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The most fell of undead warriors was the mighty draugr from Scandinavian epics (the singular is “draugr” and the plural is “draugar”). Draugar were the reanimated corpses of warriors, chieftains, and other people of great strength. Unlike many other undead beings, draugar remained in possession of human intelligence, emotions, and memory–albeit horribly distorted and corrupted by the grave. Simultaneously fascinated and enraged by the living world, draugar lusted for treasure and hungered for flesh–but they did so in perverse and alien ways. The draugr will seem familiar to anyone who has read fantasy literature: Tolkien based wholesale swaths of his universe on Scandinavian and Germanic (and Anglo Saxon) epics. Subsequent books, films, and games are filled with lichs, deathknights, wights, and wraiths which ultimately descend from the original medieval sources.
In Scandinavian epic literature, the various undead beings manifest in slightly different ways but they share common powers such as the ability to shapeshift into monstrous animals, to turn into smoke, to see dark parts of the future, and to greatly increase in size, heaviness, and strength. Draugar seem to delight in causing suffering to the world of the living. They are able to curse lesser animals to death and they cause fear, despair, and madness to larger creatures (and, indeed, to humans). Sometimes they would eat or otherwise ravage living things. They are connected with winter darkness. Most tales concerning the monsters take place at Yuletide, Christmas, or the winter solstice when Scandinavian nights lasted almost an entire 24 hours. Disturbingly, some draugar were said to be able to enter the dreams of their victims.
Grettir’s Saga, which recounts the tragic life of Iceland’s greatest outlaw, contains two draugar, Kar the Old and Glam. The saga gives us limited background concerning Kar, a dead Norwegian nobleman who came back to life to guard his lands and his barrow filled with treasure. A minor character describes the situation thus, “On the headland stands a grave mound. In it was laid Kar the old…after Kar died he returned from the dead and started walking, so much so that in the end he drove away all those farmers who owned lands here.” When Grettir breaks into the mound he finds a huge cold warrior sitting dead upon a throne with treasure at his feet and horse skeletons scattered around him. As Grettir begins to remove the treasure, a cold & inhumanly powerful hand grabs his foot and the fight begins in earnest. When Grettir finally triumphs, he despoils Kar’s hoard (which includes the fiersome sax that Grettir always wore thereafter).
We learn even more about the second draugr in the epic. While working as a shepherd, Glam, a giant surly Swedish slave was killed in a battle with an unknown monster on Christmas Eve. Glam’s body is described as “Black as Hel and swollen as fat as a bull.” Ominously the corpse had become so heavy as to be immoveable–so the locals built a cairn over it without moving the body. After this mysterious death, Glam returned every winter to haunt the farm. The draugr is described riding the roof of the longhouse as though it was a steed, damaging the walls by driving his feet into them. More ominously, Glam killed the sheep, the workmen, and eventually molested the farmer’s daughter to death (she seems to have been his favorite target). After dispatching several lesser heroes, Glam inevitably fights with Grettir. In the moral and emotional climax of the epic, Grettir outwrestles the horrible corpse but is transfixed by Glam’s otherworldly dead eyes. In this moment of truth, the draugr lays a curse of doom upon Grettir saying,
“I will not take from you the strength you have already acquired. But it is in my power to decide you will never become stronger than you are now—yet you are strong enough as many will find out. You have become famous because of your accomplishments, but from now on you will fall into outlawry and killings. Most of what you do will now turn against you, bringing bad luck and no joy. You will be made an outlaw, forced always to live in the wilds and to live alone. And further I lay this curse upon you: these eyes will always be within your sight, and you will find it difficult to be alone. This will drag you to your death.”
Today in Iceland there is still a word for this curse “Glẚmsskyggn”—Glam’s sight –which is to walk always alone and unhappy with dead eyes staring at you.
There were different ways that heroes or ordinary folk could deal with draugar. Although not explicitly stated, the draugar always avoid Christian churches and sanctified things. Observing the proper burial practices was also helpful. When circumstances permitted, dead bodies were carried out of houses and into tombs through doors which were then built over or bricked in (since the walking dead had to return through the same doors they originally used).
