Zombies have nothing on the Draugar of Norse myths.
Yet, the idea of the reanimated dead roaming the earth and terrorizing the living is as ancient as the human psyche. The concept perhaps stems form Man’s affliction when confronted with the grief associated with the strange passing of his loved ones into another realm, or dealing with the horrific aftermath of death as it results from war, epidemics or disaster. But mostly, this archetype of the Undead must stem from Man being confronted to the mother of his carnal insecurities: his own mortality.
From the Mesopotamians‘ mention of blood-sucking demons as recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the Assyrian mythical creatures who travel with storms and eat human flesh; from the jiangsh (a hybrid vampire, zombie, ghost) in Chinese myths to the undead recorded in African traditions, it is fascinating to discover that the word zombie itself is likened to the Kongo words nzambi (god) and zombi (fetish). We, as a species, have an obsession with death, whether it be one of repulsion or one of morbid fascination.
The thin veil between the Living and the Dead
The 18th and 19th century cholera epidemics gave rise to fear of premature burials, and the first safety coffins where hence designed. A breathing tube to provide aeration and a bell strung to the buried victim provided options for alerting the Living of one’s precarious situation.
An anecdotal annotation: the terms graveyard shift, dead ringer and saved by the bell all originate from the Victorian era and its use of safe coffins.
Going back to the centuries leading up to the first millennium, Scandinavian folklore had Draugar (plural form of Draug or Draugr) known as corpses freshly laid to rest that had succeeded in escaping the confines of their barrows (burial mounds).
A draug, which signifies revenant in Old Norse, is found roaming the earth, haunting and terrorizing the living. In essence, it is the will of the Living, infused and animated, within the shell of a corpse.
Draugar are in various states of decomposition, with black and blue skin, yet they are dotted with supernatural strength and powers. They are greedy of the treasures pilled high in their graves, yet they are lonely in death, removed from the warmth of their previous life and the love of their family.
Draugar can be summoned, or awakened, by engraving staves and casting spells using various medium (wood, bones, stones, blood). Likewise, magic can be used to repel the wretched creatures and keep them at bay.
In the Norse tradition, when a loved one dies, there is no telling whether the deceased will return to taunt their family. Folklore recounts stories of Draugar harassing the living, and to prevent such horror, a number of superstitious rituals were developed.
It is recorded that once a death is confirmed, the deceased must be blindfolded and spun about in different directions as to fool or disorient them. That way, finding their way back home from the burial mound may prove to be more difficult. The dead must be taken out of the home feet first, as to prevent them from “seeing” where they are headed.
However here stands a complication: a magical being can only visit a dwelling by crossing the doorway they used to leave or enter the premise in the first place.
Hence a body cannot be brought out of the house using the front door; an opening must be pried into a wall, the body extracted feet first, and the hole soon after boarded up. That way, the dead is kept from revisiting the house for good.
So the Living think.
Draugar have supernatural powers.
They can survive under water.
Think about of Grendel’s mother who lives at the bottom of a lake. Beowulf has to swim for a day to reach her lair.
They can travel through the ground, sink into the earth and reappear some distance away.
They have some measure of control over the weather, able as they are to conjure fog, twilight or darkness, even in broad daylight. They can vanish with mist, or be announced by the flicker of will-o-wisps.
They have superhuman strength and speed. They can swell up to any size within instants. They are known for their bone crushing strength, their lust for blood or their madness inducing races—they enjoy chasing their victims (men and cattle) to exhaustion or death.
They induce psychological horror and trauma in their victims. Similar to the incubus, draugar can be found sitting on the chest of their victims, suffocating them in their sleep.
Lock the doors, Harold! There’s a Draug on the loose!
The Draugar creep out of their barrows at night, to taunt and kill the Living, only to return home to their graves in the early hours of dawn.
Tips on How to Get Rid of a Draug.
For the star-crossed demon hunters among you, VAL the Viking Answer Lady has a thorough entry on the matter.
Killing a draug is not for the faint-hearted. It does not suffice to simply run a dagger through its heart —what heart? Draugar have no pulse.
The draug must be exhumed from its barrow when it hides there, or killed in combat when encountered roaming the wild. In a nutshell, the body must be dismembered following a strict ritual before being set ablaze.
Then, and only then, can you breathe a putrid sigh of relief.
Ding, Dong, the Draug is Dead!