The Zombie Papers, Part 2
Vampires have appeared in folklore and myth since the Sumerian times, but it was not until Lord Byron penned his Fragment of a Novel in 1816 that the vampire became part of the literary tradition. Byron’s gentlemanly fiend, feasting on virgins has he made his way across Europe, commented on social manners and sexual repression of the day—in addition to its reflect on Byron’s own wanton behaviors. While the undead have long been present in myth and folktale, it is not until the last century that we’ve seen this monster become a center-piece in works of literature. Starting with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend written in 1954s, we now have a canon in progress. Zombies, as we conceive of then in contemporary pop culture, are at the beginning of a new monster canon. In Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach wrote that “every age embraces the vampire it needs” (145). This certainly seems true when one reflects on the variations of vampires we’ve seen since 1816: from eccentric counts to glimmering high school students. We might suggest, instead, that every age embraces the monster it needs. Contemporary zombies, in their endless pursuit of oral consumption, are a fitting symbol of modern social ills.
Despite the fact that zombie is the monster du jour, this does not mean that the undead are altogether absent from folklore or earlier works of literature. In fact, the oldest recorded reference to the living dead occurs in the ancient Sumerian poem, “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” In the epic poem, the Goddess Ishtar threatens to:
break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living (12).
The undead’s rightful place is in the “lower depths,” and their presence in the world of the living would be an incursion on the order of the Sumerian world-view. They would not consume the living, but would eat food and outnumber them. Their presence amongst the living is a threat to cosmology. The dead’s presence amongst the living raises questions often considered in zombie literature: if the undead are rising, what does that mean for my immortal soul? What has happened to the after-life? The dead mixing with the living breaks taboo allowing a cross-over of worlds. Questions about mortality and immortality, a significant theme in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” are called into question. Such questions are still relevant in the discussion of zombie literature today.
Early Slavic and Russian folktale also contains references to the undead. One of the most common undead characters is Koschie the deathless, an undead—often skeletal—prankster who tempts unwitting maidens and Russian bogatyrs. In many folktales, Koschie is bound by chains and locked in a closet. When discovered, he begs to be released. Usually an innocent maiden will set him free only to be abducted. Defeating Koschie the deathless usually involves hacking him to pieces, burning his body, and scattering his ashes. Encounters with the undead usually spell trouble for the living. In The Dead Mother, an undead mother returns from the grave to nurse the baby she left behind. When the undead mother is discovered, however, the child dies. Another tale, The Fiend, features a young woman charmed by a handsome stranger only to find him feasting on a corpse. Slavic and Russian traditions have very strict rules regarding burial ritual. The appearance of the undead is often the result of failure to follow ritual. The undead are cursed spirits and those who encounter them often die as a direct result of witnessing the undead walking.
Cannibalistic and zombie-like creatures appear in the folk beliefs of many cultures. Native American folktales include the figure of the windigo (weendigo). The windigo has a variety of descriptions: from a wolf-like creature that devours humans, preferably immoral ones, to something akin to the contemporary Slender Man. One of the main qualities of a windigo is cannibalism. This concept is so prevalent that it has been termed as windigo psychosis, a culture-bound psychopathology attributed North American Native American tribes from which the windigo legend emerges. (citation) While windigos are often described as flesh eaters, Ojibwa author Basil Johnston explains the motivation of a windigo in different terms:
The Weendigo has no other objective in life but to satisfy this lust and hunger, expending all its energy on this purpose. As long as its lust and hunger are satisfied, nothing else matters--not compassion, sorrow, reason, or judgment. Although the Weendigo is an exaggeration, it exemplifies human nature's tendency to indulge its self-interests, which, once indulged, demand even greater indulgence and ultimately result in the extreme--the erosion of principles and values (224).What is being described by Johnston is not exactly cannibalism nor is this a fanged creature stalking campers in the woods. In this case, qualities of the windigo are depicted much like the zombies of today—beings who were once human now consuming endlessly without satisfaction. But when do these zombie like legends begin to make the jump from the monsters of folklore to the monster of literature? We'll explore this more in the next edition of The Zombie Papers!