In the world of the Vikings, death was not the end. Instead, it was a time of transition to something, or somewhere else. Sometimes though, the recently departed were unhappy, vengeful or otherwise had unfinished business holding them back. In those cases, they could become undead, sometimes haunting Midgard.
“The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
Edgar Allan Poe
What happened to Vikings after death?
According to the old Norse sagas, when people died there were many things that could happen to them. Simply “being dead” was not the end, nor was it obvious what death might hold.
Arguably at the top of the list, were the warriors who died in battle and were chosen by the Valkyries. They would join the ranks of the Einherjar in Valhalla. However, not all warriors who died in battle would go to Valhalla.
Half of the warriors chosen by the Valkyries would go to Freyja to live at Fólkvangr, feasting in Freyjas’ great hall Sessrúmnir. What exactly they would be doing there is not well known, but it does seem to be as much of an honor as going to Valhalla.
The less fortunate ones, most people likely, would seemingly end up walking on Helvegr. It was quite literally the road to Hel, to be ruled by goddess of death Hel. They were all the ones dying from illness, old age and otherwise not among the chosen few.
Some of the dead however would not stay dead, instead, they would come back in another form. They might escape from Hel or not even go there, to begin with. They were the malevolent draugr or aptrgangr (again-walker) , the possibly less evil haugbui (mound-dweller) or the more spirit-like fyrirburdr.
“Hnígin er helgrind,
allr er í eldi…..”
“Fallen, is Hel’s gate,
mounds are opening,
everything is on fire…..”
From the Hjaðningavíg Saga (Saga of Hild)
Viking burials – Preparation for a Journey
Right behind our house in Oslo, lies a row of small mounds in a forested area. They are Viking Age burial mounds, some of which are still “inhabited” by the original occupants. While some have been excavated, two or three are still intact. Maybe for future generations to explore, or as a sign of respect for the people in them.
These mounds were not graves as we perceive them today, but they were the new “home” for the dead person. In them, they would bring with them all they might need in the journey to wherever they were going. That would typically mean weapons or jewelry and pots of food, but could also mean a horse or other animals, maybe even a wagon or a ship.
The magnificent Oseberg ship is one such burial ship discovered in 1904 outside Tønsberg in Norway. It was built in AD 820 and then served as a burial ship in AD 834. At more than sixty feet long and with room for thirty oarsmen it must have been quite the funeral.
While quite a few wealthier individuals were buried in smaller boats, among the really wealthy or noblemen, being buried in a large ship was also common. Sometimes, especially when it was a person from a wealthy family, one or more slaves might also accompany them.
Ahmad Ibn Fadlans’ Story of a Viking Burial
The Arab traveler and emissary to the caliph of Baghdad, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan described one such process in his Risala from AD 922. He had traveled into part of modern-day Russia and a local Rus Viking chieftain had died.
Seemingly quite hospitable and welcoming, the Rus invited Ibn Fadlan to take part in the funeral. As luck would have it, his description has become a valuable insight into both the Viking Age burial rituals and what they entailed. For at least one slave woman it was also the end of her story as she volunteered to join the chieftain in the realm of the dead.
However, even though most people then journeyed on to the next realm, some stayed behind. They became the undead. Some were connected to their burial mound, others became free to roam, and kill.
The different types of undead in the Norse myths
In the Old Norse myths, there are several different types of undead, or names used for them. It is possible that the term draugr (plural draugar) was used as a general term for all, but we can not be sure. As such I will be calling them collectively the undead and try as best I can to sort through the different types.
When sorting the undead into different groups the haugbuar and fyrirburdr are relatively simple to distinguish. The aptrgangr and the draugr, however, are more alike and quite possibly they were seen as the same.
A haugbui (plural haugbuar) was someone who was mostly confined to their burial mound. Unable, or unwilling to travel on, they remained in Midgard. When it comes to the haugbuar it seems that they could both be benign, or down right evil.
One example of the malevolent haugbui is told of in Grettir’s saga. One of the sagas from Sagas of Icelanders written down in the 13th and 14th centuries. In it, the hero Grettir is pursued by bad luck and ends up dead.
In one part of the story, Grettir has arrived at an island called Haramsey and befriended a farmer named Audun. One night when Grettir is visiting Auduns’ farm they see a great fire suddenly bursting on a cape by the ocean.
Curious, Grettir asks about it, mentioning that in Iceland that would be seen as a sign of a treasure. Audun is reluctant to talk about it, but relenting he confides in Grettir. Telling him that it is the burial mound of the former lord of the island, Karr the Old.
