Its BIG, it’s BAD, and it’s UGLY! This monster from the frozen North is called the Draugen. Scandinavian cultures are familiar with the dreaded beast, but is it a Vampire? A Zombie? A Ghost? CryptoVille investigates!
Draugen are the spirits of the dead come back to life through use of their corpses. They jealously guard whatever treasures they were buried with, wreak havoc on people who wronged them in life, and generally terrorize the neighborhood.
In a book by Gregg A. Smith Remley called The Function of the Living Dead in Medieval Norse and Celtic Literature, he describes the creature:
“The [creature’s] will appears to be strong, strong enough to draw the hugr [animate will, or soul] back to one’s body. These reanimated individuals were known as draugar. However, though the dead might live again, they could also die gain. Draugar die a “second death” as Chester Gould calls it, when their bodies decay, are burned, dismembered, or otherwise destroyed.”
So at first blush, the Draugen seem more like vampires or zombies than ghosts because they retain their bodies and can use them.
Legend says they live in their graves so as to guard the treasure they were buried with. An interesting aside to this, Vikings of any social standing were buried with some treasure that they attained while alive. In some cases, chieftains were buried with their entire Viking ship! So in the context of the Scandinavian cultures, this makes sense.
Once alive again, the Draugen exhibit superhuman strength and when they want, they can increase their size and weight at will. Their bodies are said to be blackened and swollen with decay so they look frightful. They smell horrible due to the fact that their bodies are partially decayed.
Some sagas describe the creatures as having blue skin, while others say it was pale as a corpse. (Artwork above left by Theodor Kittelson 1887.)
It’s said they are still somewhat intelligent, at least enough to guard their treasure. Some accounts say that Draugen will also frighten and harass living people as well as exact revenge on those who wronged them during their real lifetime.
You may be wondering how they ever get out of their graves. Part of the legend says they can turn into a puff of smoke and “swim through rock” thus allowing them to move above ground.
The Draugen may be “undead” but they certainly seem to make the most of their time “born again.” Besides guarding their treasure, the Draugen are known to commit the following:
- Enlarging themselves so they can crush an enemy
- Tearing their enemy apart and eating them.
- Enlarging themselves so they can eat their enemy whole
- Drinking the blood of their enemy
- Driving their enemy mad.
People weren’t their only victims. Legend says the Draugen also drove animals mad, sometimes riding or chasing livestock until they dropped dead from fright as well as exhaustion.
In addition to all these other tricks, a Draugen can shape-shift, control the weather, and foretell the future. When shape-shifting, the creature usually turns the following: a seal, a “great flayed bull”, a gray horse without ears or tail, or a cat.
In cat form, the Draugen would sit on its victim’s chest getting progressively heavier until the victim was crushed to death.
Another attribute these monsters had was the ability to invade a person’s dreams. It’s said that when they do this, they leave a gift of some sort on the bedside table so when the victim awakes, they know the Draugen had been there invading their dreams.
In other accounts the Draugen is able to curse someone, as well as cause disease to run rampant through a town, and to turn daylight into temporary darkness.
Greed and jealousy drive a Draugen – greed for their own treasure and jealousy of those still living and the amenities of their lives, now unavailable to the Draugen. They are also driven by ravenous hunger.
How Draugen are Made
Scandinavian folklore describes several ways that draugens are formed. People who die sitting upright are prime suspects, as are people who are disliked during their lifetime, such as mean and nasty people or evil people.
In a couple stories, Draugen are killed off for good, but then their slayer is overtaken by the evil spirits that possessed the previous Draugen. In this way the slayer becomes a new Draugen.
Draugen are also considered selfish because they refuse to follow the natural course into the afterlife. Instead they stubbornly stay Earthbound and wreak havoc on those around them.
Folklore says if you place a pair of opened iron scissors on the chest of the deceased, they will not become a Draugen. Sometimes debris such as twigs and straw are tucked into their clothing in aid of this, but I don’t see why. (Photo left from a Norwegian tourist display.)
Some tales say that tying the big toes together or sticking needles in the soles of the deceased’s feet will prevent them from being able to roam the Earth again.
There are other simpler ceremonies that the living perform all designed to undo the potential Draugen’s sense of direction so that it is unable to return to the living. For example, when carrying the corpse out of the house to the grave, they turn it three different ways to disorient the spirit so it’s not able to return.
How to Kill a Draugen
A hero would have to vanquish the Draugen to get rid of it which wasn’t an easy task.
Iron weapons could injure a Draugen, but didn’t kill them. So since weapons were useless, a would-be hero would have to wrestle the Draugen to its grave and defeat it there. It probably became a test of strength and cunning.
Once the Draugen was dead (again), the actual body would have to be exhumed and destroyed, either by beheading or burning and scattering the ashes into the sea.
Most of what we discussed above comes to us from ancient Norse writings, legends, and folklore. Now let’s look at how the Draugen are perceived in 21st Century Scandinavia.
Nowadays the creature is referred to as a Draug. It takes a human form but the head is made entirely of seaweed. It’s believed they are the spirits of drowned sailors and fishermen. In stories from Northern Norway, the Draug is seen as a headless fisherman dressed in oilskins.
In both cases, seeing a Draug foretells of death. Folklorists think because these nations, especially Norway, depend so heavily on the sea for food and wind up losing fishermen every year as a result, they closely associate the Draug with their lifestyle. If a fisherman is killed or disappears without explanation, they cope by blaming it on the Draug.
The original picture of the Draugen sounds like a mix of creatures to me, not quite a vampire and not quite a zombie. It rises from the dead, can shape-shift in order to escape its grave, yet is solid enough to attack and eat people it encounters while exacting revenge its enemies.
But nowadays, the reports seem to describe something more like a ghost.
The purported last recorded sighting of a Draugr occurred in 1911. A farmer started digging into a mound of dirt on his property that turned out to be a grave. The Draugr appeared to him and said don’t take another shovelful or Earth or six of your cattle will die and six members of your household will die. The farmer ignored the warning and sure enough, six of his cattle died and then six household members died. The Draugr was never seen again.
Do They Exist?
As the last recorded sighting of one in modern times was way back in 1911, it seems the Draugen have moved on, perhaps finally into the afterlife. Nowadays there are virtually no reports of them, at least no published reports. I even checked YouTube. They have game-related videos involving Draugen, but their beast is a cartoon version of the original legend.
I think this creature never existed, but was something born of folklore and legend. Maybe there were cases where some people came back from the dead (who had been in comas, etc.), and that scared everyone. It’s possible there were some demons afoot in those lands back in the day and that further fueled the legend. I don’t think we’ll ever know.
But it certainly makes for a spine chilling tale on a frosty Fall night around the campfire!
What do you think about the Draugen?