Ghosts and the Undead of Norse Mythology

Ghosts and the Undead

Most people have heard that for the Vikings, brave warriors went to Valhalla while everyone else went to Hel (the underworld), but actual Norse beliefs were more complicated and less standardized than that. To the Viking mind, there were different layers of self and different time frames. These elements could move on – as well as various places they could go. This left plenty of room for ghosts and the undead in the Norse imagination.

Stories of ghosts occur in many of the sagas and Eddic poems. They sometimes visit the living in dreams or can be found haunting their burial mounds. One reference in Njal’s Saga speaks of a ghost who sits atop his burial mound singing by night, seemingly content. This offers a glimpse of how the Vikings felt their ancestors were always with them.

The Eddic poem, Helgaknitha Hundingsbana II (The Second Poem of Helgi Killer of Hunding), paints a darker picture of such a haunting. Helgi, the slain hero, returns to his burial mound from Valhalla on one magical night. Helgi’s ghost has physical substance and still bleeds from his battle wounds. His grieving widow, Sigrun, spends the night in his arms within the cold tomb. Sigrun returns to the burial mound night after night, though it is unknown if Helgi ever returns. She eventually dies from her sorrow. The poem ends with the lines, “all the dead are more powerful by night than they are by bright day.

Some ghosts are not lost loved ones visiting from beyond the grave, though. The Vikings believed in beings called Draugr (also called an Aptrganga or “after-walker”), a malicious ghost with physical form. This undead being usually had been a bad man who died in a bad way. They were recognizable as the dead man but had grotesque features, bluing skin, and eyes that could render humans immobile with fear. They had otherworldly strength. They could sometimes appear much larger than they had been when alive and were usually described as inexplicably heavy.

Sometimes the Draugr was content to guard his treasure in his burial mound, but others terrorized farms or haunted a specific area. An embodiment of the bad luck that could plague the farms of the Viking world, the Draugr would kill livestock, horses, or pets. They could cause roofs to collapse or other disasters. Sometimes, the Draugr would kill people directly, especially if he was challenged. Shepherds, servants, or cattle-drivers would be found dead, and when their bodies were inspected, it was found that every bone – big and small – was broken.

One of the most detailed accounts of these “Viking zombies” is in Grettir’s Saga. Grettir is an outlaw and an antihero, but he is a fearless Viking of great physical strength. Early in his life, he faces a Draugr in a burial mound and kills it, winning the short sword (seax) that was buried with it. Years later, though, Grettir faces Glam, a very dangerous, malevolent Draugr. Grettir decapitates Glam, but not before Glam places a heavy curse on him. This curse causes Grettir trouble and tragedy for the rest of his life, and ever-after the mighty Viking is afraid of the dark.

According to Grettir’s Saga and some other sources, the Viking method for killing the undead was not a stake through the heart or fire, but rather by cutting off the fiend’s head and place it next to its ass. Interestingly, archaeologists have found several Viking Age graves in which the skull was found between the skeleton’s legs, just below the pelvis. Other remains have been found weighed down by heavy stones to keep the dead where they were.

Source: Sons of Vikings

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