Sep 13 2010 12:03pm
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).

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
I would say that most people don't even cite Stoker vampires as the "one true vampire", but rather Lugosi vampires. Stoker's Dracula was a lot closer to the Nosferatu of Max Shreck, than Bela Lugosi's eveningwear-clad count.

One of Stoker's main inspirations was Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. It would probably be worthwhile to ask where Le Fanu got his information.

Finally, a quibble. Odysseus didn't have to keep the shades of the dead back with his sword because they were dangerous in any way. He did it to ensure that there would be enough blood to give Tiresias the ability to communicate what he needed to know. Once the seer was done, Odysseus let other shades, like his mother, have a drink.
Mary Arrrr
2. Mary Arrrr
Umm. Quite a bit of research has been done on Stoker's sources. In fact, a bibliography of books he used while researching Dracula was found among his notes. Stoker's vampires came from the Levant via the romantic poets in their Orientalist mode. Byron came across the vampire legend in his travels through Greece and Albania. He included a vampire in his poem The Giaour and later wrote a fragment of a vampire story which Polidori expanded into the bestselling The Vampyre . Coleridge read widely in the occult, including Calmet (translated into English in the 1850s as The Phantom World), which became the source for his vampire poem, Christabel.

Leslie Klinger has done a fantastically wonderful Annotated Dracula if you want to learn more.
James Enge
3. JamesEnge
More zombie-like than the ghosts of classical necromancy are the nightwalking corpses of medieval Scandinavia. I'm thinking especially of Glám, the "ghost" who wrassles with Grettir the Strong in Grettis Saga. He seems to be a dead body infected with a demon, due to improper burial, which is certainly zombie-ish. (I always say Everything is better with Latin!™ but the medieval Icelandic sagas could not really be better. Some stories survive in Latin versions, though, like Saxo's "history"of Denmark. So I guess I can carry on.)
james loyd
4. gaijin
I did my undergrad thesis on the development of literary vampires from Stoker to Rice (i.e. internalization of the Other) and really enjoyed looking into the background folklore.

Other early revenants include Greek lamia & vykolakas, Malaysian penanggalan (flying heads dangling intestines), and of course many here may already be familiar with Lillith.

Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber is an excellent text on the subject I came across later. Barber grounds the vampire mythos (as well as burial rites) historically and explores the practicality of the folklore. For example, he explains how difficult it really is to cremate a body on a pyre.
Mary Arrrr
5. Paula Stiles
Thanks for the comments. I would agree that most people are actually using Lugosi's portrayal as inspiration, but the problem is that they *think* they're using Bram Stoker. This is the central problem I'm getting at here: that you have people in the genre telling others that their portrayals of vampires and zombies are "inaccurate" based on their own very vague and historically inaccurate knowledge of vampires and zombies. If you're going to act as an expert on a subject and tell people what they can and can't write about in their portrayals of such creatures, you should actually know that subject. Look at, for example, the common assertion that vampires can't go out in the sun or that werewolves can be killed by silver bullets, as if these reflect real, centuries-old folklore. These aren't real superstitions. This isn't real folklore.

Le Fanu was Irish and from the same tradition as Sir Walter Scott. There was a lot of crossfertilization of ideas at the time. I can't help wondering if Le Fanu was also spoofing Jane Austen a bit, too, but I don't know what her influence, if any, might have been on him.

Odysseus does keep back the shades so that Tiresias can drink and they don't attack him in that scene, but the text makes clear that the trip to the Underworld is a highly dangerous undertaking. Also, if you need a sword to keep something back, especially something that drinks blood, that makes it de facto dangerous. The Greeks and Romans were wary of ghosts.

I have a rather large problem with the research that's been done into Stoker's sources in that it doesn't go back very far chronologically and assumes that Stoker getting his ideas from Englishmen and Irishmen telling stories about foreign cultures is exactly the same as Stoker getting his ideas directly from those foreign cultures. The Orientalists were very much about cloaking English culture in foreign garb, but their concerns and interests and even knowledge of folklore were still very English. How aware, say, Byron really was of Greek and Albanian folklore (Yes, I know he was involved in a revolution in Greece, but still...) and how much he imposed his own knowledge of English folklore on local stories he only half-understood is unclear.

