In between all of the Star Wars excitement, you might have seen an ad or two for The Revenant: a period film about a father’s search for revenge after his son is murdered. It’s not a science-fiction or fantasy film (Actually, it’s loosely based on a true story), but the title does allude to something fantastical: a kind of medieval zombie.
Death wasn’t a finality in the minds of medieval Europeans: Sometimes the dead came back, and when they did, they were sometimes called “revenants”. According to my copy of Theresa Bane’s Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology, the word “revenant” derives from the French “revenir”, or “to return”. Revenant means one who has returned from the dead.
Unlike us, medieval men and women didn’t make much of a distinction between various kinds of the living dead. There were revenants who fed on blood, and vampires who fed on anything but blood. Sometimes the restless dead took physical form, and other times they were immaterial spirits, like ghosts. (The zombies stayed down in Haiti, and those poor souls didn’t eat anyone.) Because of these reasons, classifying a story as one about a revenant rather than a ghost, vampire, or other restless dead thing can be difficult. That said, we can draw upon these tales for some ideas of what revenants did and why they rose from the dead in the first place.
Revenants returned for all kinds of reasons, both noble and ignoble. God might grant the recently deceased a temporary resurrection to accomplish a task of some sort. There’s a story about a man—a scoffer in life—who was allowed to leave hell in order to urge a friend and fellow scoffer to repent, for example. There were also accounts of people who came back to reveal the locations of lost valuables to their families.
While frightening, the dead people in these stories did no harm. That wasn’t always the case. Sometimes the dead came back for less noble purposes, and God had nothing to do with it. They were just restless. Or lusty. Or maybe bored.
Believe it or not, I once read a story about a widow who complained that her recently deceased husband wouldn’t stop coming around at night. There are other stories, too: weirder ones. In some of those, the dead just wanted to make trouble: banging on doors and windows, hassling livestock, and that kind of thing. I guess the afterlife doesn’t offer many opportunities for practical jokers.
Obviously, not everyone who died became a revenant, and undeath wasn’t always a matter of lust, buried treasure, or harassing livestock. In medieval folklore, some people were more likely than others to return from the grave: Those who died out of communion with the church, victims of suicide, murderers, and even victims of murder were among that group.These revenants were particularly nasty sorts. They might spread disease, curse their former friends and family members, or in the case of former murder victims, go looking for revenge.
Revenants might exact justice personally, but a revenant’s quest for vengeance didn’t always end with the death of his murderer: sometimes seeing him or her brought to justice was enough. Of course, in medieval Europe, a murderer was more than likely to be beheaded or hanged, so the distinction might be purely academic.
Illustration: A revenant as depicted in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game.