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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.

Burial Mound

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).

Viking Hoard

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.

The Restless Draugr from “Skyrim” (Bethesda Softworks)

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