When all is said and done, Byron, Polidori and Coleridge were all English, Le Fanu was Irish like Stoker, and many of the most popular tropes they and Stoker used existed in English literature over half a millennium before any Orientalist "found" them in the "exotic" East. And that's not even getting into the possibility that some of the tales from medieval Western Europe might have trickled over to Albania and Greece over the past half century. To dismiss, therefore, the medieval monks' tales out of hand just because they are an inconvenient fly in the "Orientalist" theory ointment strikes me as bad history.
Mary Arrrr
6. Paula Stiles
Ah, James, I really wish I'd had the time to get into the Scandinavian draugr, but unfortunately, I had a rather tight word limit and really had to pick and choose my folklore. Obviously, there are many examples worldwide of vampires and zombies and even combinations thereof (like the Chinese "Jiang Shi", which are a type of hopping zombie-sometimes-vampire) and many books out there on the subject. "Actual Factual: Dracula" by Theresa Bane I've heard is another good one.
James Enge
7. JamesEnge
Paula @6: I figured. There's always more to talk about on subjects like these. I should have said above, and will say now, that I appreciate you giving a little more folklore-depth to the currently trendy undead.
Mary Arrrr
8. Mary Arrrr
"How aware, say, Byron really was of Greek and Albanian folklore (Yes, I know he was involved in a revolution in Greece, but still...) and how much he imposed his own knowledge of English folklore on local stories he only half-understood is unclear."

Byron spent three years in the area as a young man, visited several times later, and, after the scandal of his incestuous affair with his sister, left England for good and lived the last eight years of his life in Italy and Greece. He learned Albanian, wrote the first Albanian-English grammar, and was a major contributor to the first Albanian-English dictionary. Memoirs of British travelers to Greece describe him as beloved by the locals.

Byron brought the vampire into British fiction in his poem "The Giaour." He offers the following footnote to explain the term:
"The Vampire superstition is still general in the Levant. Honest Tournefort tells a long story, which Mr. Southey, in the notes on Thalaba, quotes about these "Vroucolochas", as he calls them. The Romaic term is "Vardoulacha." I recollect a whole family being terrified by the scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation. The Greeks never mention the word without horror. I find that "Broucolokas" is an old legitimate Hellenic appellation—at least is so applied to Arsenius, who, according to the Greeks, was after his death animated by the Devil. The moderns, however, use the word I mention." via Project Gutenberg.

Don't know if that counts as more than half-understanding.

"The Giaour" was a huge bestseller. The characters discuss it in Jane Austen's Persuasion. After that, vampires do begin showing up in English fiction and poetry. And they do wear English clothes, namely vampires are able to pass themselves off as human (like English fairies), unlike the Eastern European version. By the time Stoker wrote Dracula, there was a well-worn trail of vampire fiction and stories in English, none of them claiming to have the least shred of authenticity.

Yes, there are all sorts of cool revenants from all over the world (including England), but the English vampire is not "real folklore." They were created by living authors who made stuff up, adding and shedding "rules of vampirism" as they saw fit. To my mind, it is the imported nature of the vampire and it's severing from folkloric roots that has allowed it (and now the zombie) to become highly malleable tools for modern popular fiction authors.
Mary Arrrr
9. Paula Stiles
Hi James,

No problem. Just trying to give a dip in the pool, not the whole ocean.

Mary, I am aware that Lord Byron spent ample time in Eastern Europe and loved its ways, but the realities of his class and being a foreigner (not to mention male, since a lot of this folklore was told and retold by women) would have precluded his having any indepth understanding of the peasant folklore.

It's also highly suspicious that so many medieval *English* tropes seem to have made it into modern vampire and zombie fiction via the Orientalists and Irish authors like Le Fanu and Stoker right around the time the British Isles saw a huge resurgence in interest in British folklore, the Middle Ages, and any possible relict paganism in the British Isles, not to mention a resurgence in interest in regional history in Scotland and Wales. (and, of course, the Spiritualism movement, as well as Transcendentalism in America). Byron did live in a period where some Orientalists were quite-seriously claiming that Samhain was a demon not a festival and that there were Druids in ancient India.

I have little doubt that the Greeks and Albanians had similar traditions, seeing as how a lot of this folklore derived from fears about heresy and, later, witchcraft, and many of those traditions were surprisingly widespread (i.e. both Latin and Greek). But I'm not willing to buy at face value that Byron and his contemporaries "just happened" to find Eastern European folklore of this type that bore remarkable similarities to medieval folklore of their own country--and chose those traditions more like their own folklore over more alien figures, like, say, the shtriga.
Wesley Parish
11. Aladdin_Sane
FWLIW, zombies in popular fiction share some of the characteristics of trolls and spirits of the wood:
location, location, location - they derive from graveyards, "sacred" grounds, the natural human instrusion into the world of the dead
actions - they prey on humans, although it's a reversal of the usual troll modus - trolls wait for humans to intrude, then prey; zombies intrude, then prey
vulnerabilities - they belong in the "sacred" sphere, insofar as one can use "sacred" materials to destroy them.

Grendel in Beowulf has some of those characteristics, which is what made me think of it. And likewise the trolls and the goblins in The Hobbit. And that ties them in with a whole host of similar folkloric monsters - "sacred" locations, predatory relationship with humanity, and the use of the "sacred" to control them.

