Zombies have been a mainstay of horror films and fiction for a long time. It’s not surprising to find out that they also had tales about them in the Norse sagas. There they were called draugr. I’ve been researching them since the draugr play a major part in my next book – Valda Goes Through Hel. Here are some fast facts about the Norse version of the undead.
Undead Sing the Blues
Although they were described sometimes as having pale flesh or skin as black as Hel, I think the scarier descriptions are those which tell about draugr with an evil blue skin color. The Norse were no strangers to living the rough life and we can expect they were intimately familiar with the various funky colors your skin can take on from various bruises and injuries. Imagine that sickly dark bluish tinge of a deep bruise covering every square inch of someone’s body. You would not want to run into something like that on a dark night.
The draugr have also shown the ability to shape-shift. There stories where they assume the form of various creatures such as a seal, a bull, a horse and even a cat. While that last one doesn’t sound so menacing, once the draugr had assumed a cat’s form it would lay on the chest of a sleeping person and gradually get heavier and heavier until it crushed its victim to death.
It wasn’t just in feline form that the draugr possessed great weight. They were said to be heavier than a normal corpse. Some of them were described as having swollen bodies “as big as an ox.” This gave them great strength and they loved to use it to batter down doors and bash their way into the halls of the living. They would even indulge in an activity called house-riding. This consisted of the draugr climbing onto the roof of a house and drumming its heels against the roof to terrify everyone inside while they tried to bring down the rafters.
Hungry, Hungry Haugbui
Haugbui is another name for the undead. The name derives from the Norse word for barrows, or grave, so haugbui are grave-dwellers. The main difference seems to be that haugbui stayed relatively close to their graves while the draugr were more likely to roam the countryside. One of the traits that they did share was an immense hunger. There is a tale of a newly-risen draugr that eats the hunting hawk and dog that were buried with him. The next night he rises again and devours the horse that was buried with him. The third night he attempts to eat his friend who has been watching the gravesite. As a side note, that is indeed a good friend. Personally I think I would have been out of there after the first night.
While our Western image of the zombie draws more from the Caribbean influence of voodoo, it’s good to keep in mind the other traditions that have dealt with the undead. Norse mythology certainly has some great twists on the myths. If you want to read a more about draugr an excellent starting point would be this page from the Viking Answer Lady. Her site is a treasure trove of information about the ancient Norse and their ways.