Medieval Ghosts Part 2: The Revenant/Draugr

Even though we’re well past Halloween (as of my time writing this) I still want to discuss medieval ghosts. In my last article, I wrote about ecclesiastical ghost stories. These stories, often written by clergy, had a Christian motivation for why the dead returned. However, if there were Church-approved spirits, that implies the existence of nonapproved spirits. And there certainly were!

Revenants/Draugar

Thanks to popular belief, secular people had their own ideas of what the undead did and looked like. The undead were often found in Icelandic sagas. In these sagas, the ghosts were known as revenants or draugar. In this post, I will be using the terms “revenant” and “draugr” interchangeably. (As a side note, the word “draugr” is singular while the word “draugar” is plural.)

Despite the Church’s best efforts to Christianize revenant stories, many of them survived with their original pagan elements. That being said, they were written down by Christian scribes so it’s difficult to figure out just how much was changed. However, it can be quite obvious when the scribe decided to go all out when changing details. (One example is the epic poem Beowulf and its constant references to God. This includes the revenant, Grendel, being referred to as a descendent of the biblical figure Cain.) Icelandic sagas are one literary genre where the pagan elements are particularly strong.

Unlike ecclesiastical ghosts, revenants were not trying to get help to escape Purgatory. They were back on earth to cause chaos. Revenants were very similar to the modern idea of the zombie to the point that in some stories, draugar looked like rotting corpses. Instead of being immaterial, they had physical bodies. And not only did they have physical bodies, but revenants were also stronger and bigger than they were when alive. In some sagas, they were described as big as a cow! Due to their largeness, draugar were often too heavy to carry. If you were attempting to carry one to a church, the revenant would become heavier and heavier the closer you got. As long as they had flesh, revenants could rise from the dead.

Like the modern-day zombie, sometimes draugar were quite stupid. However, it was not uncommon for them to be eloquent and spout off prophecies to whoever was interacting with them. When they weren’t telling the living when they were going to die, draugar did the killing themselves. Revenants would kill livestock and terrorize then kill humans. Depending on the story they had different motives for terrorizing the living.

One such motive was reacting to grave robbers. Revenants “lived” (for lack of a better term) in barrows/howes where they had been buried. Because early medieval Scandinavian burials included treasure being buried alongside a body, it could be appealing to people to steal the treasure. After all, the person is dead so they aren’t using it! Revenants did not like that line of logic. So if you were unwise enough to try to steal a dead person’s treasure, the draugr could attack you either physically or with magic. Which, to be honest, I think is valid. But not all people visiting the howes wanted to steal from the dead. If you were related to the draugr you could go to the howe and politely ask for your relative’s stuff as a birthright. If you were lucky, they may even agree to give it to you.

Not all revenants stayed (sort of) peacefully in their howes. Some stories feature draugr wandering their old homes, terrorizing and sometimes even killing their living family members and servants. Other stories feature draugr wandering the farther countryside, also terrorizing and killing humans and livestock. When this happened, one solution was to simply move the howe to somewhere more isolated. Sometimes this worked. Other times it did not. If moving the howe didn’t work, one could get rid of a draugr by destroying their corpse. This could be either burning them or cutting off their head. In one story (the Icelandic saga Grettissaga) to defeat a revenant, the main character cuts off its head and placed it between its legs.

The sagas were written down when Iceland was completely Christian, so occasionally a few Christian characters and elements would slip in. In the Grettissaga, characters ask a priest to exorcise the local revenant. Unfortunately for them, this draugr was particularly smart. It hid until the priest got sick of looking for it and went away. In other sagas, it seems that chasing off revenants was an expected duty for priests.

Draugar did not live on in only the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes ghosts in ecclesiastical stories had traits similar to their pagan counterparts. This included attacking locals and looking like a rotting corpse. In one story written by a monk of Byland Abbey, the ghost of a priest gouged his ex-girlfriend’s eyes out! Obviously, he couldn’t go around doing that. Instead of having a good old fashioned exorcism, the local monastery decided to solve the ghost priest problem the pagan way: they dug up his corpse and chucked it into a lake. This apparently worked.

