In a previous edition of On Religion, Karen Willows explored the origins of the modern zombie stories in Haitian Vodou religion and culture. But there is another ancient myth of the undead that is perhaps even less familiar to most – the Old Norse draugr.
Although the Haitian zombie may have inspired depictions of the undead in twentieth-century popular culture, the Old Norse draugr more closely resembles the zombie of the popular imagination as he bursts from his barrow and lurches through the long midwinter nights of the northern world, haunting the halls of medieval Icelandic saga.
While the ancient literature of northern Europe contains instances of necromancy, the Icelandic draugr is fundamentally distinguished from the Haitian zombie by the absence of a controlling human agent. The undead of the North are self-motivated creatures; no sorcerer is required. The idea that the deceased claw their way out of the grave to prey on the living provides one of the primary points of contact between the Nordic conception and our own. The near-mindless, monstrous corpse that attacks during the dark nights of the Old Norse stories, or ‘sagas’, would be completely comfortable in a contemporary horror production.
Life After Death
The word draugr (plural draugar) has a root meaning of “harmful spirit,” but in the sagas of Iceland refers specifically to the deceased person who continues on in a malevolent physical afterlife after being interred in a burial mound. Draugar are most likely to leave their howes and stalk the living during the long nights of the northern winter, making Yuletide a particularly dangerous time to wander out from the warmth of the hall. As people gather inside to celebrate Yule and to make midwinter sacrifices for a fertile and peaceful year, they fear the creatures that roam the darkness outside.
Draugar were usually known to their victims, and they were often people who had been troublesome in life. In The Saga of the People of Laxardal, the unpleasant Hrapp comes back as a draugr to kill servants and torment family and neighbours. The saga author writes, with typically dry Icelandic humor, “if it had been difficult to deal with him when he was alive, he was much worse dead.” The Saga of the People of Eyri features the wicked Þórólfr Bægifótr, who dies in a fit of pique when one of his nasty plots founders. He walks abroad after death, killing oxen and cattle, riding the roof of his house until his wife dies of madness, and slaying men who thereafter join his company of evil dead. Only when his body is dug up and buried far away from the farmstead does his night-walking cease.
The draugr is sometimes known as the haugbúi (“barrow dweller”), a name which reflects ancient ideas of life continuing inside the burial mound after death. The Saga of Egil and Asmund includes a memorable scene inside a barrow that is one of the most ghoulish moments in the saga corpus. The young heroes Aran and Asmund swear an oath in blood-brotherhood
“that the one who lived the longer should raise a burial mound over the one who was dead, and place in it as much money as he thought fit; and the survivor was to sit in the mound over the dead for three nights, but after that he would be free to go away.”
According to the laws of this type of fantastic saga, any vow rashly made must go horribly wrong shortly thereafter. When Aran suddenly drops dead, Asmund props him up on a chair inside his howe, surrounded by his favourite animals. On the first night Asmund spends in the mound, Aran stands up, kills the hawk and hound, then eats them. On the second, he kills the horse and eats it raw (Asmund declines the kind offer to share the bloody feast). Asmund drifts off to sleep on the third night and is rudely awakened by his undead friend ripping off his ears and eating them.
In this case, as in many other literary examples, the way to prevent the draugr or haugbúi from continuing to walk is to cut off his head and burn his body. Sometimes, for extra insurance, the decapitated head is placed on the corpse’s upturned buttocks before immolation. Lest you think that this is all some invention of the saga writers to scare Icelandic children, archaeologists have unearthed mutilated bodies with their separated heads included in the burial. Runic inscriptions containing invocations against draugar dating back as early as the year 700 have been found in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They seek “corpse-protection” (protection from the corpse, that is), call upon the dead to “make good use of the monument” (by staying inside it), and, perhaps over-optimistically, ask the walking corpse to “rise and go away beneath the benevolent stars.”
Stories and Myths
Shadows of the draugr can be found in early English literature. Grendel, the great enemy of the young Beowulf, exhibits many of the classic characteristics of the Old Norse undead. He threatens a hall of feasting men, he drinks the blood of the living, his lair is an underground place of treasure and weapons, and he is beheaded after death to insure the end of his wandering.
