When you hear the word zombie, what comes to mind? Hordes of shambling corpses, all of them hungry for the flesh of the living? Does your nose fill with the scent of decomposing flesh? Do you imagine victims being torn apart by the raw, animal strength of the living dead? I bet what you aren’t picturing is a corpse turned the dark color of a bruise, swollen to twice its normal size, and with the strength to crush every bone in a victim’s body.
Unless you’re a big fan of the draugr, anyway.
Everything is Scarier in Scandinavia
Every culture across the world has some legend of the undead. The lands of the ice and snow are haunted by the draugr; fearsome zombies with the kind of raw power that takes a saga-level hero to even think about challenging.
What were the draugr, though? Well, according to the Viking Answer Lady, they were reanimated corpses fueled by a malevolent force. These unquiet spirits turned the body black or blue, not unlike how one might look if they were frostbitten. The draugr attacked people (and animals too, if they were convenient), drank their blood, and in many cases ate their flesh as well. They could swell themselves to huge sizes, and the bigger they got the stronger they became. One story has a shepherd being crushed by a draugr, every bone in his body pulverized.
All right, but what’s worse than a zombie berserker with an ax to grind, and the strength of ten men? How about one that also has bullshit magic powers?
In addition to being size-changing, blood-thirsting, flesh-eating monsters, several tales of the draugr also have them doing blatantly magic stuff. Some draugr could see the future, they could control the weather (calling up blizzards and thunderstorms, natch), and they could shape shift. And when they pulled that last trick, they didn’t mess around with trying to trick their opponent into thinking they were some innocent milkmaid. No, draugr much preferred to take on forms like a huge, flayed bull, a broke-back gray horse with no ears or tail, or a huge cat that would sit on a victim’s chest, growing heavier and heavier until they splintered their rib cage and crushed them to death. They could even swim through solid stone, like some kind of pro-wrestling land shark.
Draugr are bad, bad business. Fortunately for folks in the stories, though, draugr tended to be a localized threat. They rarely strayed far from their burial mounds, though if you were on their land you were in a heap of trouble unless you could match them blow for blow, and defeat the monster on its own turf. Good luck with that.
What Makes A Draugr?
One of the most important aspects of any myth regarding the undead (aside from how to defeat them, obviously) is knowing what makes them. Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and if you can stop the dead rising from their graves to destroy the living in the first place, it might just be easier to do that.
The problem with draugr, though, is they were generally made by a refusal to relent, typically combined with a hunger for the warmth and comfort of life. In some myths a draugr is like a dragon, jealously guarding the treasures it was buried with; which makes it little more than an occasionally grumbling corpse until someone breaks into its grave to take its fine weapons and gilded ornaments. Others rose from watery graves, trying to return to the comforts of life even though they’d drowned. It even seems like some draugr were caused by a refusal to give up their own land. Since burial mounds tended to be on the land that children or other family members would inherit, this adds a healthy dose of, “You want this land? You’re gonna have to take it!” to the draugr.
And if you were badass enough to fight your dead Viking grandfather in the light of a baleful moon during a thunderstorm? Then you, my friend, had earned your inheritance along with your ancestors’ respect.
There were a slew of measures taken to prevent the dead from rising when it was finally their time to be laid in the ground. For example, some corpses had their big toes tied together, which would hobble them if they tried to get up and fight you (though one assumes a draugr could break that string with all the power at their disposal… eh, myth logic). Others had pins half driven into the soles of their feet so if they tried to stand the pain would cause them to lie back down again. A pair of open scissors was often left on the chest, and straw woven into the underside of the shroud. And, of course, once laid in their resting place the rites of the dead would bind the body to the grave, and keep it there, never to rise and harm the living.
Some homes even had corpse doors in them. These little doors were meant to carry out the dead, but they would then be bricked up, since the risen dead could only come back into the world the same way they’d left it.
But if all those precautions didn’t do the job, then you had to kill the draugr. And while iron weapons would deliver the death blow, they weren’t usually effective as a lead. You had to, instead, grapple the draugr, and make it tap out Dark Ages style. Only then, once you had defeated it in a visceral way, could you then slay it.
Fortunately, once you killed the dead a second time, they tended to lie quietly in their holes from that point onward.
For more overlap between Vikings and horror, check out What Is The Monster In “The Ritual”? (A Mythological Theory) by yours truly. There are spoilers ahead, though, so make sure you take a few hours to check out The Ritual before reading this particular run down.