Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland
By Caitlin Christiana Wintour
Published online (2011)
Introduction: European legends of deadly revenants date from ancient Germanic folklore and literature. Like their ghostly namesake, the stories were resurrected in post-Icelandic Conversion sagas and in medieval ghost stories from northern England.
The term “revenant” is a French term for ghost, derived from the verb revenir, “to return.” The Icelandic term is more specific to the returning and violently unhappy dead: the feared draugr. These Scandinavian ghosts are almost always purely physical. They rise from the burial grounds (howes), bash the living, and generally make horrible nuisances of themselves until heroes overpower them and destroy their corpses for good. They owe their place in folklore to earlier Germanic literature: a heroic and supernatural tradition that shows up in the medieval Icelandic sagas and ghost stories from northern England.
The Vikings brought the ancient Germanic literary tradition from Scandinavia to the rest of Europe. The literary form survived in several related language groups including Anglo-Saxon (Old English), Old Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old Icelandic. Not all of the Germanic influences stayed strong — the Vikings who settled in non-Scandinavian countries readily adopted Christianity and dropped their pagan practices and beliefs, and by the mid-11th century Christianity was well established in Denmark and most of Norway. (Sweden eventually followed suit in the mid-12th century.) Since Viking settlers eventually assimilated into well-entrenched Christian cultures in England and the Continent, the Germanic literary tradition of heroic sagas and violent ghosts paled against the French courtly traditions and Arthurian romances. (In England, the Viking influence that spawned Beowulf and the gruesome ghost stories of Yorkshire came from north and east England – the territory of the Viking Danelaw.)
However, ancient Germanic tradition thrived in Iceland where the Viking settlers did not have to contend with a native culture. Even though Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000 A.D., its 12th to 14th century poets and writers produced an amazing body of work modeled on the ancient Germanic traditions of their Viking ancestors — complete with Germanic monsters, gods, heroes and ghosts.