In the stillness of the night, a town waits in terror to see if the vile spirit laid to rest in the town cemetery will remain in its grave. As the hours wear on, the tension in the streets lessens – perhaps the vile spirit of the man they put to rest was not restless enough to come back to life.
Their fears, however, are confirmed with they hear the pacing of stiffened footsteps and a familiar voice calling out in the night. It is hunting those who have done it wrong during its lifetime and no mortal man will be able to stand against this evil spirit in the hours of the night. Only when the day breaks again will they be able to go to the grave of the unfortunate soul and destroy the corpse so that it cannot return from the land of the dead.
Until then however, the town will be at the mercy of this vile revenant.
What is a Revenant?
A revenant is a creature that caused much fear in the hearts of the living. It was said that when a wicked person died, their restless spirits were sometimes able to reanimate their corpse from beyond the grave in order to carry out their malevolent intent.
Though it was common knowledge that a revenant had to have been wicked or engaged in dark practices when they were living, no one was certain what caused certain wicked people to reclaim their bodies after death while others seemed content to ‘rest in peace.’ Because of this, revenants were greatly feared. It was sometimes thought that the souls that created revenants were associated with a different type of evil than the average wrongdoer.
Types of Revanents
Perhaps something that made revenants unique was that there could be different variations of revenants that came back to haunt the living. All that was required to create a revenant was a restless and vengeful spirit that had lived a wicked life when it walked among the living. Because these requirements were fairly loose, this opened the categories of revenants significantly. It was believed that other evil beings could come back as revenants as well.
Perhaps most notable are the accounts of supposed werewolves that came back to haunt the living because they had not been properly killed. These revenant werewolves were said to roam battlefields and drink the blood of dead soldiers.
With the addition of other mythical beings like werewolves and witches being able to come back as a revenant, it is understandable that these creatures posed such a threat to developing societies. Though it is agreed that the majority of revenants seem to be possessed by a need to come back and continue the wicked agenda they carried out during their days among the living, there are some accounts of revenants who seemed to be motivated by their violent and often tragic deaths.
Typically, revenants who were not violent or wicked during their lifetime but experienced a tragic or gruesome death were known to come back in order to harass living relatives. It is noted, however, that some of these creatures had a much more sinister agenda. Some revenants who were not wicked in their lifetime are said to come back with the sole purpose of exacting revenge on their murderer.
Although there seem to be many notable subcategories of revenants, the word for which the creature is named doesn’t suggest a limitation for who or what could be considered a revenant. The word ‘revenant’ is said to be derived from the Latin word ‘revenans’ which is said to mean ‘returning.’ This word was used to describe the manner in which the monster manifested itself – as a reanimated corpse instead of a ghost or demonic entity. It is, however, important to note that there seem to be variations of revenants that allow for ghostly categorizing.
Revenants who appear in ghostly form are said to take the appearance of their corpse in most cases, though there are revenant ghosts who can be identified because they appear soon after a corpse has been buried and are uncommonly clean as well as surprisingly overdressed. Other than taking a ghostly form, these revenants tend to follow the same rules as others who have come back from the land of the dead.
Common Practices of Revenants
Revenants are most commonly motivated by revenge and a restless spirit that feels its work in the land of the living has been left unfinished. Because of this, they will come back – either to haunt their living relatives, kill living people it holds a grudge against, or spread pestilence and disease. It is thought that their spirits are so dissatisfied that they are able to reanimate their bodies and dig their way out of the graves they were interred inside.
According to most legends, the revenant only holds power during the hours of the night. During the daylight hours, the creature is forced to retreat to its grave and sleep in a state of suspension that appeared similar to death, but was not thought to actually be death.
Although there are plenty of tales that tell of revenants who came back to life to hunt and haunt specific people, the majority of revenant stories consist of the creature seeking to spread death and disease among surviving members of their village. Because of this, it is often hypothesized that tales of the revenant came into being when people happened across a dead body that was in a stage of decomposition that was unfamiliar to the living at that point in time.
The appearance of the revenant is often gruesome and difficult to behold. The disgusting creature is thought to have reanimated its body and dug its way out from its own grave in order to terrorize certain people it holds a grudge against or entire villages.
The revenant is most commonly associated with death and disease because of its ghastly appearance. It is said that the revenant almost always appears in a body that has begun to decay, but has not decomposed to the point that it can’t be recognized by those who knew it in life.
Although plenty of witnesses claimed to have seen a revenant in their writings, it was often said that a revenant could be detected long before it came into view because of its foul smell. This creature was said to smell of decomposition so vile that it could be identified from many yards.
In addition to having a terrible odor, the revenant is said to have rotting teeth and sunken eyes that are thought to glow red. The fingernails of a revenant are described as being bloody and jagged from the tremendous effort it took to dig themselves out of their graves. Its clothes are usually in a similar state of decay and destruction as they are often torn in the process of the corpse escaping from its coffin.
