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  • Vampires and Watchmen:Categorizing the Mediaeval Icelandic Undead
  • Ármann Jakobsson

One can imagine three ways to approach a mediaeval Icelandic draugr, a term which is usually glossed as 'ghost' in English. 1 The first would be the most common one, to simply accept the definitions of the most influential nineteenth-century scholars, Konrad Maurer and Jón Árnason, and use them to categorize the mediaeval draugar. The second way would be to take every instance of the word draugr in mediaeval texts and analyze carefully what type of creature it seems to indicate, and then examine the vocabulary used about those creatures. The third is to focus on the function of actual mediaeval Icelandic undead in order better to understand the essence of their being.

In this study, I shall argue that the first two methods are flawed and instead attempt a tentative categorization of my own of the mediaeval Icelandic undead, those beings that most modern Icelanders, knowing their Jón Árnason, would refer to as draugur, based on their function and characteristics.

The Categories and Influence of Konrad Maurer and Jón Árnason

The first volume of Jón Árnason's Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri (1862) is divided into four groups of folktales. The first is termed Goðfræðissögur and includes stories of elves, trolls, and sea-dwellers. The second is called Draugasögur and the third Galdrasögur. For some reason, Jón Árnason did not write the introduction to his monumental collection himself but rather Guðbrandur Vigfússon, who explained that the arrangement of the folk-tales followed the system of the noted German scholar and Icelandophile Konrad Maurer (who had recently edited a smaller collection of Isländische Volkssagen der Gegenwart, 1860) who, according to Guðbrandur, arranged his collection by the principles then in fashion in Germany. 2 [End Page 281]

Grouping folktales into tales of elves and trolls, tales of ghosts, and tales of magic and sorcery is sensible enough, and it may well be the most practical way of categorizing nineteenth-century folktales about ghosts and sorcerers. When it comes to mediaeval texts, however, care seems to be needed. Is the continuity between mediaeval and modern ghosts and witches clear and unbroken? That is the common assumption, but it may be a fallacy. Folklorists, like all other scholars, stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, are influenced by them, and are often led by the traditions of their discipline to approach the subject a certain way. Jón Árnason's collection of folktales was enormously popular, and one of the consequences is that his and Maurer's ideas about trolls, ghosts, and magicians tended to shape the ideas of those who came later, since few who are interested in Icelandic ghosts have made their acquaintance without consulting Jón Árnason. In this study I shall instead try to look critically at Jón Árnason, while still acknowledging him as a giant of Icelandic folklore scholarship.

Jón Árnason's collection also has subcategories of ghost stories: apturgaungur, uppvaknínga eða sendíngar, and fylgjur. These subcategories are not without interest for those who wish to study mediaeval Icelandic ghosts, since two of them group the ghosts according to their origins, and a similar division may also be found in mediaeval texts. However, the third subcategory concerns the function rather than the origins of this ghost type, a problem that Jón Árnason was aware of, since he remarks that the fylgjur category has ghosts that could also be grouped into either of the other two subcategories ("meigi vel hlýða, að láta slíkar sögur fylgja öðrumhvorum hinna fyrnefndu flokka eptir efninu"). 3 The other two categories, apturgaungur and uppvakníngar or sendingar, are on the one hand ghosts who materialize "af sjálfsdáðum eða einhverri annari ástæðu" (of their own accord or for any other reason) and on the other ghosts "sem aðrir vekja upp í lifandi lífi með töfrum" (who are raised by others with magic).

This distinction between ghosts that materialize without any aid and those that are awakened by others was real and important...