(i am not sure which copy on my computer is the final copy... damnit. but this is a paper i wrote for a mythology class i was in at FLCC).
There has always been the question of "What happens to us after we die?" haunting our minds. As long as humanity has been around we have tried to understand life and death, so in turn, we created the concept of the undead. It would seem that the undead originated with the understanding of what happens after the physical death we must all endure. The undead are "no longer living but supernaturally animated" (MaulOfAmerica); in earlier times the concept of supernatural wonder was more easily accepted than it is today, but the popularity of the undead myth is just as popular today as it has been throughout history, if not more popular. "Those creatures which are dead yet still moving" (MaulOfAmerica) can be traced all the way back to the Epic Of Gilgamesh and can be seen currently in the current cultural mythology of movies, books, and other media.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is possibly the oldest written story on Earth. It was carved into stone tablets; this ancient Sumerian text is the first example of the undead in mythology. This epic tale, being the first recorded myth of humanity, contains the first instance of the human question of what happens after death, asked in a way that shows that the Sumerians had created the idea of an underworld, in which the dead resided. The following text is from tablet six, in which Ishtar asks her father Anu for the Bull of Heaven and if she is refused she will unleash the undead upon the world.
"Ishtar spoke to her father, Anu, saying:
'Father, give me the Bull of Heaven,
so he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling.
If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!'." (Epic of Gilgamesh: Tablet VI)
The mention of the dead "eat[ing] the living" (Epic of Gilgamesh: Tablet VI) is an amazing tie between the ancient myth of the undead and the current myth of the undead. This could be currently compared to more recent undead myths, as seen in George Romero's "Living Dead" movies, in which the walking dead feast on the flesh of the living. In George Romero's movie "Dawn of the Dead" the subtitle of the movie was "when there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth", in Lucio Fulci's "The Gates of Hell" the subtitle of the movie was "when the moon turns to blood. The dead will walk the earth"; the ancient concept of the gates of the underworld opening up to unleash the undead is seen today in our current mythology.
Throughout history every single world culture has had its own concept of the undead and life after death. Many of the cultural concepts have crossed cultural bounds and helped form a new concept of what the undead really are. All across the world there are tales of vampires, but no cultures have an identical concept of what a vampire is; this is true for almost every single branch of the undead, some cultural vampires are not even true undead because they are living beings, not dead, or undead. What follows should help shed some light onto these various cultural concepts and the mythologies, which helped create them.
The creature we know as the ghoul have their origin in the Arab legend "Alf Laylah was Laylah - the Thousand Nights and a Night and their root stories," (Ghouls) which tell of a creature that is the embodiment of horror. The Arab Ghoul, or Ghul as it was known in Arab, is said to rob graves and feed on the flesh of the dead. The Ghul is also said to lure "travelers into the desert wastes to slay and devour them" (Ghouls). Sir Richard F. Burton was a nineteenth century translator who worked on the Thousand Nights and a Night, in his footnotes of the translation he wrote that the Ghoul was "an embodiment of the natural fear and horror which a man feels when he [faces] a really dangerous desert" (Ghouls). The tales of the ghoul may have originated from the carrion feeders such as vultures and hyenas who may have disturbed graves, giving the people of the time a disturbing look on the bodies of the dead; a likely candidate would be a being like the ghoul. In some tales the ghoul is a "demon of the desert that is able to assume the shape of an animal," (Ghoul), this would explain the idea of the ghoul being a cultural understanding of graves being disturbed by animals; if the people saw an animal picking at a corpse from an open grave, the animal must have been a ghoul in animal form. The ghoul is described as being a gaunt humanoid, incapable of articulate speech, their skin is bluish gray, and they have bulging yellow eyes; they are driven by instinct. Like many malign supernatural beings, the ghoul is nocturnal; sunlight does not destroy them, but it makes the ghoul easier to kill in their weakened state. It seems it would be a relatively easy statement to accept as true to say that the ghoul as a myth was created to explain animals disturbing graves and feasting on corpses. In modern mythology ghouls are seen in George Romero's original 1968 zombie movie "Night of the Living Dead", which refers to the cannibalistic undead as "Ghouls", modern tales of grave robbers and black market body farmers are often called "ghouls" because of their desecration of the dead, and ghouls are seen in many fantasy role playing games. The Ghoul is often confused for zombies, vampires, and vetala; but I will she more light of clarity onto this subject and explain some differences between these undead beings. The Ghoul of today is not exactly what the Ghoul of mythology is, but they are still a part of modern mythology and popular culture.
