Zombie Week

Historical Zombies: Mummies, The Odyssey, and Beyond

Whenever I hear horror fans talk about zombies and vampires, I’m dismayed at the absolute geek-certainty with which they promote the Romero zombie and the Stoker vampire as the only “true” variants of revenants (dead brought back to some kind of life). Yet neither story accurately reflects the historical record. Revenants are a much more varied and much more vaguely-defined group of monsters than either Romero or Stoker has given us. Romero’s cannibalistic zombies are more like medieval European vampires (but without the religious undertones; I’ll get to that in a bit) while Stoker’s vampires are more like traditional, Caribbean-style zombies who are slaves to their “maker.” There’s a lot more overlap than fans think.

Egyptian Mummies
I’m sure you’re scratching your heads and thinking, “Mummies?! How can they can be revenants?” But they are. They are reanimated corpses. I specify Egyptian mummies here because, of course, many cultures (such as the Inca) had mummies, both deliberate and accidental, but we know quite a bit more about why Egyptians mummified their dead than why other cultures did. And also, because the Egyptian mummies are the antithesis of modern revenants.

In short, the Egyptians were obsessed with the death process, hoping to forestall it (and therefore prolong life/achieve eternal life) by preserving their bodies via mummification so that they could live in an eternal afterlife that looked just like this one. They weren’t the only ones, either: some Christian sects still oppose cremation because an intact body is necessary for the dead person to be raised from his or her grave on the Christian Judgement Day. Since both types of revenants in these legends are fully restored to life, they are obviously not mindless, cannibalistic, or lusting for blood. They are just normal human beings brought back from the dead.

Greek Necromancy
Where did the legend of revenants needing the blood of the living come from? It’s unclear, but the hungry shades Odysseus encounters in his brief trip to the Underworld in Homer’s Bronze/Archaic Age epic The Odyssey indicate it’s an ancient story, indeed (and the Sumerian zombie-goddess story of Inanna and Ereshkigal is even older). Odysseus needs to consult a famous seer, Tiresias, and feeds him animal blood in order to give him the strength to speak. Blood strengthens the dead and gives them some semblance of life. They are quite dangerous in their pursuit of it (Odysseus has to force them back with his sword until Tiresias has drunk and told him what he wants to know). But here’s the thing—these revenants aren’t vampires; they’re ghosts.

Greek and Roman black magic was obsessed with ghosts (possibly, this is because both cultures favored cremation as a burial practice, so not many corpses were around to be reanimated), especially with how to manipulate them to do one’s bidding. Those who died by accident, murder, or some other untimely death were especially vulnerable to would-be necromancers, because they were condemned to wander the earth (or be tied to their graves) until the time of their “natural” deaths arrived and they could move on to the Underworld. Until that time, a living person could inscribe instructions on a “curse tablet” made of lead or papyrus, roll it up, and slip it into a grave in order to control the spirit of the dead person to do the bidding of the living. Some of these tablets could be found inside ancient wax equivalents of voodoo dolls. So, you have pre-Caribbean voodoo zombies and Stoker-style vampires—but as ghosts.

Dancing Demons
Some medieval English monastic writers like the 12th century William of Newburgh and Walter Map, and the 11th century Abbot of Burton, believed that certain evil individuals remained evil after death. They told stories of recently dead men, notorious during their lifetimes, who returned to bother the living, sometimes attacking them, feeding on them or even trying to drink their blood, as well as spreading disease or prophesying death and disaster. In one case, a corpse was found filled with blood before it was taken out and burned on a pyre. In another, disobedient peasants returned as black dogs, spreading pestilence, before being dispelled by beheading and evisceration of their hearts. In a third case, the revenant was beheaded and reburied after being doused with holy water. Note how these elements appear in later vampire fiction.

The biggest animating force for these revenants was alternately seen as the restlessness of evil dead who cannot rest (like Cain, they were forced to wander) or demonic possession. Note how Romero reanimates his dead with the “scientific” explanation of cosmic radiation—in other words, the Cold War version of demons.

The Wikipedia article on revenants would have you believe that these medieval “vampires” weren’t really vampires (i.e., not the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s version), because no one in Western Europe became interested in them until the 18th or 19th centuries and because the term (via the Western European countries of Germany and France) appears to have come to English from Serbia. But the Eastern European cases of “vampirism” generally don’t predate the 18th century, either (everybody was obsessed with witches before that) and this period coincides perfectly with renewed Western interest in the Middle Ages. What’s more likely – that the Irish Stoker, whose knowledge of real Eastern European history was laughably poor, got his vampire tropes from Eastern Europe or from well-known written medieval sources, already unearthed and mined by others, on his own home soil?

This is not even getting into the many bloodsucking and cannibalistic revenant traditions throughout the world. But what all three of the above show us is that there’s no reason to insist on any fictional fidelity to Romero zombies or Stoker vampires when neither one accurately reflects the real folklore. Both Romero and Stoker are great storytellers, but if you want to write different types of zombies or vampires, you should feel free to dig into the rich traditions of revenants and try creating a few of your own. Two great places to start are The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe book series, edited by Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, or The Supernatural Book of Monsters, Spirits, Demons, and Ghouls by Alex Irvine.

Possessing a quixotic fondness for difficult careers, Paula Stiles has driven ambulances, taught fish farming for the Peace Corps in West Africa and earned a Scottish Ph.D. in medieval history, studying Templars and non-Christians in Spain.

She has also sold fiction to Strange Horizons, Writers of the Future, Jim Baen’s Universe, Futures, OutShine and other markets. She is Editor in Chief of the Lovecraft/Mythos ’zine Innsmouth Free Press. You can find her on Twitter (@thesnowleopard).


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