Messages from the Otherworld – The Roles of the Dead in Medieval Iceland
By Kirsi Kanerva
Deconstructing Death: Changing Cultures of Death, Dying, Bereavement and Care in the Nordic Countries, ed. Michael Hviid Jacobsen (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2013)
Introduction: After a little while people became aware that Glámr did not lay quiet. This caused the folk great trouble so that many lost consciousness when seeing him, and some lost their wits. Right after Christmas men thought they saw him there at the farm. People became incredibly frightened; many then ran away. Next Glámr started to ride on the roofs of houses at night so that they nearly caved in; he then walked almost night and day. People hardly dared to go up into the dale though they had many errands. People in the district thought this caused them great harm.
The above mentioned excerpt is from a fourteenth-century Icelandic saga, Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar (later: Grettis saga), and describes a so-called living dead corpse that becomes restless after death. The ghosts in sagas are no phantoms or incorporeal spirits, but appear to the living in their physical and tangible bodies at a dark time of the day or year. The dead look the same as they used to when they lived, and are thus easily recognized by the living. Some of the few changes noticed when corpses of the malevolent dead are dug out of their graves are, for instance, that they have turned ‘black as Hel’ and ‘big as an ox’ (compare Eyrbyggja saga:169-170). Unlike the zombies made infamous by the American film industry the living dead in Icelandic sagas usually become restless of their own free will. This will of theirs is often a malicious one, though non-harmful dead sometimes appear to the living as well. Their presence is usually not persistent, whereas the malicious dead often continually harass the living, causing fear, madness, illness and death unless they are conquered and banished. The most common procedure for doing this in sagas is to behead the corpse and burn the body. Banishment of the malevolent ghost is always a difficult task and brings much honour and fame to the hero who accomplishes it.
In sagas those who become restless after their deaths have certain things in common. As might be expected, unsolved issues and conflicts in life, such as disrespect towards the wishes of the dying person, or lack of proper compensation and settlement after killing, often result in restlessness after death. In some cases it seems as if the dead person becomes possessed by an evil power. Quite often it is – in modern terms – the personality of the still living person that raises thoughts about the possibility of him or her becoming restless after death. These people are usually hard to get along with while living and turning even more difficult when dead. In this chapter, however, I will examine the role of the restless dead in sagas by focusing on the individuals who are responsible for banishing the malevolent ghosts, or encounter the benevolent or non-harmful living dead. What kind of people are they, and do they perhaps have something in common? How do they interact with the dead and what do they accomplish through this?