Scandinavia, Vampires in

Scandinavia, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Geographically, Scandinavia consists of three countries of northern Europe: Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Historically and culturally, it also generally includes Denmark and Iceland. Linguistically, each of these country’s languages includes strong elements of Old Norse, the common language of the Scandinavian Vikings. The vampire, though present, was not a prominent element in Viking folklore and did not become one in subsequent Scandinavian folk traditions.

Rosalie H. Wax, author of Magic, Fate and History: The Changing Ethos of the Vikings pointed out that in the old Scandinavian literature, matter was conceived as substantial, and semitransparent ghostly figures were nonexistent. There was a tradition of ghosts, however, some friendly and some harmful. The latter had greater interaction with the world, more like revenants than ghosts. At times revenants behaved, at least superficially, like a vampire or a ghoul, and usually were treated in ways reminiscent of the vampires of Eastern Europe, by a stake and decapitation. They also have been reported as vampires in some of the popular surveys of vampires around the world.

In the Eyrbyggia Saga of Iceland, for example, Thorolf, an early settler of the island, reappeared after his burial. Cattle that went near his tomb became mad and died. His hauntings at home caused his wife’s death. His wanderings were stopped for a while by the removal of his body to a new location. But he returned and, finally, his new tomb was opened and his body burned and ashes scattered. The Grettis Saga reported the decapitation of Karr, another Icelander, whose head was laid at his thigh, and of Glam, who was both decapitated and burned. Glam was a strong man who hated his former employer, killing his cattle and driving off members of his household. Glam finally was beaten in a fight with a visiting hero, Grettir. Ancient Danish records told of Mith-othin, a juggler who had earned the wrath of Odin. He fled to Finland but was killed by the Finns. However, in death, he operated from the barrow where his body was laid. Deaths of people near his barrow and sicknesses that spread through the populace were attributed to his taking revenge. To stop his bloody deeds, the people beheaded and staked him.

More central to Scandinavian belief was a mara, the nightmare. A mara was seen as a beautiful woman but was in fact a troll. She came to people as they slept and lay upon their breast so that they could neither draw a breath nor move a limb. She would attempt to put her finger in the victim‘s mouth and count the teeth. If she was given time to do her counting, the victim usually died. According to some sources, a mara was an unknown person in love with its victim. She also was known to attack the horses and ride one all night so that it would be found in its stable the next morning all sweaty. Steps could be taken against the nightmare spirit, including the spreading of seeds around the house, turning shoes the wrong way at the side of the bed, and placing a scythe on the front of the bed.

A knife or sharp instrument was the most effective means of killing or driving away the mara. It has been suggested that a vampire appears in the Kalevala, the ancient saga of Finland. Over the threshold of the Abode of the Dead in the saga stood Surma, the personification of violent death. Surma was ready to seize any imprudent person who wandered too near to him and to devour the victim with his notable set of teeth. Surma was a horrible figure, but does not appear to have been a vampire.

Modern Scandinavia: The tradition of the substantial dead returning to interact with the living has continued into the twentieth century.

It includes stories of the return of dead lovers (a la Berger’s “Lenore”) and the gathering of the dead in church buildings to hold their own worship services. More to the point, there were traditions of the dead returning because they had committed suicide, because they were overly greedy, or because they wanted to revenge themselves on the living.

Children who were murdered or who died before baptism also returned. There was an evil woman of Ris, Denmark, who walked around after her death. Following a very old tradition, a wooden stake was stuck into the earth above her grave and thrust through her body, thus pinning her to the ground. In order to prevent the dead from arising, people would throw soil in the grave or place needles in the soles of the feet. More recently, a tradition emerged of shooting the corpse with a bullet made of silver. The treatment of revenants in Scandinavia points to the common ways of dealing with non-vampiric revenants and its continuity with similar practices carried out against the vampire in eastern Europe.

One popular story, “Gronnskjegg” (the Vampire or, better translated, the Ghoul) has been collected across Norway. In the story a young girl married an unknown man with a green beard. On returning home she discovered that her new husband had eaten corpses from the local church graveyard. Later he appeared to her in the form of different relatives and questioned her. When he appeared in the form of her mother, she told all that she knew of him, and he killed her.


Craigie, William A. Scandinavian Folklore: Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1970. 554 pp.
Hodne, Ornulf. The Type of the Norwegian Folktale. Oslo, Norway: Universitetforlaget, 1984. 400 pp.
Kvideland, Reimond, and Henning K. Sehmsdorf, eds. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. 429 pp.
MacCulloch, J. A. The Celtic and Scandinavian Religions. London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1948. 180 pp.
Wax, Rosalie H. Magic, Fate and History: The Changing Ethos of the Vikings. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1969. 186 pp.
Wright, Dudley. Vampires and Vampirism. 1914, 1924. Rept. The Book of Vampires. 1924. Rept. New York: Causeway Books, 1973. 217 pp.
The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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