As we do today, medieval people shared spooky stories of the dead rising and haunting the living. There are two versions of a story involving a man named Asmund, who choose to be buried alive with his dead friend. The most horrifying part of this story is how the friend returned as the undead.
The first version of this story comes from Gesta Danorum, written by Saxo Grammaticus in the early twelfth-century. Amidst his history of the Danish peoples, Saxo tells of how a man named Asvith had died, and that his friend Asmund asked to be buried with him. So they were entombed into a cave along with a Asvith’s dog and horse, and with enough food for Asmund to eat.
Sometime later a Swedish king and his army came upon the cave, and believing there was treasure inside they broke it open. Saxo then writes:
To explore the cave, it was necessary for someone to be lowered into it while tied to a dangling rope. One among the most eager young men was chosen by lot for the task. When Asmund saw the young man being lowered in a basket attached to a cord, he immediately threw him out of the basket and climbed into it himself. He then gave a signal to those who were standing on the surface and holding on to the rope to raise the basket. They pulled the basket up in the hope of great wealth and they beheld instead the unexpected sight of the man they had hauled up. Terrified by his sudden appearance and believing that a dead man had returned to life, they cast aside the rope and fled in all directions. Indeed, Asmund’s face was terrifying to behold for it was covered in gore like that of a mangled corpse.
The Swedish king soon came upon the scene, and saw that Asmund’s face was scarred, and that his left ear was missing. Asmund then spoke to the onlookers:
“Why are are you so amazed to look upon me, emptied of all color? Truly, any living man becomes diminished among the dead!
Every dwelling in this world is unfortunate and difficult for those on their own; wretched are those who luck has deprived of other people’s aid. This cave and empty night and darkness and this ancient hollow have snatched away all pleasure from my eyes and from my soul. This dreadful earth, this rotten tomb, and a heavy tide of foulness have diminished the fairness of my once youthful face, and have sapped the great vigor that I used to have. Beyond all this, I have retained my strength against the undead while struggling against the undead while struggling under great pressure and in considerable peril. Asvith returned from the dead and rushed upon me with tearing claws, returning with Stygian strength to renew fierce battles after his death.”
Asmund then goes on to explain that when he was buried with Asvith that the dead man’s spirit had returned from hell, and proceeded to eat the horse followed by the dog. Once this was done, the undead figure attacked Asmund, slashing his cheek and tearing off his ear. “But the monster did not escape unpunished,” Asmund concludes, “for I quickly lopped off his head with my sword and stabbed his body with a piecing stake.”
The second version of the tale, written in 14th century Iceland and part of the saga The Story of Egil-One Hand and Asmund Berserker-Slayer. In this version Asmund was friends with another man named Aran. They were very competitive with each other and made a deal: If one of them was to die before the other, the survivor would put him and his wealth in a burial mound, and would join him for at least nights.
It happened that Aran died, and Asmund buried him with seated on a chair with his full armor. Along with his treasure, a horse, hawk and dog were placed in the chamber. Asmund got his own chair and joined the corpse, having the burial mound sealed up. The saga continues:
During the first night Aran got up from his chair killed the hawk and the hound, and ate them. On the second night he got up again from his chair, killed the horse and tore it to pieces; then he took great bites of horseflesh with his teeth, the blood streaming down from his mouth all the while he was eating. He offered to let Asmund share his meal, but Asmund said nothing. The third night Asmund became very drowsy, and the first thing he knew, Aran had got him by the ears and tore them off. Asmund drew his short-sword and sliced off Aran’s head, then he got some fire and burned Aran to ashes. Asmund went to the rope and was hauled out of the mound, which was then covered up again. Asmund took all of the treasures in the mound with him.
You can read this story and more like it in The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters, edited by Scott G. Bruce. Click here to buy the book on Amazon.com.
See also: The Medieval Walking Dead