The Norsemen were the more prone to these superstitions, because it was a favourite fancy of theirs that, in many instances, the change from life to death altered the temper of the human spirit from benignant to malevolent; or perhaps, that when the soul left the body, its departure was occasionally supplied by a wicked demon, who took the opportunity to enter and occupy its late habitation.
* .Eneid. lib. x. line 773.
Upon such a supposition the wild fiction that follows is probably grounded; which, extravagant as it is, possesses something striking to the imagination. Saxo Grammaticus tells us of the fame of two Norse princes or chiefs, who had formed what was called a brotherhood in arms, implying not only the firmest friendship and constant support during all the adventures which they should undertake in life, but binding them by a solemn compact that, after the death of either, the survivor should descend alive into the sepulchre of his brother in arms, and consent to be buried along with him. The task of fulfilling this dreadful compact fell upon Asmund, his companion Assueit having been slain in battle. The tomb was formed after the ancient northern custom in what was called the age of hills,— that is, when it was usual to bury persons of distinguished merit or rank on some conspicuous spot, which was crowned with a mound. With this purpose a deep narrow vault was constructed, to be the apartment of the future tomb, over which the sepulchral heap was to be piled. Here they deposited arms, trophies, poured forth, perhaps, the blood of victims, introduced into the tomb the war-horses of the champions, and when these rites had been duly paid, the body of Assueit was placed in the dark and narrow house, while his faithful brother in arms entered and sat down by the corpse, without a word or look which testified regret or unwillingness to fulfil his fearful engagement. The soldiers who had witnessed this singular interment of the dead and living, rolled a huge stone to the mouth of the tomb, and piled so much earth and stones above the spot as made a mound visible from a great distance, and then, with loud lamentation for the loss of such undaunted leaders, they dispersed themselves like a flock which has lost its shepherd.
Years passed away after years, and a century had elapsed, ere a noble Swedish rover, bound upon some high adventure, and supported by a gallant band of followers, arrived in the valley which took its name from the tomb of the brethren in arms. The story was told to the strangers, whose leader determined on opening the sepulchre, partly because, as already hinted, it was reckoned a heroic action to brave the anger of departed heroes by violating their tombs ; partly to attain the arms and swords of proof with which the deceased had done their great actions. He set his soldiers to work, and soon removed the earth and stones from one side of the mound, and laid bare the entrance. But the stoutest of the rovers started back, when, instead of the silence of a tomb, they heard within horrid cries, the clash of swords, the clang of armour, and all the noise of a mortal combat between two furious champions. A young warrior was let down into the profound tomb by a cord, which was drawn up shortly after, in hopes of news from beneath. But when the adventurer descended, some one threw him from the cord, and took his place in the noose. When the rope was pulled up, the soldiers, instead of their companion, beheld Asmund, the survivor of the brethren in arms.
He rushed into the open air, his sword drawn in his hand, his armour half torn from his body, the left side of his face almost scratched off, as by the talons of some wild beast. He had no sooner appeared in the light of day, than, with the improvisatory poetic talent, which these champions often united with heroic strength and bravery, he poured forth a string of verses containing the history of his hundred years' conflict within the tomb. It seems that no sooner was the sepulchre closed than the corpse of the slain Assueit arose from the ground, inspired by some ravenous goule, and having first torn to pieces and devoured the horses which had been entombed with them, threw himself upon the companion who had just given him such a sign of devoted friendship, in order to treat him in the same manner. The hero, no way discountenanced by the horrors of his situation, took to his arms, and defended himself manfully against Assueit, or rather against the evil demon who tenanted that champion's body. In this manner the living brother waged a preternatural combat, which had endured during a whole century, when Asmund, at last obtaining the victory, prostrated his enemy, and by driving, as he boasted, a stake through his body, had finally reduced him to the state of quiet becoming a tenant of the tomb. Having chanted the triumphant account of his contest and victory, this mangled conqueror fell dead before them. The body of Assueit was taken out of the tomb, burnt, and the ashes dispersed to heaven; whilst that of the victor, now lifeless, and without a companion, was deposited there, so that it was hoped his slumbers might remain undisturbed.* The precautions taken against Assueit's reviving a second time, remind us of those adopted in the Greek islands, and in the Turkish provinces, against the Vampire. It affords also a derivation of the ancient English law in case of suicide, when a stake was driven through the body, originally to keep it secure in the tomb.
The Northern people also acknowledged a kind of ghosts, who, when they had obtained possession.of a building, or the right of haunting it, did not defend themselves against mortals on the knightly principle of duel, like Assueit, nor were amenable to the prayers of the priest or the spells of the sorcerer, but became tractable when properly convened in a legal process. The Eyrbiggia Saga acquaints us that the mansion of a respectable landholder in Iceland was, soon after the settlement of that island, exposed to a persecution of this kind. The molestation was produced by the concurrence of certain mystical and spectral phenomena, calculated to introduce such persecution. About the commencement of winter, with that slight exchange of darkness and twilight which constitutes night and day in these latitudes, a contagious disease arose in a family of consequence, and in the neighbourhood, which, sweeping off several members of the family at different times, seemed to threaten them all with death. But the death of these persons was attended with the singular consequence that their spectres were seen to wander in the neighbourhood of the mansion-house, terrifying, and even assaulting, those of the living family who ventured abroad. As the number of the dead members of the devoted household seemed to increase in proportion to that of the survivors, the ghosts took it upon them to enter the house and produce their aerial forms and wasted physiognomy even in the stove where the fire was maintained for the general use of the inhabitants, and which, in an Iceland winter, is the only comfortable place of assembling the family. But the remaining inhabitants of the place, terrified by the intrusion of these spectres, chose rather to withdraw to the other extremity of the house, and abandon their warm seats, than to endure the neighbourhood of the phantoms. Complaints were at length made to a pontiff of the god Thor, named Snorro, who exercised considerable influence in the island. By his counsel, the young proprietor of the haunted mansion assembled a jury, or inquest, of his neighbours, constituted in the usual judicial form, as if to judge an ordinary civil matter, and proceeded, in their presence, to cite individually the various phantoms and resemblances of the deceased members of the family to show by what warrant they disputed with him and his servants the quiet possession of his property, and what defence they could plead for thus interfering with and incommoding the living. The spectres of the dead, by name, and in order as summoned, appeared on their being called, and muttering some regrets at being obliged to abandon their dwelling, departed, or vanished, from the astonished inquest. Judgment then went against the ghosts by default; and the trial by jury, of which we here can trace the origin, obtained a triumph unknown to any of the great writers who have made it the subject of eulogy.*