The real way to cope with this problem however was Grettir’s way—by means of physical violence. To defeat a draugr, a hero had to wrestle it into submission through sheer physical strength and then cut off its head (which was then placed on top of the corpse’s backside). The corpse could then be burned into ash and thrown into the sea.
As the heroic age passed from Scandinavia, draugar changed somewhat and became more associated with drowned sailors than with barrow dwelling Vikings. Then even these undead sailors began to fade away. Occasionally in modern Iceland, Norway, and Denmark there are wild reports of strange walking dead (which come from wholly unreliable sources) but the monsters have largely faded from legend. Even in the movies, draugar are scarce. The undead Nazis of the Norwegian horror film “Dead Snow” behave like draugar–which is a problem for the human protagonists who have been raised on American zombie films and don’t know how to fight traditional Norse undead. However it is in computer games and fantasy books where the draugar from epic tradition have the greatest following today. The internet and online games are filled with accursed giants in dark armor with corpse-blue skin and glowing eyes. These guys are always mumbling runic curses, piling up digital treasure, or harassing virtual villagers. More than any other undead, draugar have seamlessly made the jump to the digital world: in fact they have done a better job transitioning to the web than many living people and contemporary industries. Glam’s eyes still shine brightly through the halls of countless internet dungeons and software modules of damned cities.
Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though. The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself. Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.
Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon. Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence. A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse. Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.
In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet. She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead. Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder. Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism. In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”
Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings. During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death. After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound). The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.
The Valknut is an ancient Viking design (although the word itself is new). A Valknut consists of three interlinking triangles. Classic Viking valknuts as seen in ancient stone carvings are one of two topological forms: the unicursal form or “triquetra” and the tricursal form, which consists of three linked triangles (also known as Borromean rings). The triquetra valknut has been found, for example, on the 7th century Tängelgårda stone (which stands on the island of Gotland, Sweden). The tricursal valknut is found on a different ancient Gottland monument–the Lärbro stones.
Above is one of the carvings from the Lärbro stones (also known as the Stora Hammar rune stones). The violent relief carving is filled with symbols of Odin: a warrior holds a captive facedown and flays open his back with a spear as two ravens (or eagles) fly overhead. To the right a troop of armored warriors look upon the sacrifice while at the left another victim hangs from a tree. The valknut is in the center of the composition just above the spearman killing the supine figure. Scholars suspect that it is a symbol of Odin, the allfather in his dark manifestation as god of battle death and human sacrifice. Other scholars have speculated that the points of the three interlinked triangles may represent the nine realms linked together through Yggdrasil. In contemporary times, the valknut has been used by neopagans as a symbol of their devotion to Norse gods, but it also has darker connotations and is sometimes adapted into the symbols of Scandinavian white supremacists and hate groups. Because of its antiquity and its strong ties to Swedish history the Valknut is also used by many corporations, sports teams, and individuals who are in no way neopagans or white supremacists!
Last year I wrote about the world’s fastest human powered boat, the 170 oar Hellenic navy trireme Olympias, which is scheduled to visit New York’s harbor as part of the tall ship festival this summer (July, 2012). One of my friends has even been training to crew the classical warship while it is here, so we will be returning to that story soon! In the mean time, however I have been following the somewhat related story of the traditional construction of a Viking longboat in Norway.
Viking ships were up to three times as fast as the other ships of the time. They could be pulled entirely on the beach and they had flexible, clinker lined hulls which allowed them to conform to the waves in the manner of the serpents, dragons, and seabirds which were their emblems. Vikings used their superior ships to undertake prodigious feats of sailing. The Norse mariners sailed from North America in the west, to the far distant Sea of Azov beyond the Black Sea (and pretty much everywhere in between). Not only were the sea coasts of Europe, Central Asia, and North America accessible to Viking ships: because the vessels had such a shallow draft, they could operate on rivers which were regarded as non-navigable. From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Scandinavian sailors could appear almost anywhere to explore, trade, pillage, or hire out as mercenaries.