The Vetala comes from Hindu mythology and is often confused for something between a ghoul and a vampire; this confusion might have come from tales of the ghoul coming from the Arabian world into India with the merchants who went between the lands. “They are hostile spirits of the dead whose children did not perform funerary rites in their memory” (Pisachas: Ghosts & Ghouls); this has made them be trapped between the world of the living and that of the dead. The Vetala are said to be something between a vampire and a ghoul; they are a melding of concepts into a single form of the undead, having aspects of other mythological beings but being their own thing. It is said that the Vetala haunt cemeteries and they reanimate corpses; they use corpses as a vehicle during the daytime to transport their spirit so that it may remain out of sunlight, the corpses take on a demonic appearance with “their hands and feet pointed backwards” (Vetala). At night Vetala are said to be able to roam free and do whatever they will, but during the day they need their corpse vehicles, which will not rot as long as they are possessed. Being undead they are “unfettered by the laws of space and time, they have an uncanny knowledge about the past, present and future and a deep insight into human nature,” (Vetala); the powers they are said to possess have led to many stories being told about how sorcerers tried to capture them and use them as slaves. They are said to be hostile spirits that can “drive people mad, kill children and cause miscarriages,” (Pisachas: Ghosts & Ghouls), but in an odd twist they are also said to “guard their villages,” (Vetala); it would seem that the Vetala is its own shadow. One of the most famous stories of the Vetala is that of “a sorcerer [who] asked King Vikramaditya to capture a vetala who lived in a tree that stood in the middle of a crematorium. The only way to do that was by keeping silent. However, every time Vikramaditya caught the ghost, the ghost would enchant the king with a story that would end with a question. No matter how hard he tried, Vikramaditya would not be able to resist answering the question. This would enable the vetala to escape and return to his tree. The stories of the vetala have been listed in the book Vetala-pachisi” (Vetala). They are accepted as being as real now as they were believed to be centuries ago; the Vetala are very much alive today, or rather undead and kicking.
Vampires are probably one of the most well known and globally accepted mythological undead creatures worldwide; “not only is the vampire worldwide and of dateless antiquity” (Vampires: Living Dead Vampire Vamp Nosferatu Vampires: Mythical Realm). The very most basic concept of what a vampire is a being who consumes the life force of another to survive; some vampires consume blood, the body of their victims, the sexual energy of their victims, or the spiritual energy of their victims. Some cultures believe that the vampires kill without discrimination and some believe that they only kill certain prey. On a global scale the Vampire is known by countless names, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. The Vampires we now know have come from these many mythological undead creatures, which made their way into early literature, it was that early literature that created the Vampires we know today and see in movies. “In it’s true forms, the vampire is a truly international blight,” (Vampires: Living Dead Vampire Vamp Nosferatu Vampires: Mythical Realm). The vampire myth is comparable to the Vetala myth and the Ghoul myth, that they exist in today’s mythology as they did then; today the vampire myth is not taken as seriously as it was in the past, but there are still tales of vampires. The current vampire myth exists in movies, books, video games, role playing games, and popular culture; what we now understand to be a vampire is really a conglomeration of the mythological undead vampire and aspects that appealed to our current culture. The vampire in many ways becomes a fear that scares the culture it appears in, they are different for each culture because of the relevance they hold; in the past we feared the unknown, but now we fear ourselves more than anything else.
Draugr are the “corporeal undead from Norse Mythology,” (Draugrs), they “were believed to live in the graves of dead Vikings,” (Draugrs). They were believed to either be corpse-pale or death-black and it was questioned as to whether or not “the personality and soul of the dead person lingered in the Draugr,” (Draugrs). In Norse culture it was customary to build grave mounds called barrows in which to bury the dead with all their material wealth or to place a dead Viking on a longboat with all the weapons and wealth which was sent out to sea on fire as a funeral pyre. The Draugr are thought to be the animated corpses of the dead Norsemen in their Barrows. The Draugr possessed superhuman strength and an immense jealousy, which is why they guarded their treasure even after death; often the Draugr appear in Norse Mythology as the adversary that a hero must conquer to get a weapon of power or something of the sort. They can be seen in many Norse sagas, such as the saga Gripssonar; in these sagas it was necessary for the hero to fight and destroy the Draugr because the hero was the only person with the strength to actually defeat this undead fiend. The monster Grendel in the epic Beowulf is thought to be a Draugr, in more recent literature the ring-wraiths seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books are comparable to Draugr. In Mythology the Draugr “grew more powerful in darkness,” (Orkneyjar - The Trow – a spirit of the Dead?); they were actually said to become more powerful as the winter solstice approached, during this time they were the most dangerous “because they were allowed to leave their [graves] at will, special precautions had to be taken to avoid their attentions,” (Orkneyjar - The Trow – a spirit of the Dead?). In the sagas of the Draugr their grave mounds “were described as ‘halls of the dead’. Furnished with mead benches, warbands, great fires and the noise of [great feasts],” (Orkneyjar - The Trow – a spirit of the Dead?). Often the Draugr were said to glow with a ghostly blue glow; although I was unable to find any information relating to current belief in Draugr I did think of the current mythology behind paranormal research into hauntings and ghosts. The blue glue reported here is often described in hauntings in modern times, the idea that the Draugr get more powerful in darkness is similar to the fear of the dark humans have experienced since the beginning of time, and the idea that the Draugr jealously guard their graves is comparable to the jealousy that grave-robbers share in their desire to steal from the burial mounds; so it would seem that the tales of the Draugr could be a warning against grave-robbers, or tales of a haunting like the ones experienced today.
