Drauginir: Revenants in Old Icelandic Sagas


Drauginir: Revenants in Old Icelandic Sagas

By Tom Delfs

Published Online (2010)

Introduction: What are “inn Draugar” ? In the course of reading the Icelandic family sagas, you cannot help but realize that the people of settlement era Iceland had a strong connection to the harsh, forbidding land where they settled. As Jesse Byock points out in Viking Age Iceland, “Although Iceland, at 103,000 square kilometres (39,769 square miles), is a fifth larger than Ireland, it cannot support a large population. Most of the interior is uninhabitable … The glaciers, often at low altitudes, are a reminder of the nearness of the Arctic Circle, which lies a few degrees above the northern tip of the West Fjords.” The interior landscape is both glacier-covered and volcanic, and only a small percent of the land can be used for farming. “Almost all successful settlements were near the coast or in a few sheltered island valley systems.“

I believe that it is partly the harsh environment that leads to the prevalence of various monsters, witches, outlaws, and “others” who are separated from society in Old Icelandic sagas and the later literature of Iceland, all the way up to modern Icelandic folk-lore. In the sagas, we can see witches and curses, monsters, and, most importantly to our purposes today, revenants or draugar. A dragur (pl. draguar) may be defined as an undead, something like our zombies of today. Georgia Dunham Kelchner defines them by saying, “”The draugr is, apparently, thought of as having a continued existence as a unity of the body and the spirit. Primarily an inhabitant of his grave mound, he is also able to leave it, and thus preserve an effective relation with the living.”




This is opposed to the haugboi, also inhabitants of the grave mounds who stayed within their burial places. The huagboi will often be an ancient warrior,who is buried with his greatest wealth and possessions. As Ellis points out, “We have also record of several kings burying themselves alive with much treasure, sometimes with a number of followers. In Heimskringla King Herlaugr goes into a howe with twelve men rather than be deprived of his kingship by King Harald Hárfagr; in Bárðar saga, King Raknar is said to walk alive into his howe after ruling the land for a long time. Similarly a certain Agnarr is said to enter a howe with his ship’s crew in Þorskfirðinga Saga. He is probably connected with Agði Jarl who goes alive into a howe specially built for the purpose in Þorsteins Þáttr Bæarmagnis. In nearly all these cases these men turn into powerful draugar after burial, and cannot be vanquished without a struggle; the same is true of another figure, in Hrómundar Saga Greipssonar, who ‘when he was so old that he could fight no longer, had himself put living into the howe, and much treasure with him’.”

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