Not all clergy were gung-ho about solving revenant problems in the Scandinavian way. In the previous story, the author made his displeasure about the desecration of a corpse known in the text. In another story, a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

Finally, another way to get rid of a revenant was simply to exorcise it.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Medieval Ghosts https://www.medieval.eu/medieval-ghosts/

Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola https://www.amazon.com/Afterlives-Return-Dead-Middle-Ages/dp/1501702610

Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland http://caitlinscrossroad.com/wp-content/uploads/Remnants_Revenants.pdf

Medieval Ghosts Part 1: The Religious Ghost

Happy (late) Halloween! Originally I was going to post this on Halloween, but I was unable to finish it in time. Today I want to talk about ghosts. Originally I was going to talk about ghosts in the secular mindset as well as ghosts in religious stories. However, I have to do more research on the folkloric type, so I am just going to focus on the religious today.

Ecclesiastical Ghosts

Because the Middle Ages was a period of about a thousand years (from the 5th century to the late 15th century) how people thought about ghosts changed over time. Someone from the 5th century may have a different idea of what a ghost was from someone in the 11th century and so on. In the early years of the Christian church, ghosts as a concept were not exactly welcomed. The idea that people could return from the dead was much too pagan for the Church’s liking. However, as time went on and Christianity became the norm, this changed. Ghosts could be used as a teaching tool for the living. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that by the late twelfth century Purgatory was an accepted part of the Christian afterlife.

Purgatory was an important part of ecclesiastical ghost stories. Due to it being an in-between place (you went there if you weren’t good enough for Heaven but not evil enough for Hell) it answered the question of how exactly ghosts returned to the living. After all, if you’re a ghost you are dead, but you’re still alive enough to interact with the living. Like Purgatory, ghosts are in a state of in-betweenness. It’s much easier to escape a state of transition than a state of permanence. A soul wouldn’t want to leave Heaven and it’s too late if you’re in Hell. There are a lot of different medieval writings on Purgatory. Depending on the source, souls either stayed there until the Last Judgement or they stayed until they had been purged of their sins. Either way, Purgatory is not a place one stays permanently.

Ecclesiastical ghost stories often had spirits returning from Purgatory to warn their loved ones about their sinful ways. Warnings about the afterlife would have a lot more impact on someone if it came from the dead rather than the living. A ghost has personal experience about what happens to your soul after death. The very much alive Father So-And-So does not. I’ll also note that some ghosts came from Hell to deliver their warnings. However, unlike the Purgatory ghosts, they were unable to ask for help. Once you’re in Hell it’s too late. You’re there forever.

So what kind of help did Purgatory ghosts ask for? Like modern-day ghosts, it was often unfinished business. Sometimes unfinished business meant returning something they stole while alive, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or even just begging people to pray for their souls so they could get out of Purgatory faster. It depended on the ghost and what they did.

However, if a ghost wanted help, they couldn’t just come up and ask for it. The living had to speak to them first by invoking God. Due to this restriction, sometimes ghosts would get creative to make people talk to them first. In one story, a ghost goes around staring at doors and into windows until a priest finally asks what they want. (The ghost wanted to say confession by the way.) In another story, a ghost literally throws a man over a hedge to get him to talk! (In the ghost’s defense, they do catch the guy before he hits the ground.)

Ghosts appeared in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes they appeared as their living selves, sometimes they looked like they had just before they died, and sometimes they took the form of animals, pieces of canvas, or a pile of hay. (Just to name a few examples!) A lot of ecclesiastical ghosts were described as apparitions. So they weren’t exactly immaterial, but not quite corporeal either. Again, it depended on the story.

Sources:

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 31 Oct. 2020.

The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

Medieval Ghosts

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n87/mode/2up