Daily Ghost Post – D is for Draugr
Burial practices have a way of coming back to haunt us.
Nowadays we say you can’t take it with you. But in times of old, people took it with them everywhere they went, including the grave. In Egypt, pharaohs were buried with their organs in jars, plus food and furnishings to enjoy in the afterlife. One Chinese emperor was buried with a clay army of thousands to protect him in his post-life future. And in Scandinavia, it was common practice to bury Vikings with their treasure. And boats.
Not all Viking dead like to stay dead. But Viking hauntings were (are?) different from you might expect. Viking ghosts weren’t disembodied spirits returned from Valhalla. No. Viking ghosts came in the form of reanimated corpses called draugrs.
Norse scholar Hilda Roderick Ellis says,
…the haunting is done by the actual dead body itself, which leaves its grave-mound and is possessed of superhuman strength and unlimited malice. (Ellis, page 100, full reference below)
Draugrs are big, strong, mean walking dead.
It is thanks to the Viking sagas that we know what these creatures were like. Grettir’s Saga (also called Grettir the Strong) tells of a physically strong (and also rather headstrong) red-headed Icelandic man called Grettir Asmundson (strength is a definite theme here). One of Grettir’s notable adventures was when he bravely chose to battle a draugr named Glamr, a horror show who was terrorizing the countryside. Every night, the local people trembled in their beds as Glamr marauded over their thatched roofs. Every morning they woke to find dead farm animals, every bone in their bodies broken. And not always animals.
When Grettir finally had his chance to do battle, he met Glamr inside a farmhouse.
Now meeting a draugr is a drag. Literally. They are extremely heavy and can drag you down. Draugrs can crush you, which is one of their favorite ways to kill. Not wispy, wimpy ghosts, they are undead corpses who have been reinvigorated with enough life spirit and unearthly bloating to make them larger than “unlife.” They can even expand at will.
Glamr must have undergone some serious expansion because when he and Grettir fought, they tumbled out of the house together. And Glamr was so big that he broke down the front door and the roof.
At the same time.
Ellis suggests that draugrs wield control over nature because they can bring light or darkness to the sky. They possess other eerie powers as well. Just before he was killed, Glamr foretold that Grettir would become an outlaw, get no stronger, and that his fortunes would go steadily downhill.
Glamr was right on all counts.
As powerful as draugrs sound, they are not all-powerful. Draugrs can be killed. After hearing his unfortunate fortune, Grettir cut Glamr’s head clean off. What a way to respond to bad news.
But the good news is that when the draugr is killed, so is its power. Phew.
After Grettir sliced off Glamr’s head, he burned the corpse and head to ash. Now, killing a draugr seems like a superhero victory – but in actuality it poses grave danger to the victor. You see, it is not clear if a draugr’s prophecy is a foretelling or a curse.
The draugr’s fortune cookie is one I would not like to open. That’s one reason why you won’t catch me hanging out near burial mounds.
So… is this a supernatural parallel to the Egyptian curse over tombs? I mean it is a gross violation to bother the dead, and draugrs come to “unlife” when someone, even an animal, lurks near their mounds. Maybe draugrs are undead security guards protecting their stuff. But doesn’t it seem like they overreact? What do you think? Other comments and thoughts so appreciated!
Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.
Ellis, Hilda Rderick (1968).Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis, Ph.D. Greenwood Press, NY. p. 100 (quote).
Grettir’s Saga http://www.gutenberg.org/files/347/347-h/347-h.htm#link2HCH0035
Wikipedia – Draugr
PHOTO CREDIT: By Kevin Wells from Halifax, Canada, upload by Herrick (Viking Burial Mounds in Gamla Uppsala) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons