The False Revenants
After analyzing the texts, it is possible for us to make a distinction between false and true revenants. The issue of true revenants--dead people who return of their own volition for their own reasons--will be examined in chapter 5. The false revenants that are the subject of this chapter, however, are the dead that make an immediate appearance after their decease, as if they continued to live for a span of time, or the dead who seem to have been called back to life under certain circumstances. Here, we will examine these two groups of false revenants: first, the dead who were carried to the grave against their will, then the departed who came back to life in self-defense, because their sepulchre has been violated, or because they have been forced to return through necromancy.
The Recalcitrant Dead
Losing life certainly cannot be pleasant, but being buried in exile, removed from the community of the living, was, it seems, intolerable. This was the true death--exile in a timeless retirement. It is easy to deduce the considerations related to this death from the references that pepper the narrations here and there. Someone named Hrapp asks his wife to make sure that he is buried standing up beneath the kitchen door so that he can watch over the household. Karl Thorsteinsson has himself buried at the edge of a river so that he can watch the coming and going of the ships. Ingolf requests that his body not be placed in the family mound but by the side of the road so that the girls of Lake Valley would remember him. It is therefore not surprising to see such deaths followed by strange phenomena.
Sigrid died during the night; a coffin was made in which to place her body, but things occurred that caused someone to be sent to fetch back her spouse.
Then Thorstein Ericksson sent word to his namesake (Master Thorstein) to come to him, saying there was no peace at home because the farmer’s wife was trying to rise up and get into the bed with him. When Thorstein entered, she had reached the sideboards of the bed. He took hold of her and drove an ax into her breast. Thorstein Eriksson died near sundown.
The text presents two important pieces of data: the dead can be intimidated, and they can return to seek out or designate those who are soon to die. We have another account of this incident, and it is interesting to compare the two narratives. Note that Sigrid is named Grimhild here:
[ . . . ] It was not long until the sickness came to Thorstein’s house, and his wife, Grimhild, was the first to fall ill. She was a very large woman, with the strength of a man, yet she bowed to the illness. Soon after that, Thorstein Eriksson was stricken, and both of them lay ill until Grimhild, wife of Thorstein the Black, died.
After she had died, Thorstein the Black left the room to seek a plank on which to put her body. Gudrid, the servant, then spoke, “Don’t be away long, dear Thorstein,” she said. He promised to do as she asked.
Thorstein Eriksson then spoke, “Strange are the actions of the mistress of the house now; she’s struggling to raise herself up on her elbow, stretching her feet out from the bedboards and feeling for her shoes.” At this, Thorstein the Black returned, and Grimhild collapsed that same instant, with a cracking sound coming from every timber in the room. Thorstein then made a coffin for Grimhild’s body and took it away and secured it. He was a large, strong man, and needed to call upon all his strength before he managed to remove his wife from the farm.
This final touch recurs frequently in the sagas: Sometimes even a pair of oxen can barely manage to pull the cart in which the deceased have been placed. Sometimes the body makes itself so heavy that it has to be buried wherever it seems to want to remain. In the following instance, Arnkel is bringing Thorolf Twist-Foot to his final resting place: “After a yoke of oxen had been hitched to sled, Arnkel laid Thorolf on it, and they began driving it through Thorsardale. It was hard work hauling Thorolf to his burial place.” This resistance does not presage anything good, and the narrator adds: “When they got him there, they built a solid cairn (rammliga) over him,” which clearly shows that everyone feared his return.
The recalcitrant dead are not people that are easy to move and the coffin offers no resistance to their pressure.
One night, Audun went in search of Thorgils. Gyda, his mother, had died in a bizarre fashion, causing the flight of the entire household. It should be said that she had witchlike powers. Audun wished to bury her and was looking for help. Thorgils and he went to the farm, built a coffin, and placed Gyda’s body inside. “Let’s carry the bier,” said Audun. “Put it in the ground and place over it the heaviest objects we can find.” Because two precautions are always better than one, they encircled the bier with iron bands before starting off.
They had barely gotten any distance from the farm when the coffin groaned, the iron bands burst into shards, and Gyda emerged. Audun and Thorgils grabbed her, and to hold her, they were forced to use all their strength, and they were both hearty men. Incapable of carrying her any further, they burned her body.