But zombies are "human" aspects of that, not "natural" ones.
Mary Arrrr
12. Mary Arrrr
So if Byron's class and gender precluded his having "any indepth understanding" of the folklore of a place where he spoke the language and spent years of his life - who wrote the poems which bear his name? The lives of the romantic poets have been exhaustively recorded for over two centuries.

Le Fanu and Stoker both DID have writings which reflect that they lived in a period of increased interest in and knowledge the history and folklore of their homeland. But to take works which are explicitly about Englishmen in "the East" who must face the local variant of the "un-dead" and turn them into completely "English" works can only be called revisionism. And ignores that Stoker was writing a century after Coleridge (whose library borrowing records show his awareness of continental vampire legends - gotta love the poetry nerds).

I understand the modern revulsion at all things "Orientalist," but to wish it away Dracula's roots by claiming that the Greeks and Albanians must have gotten their vampire legends from the English (while acknowledging the world-wide existence of similar creatures), is on the level of a 18th century Orientalist deciding that Samhain must be the name of a devil.

Literary fantasy bears about as much resemblance to anthropological folklore as Star Trek does to Einsteinian physics. Do you have any links between the medieval English vampires and Stoker or Le Fanu? I'm serious - I'm probably going to be writing a paper on this later in the semester.
YouDont NeedToKnow
13. necrosage2005
Its about time that someone mentions that Bram Stoker only popularized the vampire and didn't invent it out of thin air and his own imagination. Ellas (Greece to those that don't know better :) ) actually has cities named after vampires. Just one of these was,_Greece and it was actually named after a mythological monster -
Mary Arrrr
14. Paula Stiles
You're welcome, necrosage.

Aladdin, that's a good point about Scandinavian/Germanic folklore, as the English examples don't come out all *that* long after the Viking invasions and partial settlement of the British Isles. You can certainly see Grendel (or the draugr, which you see in contemporary Greenland sagas) in some of those figures, though I don't know how aware the writers were of Beowulf. The standing of the older Saxon literature during the late 11th and 12th centuries in England remains a murky subject. Obviously, people were still speaking the language, since the Old English of Beowulf reemerges as the Middle English of Chaucer later on, but we don't have a lot of evidence of how these works were preserved and transmitted.

Especially interesting is that the latest possible date we have for Beowulf being set down in written tradition is only half a century before the first of the revenant stories I mention. And even Beowulf already includes features like the "young man who goes to a foreign country, visits a castle (in this case, a Viking hall) and finds out it's cursed by a Creature of the Night" trope.

Mary, you still haven't explained to me why we can just "dismiss" the medieval examples and go with the "Orientalist" theory, instead. Just because Eastern European cultures had vampiric folklore (like every other culture) that happened to catch the interest of some of the Romantics enough for them to steal a name for their own, homegrown varieties, does not make that folklore their real source.

Romero's "zombies" bear very little resemblance to the original Caribbean zombie lore. And it's become hugely popular to refer to all sorts of non-western magic workers as "shamans" when most of those traditions appear to have no historical connection to Siberian mythology and folklore (let along the Tungus from whence the name came) whatsoever. So, naming something does not make it so. Just because the name "vampire" originally came from Serbia (probably) does not mean that the traditions popularized under that name in English listerature also came from late-Ottoman-era Eastern Europe.

As for Byron, there were Englishmen (notably, Sir Richard Francis Burton) whom we know for a fact interacted with local peoples of the places they visited (Burton frequently went undercover in various disguises during his career as a spy and also shacked up with various local women as his standard method of learning local languages and customs), but considering the realities of Byron's reputation and standing in his own society, plus the rigid and highly-stratified (class, ethnicity and gender) nature of European society in his time, it seems very unlikely that he was getting any systematic knowledge of Albanian and Greek folklore from your average local peasant, let alone that peasant's wife or daughter. Though he does appear to have hung out with an Orthodox cleric or two.

Which is not to say there is no "Greek" connection, as many of these Northern European beliefs stem from ancient GrecoRoman traditions--but the English traditions that have given us the modern "zombie" and "vampire" (and at some point divided revenants into two major camps) also appear to have mixed in a lot of Scandinavian, Germanic and Saxon tropes early on in the Middle Ages. To say that the tradition is all modern Greek, secondhand via a group of Romantic poets, strikes me as simplistic to the historical record.

I don't see why you keep insisting that horror and fantasy fiction exists in isolation from folklore when of course, it doesn't. These beliefs, however distorted they end up in fiction, do come from somewhere.
YouDont NeedToKnow
15. necrosage2005
I'd still trade all of the emopires (emotional + vampires) that sparkle in the light like pixies for another Necroscope book with Harry. By the way, does anybody know if there is any progress on the movie? I think that that would be amazing to see, if done right.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment