Vampires: The Vikings had them too…

 first posted at WONDROUS READS

It’s true. Years ago I was amazed to discover that vampires were known to the Vikings, at least, if their sagas are to be believed. In a couple of them, the Eyrbyggja Saga for example, the bodies of those slain rise from the dead, causing havoc, slaughtering animals and men, and blood flows. 

Some readers interpret these revenants as ghosts, but what, after all, is the difference between a ghost and a vampire? Not such a great deal. Both are spirits who, for whatever reason, come back after death, and the main difference is the association of blood drinking on the part of the vampire, the lack of corporeality on the part of the ghost. And yet, go back in time, and vampires, at least in the original folklore, are very rarely described as drinking blood, and the main difference seems to be more to do with where you lived, not what the revenant actually was. Eastern Europe has a strong vampire tradition, England does not. What we have here is ghosts. And yet, we dealt with ghosts in exactly the same ways that our Transylvanian cousin dealt with vampires: a stake through the chest, or mouth for example. Or better yet, both. 

To the superstitious mind, both of these frights, the vampire and the ghost, are just people trying to come back, with unfinished business to conclude with the living. And so are the viking vampires: often the victim of a domestic quarrel, the aggrieved party return after death to try and claim what they believe to be theirs: in the case of Midwinterblood, two children, twin brother and sister, whose uncle returns after death, claiming them as his own.

And here’s an extract from Part Six of Midwinterblood, The Vampire

The turning of the days became heavy and thick.
The short tide of daylight was grey and grim, as an unborn violence took root in the soil beneath the snows.
It was unseen, but it was felt by all, and it grew.
Very soon, it would burst up out of the ground.

Eirik and I clung to each other.
‘What will be?’ I whispered to him one night, as we lay in our bed, in the small room behind the longhouse. Our parents slept soundly, beyond the fire, but Eirik and I were full of fear and of wondering.
‘Why do they not speak to each other?’ Eirik whispered back. 
It was true. Mother and Father were not speaking.
Tor strode round the village as if he were the chieftan, not Father. Some sneered at him as he passed, others took his hand in friendship, and so the village grew divided, and quiet, and brooded.
Eirik and I shivered and shook, and waited for something to happen, and we did not have long to wait.

One night, the violence that had been growing between Father and Tor erupted.
At meal time, as we sat and silently chewed our food, the doors opened and there stood Tor.
I heard my father say, ‘Name him, and he’s always near.’
Heads hung, others lifted.
Words were muttered, as once more, Tor walked around the tables, and out into the centre, by the fire.
He stood facing Father and then, without looking at us, his hand pointed in our direction.
‘Those barn,’ he said, ‘are mine. They are my seed, and mine to own. I will have them to me.’
Father stood.
Now all eyes were lifted, and all hands shook.
My father stood and walked around the high table, into the centre of the great longhouse, and walked up to Tor, till their toes touched.
He said a single word to Tor, but no one knew what that word was, so quietly did he speak.
And then they were on each other.
I could not see who struck first, so fast it was, and it mattered not, because in a moment they were one beast, rolling in the dirt.
It would have been usual at such a fight for shouts to ring out, for voices to cry and for hands to hammer on the tabletops. 
But not this time. This time there was silence, and the only sounds were the sobbing of our mother, and the grunts of the men grappling.
I felt for Eirik’s hand and he felt for mine, just as our father’s and our uncle’s hands felt for each other’s throats.
It didn’t take long.
As they rolled, I wondered why it was that our father, some years older than his brother, seemed the younger. His skin was younger, his back was straighter, his arms stronger.
And his hands.
He was astride Tor now. Like a horse. Even at the awful moment, I remember that I thought it looked as if he rode a horse.
But he didn’t, he rode a man, and as I fingered the hare at my throat, Father’s fingers closed around the throat of his brother, and squeezed.

© Marcus Sedgwick 2011

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