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The Make Believe Issue

New Research Suggests the Ancient Greeks Believed in Zombies

In a new paper in Popular Archaeology, one anthropologist claims the Greeks "imagined scenarios in which reanimated corpses rose from their graves, prowled the streets, and stalked unsuspecting victims."

by Rory Tolan
03 August 2015, 4:00am

Illustration von Ole Tillmann

This article appears in the August Issue of VICE Magazine

The dead have long haunted the living. In 1883 lawmakers banned zombie-making poisons in Haiti, where voodoo priests were said to mine cemeteries for slaves. Decades before Bram Stoker frightened the world with his fanged Victorian dandy, villagers across New England made a habit of beheading new corpses to keep them from skulking back home. And when Austria invaded Serbia in the 1700s, the military reported an outbreak of vampirism in Meduegna, a town on the Morava river, that claimed 16 lives. Bureaucrats exhumed and butchered a swath of well-preserved cadavers that reportedly oozed blood from their lips, news of which made the Habsburg royals reach for the smelling salts.

But the fear that the gate to Hades is a revolving door goes back even further. In a new paper in Popular Archaeology, anthropologist Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver suggests the ancient Greeks were convinced of the reality of revenants. At least since the Stone Age, she writes, "Greeks imagined scenarios in which reanimated corpses rose from their graves, prowled the streets, and stalked unsuspecting victims, often to exact retribution denied to them in life." She points to a pair of unusual tombs in the sprawling necropolis of Kamarina, a Greek colony in Sicily. There, two skeletons lie in a mysterious state of repose: one held under a mound of stones, the other bound in cuffs of pottery, as if the locals feared they'd break loose.

Historians have scratched their heads at the site since the 1980s, but her theory has its merits, as Sicily was a hotbed of necromancy. With elaborate incantations and tablets they would bury in graves, the Greeks called on the denizens of the underworld to guide them in their travels, heap them in riches, and lay waste to their enemies. Of course, the trouble with waking the dead is putting them back to sleep. "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," Weaver writes.

But corpses might come crawling back for more mundane reasons than black magic. "From extant literary sources, it seems that the Greeks believed the dead could reanimate if they were murdered, denied a proper burial, or had unfinished business," Weaver told VICE. Suicide and abrupt, unusual illness were also seen as causes. Despite contemporary visions of massive cemeteries unleashing their hordes on their warm-blooded brethren, most accounts over the last few thousand years have been fairly intimate affairs, with visitations made by family members. If anything, it seems the fear of returning corpses comes from the guilt that's often associated with the mourning process—guilt over our powerlessness to prevent a loved one's death. In this sense the revenant is the most human of monsters—the specter of our grief—and it should come as no surprise that it's haunted civilization since the beginning of recorded time.