The most popular of the undead would have to be the zombie, since the beginning of cinema the idea of the zombie has been put into the minds of audiences around the world. Up until 1968 when George Romero released “Night of the Living Dead” the zombie was a creation of voodoo magic, which is more true to the actual mythology of the zombie. After the release of “Night of the Living Dead” Zombies truly became undead, as we understand them now; never before has one movie shaped a mythology of its own like this one. I could go on and on at great length about both Hollywood zombies (or “Pittsburg Zombies” as they are often called because of how many zombie movies were shot in Pittsburg) and Voodoo Zombies, but in all honesty I am going to go back through and edit this down to be something a little more short and sweet.
Voodoo Zombies originate in the Haitian Voodoo Culture, which has spread up into Louisiana; in the early twentieth century sensationalized stories made their way into America which created the Zombie movie. Early zombie movies always showed zombies as being mindless servants to a zombie master, or someone who controlled the mindless zombies; these movies played directly off the fear stories of zombies created in Haiti, no one wants to become a zombie. Actually, Haitian zombies are spelled “Zombi”, the addition of the “E” was a purely American thing; “Zombi is also the name of the voodoo snake god of Niger-Congo origin; it is akin to the Congo word nzambi, which means god,” (Zombie – Monstropedia). Historically, Haiti was a country built on slavery and plantation work, the Africans who came to Haiti carried with them their traditions and religion, Voodoo came as a result of the mingling of traditional African religion and Catholicism. According to Voodoo belief, the Zombi is “the spirit dead” (ZOMBIES), and when someone has their spirit taken away from them, they become “a will-less and speechless human” (Definition of zombie); notice that they are not truly dead, or for that matter undead. Voodoo Zombies are very different than movie zombies. The Bokor is a Voodoo priest who focuses on “the study and application of black magic, posses[ing] the ability to resurrect the deceased through the administration of coup padre” (ZOMBIES); the Bokor is usually hired to do this because the person who is to become a Zombi has either annoyed someone or owes someone money. The coup padre would have the effect on the future Zombi that it would slow their heart rate and give them the appearance of being dead. Publicly, the Zombi would be dead but later dug up and resurrected into an unlife of zombidom. The freshly exhumed Zombi would remain physically intact, but “their memory would be erased and they would be transformed into mindless drones.” (ZOMBIES).
On a side note, I am feeling like this paper is experiencing a voodoo curse, I have been stuck on this section for a while because Microsoft Word keeps closing out for absolutely no reason, so far I have lost about two to three hours of work. Just now, the middle of that last sentence, when I looked away from the screen for a second I was suddenly in the middle of my works cited page, replacing all my information with the words I was trying to type here. Even now it seems that the Bokor do not want me to discuss the Zombi of Haitian mythology, but I will not be stopped so easily, I will save my documents more often and press on.
The Haitian Zombi is most likely a reference to slavery in the folklore of Haiti, given its history of slaver it does not seem like it would be that far-fetched of an idea that the fear of slavery would linger on into the religion of the people. In the Voodoo Mythology the Zombi is the slave of the Bokor, which bears a close similarity to the fear they must have felt towards being the slave of another person, but being a slave to a Bokor is worse than being a slave to another person, because when you are a Zombi you have lost your spirit or soul. Some research has been done into zombification and the drug used in voodoo rituals, people such as the ethnobotanist Wade Davis have gone to great lengths to research the zombie powder; Davis has written two books about his research “The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988)” (Zombie – Monstropedia). Davis’ research led him to some Bokor who were willing to share information at a cost, he established that zombie powder contains “Tetrodotoxin… the same lethal toxin found in the Japanese delicacy fugu, or pufferfish,” (Zombie – Monstropedia) which if used in “near-lethal doses.. is said to be able to leave a person in a state of near-death for several day, while the person continues to be conscious,” (Zombie – Monstropedia). Although there are many skeptics to Davis’ work “opinions remain divided as to the veracity of his work,” (Zombie – Monstropedia).
The Zombie as a mythical archetype seems very close to the Draugr, the Ghoul, and almost like a “Vampire with a lobotomy” (ZOMBIES). In medieval Europe there was a belief in beings called Revenants who were seen as avenging dead. The revenant were believed to “[rise] from the dead usually to avenge some crime committed against the entity, most likely a murder,” (Zombie – Monstropedia). The best known revenant in current American culture is the character of the Crow, who originated as a comic book character and went on to become famous in movies. Stories of revenants were pretty common belief during the middle ages.
The movie zombie really became popular with “Night of the Living Dead”, as the name would imply these zombies are the living dead, or undead. Unlike voodoo zombies, the movie zombies are truly undead, being dead and resurrected to feast on human flesh instead of work sugar cane fields. Whereas the voodoo Zombi had to be created by a Bokor, the movie zombies were created by some unknown element, which created more fear because no one knew why these zombies were coming back to “life”. References are made in the movie that it is radiation, or a returning spacecraft; whatever the reason, these zombies “could pass zombie-ism on to others,” (Zombies – Scifipedia) which is part of what makes them truly terrifying. These zombies create a real element of fear in people because every single person is potentially a zombie, whereas a person may need to upset a Bokor to become a voodoo zombie, or not give proper funeral rights to create a Vetala, a movie zombie is created because of an unknown force that continues to create more zombies because of the way the Zombie-ism spreads. “They’re dead, the walk, they want to eat you, they usually outnumber you” (Zombies – Scifipedia) and later an addition to the zombie mythology is that “they want to eat your brains,” (Zombies – Scifipedia) courtesy of Dan O’Bannon’s “Return of the Living Dead” movies.
In much the same way that the Voodoo Zombi was a reference to slavery the Movie Zombie has become references to many things in our current culture. The original “Night of the Living Dead” was about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War; the zombies in the movie represented people who wanted to keep the civil rights movement down and the special effects artist had been a cameraman in Vietnam. Later, Romero released “Dawn of the Dead” which is very blatantly a reference to American consumerism. Romero released “Day of the Dead” in the early 1980s as an homage to the increasing global conflicts, the movie is meant to show the entire world being overrun by zombies. The Zombie is one of the current cultural monsters which really has their undead finger on our ever beating pulse, we are terrified by them because they are us; the thing that scares us the most is ourselves. Where many movie monsters of the past were something special: a mummy, a werewolf, a vampire, or a creature from the black lagoon, the zombie was not so special because anyone could potentially become a zombie by being bitten. Many zombie movies like to play up this fear zombies being anyone by showing a child becoming a zombie, killing their parents and turning them into zombies; this shows that the spread of zombie-ism does not discriminate.
The Voodoo Zombie and Movie Zombie are possibly the easiest to compare the origin of the myth and where they exist in today’s mythology because they are both so clearly defined as to what they are. They fascinate us because of our fear that we feel towards the unknown, our fellow man, and ourselves; because of this the mythology of the movie zombie will continue to exist and create its own genre of horror in our minds and our culture.
Zombies exist across many cultures, they do not exist purely in Voodoo culture or as movie zombies in American culture. The Chiang-shih of Chinese mythology exist as something between a vampire and a zombie, “they have difficulty walking because of the pain and stiffness of being dead so they hop instead,” (Chiang-shih). They share many similarities to common vampire mythology such as that they are nocturnal and can not cross running water. According to legend the people must get a Taoist priest to clear the village of the Chiang-shih’s presence either through a physical confrontation or a spiritual ritual. Unlike Voodoo Zombies who are a Zombi because their soul has been taken from their body, the Chiang-shih “are said to be created when a person’s soul fails to leave the deceased’s body,” (Chiang-shih). It is speculated that aspects of western vampires led to the Chiang-shih having vampire like traits; “in fact, Dracula is translated to a ‘blood-sucking [Chiang-shih]’ where the thirst of blood is explicitly emphasized because it is not a traditional trait of [Chiang-shih],” (Chiang-shih). The Chiang-shih exist in Chinese folklore as strong now as ever, stories exist of people who die far from home being resurrected by Taoist priests and led hopping all the way back to their home village to be buried with their family. “Some people speculate that hopping corpses were originally smugglers in disguise who wanted to scare off law enforcement officers,” (Chiang-shih) even so it is said that “before the civil war and before world war II, the dead still walked the roads of rural China in parades marching toward their ancestral villages,” (Geong Si). The Chiang-shih have many names based on where in Asia the tales exist, but no matter what they “remain one of the current, tangible, commonly believed myths of old China,” (Geong Si).
"Those creatures which are dead yet still moving" (MaulOfAmerica) have moved their way out of historical mythology and into our current, ever evolving mythology as the Undead. We will continue to look for answers to the question of what happens after we die and until then we will continue to be fascinated with the undead. As a group of mythological beings the undead encompass the world, every culture has a belief in them, and the belief in the undead continues to grow. The answer to our question of “What happens to us after we die?" is answered by the undead as a possible alternative to rotting in the ground, from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” to zombiefriends.com we have and will continue to be interested in the undead.
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