be complete without referring to their Slavic cousins, known in Modern English as vampires. The original folk traditions reveal something very like a draugr: a revenant, generally of ill disposition or other bad circumstance, who arose bodily from his grave, wreaked havoc among livestock and humans alike, and could be dispatched by decapitation. Comparisons may also be drawn with the zombi of Haitian Vodou. While the draugr and the vampir are rather close kin, the vampir‘s sanguinary habits single him out among the rest of the undead. As to the zombi, while there are a couple instances of draugar being raised in order to create an unstoppable fighting force, these are a tiny minority–although they did inspire me to the short fiction at the top of this article. In Haiti, the reverse is true: the zombi is raised by the agency of a bokor (a magician/priest specialising in this and related arts), not usually for combat, but rather for menial labor.
However, this lack of recognition in popular culture may have done the draugar some good in keeping their superhuman menace: the vampir is now a creature of consummate dark sexual appeal, and the zombi best seen as a metaphor for the sheeplike consumer masses.
What, if anything, does all this say that is useful today? What can we distill from draug-lore that would be of use in the current modern revival?
A lot of the more fantastic details can, and probably should, be chalked up to dramatic license and long Icelandic winters? Frankly, at this point, we are now heading into the fertile fields of speculation and experiential data. In short, we are now entering the Fabled Land of UPG.
I asked several people with some experience in this area what circumstances, given the wide array of possible spiritual experiences, could possibly have breathed unholy life into the idea of the draugr and sent him shambling across the wind-blasted heaths of a thousand medieval nightmares.
Three plausible scenarios arose from this discussion, once we agreed that no, we did not actually believe that a corpse could swim through solid earth and beat the tar out of any three living human men.
- Here, I actually do mean a ghost in the Modern English, non-corporeal, sense–some ill-meaning wight that was once a human being and is now causing trouble. Some of us have had to do some amount of “ghost busting” over the years, and the term draugr, while not the best-fitting word for this concept, has been used from time to time. It would certainly fit the most common environmental effects of generally unsettled behavior.
- Given the multi-partite soul complex, if some–or, gods save us, many–of his components, yet not enough for physical death, were stricken from a person, he could be left as an arguable draugr. While not a massively swollen corpse wreaking havoc, someone in this condition this could, arguably, qualify as being more dead than alive. Moreover, “soul loss” should, practically, be seen as a more far-ranging matter than losing one’s keys, or one’s sense of direction, or feeling a tad out-of-sorts after a ritual: what is Alzheimer’s Disease, after all, but death of memory–a literal Munin’s bane.
- Past-Due Hitch-Hikers
- A third case could potentially result from the combination of the first two. In this scenario, when someone died, instead of proceeding in the appropriate fashion, he could instead take up lodging in some poor, weakened human who had suffered severe harm as described above. If the dead man’s ghost won the ensuing struggle, this would be a literal case of a dead man walking.
The invading, rampaging draugr appears to have clawed his hel-blár hand out of graves across Scandinavia and possibly the Danelaw region of England during the centuries immediately surrounding the conversion. Understandably, this caused a lot of folklore to be passed down about how to prevent, and stop, this sort of thing from happening in one’s own neighborhood. Yet the draugr did not cause his chaos in a vacuum: parallels can be drawn with his neighbors in other cultures. A particularly pernicious and unquiet being, the draugr‘s strength–both spiritual and physical–was a force to be reckoned with, and could make, or break, the doughtiest of heroes and stoutest of hearts.
So, should you be out and about at night, particularly in the winter under wind-driven clouds, and pass by a graveyard…and if you should see a man-shaped, impossibly huge shadow move among the stones…
Pull up your coat. Whistle something jaunty, and keep walking.
And above all…don’t look him in the eye.
- Chadwick, Nora K. “Norse Ghosts: A Study in the Draugr and the Haugbui“. Folklore Vol. 57, No. 2 (Jun., 1948), pp 50-65.
- –. “Norse Ghosts II (Continued)”. Folklore Vol. 57, No. 3 (Sep., 1948), pp 106-127.
- Edwards, Paul, and Pálsson, Hermann, trans. Eyrbyggja Saga. New York, Penguin Books USA Inc., 1989.
- Ellis, Hilda. The Road to Hel. New York, Greenwood Press, 1968. The Road to Hel should be considered required reading for anyone studying death and the afterlife within a heathen context.
- Feilberg, H.F. “The Corpse-Door: A Danish Survival”. Folklore Vol. 18, No. 4. (Dec., 1907), pp. 364-375.
- Hight, G. H., trans. Gretti’s Saga. (London, 1914). Available online. My apologies for using an Edwardian-era public domain translation; Grettis Saga is not in many of the usual collections, although I hear it is in Three Icelandic Outlaw Sagas. I’m going to break down and buy that five volume complete set of Icelandic sagas as a kindred Yule present…
- Keyworth, G. David. “Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-corpse?” Folklore, Vol. 117, (Dec. 2006), pp 241-260.
- Kunz, Keneva, trans. “Laxdæla Saga”. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York, Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.
- Newburgh, William of. Historia Rerum Anglicarum (The Church Historians of England). Joseph Stevenson, trans. London, Seeley’s, 1861. Scott McLetchie, ed for Internet edition. You’ll find the story I quote in Book 5, Chapter 22–with another revenant running amok in Chapter 23, and some general commentary on the damned nuisances and even still more of them in Chapter 24.
- Simpson, Jacqueline. “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England”, Folklore Vol. 114 (Dec. 2003), pp 389-402.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Book One: The Ring Sets Out, Chapter VIII, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”, London, Harper Collins, 1999, pp 184-186. When I finally bought a hardcover Lord of the Rings, I picked up a handsome seven-volume set, not expecting that I’d be citing it six years later and having to explain this. The Ring Sets Out is better known as the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring.
- That may not make sense (it didn’t to me) until I recalled that Kárr, thee, and me are all descendants of Ask and Embla, who were once trees… (Back)
- As in, one who goes around after death. Old Norse is highly metaphorical stuff–except when it isn’t, e.g. haugbúi. (Back)
- Discerning readers may suspect there’s some spiritual jargon here that’s being lost in translation, and they’d be right. In the original, this is ógæfu og hamingjuleysis, which may, though I am no scholar of Old Norse, translate better as “luck-lost and hamingja-less”. (Back)
- “drag to death” is the translation of dauða draga, which not only alliterates neatly with itself but hearkens back to draugr to boot. (Back)
- As strange as it may sound to the native speaker of Modern English, “black” and “blue” were the same word across several Norse languages until relatively recently. (Back)