Welcome to a new edition of Know Your Ghosts. Today we look at an angry Nordic spirit, the gjenganger.
Hailing from Scandinavia, the gjenganger is a unique sort of ghost that is completely corporeal. Usually the spirit of someone who left something undone in life, often gjenganger were murder victims, suicide victims, or murderers themselves. Regardless of their demeanor in life, the gjenganger is always malicious, hurting the friends and family it once held dear.
Unlike most ghosts, the gjenganger can do more than simply frighten a person. While possessing none of the traditional ghostly abilities, such as walking through walls or psychokinesis, the gjenganger instead spreads plague and disease. The evil ghost will pinch someone, known as dødningeknip, and the victim’s skin will turn bluish as the spirit’s infection begins. The flesh becomes necrotic, shriveling and dying, slowly working its way to the heart where it kills the victim. This is usually done while the victim is asleep, leaving them helpless against the creature.
In many ways, the gjenganger is almost more like a type of vampire than ghost, though it does not feed from the living. It stalks its prey in a similar manner, however, and is far more comfortable at night than during the day. The gjenganger is also highly intelligent, like the vampire, and cold, cunning and ruthless. They also appear completely human to the naked eye, with no spirit like qualities.
There are means of warding against a gjenganger, though most focus on preventing the spirit from rising. Like vampires, holy symbols are said to repel the creatures, and a holy symbol above a door will prevent the ghost from entering. A cross hung around the neck may prevent them from delivering their dead man’s pinch. Since the gjenganger was a corporeal spirit, locking doors and windows was also a means of escaping its wrath, as it could not, like other ghosts, walk through the walls.
The fear of gjenganger was once so prevalent that people took extraordinary precautions to stop them from rising. The coffin containing someone who might rise must be carried over the church wall instead of through the church’s gate, and carried three times around the church itself. Any shovels used to dig the grave must be left at the grave site and not disturbed. A varp, a pile of rocks and twigs, should be erected on the spot where the person died. Adding a stone to this pile brings good luck. Finally, an inscription inside the coffin should prevent a spirit from becoming gjenganger:
For Birginga riste broren runer
Kjære syster mi, skån meg!
For Birginga, the brother carved runes
My dear sister, spare me!
The gjenganger was originally a viking legend, though it seemed to be at least semi-mortal in the original stories. The spirits could be slain by a man, and in doing so, the ghost would be undone. They were also referred to as the draugr, though this may refer to a slightly different creature. They were, however, clearly different from gasts, a Scandinavian ghost or ghoul that appeared more skeletal with white skin and sunken features.
The modern interpretation of this creature brings in more of the ghostly attributes, recasting the spirit as ethereal instead of corporeal, and it is seen more as a plague carrier than malicious spirit. For the most part, the gjenganger has been supplanted or mixed with the spøkelse (ghost), and has lost much of its unique flavor.