Although it contains French, Irish and Welsh elements, the Middle English Arthurian romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight includes similar details: the mysterious green man enters a feasting-hall on New Year’s Day (i.e., close to midwinter), challenges the heroes, is beheaded (admittedly at the beginning of the story, not its end), and comes from the “worn barrow” of a “Green Chapel” that sounds suspiciously like the dwelling-place of a draugr.
In the Gawain translation by J.R.R. Tolkien (who himself revived the draugr in The Lord of the Rings as the dreaded barrow-wight), the hero wonders at the “chapel”:
“It had a hole at the end at either side,
and with grass in green patches was grown all over,
and was all hollow within: nought but an old cavern,
or a cleft in an old crag; he could not name it aright.
“Can this be the Chapel Green,
O Lord?” said the gentle knight.
“Here the Devil might say, I ween,
his matins about midnight!””
Andy Orchard has written that, in the earliest surviving poems in Old Norse, “the term draugr is used exclusively of living pagan warriors, but this usage quickly dies out, and it may well be that after the introduction of Christianity these dead pagans in their barrows were demonized and transformed in popular myth into the dread figures who still haunt Iceland to this day.” One couldn’t write a better portrait of a Christian man trembling in fear beside the open burial mound of a dead pagan lord than that of poor Gawain next to the “Green Chapel.”
I don’t mean to create the impression that northern people of the Viking Age believed that to die was to necessarily become a terrifying creature of the night. The draugr is by no means representative of the afterlife of the average person. In general, the idea of life continuing in the barrow seems to have been a pleasant one. For example, in The Saga of Burnt Njál, two men witness life inside the mound of the dead Gunnar:
The moon and stars were shining clear and bright, but every now and then the clouds drove over them. Then all at once they thought they saw the cairn standing open, and lo! Gunnar had turned himself in the cairn and looked at the moon. They thought they saw four lights burning in the cairn, and none of them threw a shadow. They saw that Gunnar was merry, and he wore a joyful face. He sang a song, and so loud, that it might have been heard though they had been farther off.
The contrast between this pleasant pastoral scene and the horror Gawain feels in a strikingly similar situation may tell us something of the difference between heathen and Christian attitudes toward the dead. Although frightening in extreme cases, the burial mound of the pagan was generally valued as a place where an honoured ancestor lived on and watched over the living.
Although the poetic image of the warriors’ afterlife in Odin’s Valhalla looms large in the surviving Norse myths, the idea of physical life in the mound appears to have been widely held in the age of the sagas. Rudolf Simek writes that modern scholarship has found: -
“that it is extremely unlikely, at least for the late heathen period, that the North Germanic peoples had a dualistic belief, i.e. a distinct division between the decomposing body of the dead person and the further existence of his soul. The extant sources suggest that the concept was rather of a living corpse.”
Body and Soul?
Physical descriptions of draugar underscore the fact that they are not immaterial ghostly spirits, but fully material revenants. The aforementioned Þórólfr Bægifótr appears after death “as black as Hel and as huge as an ox.” There is no sense of a soul returning from beyond to haunt the living; the draugr is clearly a corpse swollen and discoloured by the natural processes of post-mortem decay. The dweller in the mound appears as one would expect to find a rotting body when breaking into a barrow.
Of all that is covered in this overview, this idea is probably the most divergent from the dualistic ideas held by members of modern monotheistic faiths. In America, there is a culture where anonymous uniformed men whisk dead family members away within hours of death, to quickly burn them to ash in commercial crematoria or to pickle and prepare them for awkward open-casket ceremonies before diesel-powered machines dig the final resting place of wood and metal coffins. The thought of our undead bodies continuing in consciousness underground seems anathema to a culture with one eye on extending life as long as possible and the other on winning an eternal afterlife in heaven.
Perhaps this is what the draugr can tell us about the ongoing fascination with zombie fiction. Maybe the monistic view of death – the idea that this physical life is the only one we have, and that there is no soul that flies to eternal paradise – is so terrifying to modern citizens of the western world that we can only deal with it by undergoing the catharsis of virtual zombie apocalypse. Does fascination with zombie fiction reflect nagging doubt among postmodern Christians that this truly is all there is? Or, conversely, does it suggest that the many young people self-identifying as atheists are actually struggling with the same ancient questions of life after death as the old religions?
Although the terrifying draugr of the North is darkly mirrored by the horrifying zombies of Hollywood, it is the resolutely worldly worldviews of ancient heathenry that may be more fundamentally frightening for many of us to face.