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A draugr, draug or (Icelandic) draugur (original Old Norse plural draugar, as used here, not "draugrs"), or dreygur (Faroese), or draugen (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, meaning "the draug"), also known as aptrganga ("afturganga" in modern Icelandic) (literally "after-walker", or "one who walks after death") is an undead creature from Norse mythology, a subset of Germanic mythology. The original Norse meaning of the word is ghost, and older literature makes clear distinctions between sea-draug and land-draug. Draugar live in their graves, often guarding treasure buried with them in their burial mound. They are animated corpses - unlike ghosts they have a corporeal body with similar physical abilities as in life.
Draugar possess superhuman strength, can increase their size at will, and carry the unmistakable stench of decay. They are undead corpses from Norse/Icelandic mythology, that appear to retain some semblance of intelligence. They exist either to guard their treasure, wreak havoc on living beings, or torment those who had wronged them in life. The draugr's ability to increase its size also increased its weight, and the body of the draugr was described as being extremely heavy. Thorolf of Eyrbyggja Saga was "uncorrupted, and with an ugly look about him... swollen to the size of an ox," and his body was so heavy that it could not be raised without levers. They are also noted for the ability to rise from the grave as wisps of smoke and "swim" through solid rock, which would be useful as a means of exiting their graves. In folklore the draugar slay their victims through various methods including crushing them with their enlarged forms, devouring their flesh, devouring them whole in their enlarged forms, indirectly killing them by driving them mad, and drinking their blood. Animals feeding near the grave of a draugr may be driven mad by the creature's influence. They may also die from being driven mad. Thorolf, for example, caused birds that flew over his howe to drop dead. Draugr are also noted as being able to drive living people insane.
The draugr's victims were not limited to trespassers in its howe. The roaming ghosts decimated livestock by running the animals to death while either riding them or pursuing them in some hideous, half-flayed form. Shepherds, whose duties to their flocks left them out of doors at night time, were also particular targets for the hunger and hatred of the undead:
... the oxen which had been used to haul Thorolf's body were ridden to death by demons, and every single beast that came near his grave went raving mad and howled itself to death. The shepherd at Hvamm often came racing home with Thorolf after him. One day that Fall neither sheep nor shepherd came back to the farm.
Draugar are noted for having numerous magical abilities (referred to as trollskap) resembling those of living witches and wizards, such as shape-shifting, controlling the weather, and seeing into the future. Among the creatures that a draugr may turn into are a seal, 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 the victim suffocated. The draugr Thrain shape-shifted into a "cat-like creature" (kattakyn) in Hromundar saga Greipssonar:
Then Thrain turned himself into a troll, and the barrow was filled with a horrible stench; and he stuck his claws into the back of Hromund's neck, tearing the flesh from his bones...
Draugar have the ability to enter into the dreams of the living, "but it generally happens even so that they leave beside the living person some gift, by which, on awakening, the living person may be assured of the tangible nature of the visit." Draugar also have the ability to curse a victim, as shown in the Grettis Saga where Grettir is cursed to be unable to become any stronger. Draugar also brought disease to a village and could create temporary darkness in daylight hours. While the draugr certainly preferred to be active during the night, it did not appear to be vulnerable to sunlight like some other revenants. A draugr's presence may be shown by a great light that glowed from the mound like "fox-fire." This fire would form a barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The draugr could also move magically through the earth, swimming through solid stone as does Killer-Hrapp:
Then Olaf tried to rush Hrapp, but Hrapp sank into the ground where he had been standing and that was the end of their encounter.
Some draugar are immune to weapons, and only a hero has the strength and courage needed to stand up to so formidable an opponent. In legends the hero would often have to wrestle the draugr back to his grave, thereby defeating him, since weapons would do no good. A good example of this kind of fight is found in the Hrómundar saga Gripssonar. Although iron could injure a draugr, as is the case with many supernatural creatures, it would not be sufficient to stop it. Sometimes the hero is required to dispose of the body in unconventional ways. The preferred method is to cut off the draugr's head, burn the body, and dump the ashes in the sea; the emphasis being on making absolutely sure the draugr was dead and gone.
