A draugr is a corporeal undead, from the Norse Mythology. Draugrs were believed to live in the graves of dead vikings, being the body of the dead. The draugr were said to be either hel-blar (“death black”) or, conversely, na-folr (“corpse-pale”).
Views differed on whether the personality and soul of the dead person lingered in the draugr. As the graves of important men often contained a good amount of wealth, the draugr jealously guarded his treasures, even after death. All draugr possessed superhuman strength and some were immune to usual weapons. To defeat a draugr, a hero was often necessary, since only such a man had strength and courage enough to stand up to so formidable an opponent. The hero would often have to wrestle with the draugr and so defeat him, since weapons would do no good. A good example of this kind of fight is found in Hrómundar saga Gripssonar.
It is said that the draugr, even when defeated, would come back, requiring the hero to dispose of the body in unconventional ways. The most preferred method was to cut off the draugr’s head, burn the body, and dump the ashes in the sea, the emphasis being on making absolutely sure the draugr was dead and gone. This may be related to the traditional practice of killing vampires seen in other cultures.
Some draugr were able to leave their dwelling place, the burial mound, and visit the living during the night. Such visits were universally horrible events, and often ended in death for one or more of the living, and warranted the exhumation of the draugrs tomb by a hero.
It has been speculated that there is a strong correlation between the draugr and the monster Grendel in the Old English narrative poem Beowulf.
Dr. John Tanke has theorized that the words dragon and draugr might be related. He notes that both the serpent and the spirit serve as jealous guardians of the graves of kings or ancient civilizations. Dragons that act as draugrs appear in Beowulf as well as in the stories of Siegfried.
A somewhat ambivalent, alternative view of the draugr is however presented by the example of Gunnar in Njál’s saga:
“It seemed as though the howe was agape, and that Gunnar had turned within the howe to look upwards at the moon. They thought that they saw four lights within the howe, but not a shadow to be seen. Then they saw that Gunnar was merry, with a joyful face”.
In modern times, the most familiar encounter with a draugr is Frodo’s spectral struggle with the “barrow-wight” in J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Fellowship of the Ring, in the chapter “Fog on the Barrow-Downs.”