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Drauginir: Revenants in Old Icelandic Sagas

By Baron Fridrikr Tomasson

What are “Draugar”?

In the course of reading the Icelandic family sagas, you cannot help but realize that the people of settlement era Iceland had a strong connection to the harsh, forbidding land where they settled. As Jesse Byock points out in Viking Age Iceland, “Although Iceland, at 103,000 square kilometres (39,769 square miles), is a fifth larger than Ireland, it cannot support a large population. Most of the interior is uninhabitable … The glaciers, often at low altitudes, are reminder of the nearness of the Arctic Circle, which lies a few degrees above the northern tip of the West Fjords.” (Byock 2001: 25) The interior landscape is both glacier-covered and volcanic, and only a small percent of the land can be used for farming. “Almost all successful settlements were near the coast or in a few sheltered island valley systems.“ (Byock 2001: 27)

I believe that it is partly the harsh environment that leads to the prevalence of various monsters, witches, outlaws, and “others” who are separated from society in Old Icelandic sagas and the later literature of Iceland, all the way up to modern Icelandic folk-lore. In the sagas, we can see witches and curses, monsters, and, most importantly to our purposes today, revenants or draugar. A dragur (pl. draguar) may be defined as an undead, something like our zombies of today.

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