These undead creatures, littered throughout the Norse sagas and literature, were also an important symbol of the Norse belief in an afterlife.

The walking undead

The world of Norse mythology is full of vivid creatures and characters but few are scarier than the draugar

These were reanimated corpses of fallen warriors, chieftains, kings, or other important figures said to haunt, and guard, the burial mounds and graves which, often, contained great treasure. 

Unlike similar creatures in modern popular culture (namely zombies), the draugar were neither fully alive nor dead and existed in a sort of limbo state between the world of the living and of the dead.

What made these undead creatures even more scary was the range of magical powers they were said to possess. Aside from being literally reanimated corpses, they also had a wide range of magical abilities that included control of the weather, shapeshifting, and herculean strength. 

Their most powerful magical ability, to a pre-modern society that heavily believed in magic, was the fact that draugar could curse and bring upon illness, severe sickness, or perpetual bad luck. 

Furthermore, they were believed to have deep knowledge of the dark arts, being able to cast malevolent spells.

They were often portrayed as fearsome creatures with bone-piercing fingers and glowing eyes that seemed to frighten even the most hardened Viking warrior.

Sometimes evil, sometimes not

The draugar were, however, perhaps the victims of somewhat bad publicity – though they were often portrayed as evil, they were not always malevolent. 

Throughout many of the tales and legends in the Norse sagas, they were often portrayed as protectors of the dead, guarding graves and ensuring a safe passage to the afterlife – not dissimilar to Charon in Greek mythology. 

When they did turn malevolent it was often because someone was trying to disturb the dead – whether in the pursuit of treasure (the Vikings did love a burial mound full of precious grave goods) or for sacrilegious reasons.

When they were bad, however, the draugar were really bad. Some Norse sagas and legends depict them as having an insatiable appetite for the flesh of humans (sounds kind of like a Michael Jackson music video...) and would rise from their graves to wreak havoc throughout Norse communities. 

When seizing a human victim they would consume either the heart or the liver, one of the more “acquired” tastes in Norse mythology.

If a grave was disturbed, draugar were there to exact revenge on grave robbers. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Respect for the (un)dead

Yet despite all the scary gruesomeness, the draugar were important symbols of the values and anxieties surrounding death and the afterlife in Viking societies. 

Life expectancy was a fraction of what it is today – with infant mortality a given and even those lucky enough to survive infancy may not even live to see their 30th birthday. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, a Viking’s life was "nasty, brutish and short."

With superstition, an ingrained fixture of the psychology of Viking societies, the idea that the dead could rise if not respected was sure to keep many a Viking on the straight and narrow.

They also played an important role in ensuring that Viking graves and burial mounds were treated with the solemnity and respect they deserved. 

If a grave was disturbed, say, to steal some treasure, the draugar were there to exact revenge on the greedy grave robber. 

Perhaps this is why so many artifacts, from Viking burial mounds and graves, have been left for later generations to dig up and discover.

Literary and cultural references

Given their important symbolism and fierce nature, it is no surprise that the draugar feature in many of the Old Norse sagas. One of the most striking depictions is in Grettis saga

Here, the hero of the story, Grettir Ásmundarson (somewhat more of an anti-hero than a hero truth be told) battles with a giant draugr who has a penchant for pilfering livestock. The battle scene between Grettir and half dead ghoul is one of the many exciting action scenes in this saga.

Pagan and Christian threads interweave the Færeyingasaga. In this epic tale, a Christian missionary, Sigmundr, is sent to the Faroe Islands to proselytize the mainly pagan population. 

Aside from the hard time the locals give him, Sigmundr must battle a group of draugar cast upon him by the islands' resident evil sorcerer. All in a day’s work for an early medieval Christian missionary, I suppose...

Finally, the 2017 movie, “The Ritual” has perhaps the best modern spin on the draugar. In this horror flick, a group of friends go for a hike in one of Sweden’s many beautiful forests. 

Unbeknownst to them, however, a forced shortcut through a dark and creepy forest is exactly the location where an evil draugr resides...

Nat Geo has all the information on a recent archaeological dig that provides news information on Viking burial customs, available to read here

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