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History of Zombies from Ancient Times to Pop Culture

by Kimberly Lin

Fear of the undead began thousands of years ago.

The concept of dead people returning from their graves is thousands of years old. Many cultures around the world were once immersed in superstitions and legends about the undead that they believed wholeheartedly. Thus, they developed their own ideas about zombies, also called revenants, in one form or another. Those legends that once brought unbelievable fear now, in most parts of the world, bring us entertainment in the form of books and movies. What exactly is the worldwide history of zombies, and how did the concept make its way into mainstream pop culture?

Throughout the history of zombies, the creatures have become important forms of entertainment.

The history of zombies goes back to many areas of the world. Public domain.

Origin of “Zombie”

The word zombie most likely derives from the West African Kimbundu word “nzambi,” the name for a snake god or any divine spirit. It later came to mean “reanimated corpse” in the voodoo tradition (Online Etymology Dictionary). In Haitian Creole or Haitian French, the zombie describes a monster from Haitian folklore. As per the legend, a zombie is a dead body that has been reanimated by black magic. The word first entered the English language in 1819, when the poet Robert Southey wrote “History of Brazil.” Over a century later, W.B. Seabrook wrote a novel that introduced zombies to America, “The Magic Island,” which was about Haitian voodoo cults and their zombie minions. The first horror movie about zombies, “White Zombie,” came out three years later in 1932.

The History of the Werewolf Legend

Zombies in the Stone Age

The history of zombies may go back all the way to the Stone Age. Some scholars believe that fear of reanimated corpses may have led to the evolution of the gravestone. Originally, people would place cairns or piles of rocks over a freshly buried body to make sure it could not dig its way out. In the article, “The Surprising History Behind Gravestones,” Mica Matlack explains that the usage of gravestones was to keep the dead in their graves:

In the stone age, when humans were still nomadic in nature, the dead would be buried and a great stone or boulder rolled atop the grave. These stones were called gravestones and their purpose was to prevent the deceased from rising after death, a fear still prevalent in modern society.

In Syria, Archaeologists found skulls from a site that they dated at 10,000 years old. Someone bashed the skulls in and completely removed them from the rest of their bodies. Apparently, this ritual was a tradition for some time in the Europe/Near East region, as archaeologists have found other sites like this. Although scholars have posed many viable theories, Juan José Ibañez from the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona says that “the find may suggest that Stone Age cultures believed dead young men were a threat to the world of the living. (New Scientist).

History of Zombies

Skulls found in Syria crushed and detached from their bodies. Credit: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas

Ancient Greek Zombies

In the 1980s, archaeologists found graves in a necropolis in Sicily, which was colonized by Greeks around 800 BC. Some of the tombs contained bodies pinned down with rocks and other heavy objects. Experts speculate that those particular sites may have belonged to people whom the Greeks thought were capable of rising from their graves. To prevent a revenant from getting out, the ancient Greeks would either incinerate, dismember, or restrain the individual in its grave.

Dr. Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver, archaeologist and researcher of the Passo Marinaro necropolis in Sicily explains:

“In the ancient world, revenants are feared because it is believed that they leave their graves at night for the explicit purpose of harming the living…revenants could be trapped in their graves by being tied, staked, flipped onto their stomachs, buried exceptionally deep, or pinned with rocks or other heavy objects.

Tomb number 653 in Kamarina’s Passo Marinaro necropolis contains an adult whose head and feet are completely covered by large fragments of an amphora (a ceramic storage vessel), presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising. The second tomb, number 693, contains a child approximately 8 to 13 years old, with five large stones placed on top. Like the amphora fragments, it appears that these stones were used to trap the body in its grave.”

History of zombies

Tomb 653 showing feet and head of adult body weighted down with amphora. Credit: D. Weiss from G. Di Stefano’s excavation journals.

History of zombies

Tomb 693 showing 5 stones placed atop child. Credit: D. Weiss from G. Di Stefano’s excavation journals.

Greek Beliefs About Zombies

The ancient Greeks believed that certain people were especially likely to return as revenants. Those people included suicides, murder victims, and illegitimate children. Additionally, babies born on an unlucky day or with congenital defects, and people who had died from drowning, plague or a curse could rise again. Since the initial find in the 1980s, archaeologists have found more revenant graves, including some in Cyprus that were buried between 4500 and 3800 BC and were pinned down by millstones.