The ship being crafted today in Haugesund (Western Norway) is based on a large greatship (storskipene) of the Norwegian coastal fleet. The boat will be christened the Dragon Harald Fairhair in honor of King Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 933) who welded the petty kingdoms of Norway together as a unified nation (that’s a metaphor—he used statecraft and war to assemble his kingdom rather than actual welding). In order to make the ship as realistic as possible, traditional boatwrights have pored over classical literary sources from medieval sagas, as well as analyzing drawings, carvings, and actual period boats from wrecks and burials. The project’s website describes the completed boat
At a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak, twenty-seven feet on the beam, displacing seventy tons, and with a thirty-two hundred square foot sail of pure silk, this magnificent ship will indeed be worthy of a king.
The Dragon Harald Fairhair will have 25 pairs of oars. It is necessary to have at least two people on each oar to row the ship efficiently. That will give a crew of at least 100 persons, yet the craft should be able to be sailed by only twelve.
When it is finished, the Dragon King Harald, will join a veritable fleet of reconstructed Viking boats (which can be seen here at vikingstoday.com). The craft should be seaworthy in summer of 2012, but its builders anticipate spending a season experimenting with rigging and sailing techniques (since there are no actual Viking sailors left to explain how to operate a working Viking longboat.
In Norse mythology, the world is ruled by glorious glowing gods, the Aesir, who are the magnificent (yet all-too-human) protagonists of Viking cosmology. Arrayed against the Aesir are a wide range of antagonists. Some of these enemies are vast beyond reckoning like the mighty Midregard serpent, which rings the oceans, or Níðhöggr, the giant snake that chews the world tree. Others are largely unknown–like the dark elves of Svartálfaheim (the hidden realm) or the fire beings of molten Muspellheim. However, by far the most common antagonists in Norse mythology are the jǫtnar–the frost giants. The giants (also known as trolls) are portrayed as huge powerful ice-beings whose behavior is even more unruly than that of the gods: symbolically they are the embodiments of chaos and nature. In fact the first living being in the Norse pantheon was a titanic progenitor jötunn named Ymir. He was killed and dismembered by the Aesir, who then made the world from his body (which suggests that the jǫtnar may harbor a legitimate grudge against the Aesir).
Although the primeval frost-giants are usually portrayed as the enemies of the gods, the relationship between the groups is actually more complicated. many Aesir gods have jǫtnar spouses or lovers. Although the frost giants show up from time to time in Valhalla to work mischief, their real home is Jotunheim, a wilderness land of ice, mountains, and frozen firs with no human population (much like contemporary Canada). Some giants are portrayed as monsters with multiple heads, animal features, or grotesque traits but others were comely.
The list of jotnar who featured in important myths is numerous. Loki the trickster deity who sometimes saved the gods and other times worked to destroy them was a jötunn as was his daughter Hel, ruler of the land of the dead. Other notable frost giants include Fornjot the Destroyer (a storm giant who fathered the wind), Skrymir, the master of illusions, and Hrungnir–a stone-headed giant of matchless strength. Although many of these giants were horrible and feature in stories of epic battle, other giants were more fair and took part in more subtle contests.
The jötunn Gunnlöð was said to be exquisitely beautiful. Gunnlöð guarded the mead of poetry, which was made from the fermented blood of Kvasir, god of wisdom. According to the Prose Edda, poetry is a gift from Odin who seduced Gunnlöð and bargained three nights of passion for three sips of the mead. The king of the gods tricked her– he took the poetry and gave it to humankind but broke his promise and left Gunnlöð unfulfilled. Other poets however tell the story differently and suggest that Odin fell in love with Gunnlöð and the two were happy to drink and sleep together. Finally, it has been hinted that Gunnlöð tricked Odin and took what she wanted of his godhood in exchange for fake mead and false poetry. The true mead of verse–the blood of Kvasir himself–never made it to earth. All poetry we have is sour and ersatz. Yet, strangely, most bards and epic poets are quiet concerning that last interpretation…
In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms. An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.
Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard. Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children. One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm). Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent. When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world. There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail. In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.
Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar). Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment. The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir. Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales. Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world. Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface. The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.
Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök. When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves. This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living. Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.
The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity. They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil. Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves. One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight. One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence. The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree. Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).
Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity. Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post). Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.
The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim. This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences. The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and Vé, slew him and cut him apart). Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger). Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants. But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.