By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
You might have heard about the ‘again-walker’, or Norse zombie. This is a shambling corpse that hunts and feeds on the living. Belief in such creatures was remarkably common in medieval and early modern Europe, from England to eastern Europe and medieval Greece. Even otherwise realistic sagas such as The Saga of the Swamp Dwellers may involve the ‘again-walker’.
Signs of a Zombie Threat
Typically, an again-walker is a man who died under certain conditions: disappointed with his son, or sitting up inside his house, or with his eyes open, or just being a mean old person. Any one of these conditions is a warning sign, but the confluence of several is an almost sure sign of an again-walker zombie threat.
In The Saga of the Swamp Dwellers, we meet an old neighborhood bully named Thorolf Lame-Leg. He is disappointed in his son, who is nothing like him, and one evening old Lame-Leg comes home, sits down at his table, and eats nothing. He remains there when the others go to sleep (presumably they’re too frightened of him to disturb him), and in the morning they wake up to find him dead in his chair with his eyes open.
Here we have a concert of warning signs that Thorolf Lame-Leg will come back as an aptrganga: he was a mean old man who died sitting in a chair upright in his house, with his eyes open, disappointed in his son.
The Threat Is Serious
But, old Lame-Leg’s son is canny and takes precautionary measures. He has the wall of the house knocked out behind his father, and then covers his face in cloth so as to prevent his dead open eyes from cursing anyone they might fall upon. The son also drags his father’s corpse out backwards through the hole in the wall, which he has patched up immediately after.
This is a protective measure against a trait common both to the Norse again-walker and to many traditional Eastern European vampires: he cannot enter through a door he has not been led or invited through after death. By taking his father out through the wall, Thorolf’s son is denying his undead father re-entry into the house.
The son then buries Thorolf Lame-Leg far away from the house and deep in the earth. But soon, word spreads in the community that it isn’t safe to be outside after sunset anymore.
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Herders who stray too near the mound with their herds return with stories that the dead Lame-Leg has chased them, and that animals have gone mad and screamed themselves to death in the grave’s vicinity. Birds, too, drop dead when they land on the grave mound. The oxen that had hauled his body to the gravesite are found in the mornings exhausted, as if they had been ridden all night (a curious habit of the Norse zombie is riding livestock in the night like a weird undead rodeo).
It isn’t long before a herder is found dead near Lame-Leg’s grave, with every bone in his body broken and his flesh the distinctive blue color that the sagas attribute to the undead. The herder is buried next to his zombie attacker, and in subsequent nights is seen walking with the zombie—the specter of a zombie outbreak seems to loom.
The zombie Lame-Leg isn’t done with his own family, either. At night, he sometimes rides the roof (another strange hobby of Norse zombies) and even visits his widowed wife on sexual liaisons—the intensity of which eventually kills her. She, too, is buried next to the zombie, and eventually she is seen walking with him in the nights, as are all the other people he kills in the valley. Soon the whole valley is left to the undead, with the remaining living fleeing to distant regions.
End of the Zombie Terror
Finally, a local hero named Thorodd dug up the body of Lame-Leg during daytime when the undead being was powerless. He set fire to it, burning it to ashes, and dumped the ashes in the sea. But just this life ain’t good enough, and neither is one death, for this particular again-walker.
For some of Lame-Leg’s ashes, in spite of everything, remained on a rock on the beach, and were licked up by a cow. This cow would go on to give birth to a calf, who would grow up into a fearsome bull, who, possessed by the bully Lame-Leg, would kill Thorodd, the man who had ended his reign of undead terror.
Common Questions about Zombies in Norse Myths
A zombie is a corpse that hunts the living at night to feed on them. One zombie can turn an entire town into zombies, just like Thorolf Lame-Leg from The Saga of the Swamp Dwellers did. Certain conditions such as disappointment, dying with the eyes open, or simply being a mean old person are the warning signs of becoming a zombie.
Thorolf Lame-Leg died suddenly inside his home with the signs of zombie threat, so the son had to cover up his father’s face to avoid any eye contact. He then knocked out the wall making a hole so that he could drag his father’s corpse out of the house through that hole. In this way, the son could avoid the father re-entry to the house later. Finally, he buried him deep in the ground.
Thorodd was a local hero who managed to end the reign of zombie terror. He dug up Lame-Leg’s body during day time when the so-called again-walker was powerless before burning his body into ashes, Thorodd then dumped those ashes in the sea. But since some of Lame-Leg’s ashes remained on the beach, they were eaten by a cow that would give birth to a calf. The calf later became a bull and killed Thorodd.