It was the time before electricity, before science took over people’s thoughts, and folk tales and folklore told stories about how things really related to each other. When autumn darkness grew stronger and the Polar Night arrived, in that time darkness was troublesome. It housed several spirits, trolls, and a special creature connected to the ocean in northern parts of Norway, called draug. It was a dead man, without head, never buried, literally an “again-walker” or a revenant.
For fishermen, autumn and winter work was about fishing gear, some small boat repairing, but the most with the boat was done in spring and summer time. After Christmas, men were heading for the big cod fisheries, most of them to Lofoten Islands, but all along the coast from Finnmark to Lofoten people fished. The traditional fishing boats were open row- and sailboats, a type called nordlandsboat, used in northern Norway. The main size were with four or more men onboard. Through 19th century the participation increased a lot, at the peak there were 30 000 men fishing in Lofoten through the winter months, so the fisheries were rather big. The wintertime activity was demanding, a lot of men drowned.
There was a period of preparations before the fishermen left home. Boathouses lay nearby “flomålet”; the high-water mark, with the boats inside. Draugen lived at sea and his area was up to high-water mark. Young guys, who were going to join their first winter fisheries, could meet draugen in the boathouse, or when they walked along the shores in the darkness. This could result in fights in the area between high and low water. In northern Norway the difference between ebb and flow can be 4 meters at the most. So these areas were changing all the time, following the moon phases.
In some local Sami tradition draugen could also move upstream in rivers, and he could even challenge women. Sami women participated more often in fisheries than the Norwegian who for the most stayed at home. But draugen was something mainly men had to deal with. It was death calling, challenging every man who put his feet into a boat. He had to deal with this fear of death to make a living for him and his family.
In modern research we see draugen as a personified force made of all the dead men at sea. It could be a way of handling fear of death, and a way of being especially aware for the dangers at sea. The weather and the waves could challenge the boat. A lot of stories tells about waves rising suddenly threatening to fill the boat, or wild wind occurring from the north, from the Polar Regions, nearly as a ghost. The men had to develop a special awareness to these situations, and to see draugen, or traces of him, was a way to be aware.
I wrote my master degree about draugen and the nordlandsboat. Reading so many stories about this creature, I was for a period a bit disturbed of the thought of him, when I went in the darkness, along the shore.