The Powerful Dead

My last post looked at the Norse goddess of death, Hel, who shared her name with her abode, the home of the dead. Norse poetry from the Viking and high medieval eras frequently describes death as “going to Hel”.

But many of the dead weren’t about to go anywhere. In Norse myths and sagas, anyone who wished to communicate with the dead went out and sat on their barrow, or in some cases actually entered it. Clearly, people thought the dead were still powerful in the world, just waiting in their graves to help their families or those who left offerings.

The Barrow vs. Valhalla

The barrow, or howe as they are also called, was an important part of remembering the dead. As Davidson puts it:

‘We are all bound to do honour to the man who is dead, and to make his burial as worthy as possible, and to lay him in howe’, says someone in Gisla Saga (XIII), and although the words are spoken ironically, the sentiment is clearly a familiar one. Considerable trouble would be taken before this duty to the dead was neglected. After the battle on the heath in Hrafnkels Saga (XVIII) Samr returns to raise a howe over his brother and the rest who fell with him. In Njáls Saga (LXXVII) the men who have slain Gunnarr actually return to ask his mother for leave to raise a howe on her land over two of their party who have been killed; the request is made formally and humbly, and she accedes to it.

Barrows were usually set up either where the person died, or on a headland looking out to sea. This may have been to keep those who might walk after dead away from settlements, or to honour those who might enjoy the sight.

Otherwise, burial mounds were often close to the family home. As the Viking Answer Lady explains:

…Anglo-Saxon boundary charters list many instances of barrows as landmarks on the edge of an estate ( Hilda Ellis-Davidson, “The Hill of the Dragon: Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds in Literature and Archaeology,” in Folklore 64(1950), pp. 173-174). Traditionally, a person inheriting land had to be able to name his ancestors who held the land before him, and point out the barrow in which the ancestor was laid, in order to be eligible to inherit.

People could be cremated or buried, or sometimes both: the body burned, and a grave site raised over it afterwards. Either way, the grave-mound or barrow marked the burial site of someone important, while thralls were simply buried, either alone or in a sort of Potter’s Field.

The Helpful Dead

Hen-Thorir’s saga also shows how people expected to have a benign influence after their death:

Odd began to age greatly, and when he heard that neither of his sons would come back, he became very sick. As the sickness began to press upon him, he told his friends that they should move him up to Skáneyjarfjell when he died because from there, he said, he would be able to see out over the entire Tungu, and it was done.

Halfdan the Black was another whose grave-mounds became a focus of worship, although in this case it’s clearly Halfdan as well as his grave that people put their faith in:
All desired to take the body with them to bury it in their own district, and they thought that those who got it would have good crops to expect. At last it was agreed to divide the body into four parts. The head was laid in a mound at Stein in Ringerike, and each of the others took his part home and laid it in a mound; and these have since been called Halfdan’s Mounds.

The Icelandic Flateyjarbok goes on to tell us that people sacrificed to these mounds and “believed in them”.  (Davidson: 102) Similarly, the Swedes left offerings at King Olafr Geirstaðaálfr‘s grave-mound, in hopes that the peace and prosperity of his reign would continue.

The Yngling saga, which discusses the gods who supposedly were the ancestors of the Swedish Yngling dynasty as if they were historical men, describes the burials of Odin, Njord and Freyr. All three were buried in barrows, although only Freyr actually recieved worship at his, in the form of offerings of precious metals:

Freyr caught an illness, and as the illness progressed people thought out what to do, and they let few people come to him, and built a great tomb and put a doorway and three windows in it. And when Freyr was dead they carried him secretly into the tomb and told the Svíar that he was still alive, and kept him there for three years. And they poured all the tribute into the mound, the gold through one window, the silver through the second, and copper coins through the third. Then prosperity and peace continued.

Both Freyr and Geirstaðaálfr provided continued “prosperity and peace” (ár ok frith) in return for worship and offerings. While these were the special gifts of Freyr, the cult of the ancestors in general was focused on fertility, as you might expect, and prosperity in general. Daniel McCoy suggests that the ancestor’s luck or hamingja could also be passed down to his or her descendants, thus helping them in their lives.

Sitting on a Grave

Davidson also notes that many Swedish barrows of the Migration period (375–568 CE) had flat tops or, when the barrow had particularly steep sides, a place at its foot of about the same size. (111) The sagas (and poetry) have people consulting the dead in their tombs, or else “sitting out” to gain insight or wisdom.

Or to feel closer to the deceased. Davidson includes three stories of kings who had their thrones placed on their dead queen’s howes, such was their grief, as well as two brother kings who sat on their dead father’s barrow. (107) The brothers may have wanted to legitimize their own rule as much as benefit from their father’s presence.

