Many of the Scandinavian tales of the dead come from monks who were descendants of Norwegians who had colonized the cold landscape centuries ago. Some of the monk’s ancient stories feature the returning dead. Thanks to them I bring you the legend of one nasty Norse vampire, the draugr.
Early Vikings believed that the spirits (and sometimes the body) of those that died in battle went on to Valhalla, the Hall of Heroes, a place for warriors to party it up and enjoy the afterlife. But if a Viking didn’t die in battle, well, a dishonorable death like that didn’t result in Valhalla. The legends say that the spirits and bodies of these shameful Vikings went into a kind of limbo, where they weren’t entirely dead, but they weren’t alive either. These dead behaved as if they were still alive, they ate and drank and because they were corporeal, these lost beings could extract revenge of those that wronged them.
These angry and vengeful beings with no real place in the world would rise from their tomb-mounds and sword or axe in hand, would take their revenge on those they believed wronged them in life. These beings were known as the draugr or aptrgangr (literally meaning “one who walks after death).
The draugr are easily recognized by their skin color, which was either hel-blar (death blue) or na-foir (corpse pale). These beings also reeked of decay and corruption. But the scariest thing about the draugr is that they had immeasurable strength and the ability to increase the size of their body at will. In some stories they would triple their size, possibly due to drinking blood.
The amazing thing is that there are countless recorded stories featuring these vamps – you’ve got the ancient pre-Christian versions and then the versions influenced by Christians. Some tales say that the draugr killed their enemies (or even random people) by simply crushing them; they then devoured the flesh and/or drank the blood of the victim. Once someone is killed by a draugr, there was a chance the victim would become one of the undead as well. While some versions of the myth say that there is no way to kill this vampire, other claim that fire will do the trick. One must lure the draugr back to its tomb and set it ablaze.
Protection against the draugr was possible, but it involved black magic, which during the time Christianity reined supreme, was a big no no. The best example of this was the unfortunate Sigurdur Jonsson, who was burnt as a witch at Pingvellir, Iceland in 1671. This man was faced with a horrible draugr and he drove it away with a mixture of herbs and his own semen (eww). The authorities felt that this suggested knowledge of things ordinary men did not know, so he was brought to trial, found guilty and executed.
But, there were some accepted methods of prevention, even in Christian Scandinavia. Some old pagan practices were conducted at funerals to keep the dead, well… dead. They would place iron scissors on the chest of the corpse, place small twigs in the clothing or shroud, the big toes may be tied together to keep the corpse from walking, they might even place needles in the feet to keep it from walking. But that’s not all – when removing a newly dead person’s corpse from the home, the bearers were required to raise it and lower it three times and in three different directions (usually in the form of a cross). They also had to remove the body through a special door known as a “corpse door.” This door was one that was added to a building to remove a corpse, and once the body had been taken out feet first, they then bricked the doorway up again so that it could not return.
It’s incredible to see how this one vampire myth has changed SO much over the centuries. It started out as ancient Viking revenants and eventually turned into the Christian undead.