Jan 4, 2016

Posted by in Monsters, Mythological Creatures | 0 Comments

The Revenant and Other Undead Creatures of Legend

undeadIn mythology and folklore from all around the world, there are legends about the existence of several different kinds of undead creatures. The term “undead” refers to beings that are deceased but behave as though they are still alive. Although incorporeal beings, such as ghosts, can also be referred to as undead, in this article I will examine various tales of reanimated corpses that have appeared in different cultures from around the globe.

In modern culture, the zombie that originated from voodoo tradition (or a variation of) is probably the most recognizable of this kind of undead manifestation. Zombies have become a staple in pop culture and are regularly seen in movies, television, books, and video games. Although what creates a zombie and its specific traits can vary widely from one depiction to the next, these creatures are most commonly portrayed as recently deceased people that have come back from death with no sense of their former self and an intense craving for human flesh. In most stories, zombies are able to infect other individuals by biting or scratching them and this usually causes their condition to spread in a virus-like fashion very quickly. Therefore, zombies are often pictured gathered in great hordes. Generally, there is believed to be no cure for this devastating state and a zombie “outbreak” is considered to be an apocalyptic event.

While there has been a handful of reports of zombie-like behaviors in certain individuals in the past, it is generally accepted by society that zombies are creatures of fiction. In England during the Middle Ages, however, the accounts of undead phenomenon were considered to be much more realistic. Vivid reports of a creature known as a revenant began to surface during this time period. Revenants were described as corpses of the dead that returned from the grave to torment the living. The word “revenant” is derived from a Latin word meaning “returning”.

Although, like zombies, revenants are reanimated corpses, there are very few other similarities. Revenants are thought to return from the grave with self-awareness and even with a specific purpose in mind. In some accounts, revenants have come back to torment the person who caused their death, but in most, the revenant will visit and harass its own family members or neighbors. A deceased person who had lived a wicked life or was an unbeliever was at most risk for becoming a revenant.

Revenants were said to be only active at night and confined to their graves in a death-like slumber during the day. They were also known to drink the blood of the living while out on their nightly escapades. In some cases, the graves of individuals who were believed to be revenants were reopened to address the problem and the body was reported to be found “suffused with blood”. Opening the grave, decapitating the body, and removing the heart was considered to be the only way to stop the revenant attacks. The bodies of revenants are even said to be unable to be burned until the heart and head are removed.

Another undead creature that shares several of the revenant’s traits is the draugr, or aptrgangr, of Norse mythology. A draugr is an animated corpse that lives in its grave, protecting the treasures that it was buried with. Additionally, these terrifying creatures are thought to torment the living, especially wreaking havoc upon those who had wronged them during life. Draugar are also believed to possess superhuman strength and magical powers, such as the ability to increase their size at will. Their appearance is that of a swollen, hideous corpse and their bodies are unnaturally heavy. One way that draugar kill their victims is by crushing them beneath their incredible weight. However, they might choose to devour their prey if they are inclined to do so. In addition to killing, draugar possess the ability to cause both humans and animals to go mad.

Derived from the folklore of several different Asian cultures, the jaingshi is a type of stiff reanimated corpse that cannot move its arms or body. Jaingshis can appear either very unremarkable, in the case of a recently deceased person, or very horrifying, if the body has had time to decompose. Their skin is a greenish-white color and they have long white hair covering their head. There are believed to be many different reasons why a corpse might become a jaingshi. A few possibilities include resurrection by use of magic, spirit possession of the dead body, improper burial, or suicide. It is also believed by some that it is possible for these beings to infect others with the “jaingshi virus”, causing them to slowly become a jaingshi over time. It is not uncommon for jaingshi to behave like an animal and in more recent tales they have been known to drink blood, as well. Interestingly, these creatures are said to avoid mirrors because they fear their own reflection.

In the northern regions of Germany and Poland, an undead creature called a nachzehrer is a prominent figure of folklore. A nachzehrer is most commonly created after a suicide and occasionally after an accidental death, but they are also linked to sickness and disease. Nachzehrers are only transformed after death and the condition is not communicable. While the nachzehrer is known to devour its own family as soon as it awakens, it is also thought to consume other dead bodies and even its own flesh and funeral shrouds. It is believed that by eating their own flesh they physically drain and weaken members of their family. It was also thought by some that the nachzehrer could shapeshift into the form of various animals and could bring death to its victims by simply casting its shadow upon them. In order to kill a nachzehrer, one must place a coin in its mouth to paralyze it and then proceed to cut off its head.

The mythology of these undead creatures and several others like them appear in virtually every human culture on the planet. It is unapparent what it is exactly that drives people to develop such tales. Perhaps in some way it is an extension of the natural tendency of humans to fear death. Whatever the reason, it appears that the undead will continue to be a fixture in fiction, folklore, and popular culture for many, many years to come.


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