Draugar, the living dead, are the most likely sources for zombies and vampires. They are the stuff of legend and these legendary roots are firmly planted in Norse mythology and culture. The title of the recently acclaimed film “The Revenant” (2015) also finds its roots in these tales. The prevalence of the living dead within the primary sources cannot be ignored. What seems to be frequently overlooked is the question of “Why?” Arguably, people have been fascinated by the unknowns of death since the concept developed in the minds of our ancestors. The arch-Heathen’s view on death gives us clues as to why we are so enthralled by these tales. The arch-Heathen believed that the passing of the physical body was merely a transition in life, not the end of it. With this in mind, one can clearly see why the living dead were so important to them, and why they remain relevant today. This also fully supports the importance of honoring the dead.
Not everyone becomes a draugr. Evidence suggests that there is a link between the nature of the living, and the results after death. Those people who live at the edge of society, such as Thorolf Twist-Foot, seem to be especially prone to returning after the death of their bodies. However, there isn’t always a direct correlation between a person’s disposition and the reasons for their return. The most common reason was vengeance! The motif of vengeance is even more pervasive in the primary sources than are the draugar. However, it is important to remember that in the time of the arch-Heathens, vengeance was a matter of honor. Restoring honor, even after death, seemed to be hugely important. As such, one may conclude that the maintenance of frith was, and continues to be, at the very heart of the Heathen culture.
It seems clear that appearances made by draugar are not consistent throughout the year, nor in time of day. Occurrences happen most frequently during the night in the winter months. Yule seems to clearly be the most common time for a draugar to crawl forth from the frozen mound. This gives support to the notion that this time of year is when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest. Night was also the domain of the draugar. Sunlight and other artificial light seemed to drain the strength of the revenant and they were often found attempting to lure their victims away from their homes, and into the darkness.
The draugar tended to stay close to their mound. They seemed bound by location to some extent, particularly those that manifested in physical form. Further, their appearance seemed much the same as in real life, though obviously no longer living. Grey colored skin, lifeless eyes and varying states of decomposition are all standards for their physical appearance, just as you would expect from a corpse. They also had super human powers, which not only had to do with great physical strength and unnatural weight, but also with the fertility of their locale. A draugar could disappear into the ground and weather was occassionally controlled by them as well. All told, it was not a good thing when you were the target of the revenant’s ire. Dispelling a draugr was almost always carried out by beheading and/or immolation. It seemed vital to destroy the physical body in order to be rid of them.
Throughout these tales, a certain theme stands out. The dead frequently involved themselves with the affairs of the living. Whether it was for revenge, advisement, requests, predictions, or simple thanks, the dead did affect the living. If you were to treat the recently deceased (or soon to be deceased) well, they would treat you well too (even after death). The draugar also seemed to maintain respect for the bonds of kinship. This can be interpreted to mean that even the dead are bound by the same constraints as the living. In this case, by both the gifting cycle and frith. The chilling tales of these living dead help to provide yet more evidence as to why our ancestors should be honored and revered.
[wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=5 linktext=’ Road To Hel by H.R. Ellis-Davidson’ /]
[wpfilebase tag=fileurl id=1 linktext=’ The Culture Of The Teutons Vol 1 by W. Gronbech’ /]
The Return of the Dead by Claude Lecouteux