Old Norse White Walkers? Draugr, the Walking Dead in Medieval Icelandic Sagas
By Minjie Su
For those who have watched last month’s season finale of Game of Thrones, it is probably impossible to shake off the nightmare of a (un)dead army invading Westeros, not to mention the icy flame lashed out from the now blue-eyed Viserion that destroyed Eastwatch-by-the-Sea in but an instant. ‘This is the only thing that I’ve ever seen that terrifies me’, comments Euron Greyjoy, the villain-on-the-rising of the show.
Yet this fear of the undead is by no means a new sensation to humankind; the Icelanders, for instance, knew it centuries ago.
Draugr (pl. draugar) is generally defined as ‘a ghost, spirit’, but it is a lot more real than that, for it, like the White Walkers, has a body. Draugar are dead people who refuse to remain quiet in the tomb. Sometimes they remain in the mound, making noise in the dead of the night and guarding treasures; this kind of draugar bothers no one except young heroes such as Grettir Ásmundarson, ‘the Strong’, who seek fame and glory and perhaps a well-forged sword to bring more draugar down in the future. Some, however, roam near and far, causing harm to both livestock and men. Their activities range from kicking around on your roof to driving people mad to causing actual death. In one notable case, namely Úlfhams rímur, the draugr in fact crawls out of her mound to feast on some freshly slaughtered flesh.
When they do come out, draugar may also bring some sort of ‘epidemy’. People who have dealings with or are killed by draugar tend to return as draugar. In this sense, they have much in common with vampires – the eastern European folkloric kind of vampires, not the Bram Stoker or Anne Rice type. In Eyrbyggja saga or Saga of the Eyri-Dwellers, a woman called Þórgunna died only to come back, after part of her will has not been carried out exactly as it should have been. Þórgunna as a draugr is a gentle and harmless kind; all she does is to cook a meal, which her coffin-bears somehow find the guts to enjoy once the sign of the cross has been made over the food. After the coffin-bears return home, however, serious haunting begins: a shepherd is found dead one day, buried in church, but returns to attack a Þórir Wood-leg. Thorir dies and becomes companion to his killer: ‘The shepherd and Þórir were always seen in pairs after that. As might be expected, this terrified everyone’. Thus wander the two friends-in-death for a while; six more fall ill and pass away one after another.
Draugar’s roaming, however, seem to have certain temporal limit. Like the White Walkers who come with the blowing wind of winter, draugar’s power and activity wax and wane as winter comes and goes. It may have more to do with darkness than the cold and snow, but, as anyone who has lived in the North would know, in the Nordic world ‘winter’ and ‘darkness’ are pretty much synonyms to each other; winter is always associated with images of death and despair. When describing draugar activities, the saga authors always identify the timing of burial, haunting, and end of haunting.
In Eyrbyggja saga, again, Þórólf Lame-foot, a notoriously bad-tempered old man passes away and is buried sometime after a harvest feast. As the summer has passed, people become aware that ‘Þórólf was not resting in peace’ and they ‘could never go outside in peace once the sun had set’. During autumn, a shepherd is found dead near Þórólf’s cairn. Clearly, Þórólf has not been able to get out of his burial mound, or at least not very far from it, but once winter is coming, the situation has changed and Þórólf’s power apparently becomes greater as the wind becomes colder and nights longer. He soon starts roaming around the entire valley, does not stop until ‘winter passed and fine spring began to thaw the earth’. When Arnkel, Þórólf’s son, comes to remove the body in the fine spring weather, Þórólf appears completely immobile and defenceless.
A similar example is also found in Grettis saga Ásmundarson, where Glámr, the draugr-to-be, is killed on Christmas Eve, presumably by another draugr that has been haunting the area for a quite some time. The previous nameless draugr seems to have been killed by Glámr, yet the curse lives on. Unlike Þórólf who has the luxury of sleeping through an autumn, Glámr has little time to waste but returns to haunt almost immediately after death. His power grows each year, going from around the tomb to the valley, from out in the wild winter landscape to entering the farm. These frightful events are eventually put to stop by Grettir, but, as happened before, the curse lives on.
Grettis saga and the curse inflicted upon the eponymous hero bring yet another White Walker feature: the eyes. Although in Game of Thrones it has never been specified what significance the White Walkers’ eerily bright blue eyes have, they nevertheless are a distinguishing feature (that is, of course, in addition to the rotten flesh and the constant impulse to rip open the living). This seems to go back to the tradition of the Evil Eye, which (some of) the draugar certainly possess. During the fight against Glámr, Grettir is transfixed by the draugr’s eyes and stricken with great terror:
Just as Glam fell, the clouds drifted away from the moon and Glam glared up at it. Grettis himself has said that this was the only sight that ever unnerved him. Suddenly Grettir’s strength deserted him, from exhaustion and also from because of the fierce way Glam was rolling his eyes and, unable to draw his sword, he lay there on the brink of death.
‘And this curse I lay on you: my eyes will always be before your sight and this will make you find it difficult to be alone. And this will lead to your death’.
Therefore, though Grettir may have vanquished the draugr from the landscape, the haunting continues in his mindscape.
A true nightmare.