The time of year has once again begun to shift from the warm honeyed haze of summer, full of bountiful harvests, to the crisp evenings that herald in the arrival of autumn. Legends breathe deeply and tales spanning centuries once again beg to be told beside warm hearth fires and whispered back into the memories of modern generations. One such creature, especially, features prominently into those tales, appearing in Norse mythology and folklore: the draugr.
Spirits of the dead appear in many forms across Europe. Though the subject of death has taken on a hushed and cautionary guise in recent centuries, it once was a part of routinely discussed matters that kept the deceased close to the lives, hearts, and minds of people. The dead, ancestors, wights both seen and unseen, were an accepted part of that which could ordinarily interact with the day to day activities of the living. Evidence of this appears throughout folklore, ritual traditions, and literature the world over.
A draugr, deceased and buried in the earth yet remaining animated under the directive of its own will, is able to exit the grave and interact with living human beings. The draugr is accounted for in multiple sagas whose creations are born from Northern European myths. Unlike the Frisian gast, who is a spirit which tends to seek hallowed ground or who sometimes occupies more natural and wild locations, the draugr physically appears in a more hideous physical form and is found closer to groups of people. It is described as being bloated, discolored and disfigured during narrated encounters and they are said to be able to directly involve themselves, even in their state of decay, with the living and their communities as well as in social structures, that they were personally connected to while alive. In comparison, a spirit known as a revenant is found most commonly in English accounts. The revenant, like the draugr, has a particular willfulness about it though it appears in a less tangible form. Revenants are generally able to direct their own intentions which include a multitude of purposes ranging from leading people to concealed fortunes to exacting vengeful terror upon those who wronged them.
A draugr is described as being personally motivated, but may also be compelled to answer a summons by someone else. The Eyrbyggja Saga, which features a draugr, is a unique account of politics, assertions of rights, rituals, feuds and property distribution blended into a fantastic sequence of supernatural events that includes putting ghosts on trial for stealing or exhibiting greedy behavior. In part of the saga, Snorri places Thorir Wooden-leg under questioning —interestingly, Thorir is a ghost.
The Eyrbyggja Saga additionally relays the story of Thorolf, who after having been buried and laid to rest twice, was said to have risen from his grave and could act under his own accord. His overwhelming presence of death caused animals to roam wildly, becoming lost. Other animals, such as the birds who flew over his grave, fell dead. Thorolf is finally subdued by cremation and is issued into permanent rest by his son, at a place called Þórólfr. A stone wall was erected around Thorolf’s burial site so as to prevent him, as an additional precaution, from overcoming the wall and breaking free ever again.
Germanic folklore continued to retain the importance of protective measures towards the dead even after the period of religious conversion. Hearth traditions employed certain tactics to keep the dead, or any spirit thought to be evil, from entering the home. As Claude Lecouteux explains in “The Tradition of Household Spirits:
“In Norway, on the night of Imbrelaurdag, which is the Saturday before Christmas, an ax or an iron object was hung above the entrance to every stable, and a cross was drawn in chalk or tar above all the other doors in order to prevent the eruption of chthonic entities. In Germany, serviceberry branches were placed in the same location on Saint Walburga’s Feast day (better known now as Walpurgisnacht) to prevent the flying drac from entering.”
Lecouteux specifically mentions, in the above text, revenants and humans returning from the dead to cause havoc amongst the living and within the hearth.
“Protection was also sought from the dead and from revenants. Two ancient sagas depict the return of a dead man who knocks on the door, which causes more deaths, or who waits in front of the door to strike down any who step outside. According to more recent Swiss traditions, we know that in theory, the dead person cannot enter unless someone opens the door to him. To prevent his or her return, the corpse was removed from the house by a special door; in Italy, this was the porta di morti that was always kept locked. In the Mecklenburg region, the dead man should lie with his head facing the door and, once he has left the house, the sealed door is knocked on three times to ensure he never returns.”
As is seen within the context of folkloric examples, as well as in the Eyrbyggja saga, prescriptions are given for how to keep the dead from returning and interfering with the lives and dealings of the living. This certainly extends to the draugr as a spirit of death that, while it can be compelled to act by another or even on its own accord, the deceased being can also cause a great deal of horror and physical disruption to any living being that it comes in contact with whether human or animal. They are death personified.
The duality of life and death, dispute, and resolution, was a common motif found in Germanic worldview. The dead were not far removed from the living. During this time of year, as the veil grows thin and the leaves begin to show their own display of the cycle of life, we are given pause to consider just how close these elements of myth and legend have been to the hearts and minds of humankind.
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