The draugar were said to be either hel-blár ("blue-death") or, conversely, nár-fölr ("corpse-pale"). The "blue-death" color was not actually achromatic but was a dark blue or maroon hue that covered the entire body. Glámr, the undead shepherd of the Grettis saga, was reported to be dark blue in color and in Laxdœla saga the bones of a dead sorceress who had appeared in dreams were dug up and found to be "blue and evil looking."
The resting place of the draugr was a tomb that served much as a workable home for the creature. Draugar are able to leave this dwelling place and visit the living during the night. Such visits are supposed to be universally horrible events that often end in death for one or more of the living, which would then warrant the exhumation of the draugr's tomb by a hero. The motivation of the actions of a draugr was primarily jealousy and greed. The greed of a draugr causes it to viciously attack any would-be grave robbers, but the draugr also expresses an innate jealousy of the living, stemming from a longing for the things of the life it once had. This idea is clearly expressed in the Friðþjofs saga, where a dying king declared:
My howe shall stand beside the firth. And there shall be but a short distance between mine and Thorsteinn's, for it is well that we should call to one another.
This desire for the friendship experienced in life is one example of the manifestation of this aspect of the draugr. Draugr also exhibit an immense and nearly insatiable appetite, as shown in the encounter of Aran and Asmund, sword brothers who made an oath that if one should die, the other would sit vigil with him for three days inside the burial mound. When Aran died, Asmund brought his own possessions into the barrow: banners, armor, hawk, hound, and horse. Then Asmund set himself to wait the agreed upon three days:
During the first night, Aran got up from his chair and killed the hawk and hound and ate them. On the second night he got up again from his chair, and killed the horse and tore it into pieces; then he took great bites at the horse-flesh with his teeth, the blood streaming down from his mouth all the while he was eating... The third night Asmund became very drowsy, and the first thing he knew, Aran had got him by the ears and torn them off.
After a person’s death, the main indicant 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. As noted by Ármann, “most medieval Icelandic ghosts are evil or marginal people. If not dissatisfied or evil, they are unpopular”. This is the prime way that draugar share characteristics with ghosts, since any person can become a ghost. In western culture, ghosts are generally people with unfinished business, or those who are so evil their spirit makes an impact on the place they lived. Ghosts and draugar refuse to follow the prescribed path of death, selfishly staying on Earth when they are supposed to move on. This is easily understandable because, “selfishness is an important attribute of every ghost, and therefore it is no wonder that ghosts tend to be people who were troublesome during their lifetime”. However, unlike ghosts, draugar can also come about through infection by another draugar, such as what appears to be the case of Glámr. When Glámr arrives in the haunted valley in The Saga of Grettir the Strong, “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 it’s place wrecking havoc. It is also said in Eyrbyggja Saga that a shepherd is killed by a draugr and rises the next night as one himself.
Traditionally, a pair of open iron scissors were placed on the chest of the recently deceased, and straws or twigs might be hidden among their clothes. The big toes were tied together or needles were driven through the soles of the feet in order to keep the dead from being able to walk. Tradition also held that the coffin should be lifted and lowered in three different directions as it was carried from the house to confuse a possible draugr's sense of direction.
The most effective means of preventing the return of the dead was believed to be the corpse door. A special door was built, through which the corpse was carried feet-first with people surrounding it so the corpse couldn't see where it was going. The door was then bricked up to prevent a return. It is speculated that this belief began in Denmark and spread throughout the Norse culture. The belief was founded on the idea that the dead could only leave through the way they entered.
In Eyrbyggja Saga the draugar infesting the home of the Icelander Kiartan were driven off by holding a "door-doom". One by one the draugar were summoned to the door-doom and given judgment, and they were forced out of the home by this legal method. The home was then purified with holy water to ensure they never came back.
A variation of the draugr is the haugbui. The haugbui (from the Old Norse word 'haugr' meaning "howe" or "barrow") was a mound-dweller, the dead body living on within its tomb. The notable difference between the two was that the haugbui is unable to leave its grave site and only attacks those that trespass upon their territory.
The haugbui was rarely found far from its burial place and is a type of undead commonly found in Norse saga material. The creature is said to either swim alongside boats or sail around them in a partially submerged vessel, always on their own. In some accounts, witnesses portray them as shape-shifters who take on the appearance of seaweed or moss-covered stones on the shoreline.