The Undead Around the World

Norse mythology describes the draugr, which is a revenant or undead creature. The word draugr means “again walker.” They live in their tombs but can escape to visit the living to find victims. Draugr are generally very large and swollen, ugly, and black. If someone is bitten by one, the bitten person can become a draugr. The Norse monster kills its victims by crushing them or eating them alive, flesh and blood. However, unlike the more modern zombie, the draugr has a variety of supernatural powers. This undead creature can shape-shift and can also drive someone mad or enter into their dreams.

In China, the Jiang Shi, which is Chinese for “stiff corpse,” combines the attributes of the zombie and the vampire. The Jiang Shi are often people who had been the victims of suicide or murder. They can look more or less normal, if recently dead, or their bodies can have mold and decaying flesh on them. The Chinese zombie moves by hopping.

The Strigoi is a Romanian zombie that also includes many traits of the vampire. They drink blood and can transform into animals. People become strigoi if they’ve led troubled or unfinished lives. People who are illegitimate or die before becoming baptized may also become strigoi. Because those who die without marrying are also at risk, some communities will marry the corpse to a living person of around the same age to prevent them from rising as a strigoi.

From Africa to Haiti and America

The history of zombies in Haiti has an African origin. As noted, the word zombie goes back to West Africa, as does the religion of Voodoo. However, the West African zombie did not have a body; it was formless. In some South African countries, they believed in physical zombies with bodies. In those countries, children or witches could turn someone into a zombie. A witch could kill a person and then reanimate the body to use for her own personal deeds.

Clairvius Narcisse and His Haitian Zombie Experience
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Ideas about zombies and the practice of voodoo migrated throughout the world with the slave trade. In just one example, the French ruled Haiti from 1625 to 1804, and they established sugar plantations. Thus, they imported slaves from Africa to operate the plantations, and those slaves brought their folklore and beliefs with them. Likewise, a similar story occurred in America.

Haitian Voodoo Beliefs About the Dead

Haitians, in general, practice Voodoo. Followers of the religion believe that all deaths are categorized as natural, like old age or disease, and unnatural, like murder. The spirits of people who die from unnatural causes tend to linger near their grave, for they have to wait for approval from the gods before they can join their ancestors. Souls in this state are vulnerable to abduction by a powerful bokor or sorcerer who can imprison the soul in a jar and use it to control their body.

Interestingly, Haitians find the bokor far more frightening than the zombie, for the zombie is completely at the bokor’s mercy and has to obey them. Some bokors are benevolent and use the zombie to help them perform healing magic. An evil bokor, however, might murder someone in order to bind them as a zombie – and Haitians find the prospect of such servitude terrifying.

History of Zombies in Pop Culture

The history of zombies around the world is a long one, and thus, it has inspired many depictions in popular culture. One of the very first fictional stories about the undead was Philinnion and Machates, written by Phlegon of Tralles, the Greek author of the Olympiads. The story tells of a young woman, Philinnion, who dies, but comes back to life and returns to her parents’ home. She proceeds to have sex with a visitor, Machates, at the home repeatedly over the course of a few nights. She explains that the gods of the underworld approved her resurrection, and then she suddenly dies again.

Perhaps the most famous single zombie of all times is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the main character in Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818. Frankenstein reanimated his monster with lightning and the creature had many of the features of the modern zombie. However, Shelly personified him with human emotion, evident in the rage he felt as a result of the rejection he faced.

As noted, the first zombie movie ever made was Victor Halperin’s 1932 White Zombie, in which the famous Bela Lugosi starred as the antagonist. The plot involved a woman in Haiti who an evil voodoo priest turns into a zombie. The priest uses a magic potion that “kills” her and then allows her to live again.

More Recent Zombie Films

George Romero made Night of the Living Dead in 1968. It is considered one of the most influential horror movies ever. It arguably introduced the idea of the “zombie apocalypse” and portrayed zombies as aggressive predators rather than mindless slaves. Living Dead influenced and inspired later portrayals of zombies like 28 Days Later (2002) and the acclaimed TV show The Walking Dead.

Generally, the modern zombie has fewer characteristics of the voodoo zombie, which had supernatural roots. Black magic and possession control the voodoo zombie. However, most modern zombies have a biological basis. They are the result of a contagious virus that attacks and kills the human. But allows it to reanimate into flesh-eating creatures. The zombie apocalypse is based on this premise.

The Stone Age to the Information Age

Humans have been preoccupied with the undead for a long time. The history of zombies is a worldwide phenomenon. Our society, in general, has grown to love the zombie, and today it is a nearly $6 billion industry. The idea has persisted throughout time, geographic regions, and cultures, and readily found its way to the information age, where we can’t wait to stream all the best zombie flicks…in HD.

Anthropology MSU
University of Michigan
Bible of Mysteries
Ancient History Encyclopedia
The University of Virginia Magazine

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