Audun tells Grettir that after his death, Karr the Old has terrorized the island, driving away all the farmers opposed to his son Thorfinn as lord.
Not one to easily scare, Grettir the next day digs up the burial mound to get to the expected treasure. Inside the dark grave chamber, in the middle of the mound, he finds Karr the Old. He is sitting upright in a chair with his feet resting on a chest.
As Grettir is on his way back out, chest in hand, he is viciously attacked from behind. Next, a great fight ensues between him and the haugbui. In the end, Grettir manages to decapitate Karr the Old and thus kills the undead haugbui.
In the case of Karr the Old, he was able to leave his mound at will to terrorize the islanders. As such it isn’t clear cut whether he was solely a haugbui, or if he when he was on a rampage then instead was a draugr.
Others, however, seem to have moved on, for example to Valhalla, but the mound itself acted as a portal to that other realm. This is covered in length in the last of the two poems about Helgi Hundingsbane found in the Poetic Edda.
Helgi is the hero of the poems, son of Sigmund and Borghild, and half-brother to Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Helgi became known as Hundingsbane (the bane of Hunding) after avenging his father, killing King Hunding of the Saxons.
Already at his birth, it was destined that Helgi would become a great hero. The first two stanzas of Helgi Hundingsbane I describes this well:
1. In olden days, | when eagles screamed,
And holy streams | from heaven’s crags fell,
Was Helgi then, | the hero-hearted,
Son of Borghild, | in Bralund born.
2. It was night in the dwelling, | and Norns came,
Who shaped the life | of the lofty one;
They wished him most famed | of all warriors
And best of noblemen | ever to be.
It should come as no surprise then that Helgi had an exciting life. A short time after avenging his father, standing aboard his longship one night he is visited by a valkyrie named Sigrun. Knowing Helgi she embraces and kisses him, making Helgi immediately fall in love with her.
Helgi the Haugbui
As is often the case with the Norse heroes of the sagas, Helgi is killed and goes to Valhalla. There he is welcomed by Odin himself who tells him he will be a leader among the Einherjar. As a twist, Helgi then as his first command sends Hunding, the man he had killed, to go tend to the pigs.
Sometime after Helgis’ death one of Sigrun’s servants was out one evening and witnessed Helgi riding with several men to his burial mound.
The servant was naturally quite spooked and feared it was the end of the world, but Helgi spoke to her. Saying that she need not fear, it was not Ragnarok. While the dead had not returned from Valhall for good, they were there now. He then asked the servant to go and get Sigrun.
Sigrun in the mound with Helgi
Sigrun went to the hill to Helgi, and said:
42. “Now am I glad | of our meeting together,
As Othin’s hawks, | so eager for prey,
When slaughter and flesh | all warm they scent,
Or dew-wet see | the red of day.
43. “First will I kiss | the lifeless king,
Ere off the bloody | byrnie thou cast;
With frost thy hair | is heavy, Helgi,
And damp thou art | with the dew of death;
(Ice-cold hands | has Hogni’s kinsman,
What, prince, can I | to bring thee ease?)”
44. “Thou alone, Sigrun | of Sevafjoll,
Art cause that Helgi | with dew is heavy;
Gold-decked maid, | thy tears are grievous,
(Sun-bright south-maid, | ere thou sleepest;)
Each falls like blood | on the hero’s breast,
(Burned-out, cold, | and crushed with care.)
45. “Well shall we drink | a noble draught,
Though love and lands | are lost to me;
No man a song | of sorrow shall sing,
Though bleeding wounds | are on my breast;
Now in the hill | our brides we hold,
The heroes’ loves, | by their husbands dead.”
Sigrun made ready a bed in the mound.
46. “Here a bed | I have made for thee, Helgi,
To rest thee from care, | thou kin of the Ylfings;
I will make thee sink | to sleep in my arms,
As once I lay | with the living king.”
47. “Now do I say | that in Sevafjoll
Aught may happen, | early or late,
Since thou sleepest clasped | in a corpse’s arms,
So fair in the hill, | the daughter of Hogni!
(Living thou comest, | a daughter of kings.)
48. “Now must I ride | the reddened ways,
And my bay steed set | to tread the sky;
Westward I go | to wind-helm’s bridges,
Ere Salgofnir wakes | the warrior throng.”
Helgi then left, never to return, leaving Sigrun behind to die from sorrow.
The saga of Thorleif Jarlaskáld is found in the Icelandic Flateyjarbók. It details the story of the life of the famous skald (poet) Thorleif Rauðfeldarson. It’s an interesting tale in its own right, but here it serves as an example of a benign haugbui.