The body of the revenant is a fearful sight to behold. It is often said to be missing significant chunks of flesh that often reveal its bones and internal organs. If the revenant did have skin, it was often reported to hang from the lifeless limbs of the creature in shreds. Those who were unfortunate enough to have seen revenants in person also reported these creatures as having many maggots and worms inside their open wounds. These maggots and worms were also said to be found in other openings in the body such as the eyes and mouth.
The bodies of these creatures are always said to be swollen with the blood of the victims they’ve murdered, though their reason for drinking blood is unknown. As far as witnesses have been able to observe, a revenant does not need blood or any other sustenance to survive. It is most commonly hypothesized that the drinking of blood is an act of pure violence, which helps to separate revenants from vampires in that they are not dependent on blood to continue their existence.
Why Does a Revenant Come Back from the Dead?
Though it is thought that revenants may come back from the dead for a variety of reasons, it is safe to conclude that a revenant is always motivated by business that they perceive to be unfinished. Leaving their lives without completing a purpose causes their souls to become restless and is often thought to cause them to repossess their once living corpse and walk among the living again.
In the majority of revenant cases, it is said that the resurrected individual had a wicked spirit when they walked among the living and were too restless to simply lay in peace for the rest of eternity. Instead, their spirits are driven to reanimate their bodies and terrorize the living that they left behind when the passed into the afterlife.
Other revenants seem to have resurrected because of the nature of their death. This is especially common for people who died brutal deaths or were murdered. These types of revenants are known to harass their living relatives. In some cases, these revenants return from the dead in order to exact their revenge on their murderers. Sometimes this is done through bringing sickness and disease to the guilty households, while in other cases the revenant seeks to kill specific people that were somehow involved in its demise.
Getting Rid of Revenants
Because revenants are seen as disturbed spirits that are driven to reanimate their corpses, the only way to put a revenant to rest is to dig up its grave during the safety of the daylight hours. While there have been attempts to bring down a revenant during the night hours when they walk among the living, this is considered to be dangerous and extremely difficult.
It was common practice to attempt to put the revenant to rest by digging up its grave during daylight hours and decapitating the corpse. The heart must then be staked or removed and then destroyed. After this, the corpse was either burned or sprinkled with holy water before being reinterred. This was thought to help with keeping the revenant from rising again.
The head was often disposed of separately. Sometimes it was also burned and the ashes were either buried on consecrated ground or scattered to the four winds. Other times, the head was thrown into a river or lake. It was thought that the many sins of the evil sinner would weigh down the head enough to prevent the revenant from rising again.
Revenants and Hallows Eve
Hallows Eve was seen as a way to get rid of many evil spirits and revenants were no exception. These creatures were commonly included in the yearly celebration because it was thought that issues with the deadly beings could be avoided if they were properly celebrated and guided into the afterlife. It was thought to be a celebration that was mutually beneficial because the living would be able to go on without fear of the dreadful creatures and the dead would be guided into an afterlife that was presumed to be much more pleasant than continuing to roam the Earth.
During Hallows Eve, people would pray for the dead and recently departed to help guide them into the afterlife. They would also pray for those trapped in purgatory in the hopes that their prayers would help their dead relatives ascend into eternal paradise.
Although Hallows Eve was seen as a time when the world could be rid of evil creatures like the revenant, precautions were still taken to ensure the safety of all those who participated. This often included leaving small food and drink sacrifices for those who had recently died and protecting oneself by dressing as the opposite gender or as a certain kind of revenant. This was thought to prevent spirits from taking out their wrath on the living by confusing them with different garb and making them more docile with earthly luxuries to ease their suffering.
Stories of Revenants
William Of Newburgh
William of Newburgh is known to have recorded a significant number of supposed revenants as a warning to future generations and perhaps as an instructional guide on how to deal with the gruesome creatures. He is known to have recorded many stories, but two in particular stand out from the rest.
The first story tells of an evil man who fled from his sins and eventually settled down and was married. The marital bliss did not last long, however, as he soon became jealous of his wife and suspected she was having an affair with a lover. He is said to have hidden in the rafters of his home and spied on his wife. He saw her engaging in sexual acts with a young man from their village and, in his rage, fell from the rafters and was gravely wounded. Several days later, he died from his wounds and was given a Christian burial. Despite being laid to rest, the man came back as a revenant and began to terrorize the villagers. He wandered the night and ambushed whatever unfortunate souls he could find, killing as many as he could. All of his victims were male – perhaps because of his rage when he discovered his wife’s affair. This caused the villagers to dig up his grave an exhume the body. When this was done, his corpse was found to be swollen in size, and when the corpse was punctured it was found to spew forth blood. It was believed this was because the corpse of the man had drank the blood of the villagers that had been murdered. They decapitated the corpses’ head, destroyed its heart, and set the body on fire. This was thought to have rid the village of the revenant.
Another story recorded by William of Newburgh suggests that not all revenants had such malicious purpose.
