Witches. Skeletons. Zombies. Scary creatures in the dark. We humans love to be scared and the Norse people were no exception. They told stories of some very spooky creatures. Living in the far North where it was bitterly cold and dark for many months of the year seems to have lent itself to inventing terrifying creatures who come out at night.
Draugr and Aptrgangr
The two undead mentioned the most in Norse stories are the draugr (drahg-er) and the aptrgangr (ahp-tur-gahn-ger). Although these terms are often interchangeable, they both refer to horrible undead men who terrorized the area surrounding their burial grounds. I can’t think of much that was scarier than them. If you’re familiar with The Lord of the Rings movies, think of the Uruk-hai and you’ll have an idea of what the draugr/aptrgangr might have looked and acted like. Terrifying.
These undead were often called ghosts in the old stories, even though they are more like zombies—animated corpses with corporeal bodies. Unlike many zombies in modern stories, the Norse aptrgangr were clever. What a terrible combination! Undead and smart.
The word used most often to refer to them was draugr. It is related to the Old Norse word ‘drag’ which means the same as it does in English: to drag. It implies that these creatures possibly dragged their limbs, again suggesting they were more like zombies than ghosts.
The dragging aspect also matches with their incredible size and weight; they did not come back as regular human men, but as enormous, bloated, heavy creatures. They were difficult to kill, and even when dead had to be disposed of with great care. In one story, the undead monster was beheaded, burned, and his ashes thrown into the sea. In another, the zombie was so heavy the human men needed levers to move him. One did not take on a draugr lightly!
The word aptrgangr literally means ‘after-walker’ so that’s pretty self explanatory! They are the same as draugr. All these after-walkers were also described as being hel-blar, which means their skin was black or blue like death (there is some disagreement whether blar means black or blue), but they were not corrupted or decomposed like we typically think of zombies.
Terror of the Draugr
People in the Norse world were justifiably terrified of the draugr.
In addition to being massive, draugr were also incredibly mean and violent. No friendly ghosts in the Norse world! If a human or livestock came into contact with the monster, it meant almost certain death. In the stories, people and livestock were found with their necks broken and every bone in their bodies smashed. Imagine walking out to check on your farm in the morning, only to find all your cattle or sheep decimated by the roaming undead.
Not only were draugr strong and violent, they could curse people. As if the massive strength wasn’t bad enough! Some people would lose their wits at seeing one. The locals would find a person rendered witless and wandering the area and knew a draugr was on the prowl.
The aspect of them that gives me the worst shivers? Draugr could sink into the ground.
Like other zombies and vampires, the draugr could pass on their undead status. If it didn’t smash all your bones, it might turn you into one of them. So it’s basically a lose-lose scenario if you have a run-in with one of these monsters.
If a draugr haunted an area, the locals might flee. I don’t blame them. And that’s when a Hero would arrive! That’s why we even have stories of these horrible undead monsters—they are part of the stories of Norse heroes. When the locals were at their wit’s end about what to do about an aptrgangr, a hero would arrive to help them out. Of course, he wasn’t afraid of the zombie and killed it.
The Norse people would also take precautions with their dead to prevent them from harassing the living after death. In one practice, they created ‘corpse-doors’ in which to remove a corpse if it died in a house. The dead was removed from the house through a hole in the wall feet first and then the hole was covered back up. It was believed that the dead could only return to a house the way it left, so the living did not want to remove the corpse through a door. If they did, the dead could walk right back in through the front door! Carrying it feet first was to confuse the corpse if it returned. It was harder for the dead to see where it was going when taken feet first, so it would have a more difficult time finding its way back. Yes, the Norse people really did not want their dead coming back to haunt them.
The Norse also believed in barrow dwellers, the haugbui (howg-boo-ee), which means, well, barrow-dweller. Unlike the draugr, the haugbui could not leave their barrow, so they were less of a threat to the people and livestock who lived in the area. Since the haugbui couldn’t leave its burial mound, it would only attack if a person trespassed on its barrow. If a haugbui lived nearby, I’m sure the locals would have left it alone and avoided it, especially at night. Unsuspecting visitors…they might be out of luck.
If you did trespass on the barrow of a haugbui, look out. They might eat you!
If the haugbui sound familiar, that is because J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired by them for the barrow-wights that Frodo and the other hobbits encounter in The Lord of the Rings.
The Norse people knew how to tell a good ghost story! Draugr, aptrgrangr, and haugbui are terrifying creatures that you would be wise to avoid.
Don’t go out at night.
I wrote a ghost story in an anthology released by the Historical Writers Forum that features historical ghost stories in different time periods. If you’re interested in my take on the Norse undead, please check out my story Fury of the Cursed Ship in the anthology, Hauntings.