After a life as a skald does both earls and the king, Thorleif ends up dead, seemingly by some curse cast by one of his enemies. He was buried in a burial mound located by the Thingvellir in Iceland, the assembly place for their yearly Althing.
Nearby lived the successful farmer Thorkel. While he was a successful farmer, Thorkel dreamt of being a skald. Try as he might, Thorkel could not compose anything worthy of repeating to anyone else.
For inspiration, and maybe hoping for some sort of intervention, Thorkel would often go to the burial mound of Thorleif Jarlaskáld. Sitting there, on top of the mound Thorkel tried out phrases and verse, but still, he was unable to compose a good poem.
This lasted until one evening, Thorkel was again sitting on the mound until he fell into a light sleep. As he was sleeping, the mound opened up and Thorleif Jarlaskáld himself walked out and came up to sit with Thorleif. Telling him that he was trying to accomplish something for which he had no skills, but he would help him.
Waking up in the morning Thorkel found he could remember everything that Thorleif Jarlaskáld had told him. With his newfound skill for great poetry, Thorkel became a renowned skald in his own right.
The mostly benign Haugbuar
While there are exceptions I find it is fair to say that the haugbuar are mostly good. If, or when they become violent it is to protect what is theirs, or their family. This was the case with Karr the Old in Grettir’s saga fighting Grettir for his treasure.
It is worth noting that robbing a grave was not necessarily a bad thing or offensive to the family. The practice even had a name, haugganga (mound-walker). However, only men of some standing could do it without recourse. In the Flóamanna saga, one or several slaves rob a grave and they are later killed by a hero.
Interestingly the burial mound is not necessarily only a final resting place, but a portal to the realm of the dead. As such it was a place to reach out across the realms, and if lucky, getting an answer. Sitting by someone’s gravesite, speaking and feeling a connection isn’t such a foreign idea today either.
The Malevolent Undead Draugr and Aptrgangr
As discussed above the haugbuar were mostly tied to their burial mound and were peaceful. The aptrgangr on the other hand was free to roam Midgard. Here they would seek out victims to haunt, sometimes attack and even kill.
Based on their behavior and descriptions, they bear a close resemblance to the more general description of draugar. So much so that it is my own understanding that the draugar and the aptrgangr are basically the same. Moving on I will stick with calling them draugr (plural draugar).
It’s worth mentioning that aptrgangars’ are only described in the Icelandic sagas, never in other Scandinavian texts. It might be an explanation, basically being local variations of the same phenomenon in their folklore.
The draugar differed from the haugbuar in several ways, their appearance and powers being two such clear distinctions.
Draugars’ superhuman strength, stench and powers
In the sagas, the draugar’ are described as hideous creatures, often blue or black, with a horrible stench about them. They are usually also stronger than any normal human and able to kill both men and cattle with their hands.
This is very different from the haugbuar who are quite like the living, albeit sometimes described as cold. In the saga of Helgi Hundingsbane we learned how the widowed Sigrun even spent a final night with Helgi. Although he was ice cold, he was a decent man, with no foul stench or appearance that scared Sigrun.
Glamr from Grettir’s saga
Maybe the most well-known of the draugar is Glamr from the Grettir’s saga. In another of Grettir’s adventures, we are told the story of a farmer named Thorhall. He lived on a large farm called Thorhall-stead where things were quite well, bar for the fact that the farm and their valley were haunted by a draugr.
This was no friendly haugbuar, but a rampaging draugr wont to scare or even kill shepherds and livestock. It became so bad, that the shepherds either fled or died so Thorhall seek out advice. Following the advice of an elder, Thorhall meets a man called Glamr.
He was no ordinary-looking man, but large, with steely eyes and hair and beard like a wolf. Explaining that they were troubled by a draugr and that other shepherds were scared away Glamr said he didn’t scare that easily. He wanted the job and they agreed he would come to the farm in the fall.
Summer came and went and as fall was coming, Glamr showed up at Thorhall-stead and began as their shepherd for the sheep. As fall turned into winter the Yule time was upon them. The tradition was that no meat was served on Christmas eve, rather they would fast and feast on the first day of Christmas.
Upon hearing this Glamr angrily answered that this was nonsense and that he wanted his dinner and meat to go with it. Warning him that it was a mistake the housewife still prepared food for him which Glamr ate.
Glamr the draugr
Going out again after dinner to tend to the sheep, Glamr was never to return. At least not alive. His body was found the next day, mutilated and horrible looking “blue as hell itself”. There were signs of a great fight, and leaving the place Glamr laid were tracks the size of barrel heads.
Following the tracks, there was also a great deal of blood and they took it to mean that Glamr had mortally wounded the draugr in the fight. True enough, the original draugr was never to be seen again, but instead, Glamr would come back.
Becoming a draugr himself, Glamr proved to be more violent and destructive than the previous draugr had ever been.
Grettir and Glamr
Hearing about the draugr at Thorhall-stead, Grettir set out to visit the farm and speak with the farmer Thorhall. Meeting Thorhall Grettir said he would stay at the farm if he was welcome. Thorhall warned him that all recent visitors had lost their horses to the draugr, but he was welcome to stay.
Glamr the draugr stayed away the first couple of nights, maybe sensing trouble, but the third night he came. As he was wont to do, Glamr rode on the roof of the house, breaking rafters. After that, he ripped out the doors and entered the hall of Thorhall.
Grettir had prepared for meeting the draugr, but the fight that ensued still nearly killed him. Eventually, though, Grettir had Glamr on his back ready to chop his head off with his sword.
Realizing he was close to the end, Glamr saw an opportunity to cast a curse on Grettir.
“You have much courage, Grettir, to find me, but it will not seem strange that you get little joy from me. But this I can tell you, you will only receive half of the strength that was intended for you if you had not found me.
I can’t take away the strength that you have previously seized, but I will arrange it so that you will never be stronger than you are now. You have become famous because of your deeds, but from now on, you will fall into disgrace and violent death, and most of your deeds will turn to your misfortune and unhappiness.
You will be an outlaw and always have to live alone. I also lay this on you, that my eyes will always be on you, and it will be difficult for you to be alone. And that will lead you to death.'”
Hrapp of the Laxdaela Saga
The old Icelandic Laxdaela saga tells the unfortunate story of Hrapp, a farmer with a foul temper. Having a reputation as difficult and being no friend to his neighbors, Hrapp had few friends.
As time went by Hrapp, marked by old age and unable to rise from bed, felt death at his door. Expecting the end to be near he gave his wife explicit instructions about the manner of his burial.
“I have never been of ailing health in life,” said he, “and it is therefore most likely that this illness will put an end to our life together. Now, when I am dead, I wish for my grave to be dug in the doorway of my fire hall, and that I be put: thereinto, standing there in the doorway; then I shall be able to keep a more watchful eye on my dwelling.”
Hrapp passed shortly thereafter and afraid to do anything else, his wife Vigdis had him buried, standing by the doorway. Then according to the story, all hell broke loose in the house.
As he was foul-tempered in life, his aptrgangr was worse. Soon most of the servants in the house were killed, and the others fled. Unable to stay there longer, his wife also left, moving to her brother Thorstein’s house.
After consulting with the local chieftain, Hrapps’ body was dug up and buried far away from the farm. This helped and little was seen of Hrapp for a while. With the troubles behind them, his son Sumarlid moved onto the farm. Sadly he soon thereafter went mad and died.
Next, the brother of Vigdis and Hrapps’ brother-in-law Thorstein, decided to move to the farm with his family. Sailing there with most of his kin and livestock, their ship sank and all but one drowned.
The solution to the aptrgangr
The farm was left vacant for a few years after that until a man called Olaf bought it for a pittance. He moved there with his family and some shepherds. One day, when winter was upon them, one of the shepherds called Olaf to the barn and there was the aptrgangr Hrapp.
Trying to scare him away Olaf approached with a spear, but Hrapp broke the spearhead off and disappeared. The next morning they went to Hrapps’ grave and dug him up. There he was, looking untouched by death and next to him was the spearhead.
Possibly armed with more knowledge than most people, Olaf had the corpse cremated and the ashes spread into the ocean. After that Hrapp never disturbed them again.
The main differences between Haugbuar and Aptrganger
As mentioned above there are stark differences in how a haugbui looks and behave compared to an aptrgangr. In the sagas, the haugbuar often look much like they did before they died. They are also typically described as non-violent and even helpful as was the case with Thorleif Jarlaskáld.
Aptrganger on the other hand takes on almost superhuman strength and are often or almost always violent. There are also numerous examples of how they both grow in size, but also weight. So much so as to make moving them difficult even.
In addition to the points made there are a few others, I want to mention that have become clear while researching for this post. There seems to be a distinct difference drawn along class lines when looking at who becomes an aptrgangr and who becomes a haugbui.
The social status and manner of their burials in these examples and others I have seen are usually very different. Where a person might become undead, it is the lower class ones, with simple burials that might come back as an aptrgangr.
The haugbuar are wealthier, from the upper class and seemingly most concerned with watching after their treasures. In fact, one could make an argument that it seems like the aptrgangers’ are looking for people and animals to take with them into the afterlife. In this way, making up for the treasure denied them in life.
Fyrirburdr – Souls of the Undead
There is a third version of the undead that comes up in the sagas and that is the fyrirburdr. The translation is a bit vague but can be taken to mean both a vision or a sign of something of importance that has happened or is about to happen.
A fyrirburdr does not have the physical form or abilities of the haugbui or aptrgangr. Instead, they are ethereal and without a physical presence. Appearing in both visions and dreams they seem to be more like a spirit from another dimension, or realm. In contrast to the undead trapped in Midgard.
The Undead Thorstein Codbiter of the Eyrbyggja Saga
The Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga from the 13th century tells the story of several families and a conflict between two chieftains in particular.
Early on in the saga, we are told the story about the end of one character, Thorstein Codbiter (yeah, pretty cool name) who was fond of fishing. He had gone out in his fishing boat early one morning, fishing for cod presumably, to fish by an island called Höskuldsey.
The island lies 8-10 miles northwest of Helgafell (Holy-mountain) in the mainland of Iceland where he had his farm. Having fished for cod many times myself I see the allure of that island. It is lying there way out in the ocean, and would likely be rich in sea life.
That evening one of the shepherds from Thorsteins’ farm was tending to their sheep close to Helgafell as he saw the mountain open up. In the mountain, he saw great fires burning and he heard the distinct sounds of talk and clamoring of cups.
The shepherd walked closer to the mountain to better understand what was happening. Then from inside, he heard that they welcomed Thorstein Codbiter and his fishing crew. Voices told Thorstein to come in and take a seat next to his father.
Hurrying back to the farm the shepherd told Thorsteins’ wife Thora about the fyrirburdr he had witnessed in the mountain. She wouldn’t speak much but said it could be a warning of news to come.
The next morning, the news did reach them that Thorstein and his crew were all lost at sea the previous evening.
Appearing only then, Thorsteins’ case is a good example of the undead fyrirburdr. Being neither violent nor actively protecting a burial mound, it was a passing vision.
Svanur from Njáls saga
Another instance of a fyrirburdr is interesting for several reasons and it is found in the famous Njáls saga. The saga is one of the best-known Icelandic sagas and details the burning of a man named Njal and his whole family.
However, another character mentioned in the saga is Svanur. He is described as very knowledgeable in magic, but quite a quarrelsome person. At one point he plays a part in helping someone who is hunted by a large group of men. He does so by casting a spell that makes fog roll down from the mountains disorienting the pursuers.
Later in the saga, however, news reaches Svanurs’ family that he was lost at sea while out fishing. A storm had suddenly rolled in and sunk his boat, drowning him and his crew. Other fishermen that were on land later said that they had seen Svanur going into a nearby mountain called Kalbackshorn where he was received well. Others contested this, but for the sake of exploring the fyrirburdr I will assume they said so.
There are striking similarities between the way both Svanur and Thorstein Codbiter died, both from drowning while fishing. That both of these fyrirburdr first drowned then were seen going into a mountain is interesting. Even more so when realizing that, Hilda Ellis Davidson a well-known Germanic myths scholar managed to show that Svanur and Thorstein Codbiter were from the same family.
Like Throstein Codbiter, Svanur was never seen or heard from again, as undead or otherwise. The manner in which these men died might give rise to the idea that fyrirburdr were more common when people drowned. For both men to go into mountains could possibly be explained by special beliefs in their family, rather than be connected to fyrirburdr.
The role of the different types of undead
Looking back in time to explore and explain concepts like the undead in the Viking Age is interesting, but challenging. This post should be read with that in mind, this is more a discussion of possibilities rather than a statement of facts.
A few things are certain, however. In the world of the Vikings, death was not the end, rather it was part of a journey.
Just as they honored the gods, tradition and the tales of the undead motivated people to honor the dead as well. Otherwise, it seems the cautionary tale is that they might come back as undead.
Somewhat typical for the Vikings, even in death it was impossible to escape what class you belonged to. The lower class or poor people with simpler burials were prone to come back as violent monsters, while the rich were happy guarding their treasure inside their “haug”.
If you found this interesting you will likely also enjoy my post on Viking symbols. There are some truly fascinating symbols from the Viking Age. However there are one or two which actually are not Viking at all even though you probably thought so.
Featured Image Credit: Charles Ernest Butler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons