The massive popularity of zombies in modern culture is no surprise, with the undead showing up in every form of media, these days it’s hard not to be at least a little interested. However, some of you may be surprised to find out that an interest or even belief in zombies and the undead goes back to nearly the beginning of recorded history. Myths about the undead, as well as practices meant to prevent them can be found in ancient cultures from all over the world.
One of the earliest mentions of the undead, around 4,000 years ago, comes from ancient Mesopotamia. In the poem Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar becomes angry with humans and threatens to send forth an army of the dead to devour all of humanity.
The word “zombie”, as we know it in English, comes from the West African Kimbundu word “nzambi” which was used to describe divine spirits. It later came to describe a dead body that had been reanimated by dark voodoo magic. The creation of voodoo zombies was something so feared that there is an actual article, Article 249, in Haitian Law outlining the criminal offense of drugging a person so that they appear dead, burying them, and then digging them up later and bringing them back to life as a zombie slave.
The fear of zombies can be traced all the way back to the stone age. Early nomadic people would place large stones or boulders on top of the graves of the dead. This is thought to have been to prevent them from being able to dig out of their graves if they returned to life. Some Scholars believe that the use of gravestones today may have evolved from this practice.
Greeks, as well, sometimes used stones to prevent the dead from being able to rise from their graves. Ancient graves in Sicily were found to contain the remains of bodies that had large stones piles on top of their heads and feet before burial.
Archaeologists digging in Syria found the remains of several young men whose heads had been removed from their bodies and the skulls had been smashed in. The thing that made this even more suspect was the fact that the heads had been removed after the men had already been buried and had begun to decompose. This leads some to believe these bodies may have been considered a threat to the living in some way.
There are many myths throughout the world that feature zombie like creatures. For example the ancient Chinese told stories of the Kuang Shi, or ‘hopping corpse”. These were mindless undead humans who roamed the Earth aimlessly.
Scandinavian myths tell of the “Draugr”. This was a warrior who had died and then risen again to continue to kill and torture humans. It was believed that if you were bit by a Draugr, you would become one yourself. These creatures were also thought to have other supernatural powers such as shape-shifting.
Zombies have certainly been something humans have feared since as far back as we know. The fact that so many ancient cultures throughout the world feared the undead so much that they were willing to go to great lengths to prevent them leads you to wonder what they knew that we do not. Were zombies once an reality for ancient people? Has the world perhaps already seen a zombie apocalypse and we have just all but forgotten? Should we be reassured that humanity has always feared these things or should we be concerned? It’s definitely something to think about…