Viking Zombies – A Research Seminar by Dr Clare Downham

Written by Grace Young

Vikings and zombies generally are not things one would naturally think of in the same sentence. They are certainly not things most people would associate with Scotland, either. However, this is exactly what Dr. Clare Downham of the University of Liverpool gave a seminar on.

For clarification, while Downham really was talking about actual Vikings, she was not actually discussing brain-eating, mindless zombies as audiences today might think of them.  No, her paper focused on the fear of revenants and the walking undead in Viking culture, with medieval Icelandic sagas as her main primary sources, along with examples from Viking Scotland.

Downham began her talk by first examining the concept of death in the Viking world, looking at burial mounds across Scandinavia and Scotland, as well as local stories and legends from the Islands and the Highlands. From there, she talked about the various theories as to why someone might become a revenant — this was perhaps one of the most detailed parts of the seminar, and almost begged to have an entire paper written on the topic. According to Downham, bodies were believed to become reanimated for really four main reasons: the spirit of the deceased had never left the resting place and was instead remaining around to act as a guardian for the grave, or for those the soul had cherished in life; the spirit’s journey to the afterlife had been delayed or interrupted for whatever reason, like unfinished business or violent, mysterious circumstances surrounding its death; the soul was restless and unwilling to let go of its hold on life; and that the body had been reanimated by a soul not originally its own — perhaps demonic possession, though this did not really catch on until Christianisation occurred.

The main part of her seminar consisted of a discussion of the different types of revenants in Viking folklore and legend, dividing them really into two main groups: Mound-Dwellers, and Malevolent spirits. Mound-Dwellers, she explained, were generally only ‘evil’ or violent when disturbed, and tended to act as guardians of their burial places.  They were thought to be people who had lived normal, if not good lives, and who had been laid to rest in places important to them and their families. These revenants, as already stated, only became malevolent when their resting places were tampered with, but once they did become malevolent, things tended to take a turn for the gruesome and terrifying. One particularly vivid example Downham provided came from the Grettis Saga, where an estate was being haunted by a particularly nasty revenant simply because his resting place had been disturbed. Interestingly, Downham pointed out, this particular revenant was killed by being decapitated rather than by being burned as revenants tend to be. The other type of undead, the Malevolent spirit, is the classic figure of a person who was a societal outcast and a generally unpleasant person in life who continues to cause trouble for the living in death. Downham here talked about the Laxdaela Saga whose revenant was a greedy, unpopular man while he was alive, and who continued to wreak havoc on the living, especially once his former mead hall was taken over by a new family.

Downham did mention that there are many instances of overlap between the two types, but this is mainly because many scholars theorise that fear of revenants and the general undead represent a fear of the unexplainable in a time when death and disease and disaster were not understood, except through the supernatural. One particularly effective point she made was that we do much the same today but in different ways.  Society does not like talking about things it does not understand, so we dress it up as monsters and demons to escape having to really face the truth — the Vikings did the same thing, except on a slightly more gruesome scale.

Downham wrapped the seminar up by connecting everything back to Scotland — not the most fascinating ending, but appropriate given the venue. Overall, the talk was engaging and enlightening, but there were certainly places where Downham could have gone into further detail. On the whole, it was a wonderful seminar and a lot less terrifying than watching a show about Viking zombies.

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