The dead have no existence other than that which the living imagine for them. (Jean-Claude Schmitt)
There are several instances in which the Old Norse texts depict the dead as continuing their existence within the boundaries of Miðgarðr. These revenants were usually called
) and were considered to be of a physical nature. The
had many different activities that varied from killing people and cattle to staying inside their grave-mounds protecting their treasure. The encounter with one of them usually ended in a wrestling match; but it was not an easy task to defeat then because, instead of being flimsy corpses, they possessed a superhuman strength. The belief in the existence of such creatures can be attested by some law prohibitions against raising the dead.
There are also several irregular burials in which the corpse was decapitated or the head was absent and this has been interpreted as a precautionary measure to prevent the return of the dead.
Some bog burials (such as that of the Tollund man) have also been interpreted as a way to keep the dead from rising again.
Several grave-mounds were broken into, and sometimes the explanation is that they were entered to be robbed, but there are some evidences that show that in some instances that was not the purpose and they might have been entered to ‘kill’ the ‘inhabitant’ of the grave mound.
The fear of the dead is present in cultures of all times, and the Old Norse society was not an exception. However, it is not my purpose in this dissertation to analyze if people believed or not in the existence of
. Nor is my intention to clear up and interpret actual grave-mounds or irregular burials to prove that the corpses that they contained were believed to be revenants. My main aim in this study is to analyze the
as they were represented in literary sources and get a closer look at the mentality of the culture that created such creatures. I will open this study by summarizing the previous research that has been done in the area. However I will review only the main publications that have been devoted in to the study of
in particular, while other minor sources will be used later in the text.
Norges Gamle Love
I: 19; II: 308; II: 327.
Cf. Carelli, Peter 2000: 77 ff.
Cf. Ström, Folke 1942: 187-88.
Cf. Brendalsmo 1992: 84 ff. and Brøndsted, Johannes 1960: 249.