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The Trow and the Draugr

The Draugr's Howe: 3D Illustration by Sigurd TowrieBehind the surviving stories of the trow is, I believe, an older, and much more sinister, creature of Scandinavian origin.

Peeling away the layers of accumulated myth, the presence of this creature not only reveals elements of the trows' origin but also confirms that, at one time, there was little, or no, distinction between it and other preternatural creatures of Orcadian legend.

For years, the accepted explanation for the word "trow" has been that it is simply a corruption of "troll" - in other words, the trow is Orkney's version of Norway's lumbering trolls.

But in my opinion this is completely wrong.

Although "troll" is a general term to describe a number of unearthly beings, and could be applied to Orkney's trows, it doesn't explain the corruption from "troll" to "trow".

Instead, there is a blatantly obvious clue.

This lies not only in the Orcadian pronunciation of "trow", but also in another word now practically lost to Orcadian dialect — "drow".

For years, the folklorists' fixation on the Norwegian troll as the precursor to the trow seemed strange to me — especially considering we already have an entity in Scandinavian lore with an identical name, and attributes, of the Orcadian trow.

For the real predecessor of the trow, I believe we must look to the mound-dwelling creature in Norse tradition referred to as the "draugr".

The Icelandic Dictionary defines "draugr" as being a ghost or spirit; especially the dead inhabitant of a cairn. But this gives a false impression of the creature.

The pagan Norse believed that a body placed in its grave continued to live on. The term we would use today would be "undead" and, in much the same way as the hogboon, the draugr generally remained inside his burial mound, but was free to leave and wander among the living at will.

Along the same lines, we have a definite connection between the trows and the ancient beliefs concerning the spirits of the dead.

Writing in the 16th century, Jo Ben declared that the people of Stronsay:

“...say that folk who die suddenly spend their lives thereafter with them [trows], although I do not believe it."

A clear reference to the idea that the trows were, at one time, equated with the dead, or at least some form of afterlife.

So is the trow a purely Nordic creation?

In short, probably not. Elements of trow tales have similarities shared by mythical creatures throughout the British Isles, which clearly points to a pre-Norse influence.

Towards the end of the 8th century, when the early Norse pioneers began arriving in Orkney, they were undoubtedly exposed to a multitude of tales dealing with the mischievous, sometimes malicious, child-stealing "spirits" that dwelled inside the islands' many mounds.

To me, it seems likely that these Scandinavian newcomers equated these spirits with their nearest equivalent — the mound-dwelling draugr. Over the years, the mix of various strands of folklore developed into our archetypal trow.

Gradually, as the fairy lore became more prevalent, only vague elements of the undead draugr were remembered.

The trow - a spirit of the dead?

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