Medieval Zombies

medieval-zombieWhere do zombies come from, anyway?

It’s not like God created them.

I mean, every human attribute is gone.

We’ve heard that zombies have something to do with Haitian voodoo; the word ‘zombie’ means “animated corpse” in some form of Creole I am not familiar with. I did learn Haitian Creole during my post-quake work there, but there is no word for zombie as we define it.

Moreover, I attended a few voodoo ceremonies there and they are nothing like what we might imagine. No stumbling zombies roaming the island in search of human flesh. Just very much alive Haitians touched by religious fervor.

And a couple of pints of clèrin.


Stumbling? Yes.

Zombies? Not any that I ever saw.

I mean, no one tried to eat me.

A few chicken-blood-smeared Haitians whirled into me during the frenzied voodoo ceremonies. And yeah, I screamed like I was dying then got laughed at by the locals. But embarrassment was the only repercussion.

I left Haiti each time with my brains in tact.

And less ignorant than before I arrived.

So, if not from Haitian voodoo, where did zombies originate?

Well, historical documents say the first appearance of zombies was in one of the oldest works of literature: the Epic of Gilgamesh. In this tome, Ishtar says, “I will raise up the dead and they will eat the living. And the dead will outnumber the living.”



I’m sure this will be fine once we’re dead, but right now? Terrifying!

The fact is that most ancient civilizations had a deep-seated fear of corpses rising from the dead…

2nd century BCE, China: the ancients performed burial rituals to make sure the dead passed into the afterworld, and didn’t come back to feed on the living. But sometimes, they messed up the ritual and all hell broke loose.


The living dead was called ‘Jiang Shi.’ It was a hungry zombie that came back to munch on the living. But it wasn’t just hungry – it was pissed off. At its family for not burying its body properly.

You see, ancient Chinese believed that when you didn’t bury a body the right way, its spirit can’t move into the afterworld. It gets stuck here, sort of between worlds, and this enrages it.


Picture it.

A righteous, raging zombie returning to eat your guts…

7th century Arabia: Arab folklore says the punishment for living an immoral life was that one became a zombie. The ancients called them ‘ghouls,’ and they were female demons who were believed to have lived as prostitutes when they were alive. This hussy demon would hide in the desert (exactly where does one hide in a desert??), then jump out at passers-by, screeching like a siren.


Though this frightening ‘ghoul’ is not described as the typical zombie we know today, its name was adopted by the godfather of zombies – George Romero – for his ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ zombies.

8th century Scandinavia: Norse mythology had a horrific zombie called the ‘Draugr.’ This rotting creature was an undead viking ravenous for human flesh. It came back as a zombie machine, unable to be stopped. The only way to get rid of a Draugr was to lure it back into the ground from whence it came.

But here’s the really scary thing about this zombie: the Draugr wasn’t the brain-dead zombie of today. Even after death, this zombie retained its intelligence. It knew it was dead. It knew it was a flesh-eating monster.

And it liked it.


This Nordic zombie was the most terrifying zombie in history.

12th century England: this is where the zombie we know today originated. Western Europe ancients called it the ‘Revenant.’ It was a lumbering, hungry zombie which crawled up out of its grave to follow a mindless internal GPS toward human flesh.

How do we know about this antecedent to the zombies we know and love? We can thank William of Newburgh, history’s first zombie writer. Before George Romero was even an erotic twinge in his parent’s loins, William of Newburgh was documenting every detail of the zombie undead.


The Church of England gobbled his writings the way zombies gobble brains. This was because they had no other way of understanding, and thereby protecting themselves from the undead.

 So, now that we know where zombies come from, are we any safer?

As if.

The zombie apocalypse has yet to begin…



Zombieval Monday


9 thoughts on “Medieval Zombies

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  8. You should check out Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks. It’s a graphic novel and one of the things it suggests is that ancient Egyptians removed the brain and internal organs of the dead to keep them from reanimating as zombies. Oooooooohhhh!!!

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