Contrariwise, when a king died and his son was dispossessed, he first made his protest by sitting out on his father’s barrow. In the Eddic poem Helgakvida Hiorvardssonar the hero is sitting on a barrow when a passing valkyrie gives him his name, while in Volsunga saga the king Rerir gets an apple from Frigg while sitting out on a mound, which when his wife eats it finally makes her pregnant.

The first part of another Eddic poem, Svipdagsmal, is a dialogue between the hero Svipdag and his dead mother, who chants nine charms for him after his step-mother curses him. Significantly, their dialogue all happens at the door of her barrow, as if either she couldn’t come out or he didn’t want to go in.

Groa’s Incantation by W. G. Collingwood. Wikimedia.

The Angry Dead

Svipdag’s caution may not have been misplaced. Some sagas, such as Eyrbyggja saga, tell how the dead could become a revenant, or draugr, who combined the undead appearance of a zombie with the power of a vampire. In the saga, the undead Thorolf unleashed a reign of terror until a brave group dug him up and moved his body away.

You could usually tell a draugr from the friendly dead by their colour: a draugr was either hel-blár (death-black/blue) or else ná-folr (“corpse-pale). In Grettirs saga, a shepherd named Glamr was killed by some sort of supernatural creature, and becomes a draugr himself. The story indicates this by its description of his body:

Thereafter they came on a great beaten place high up in the valley, and they thought it was as if strong wrestling had gone on there; for that all about the stones had been uptorn and the earth withal; now they looked closely and saw where Glam lay a little way therefrom; he was dead, and as blue as hell, and as great as a neat.

He then launched his own reign of terror until Grettir managed to defeat him. Both Glamr and Thorolf grew to a great size after death, making them more formidable and terrifying.

Sometimes the draugr‘s malign nature is almost comically self-defeating. In Egils saga einhenda ok Ásmundar berserkjabana, blood-brothers Aran and Asmund vowed that if one of them died, the other would keep vigil for three days. When Aran died, Asmund took his horse, hawk and other possessions into his friend’s mound to sit for the three days. However:

During the first night, Aran got up from his chair and killed the hawk and hound and ate them. On the second night he got up again from his chair, and killed the horse and tore it into pieces; then he took great bites at the horse-flesh with his teeth, the blood streaming down from his mouth all the while he was eating… The third night Asmund became very drowsy, and the first thing he knew, Aran had got him by the ears and torn them off.

People were often placed in mounds sitting in their chairs – apparently with ties or chains to make sure they didn’t fall over.

Into the Mountains

Others took their attachement to a place a bit further, and, in legend at least, disappeared into the mountains after their death.

The best-known example of this comes from Eyrbyggja saga, and tells how Thorolf Mostrarskegg, a follower of Thor, was convinced that after his death he would go into the mountain of Helgafell (Holy-fell) and that his family would follow him. He died, and later his son Thorstein was drowned while fishing:

…a shepherd-man of Thorstein’s fared after his sheep north of Holyfell; there he saw how the fell was opened on the north side, and in the fell he saw mighty fires, and heard huge clamour therein, and the clank of drinking-horns; and when he hearkened if perchance he might hear any words clear of others, he heard that there was welcomed Thorstein Codbiter and his crew, and he was bidden to sit in the high-seat over against his father.
(Eyrbyggja saga, ch. 11)

Other references to people going into mountains include the kin of Selþorir, who chose to die at Þorisbjorg, and Hreidarr, who went to Melifell. Even Audr the Deep-Minded, although a Christian who chose a Christian burial, was later said to have gone into the mountain, and shrine was built there. (Davidson: 88)

Apart from Landnamabok, another saga, Bardr’s saga Snaefellis, tells how when Bardr disappeared, people assumed that he had disappeared into a local glacier, the Snæfellsjökull, and ‘had him for their god to whom they made their vows’. He thus became known as Bárðr Snæfellsáss, the word áss (“god”) showing how he became a protective spirit for the people there.

Whether into a barrow, or into a mountain, many of the dead stayed near, where they could send their aid to their families and followers.


References and Links:

The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.

Davidson, H.R.E. 1968: The Road to Hel: a Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature, Praeger. (Goodreads)

Wikipedia entry on barrows, with lists for the different Scand countries.
Story of Audr the Deep-Minded, just because she’s interesting
You can find the Ynglinga saga story about Freyr, Njord and Odin and how they were buried either online here or else as a pdf from the Viking Society.
Article on the Ancestors on Norse Mythology for Smart People
Viking Answer Lady on the undead

The image at the top is of the standing stones at Callanish, in Scotland.

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