The Draugar, the living undead we know from Tolkien, not zombies were known as the Draugar.
The following is an extract from chapter 2 of Volume 1 of Viking Legends and Norse Mythology, The Underworld and the Afterlife.
image credit: Draugr Wight from Elder Scrolls. Fandom wikia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0 (CC-BY-SA).
“He struck the head off the draug, and burned him up in the fire, then went out of the barrow. Then the men asked how Thrain and he had parted. He said that he went in choice, “then I struck off his head.”
– Hrómund Saga Gripssonar
Tolkien borrowed this concept from Norse mythology, being most closely related to the legend of the Draugr, introducing aspects of the Draugr legends introduced in the saga of Hromund Gripsson. So just as Tolkien’s Barrow Wights are the undead spirits inhabiting the mounds in the bleak, misty landscape of the Barrow Downs, such beliefs were a part of the Nordic mythological landscape, featuring places that have a lot in common with the moors of England and Wales just as well as Scandinavia.
Tolkien’s Barrow Wights were directly invented from the Scandinavian draugr or draug. The Old Norse is draugr, with links to the Gothic word driugan, for ‘prolonged fight’. One drauger, two draugen or draugur, also called aptrgangr, literally ‘again-walker’ is an undead creature from Norse mythology, a subset of Germanic mythology. This is similar to, yet different from the Haugbui, (Haug comes from haugr – meaning ‘howe’) barrow-dwellers who would defend their barrow territory without leaving it.
The Living Undead
The Draugr is the Norse name for the undead. Once a body was placed in a grave, it didn’t just stay there and decay to dust. It became possessed, taken over by the wandering spirit of the ground. Animated with power and life. An undead corpse. Draugar live in their graves, often guarding treasure buried with them in their burial mound. They are animated corpses – unlike ghosts they have a corporeal body with similar physical abilities as in life. Older literature makes clear distinctions between sea-draugar and land-draugar.
“After six days had passed, they came to an opening in the barrow. They saw a great ugly man sitting in a chair, blue-skinned and stout, all clad in gold, so that it glittered. He chattered much and blew on the fire.”
– Hrómund Saga Gripssonar
The legend of the Draugr is a product of the vivid imagination of a hardy folk working hard to survive the cold and dark of a Scandinavian winter. It is easy to understand how such legends were born, the draugr would leaving their barrows, attacking the settlements. The draugr’s victims were not limited to trespassers in its howe. The roaming ghosts decimated livestock by running the animals to death while either riding them or pursuing them in some hideous, half-flayed form. Shepherds, whose duties to their flocks left them out of doors at night time, were also particular targets for the hunger and hatred of the undead:
“The oxen which had been used to haul Thorolf ’s body were ridden to death by demons, and every single beast that came near his grave went raving mad and howled itself to death. The shepherd at Hvamm often came racing home with Thorolf after him. One day that Fall neither sheep nor shepherd came back to the farm.”
– Palsson and Edwards, Eyrbyggja Saga
Draugr the living undead of spirits who take the form of dead warriors are becoming an increasing area of interest for gamers, game designers and the creation of draugr fantasy↵ (link to the Elder Scrolls).
Generally, it was believed that any person who exhibited mean, selfish or nasty traits could be susceptible for being turned into a draug. In particular selfishness was one sure way to – not end in Hell – but become the corpus for eternal unrest, forced to stay in a world where the only way to exist was to prey upon the flesh of the living.
After a person’s death, the main indication that the person will become a draugr is that the corpse is not in a horizontal position. In most cases, the corpse is found in an upright or sitting position, and this is an indication that the dead might return.
Unlike ghosts, draugar can also come about through infection by another draugr such as in the story of Glámr. When Glámr arrives in the haunted valley in Grettis saga, “the previous evil spirits are relegated to the sidelines and, when Glámr is found dead, they disappear, whereas he takes over their role as ghost of the valley.” Although Glámr is a marginal character to begin with, it is only after his fight with the first malignant spirit that the first spirit leaves the valley, and Glámr takes its place wreaking havoc. Similarly, in the Eyrbyggja sagaᚠ, a shepherd is killed by a draugr and rises the next night as one himself.