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Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Undead
Similar creatures Vampire, zombie
Country Transylvania, Oltenia, Serbia[1][2][3][4] Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia[5]
Region The Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa

A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that is believed to have revived from death to haunt the living.[6] The word revenant is derived from the Old French word, revenant, the "returning" (see also the related French verb revenir, meaning "to come back").

Many stories were documented by English historians in the Middle Ages. William of Newburgh wrote during the 1190s, "It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony."[7]


Medieval European stories of revenants have some common features. Those who revive from the dead are typically wrongdoers in their lifetime, often described as wicked, vain, or unbelievers. Often the revenants are associated with the spreading of disease among the living. The appropriate response is usually exhumation, followed by some form of decapitation, and burning or removal of the heart.

Comparison to other folkloristic and mythological undead[edit]

Several stories state that revenants drink blood. For example, in Historia rerum Anglicarum [8] the corpse of one revenant is reported to have been found in the grave, swollen and "suffused with blood". When it was pierced, a stream of blood flew out of the wound. This part of the story is paralleled in many accounts of alleged vampires, and the phenomenon it depicts is, in fact, known to occur frequently as part of the natural process of corpse decomposition.[9] Revenants are therefore another example of the widespread historical belief in vampires.

Augustin Calmet conducted extensive research on the topic in his work titled Traité sur les apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c. (1751) in which he relates the rumors of men at the time:[10]

Calmet compares the ideas of the Greek and Egyptian ancients and discovers the old belief that magic could not only cause death but also evoke the souls of the deceased as well. Revenants were then ascribed to sorcerers who sucked the blood of victims, inevitably causing their death. He further states how some instances of Revenants mentioned in the twelfth century in England and Denmark were similar to those of Hungary but "in no history do we read anything so usual or so pronounced, as what is related to us of the vampires of Poland, Hungary, and Moravia."

Calmet claims that during his lifetime during the mid-1700s, the Greeks contested that bodies of the excommunicated would not decay in their graves or tombs. Modern day and past Greeks have reported that these bodies are black in appearance with long nails. The Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and Oriental Orthodoxy all believe in bodies of saints not decomposing as a sign of sainthood. He explains "that the incorruptibility of a body was rather a probable mark of the sanctity of the person and a proof of the particular protection of God, extended to a body which during its lifetime had been the temple of the Holy Spirit, and of one who had retained in justice and innocence the mark of Christianity."[11]

King James of Britain wrote in his dissertation of Daemonologie the idea that a demonic entity could possess a dead body and have sexual relations with women, being one of the methods used by incubi.[12]

Similarities are also obvious with the aptrgangr (literally "again-walker", meaning one who walks after death) of Norse mythology, although the aptrgangr, or draugr, is usually much more powerful, possessing magical abilities and most notably is not confined to a deathlike sleep during the day—although it does usually stay in its burial mound during the daylight hours—and will resist intruders, which renders the destruction of its body a dangerous affair to be undertaken by individual heroes. Consequently, stories involving the aptrgangr often involve direct confrontations with the creature, in which it often reveals to be immune to conventional weapons. Such elements are absent from the revenant lore, where the body is engaged in its inert state in daylight, and rendered harmless.

In Finnish ghost stories, the undead are revenants: ghosts (kummitus, aave) are usually visually indistinguishable from the living, and usually they are first mistaken for the living at first. They are often well-dressed, up to being out of place. The protagonists may react with annoyance and try to chase the intruder out, only realizing it was a ghost later. Their undead nature is betrayed by their odd behavior, like appearing in unlikely places, not speaking, being oblivious to being seen, or by supernatural events like sudden appearances and disappearances, bilocation, mystically reappearing uninjured and in normal dress after being buried, or being animated and speaking with fatal injuries like decapitation. They are typically explained as restless souls of people who have met a violent death.[13] Etiäinen, a type of bilocation, is a related tradition. For example, dying people can be seen as apparitions by their loved ones at or around the moment of death, regardless of distance. They may also manifest themselves only as odd, out-of-place sounds and footprints.

Also references of revenant-like beings come from the Caribbean and are often referred to as "The soucouyant" or "soucriant" in Dominica, Trinidadian and Guadeloupean folklore (also known as Ole-Higue or Loup-garou elsewhere in the Caribbean).

Selected stories[edit]

William of Newburgh[edit]

William of Newburgh (1136?–1198?) wrote of a number of cases " a warning to posterity." He says these stories were very common and that "were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome."[7]

One story involves a man of "evil conduct" absconding from justice, who fled from York and made the ill-fated choice to get married. Becoming jealous of his wife, he hid in the rafters of his bedroom and caught her in an act of infidelity with a local young man, but then accidentally fell to the floor mortally wounding himself, and died a few days later. As Newburgh describes:

A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.

A number of the townspeople were killed by the monster and so:

Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames...

In another story Newburgh tells of a woman whose husband recently died. The husband revives from the dead and comes to visit her at night in her bedchamber and he "...not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body." This happens for three nights, and the revenant then repeats these nocturnal visits with other nearby family and neighbours and "...thus become a like serious nuisance," eventually extending his walks in the broad daylight around the village. Eventually the problem was solved by the bishop of Lincoln who wrote a letter of absolution, upon which the man's tomb was opened wherein it was seen his body was still there, the letter was placed on his chest, and the tomb re-interred and sealed.[14]

Abbot of Burton[edit]

The English Abbot of Burton tells the story of two runaway peasants from about 1090 who died suddenly of unknown causes and were buried, but:

the very same day in which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. They spoke to the other peasants, banging on the walls of their houses and shouting "Move quickly, move! Get going! Come!"

The villagers became sick and started dying, but eventually the bodies of the revenants were exhumed, their heads cut off, and their hearts removed, which ended the spread of the sickness.[15]

Walter Map[edit]

The chronicler Walter Map, a Welshman writing during the 12th century, tells of a "wicked man" in Hereford who revived from the dead and wandered the streets of his village at night calling out the names of those who would die of sickness within three days. The response by bishop Gilbert Foliot was "Dig up the body and cut off the head with a spade, sprinkle it with holy water and re-inter it".[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm. 16 Bde. (in 32 Teilbänden). Leipzig: S. Hirzel 1854–1960" (in German). Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 2006-06-13.
  2. ^ "Vampire". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2006-06-14. Retrieved 2006-06-13.
  3. ^ "Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé" (in French). Archived from the original on 2012-05-26. Retrieved 2006-06-13.
  4. ^ Dauzat, Albert (1938). Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française (in French). Paris: Librairie Larousse. OCLC 904687.
  5. ^ Calmet, Augustin. Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. 2016. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-5331-4568-0.
  6. ^ England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, see Chapter 11, Section 6 "Death and the Dead".
  7. ^ a b Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24.
  8. ^ Historia rerum Anglicarum Book 5, Ch. 24, paragraph 7.
  9. ^ See Finding "vampires" in graves for more details.
  10. ^ Calmet, Augustin (1751). Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. Translated by Rev Henry Christmas & Brett Warren. 2015. pp. 303–304. ISBN 1-5331-4568-7.
  11. ^ Calmet, Augustin (1751). Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. Translated by Rev Henry Christmas & Brett Warren. 2015. p. 305. ISBN 1-5331-4568-7.
  12. ^ King James (2016). The Annotated Daemonology. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. pp. 79–83. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4.
  13. ^ See for example Kuu paistaa, kuollut ajaa (published by SKS) or
  14. ^ Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 22.
  15. ^ England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, pg. 613.
  16. ^ De nugis curialium, Book 2, Ch. 27.


External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of revenant at Wiktionary