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A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that is believed to have returned from the grave to terrorize the living. The word revenant is derived from the Latin word reveniens, "returning" (see also the related French verb revenir, meaning "to come back").
Vivid stories of revenants arose in Western Europe (especially Great Britain, and were later carried by Anglo-Norman invaders to Ireland) during the High Middle Ages. Revenants were also known in old Irish Celtic mythology as the neamh mairbh. Though later legend and folklore depict revenants as returning for a specific purpose (e.g., revenge against the deceased's killer), in most Medieval accounts they return to harass their surviving families and neighbours. Revenants share a number of characteristics with folkloric vampires.
Many stories were documented by English historians in the Middle Ages. William of Newburgh wrote in 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."
Medieval stories of revenants have common features. Those who return from the dead are 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
Several stories state that revenants drink blood. For example, in Historia rerum Anglicarum  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. Revenants are therefore another example of the widespread historical belief in vampires.
Augustine 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) where he relates the rumors of men at the time:
they see, it is said, men who have been dead for several months, come back to earth, talk, walk, infest villages, ill use both men and beasts, suck the blood of their near relations, make them ill, and finally cause their death; so that people can only save themselves from their dangerous visits and their hauntings by exhuming them, impaling them, cutting off their heads, tearing out the heart, or burning them. These revenants are called by the name of oupires or vampires, that is to say, leeches; and such particulars are related of them, so singular, so detailed, and invested with such probable circumstances and such judicial information, that one can hardly refuse to credit the belief which is held in those countries, that these revenants come out of their tombs and produce those effects which are proclaimed of them.
Calmet compares the views 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 whom 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."
In Christianity, Calmet claims that during his lifetime in the mid 1700s, the Greeks contested that bodies of the excommunicated would not decay in their graves or tombs. He puts the invention of the Christian view of revenants in the Middle Ages by the Greek schismatics, suggesting further how the this idea of revenants was used to authorize and confirm them as bodies of the excommunicated who separated from the church of Rome during their lifetime. 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."
Revenants share some similarities with zombies in modern fiction. This is a result of contemporary depictions of zombies having evolved from vampire fiction (specifically Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, which was a major influence on the zombie film Night of the Living Dead). The original folklore about zombies had less in common with revenant legends.
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 far 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.
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).
William of Newburgh
William of Newburgh (1136?–1198?) wrote of a number of cases "...as 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."
One story involves a man of "evil conduct," on the run from the law, 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 returns 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 goes on for three nights, and the revenant goes on to repeat 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.
Abbot of Burton
The English Abbot of Burton tells the story of two runaway peasants from around 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, the heads cut off and their hearts removed, which put an end to the spread of the sickness.
The chronicler Walter Map, a Welshman writing in the 12th century, tells of a "wicked man" in Hereford who rose 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".
- Augustin Calmet, Author of Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et al. (1751)
- Beloved', novel by Toni Morrison
- Rotten Johnny Reb (US Civil War revenant)
- "The Monkey's Paw" (1902 short story)
- The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, a novel, and The Revenant, its 2015 film adaption
- England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, see Chapter 11, Section 6 "Death and the Dead".
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum Book 5, Ch. 24, paragraph 7.
- See Finding "vampires" in graves for more details.
- 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.
- 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.
- King James (2016). The Annotated Daemonology. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. pp. 79–83. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 22.
- England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, pg. 613.
- De nugis curialium, Book 2, Ch. 27.
- Calmet, Augustine (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 R Warren. 2015. pp. 303–305. ISBN 1-5331-4568-7.
- Bartlett, Robert (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-925101-0.
- Caciola, Nancy (1996). "Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture". Past & Present 152: 3–45. doi:10.1093/past/152.1.3. JSTOR 651055.
- Townsend, Dorian Aleksandra, From Upyr' to Vampire: The Slavic Vampire Myth in Russian Literature, Ph.D. Dissertation, School of German and Russian Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, May 2011.
- Walter Map, De nugis curialium.
- William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), full text on-line.