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Gjenganger: The Scandinavian Undead

Ghosts, light humour and serious beliefs, item 15

Risen from the dead, the Gjenganger in Scandinavian folklore was a completely corporeal being. From the murdered to suicides, becoming gjenganger after death was a fate open to anyone who still had some unfinished tormenting of family and friends to be getting on with.

Traditionally violent and malicious, the gjenganger were so feared extreme precautions were taken to ensure relatives stayed in the ground. These included abandoning any vehicle, such as a sleigh or wagon, after it was used to carry a coffin to a church; lifting and carrying the coffin over the church wall; having the pallbearers carry the coffin around the outside of the church three times prior to burying it in the churchyard; and, after the introduction of Christianity, using crucifixes and painted crosses to keep evil or supernatural spirits at bay.

Dating back to the age of the Vikings, the first written reference to preventing a relative from returning as a gjenganger was found on the inside of a 6th century coffin. The simple lamentation was carved by a brother to let his sister know he had carved runes to be spared (from her gjenganger).

Another means of keeping the gjenganger from rising from the grave was a varp. This was a stack of twigs and stones which was used to mark the location of someone’s death. As a person passed a varp, they would throw another twig or stone onto the pile to avoid accidents and bad luck.

While the gjenganger was still a violent entity, its form has evolved over time from a perpetrator of violence to a bringer of plague or disease. By using the dødningeknip (loosely translated as “dead man’s pinch”), the gjenganger would emerge at night as the intended victim slept and pinch the victim’s skin. The damaged skin would first bruise, then decay or sink, eventually leading to the victim’s death. (This bit of folklore is believed to have developed to discourage people from sleeping in forbidden or unacceptable places, such as graveyards.)

When spiritualism was introduced in Scandinavia in the early 1900s, the folklore of the gjenganger again evolved. The gjenganger has since become an ethereal, non-violent being of spirit. As the tales regarding the gjenganger changed, the word “gjenganger” has since fallen out of favour to be replaced with the more modern “spøkelse” or ghost.

Of note, in Swedish folklore, the traditional gjenganger is distinct from a ghost or gast. While the gjenganger looked human and was non-violent, the gast was ethereal or skeletal with lethal claws and teeth and capable of causing disease. The gast was also the practical joker of the spirit world, haunting and scaring its victims for no particular reason.

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