The words "dragon" and "draugr" are not linguistically related. However, both the serpent and the spirit serve as jealous guardians of the graves of kings or ancient civilizations. Dragons that act as draugar appear in Beowulf as well as in some of the heroic lays of the Poetic Edda (in the form of Fafnir).
One of the best-known draugr is Glámr, who was defeated by the hero of the Grettis Saga. After Glámr dies on Christmas Eve, “people became aware that Glámr was not resting in peace. He wrought such havoc that some people fainted at the sight of him, while others went out of their minds” After an epic battle between Glámr and Grettir, Grettir eventually gets Glámr on his back, and just before Grettir kills him, Glámr curses Grettir because, “Glámr was endowed with more evil force than most other ghosts” and thus he was able to speak and leave Grettir with his curse after his death .
It seemed as though the howe was agape, and that Gunnar had turned within the howe to look upwards at the moon. They thought that they saw four lights within the howe, but not a shadow to be seen. Then they saw that Gunnar was merry, with a joyful face.
In more recent folklore, the draugr is often identified with the spirits of mariners drowned at sea. In Scandinavian folklore, the creature is said to possess a distinctly human form, with the exception that its head is composed entirely of seaweed. In other tellings, the draug is described as being a headless fisherman, dressed in oilskin and sailing in half a boat. This trait is common in the northernmost part of Norway, where life and culture was based on fishing more than anywhere else. The Norwegian municipality of Bø has the half-boat of draugen in its coat-of-arms. The reason for this may be that the fishermen often drowned in great numbers, and the stories of restless dead coming in from sea were more common up north than anywhere else in the country.
A recorded legend from Trøndelag tells how a corpse lying on a beach became the object of a quarrel between the two types of draugr. A similar source even tells of a third type, the gleip, known to hitch themselves to sailors walking ashore and make them slip on the wet rocks. Norwegian folklore thus records a number of different draug-types.
But, though the draugr usually presages death, there is an amusing account in Northern Norway of a Nordlending who managed to outwit him:
It was Christmas Eve, and Ola went down to his boathouse to get the keg of brandy he had bought for the holidays. When he got in, he noticed a draugr sitting on the keg, staring out to sea. Ola, with great presence of mind and great bravery (it might not be amiss to state that he already had done some drinking), tiptoed up behind the draug and struck him sharply in the small of the back, so that he went flying out through the window, with sparks hissing around him as he hit the water. Ola knew he had no time to lose, so he set off at a great rate, running through the churchyard which lay between his home and the boathouse. As he ran, he cried, "Up, all you Christian souls, and help me!" Then he heard the sound of fighting between the ghosts and the draugr, who were battling each other with coffin boards and bunches of seaweed. The next morning, when people came to church, the whole yard was strewn with coffin covers, boat boards, and seaweed. After the fight, which the ghosts won, the draugr never came back to that district.
The modern and popular connection between the draugr and the sea can be traced back to the author Jonas Lie and the story-teller Regine Nordmann, as well as the drawings of Theodor Kittelsen, who spent some years living in Svolvær. Up north, the tradition of sea-draugar is especially vivid.
Arne Garborg describes land-draugar coming fresh from the graveyards, and the term draug is even used of vampires. (In Norway "vampires" is translated as "Bloodsucker-draugar".) The notion of mountain-habiting draug is present in the poetic works of Henrik Ibsen (Peer Gynt), and Aasmund Olavsson Vinje. The Nynorsk translation of The Lord of the Rings used the term for both ring-wraiths and the dead men of Dunharrow.
Draugr sightings in modern times are not common, but are still reported by individuals from time to time. Due to this trend, the term "draug" has come to be used to describe any type of revenant in Nordic folklore.
|This section is in a list format that may be better presented using prose. (September 2012)|
Chadwick, N.K. “Norse Ghosts (A Study in the Draugr and the Haugúbi),” Folklore 57 (June 1946): pp. 50–65
Chadwick, N. K. “Norse Ghosts II (Continued),” Folklore 57 (September 1946): pp. 106–127
Jakobsson, Ármann. “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Medieval Undead,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110 (July 2011): pp. 281–300
Jakobsson, Ármann. “The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis Saga,” Folklore 120 (December 2009): pp. 307–316
Scudder, Bernard, trans., Egils Saga. New York: Penguin Group,1997.
Scudder, Bernard, trans., The Saga of Grettir the Strong. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.