This story tells of a woman whose husband had recently died. To her shock and terror, he revived from his grave and paid a visit to her bedchamber, nearly crushing her with his weight in the process. He continued to visit her for three nights before extending his nightly visits to other relatives and neighbors. According to the story, the revenant became so problematic that a bishop was called to solve the problem. It was decided that the man’s tomb should be reopened and a letter should be placed on his chest. The tomb was then re-interred and sealed. Whatever had been done seemed to fix the problem and the man was able to rest in peace.
Abbot of Burton
In the year 1090, two peasants ran away and were buried in the town cemetery. Abbot of Burton recorded the story and reported that the very next day, the corpses of the peasants could be seen walking through village, carrying the coffins they had been buried in. They seemed to be able to shift from the shape of a man to that of an animal and knocked on the walls of houses in the village, telling others to join them.
Soon after this happened, the villagers became sick and started dying. It was soon determined, however, that the two peasants had become revenants. Their bodies were exhumed and decapitated, and their hearts were destroyed. As soon as these practices had been employed, the sickness in the village stopped.
A famous chronicler named Walter Map was known to have written a tale that spoke of an evil man who was able to revive himself from the dead and come back to haunt the streets of Hereford. He was reported to call out the names of individuals that would supposedly die within the next three days. A bishop was called to solve the problem and he declared the vile man to be a revenant. He told the townspeople to dig up the body and cut off the head, then sprinkle the body with holy water. This was thought to purify the body and allow it to rest in the afterlife. No problems were reported after these steps were followed.
Possible Inspiration for Revenants
Many who examine the stories of the revenants are quick to point to vampire lore. While it is true that both vampires and revenants are known to drink the blood of their victims, it appears they do so for two very different reasons.
According to vampire mythology, it is necessary for the creature to drink blood in order to survive. Without blood, the creature would become severely malnourished and may even die.
According to revenant lore, the creatures do not need blood to survive (or any other sort of sustenance) and appear to drink the blood of their victims as an act of pure violence and hatred.
Because of these differences, it is unlikely that the revenants were intended to resemble an alternative type of vampire, though there are many who argue that the drinking of a victim’s blood could have been borrowed from vampire lore.
Werewolves were known to be produced by those who charmed wolves or had contact with the devil and were given a wolf skin to roam with in the night. These creatures were greatly feared and whenever a werewolf was suspected in a community they were often executed quickly along with their closest friends and family.
Because werewolves were thought to have magical powers, it was considered especially difficult to ensure that the creatures stayed dead after they were executed. Because of this, it was quite common to hear of stories where werewolves rose from their graves and came back to haunt the living.
These stories often started with the brutal slaughter of those responsible for the werewolves death, though this was not always the case.
For some reason or another, werewolf revenants were thought to be especially fond of haunting battlefields and other areas that had been or were about to be devastated by war. They were said to lie in wait for soldiers to sustain injuries so they could drink the blood of dead and dying soldiers before having to return to their gravesites in the morning.
There are many similarities between zombies and revenants – perhaps the most similarities out of all the other types of undead. However, revenants are not zombies and are given their own distinct category.
The most important difference between a revenant and a zombie is that a revenant chooses to reanimate its corpse whereas a zombie is typically brought back from the dead by anothers powers.
Similarly, while a zombie is typically at the disposal of the person or power that brought it back into existence, a revenant has its own agenda and is in control of its own actions.
A draugr (sometimes spelled ‘draugar’) is an undead creature that appears in Norse mythology. These types of revenants often guard some sort of treasure that was buried with them and are said to have supernatural strength.
Perhaps most interesting about this version of the revenant is that the there are supposedly sea draugr and land draugr.
In a dissertation called Daemonologie, King James of Britain writes that incubi sometimes use tactics similar to that of a revenant when trying to have sexual relations with women.
Supposedly, these creatures are known to possess and reanimate a dead body in order to have sex with a woman.
Explanation of the Myth
There are many different speculations as for what could have caused the widespread fear for revenants, though the most common and perhaps logical is that bodies which were not buried deep enough were sometimes unearthed and made known to civilians.
It is thought that the advanced decomposition would have been ghastly and monstrous to these people who didn’t understand that this was the natural process of decomposition. The idea for a body to swell up with blood as a natural part of the decaying process would have seemed alien to these people.
It is well known that corpses who were not buried properly pose risk of spreading disease to a community, so this would explain the major theme of death and disease being spread by revenants.
Cataplexy is a condition that affects nearly 70 percent of people who suffer from narcolepsy. The disease is characterized by sudden muscle weakness that could manifest itself as the loosening of muscles in the face or, in more serious cases, entire muscle paralysis and the collapse of the entire body. During this period, the individual maintains full consciousness, but is unable to move or communicate.
It is thought that sufferers of this condition could be the cause of the revenant folklore. If a person with cataplexy was buried mistakenly, they would likely dig themselves out of their graves frantically. People of that time period would not have the knowledge that this medical condition wasn’t harmful and would have likely continued to think of the person as being deceased.
This explanation would have made for a much more sorrowful explanation, as the fear that these sufferers of cataplexy invoked caused their fellow citizens to take extreme (and often gruesome) measures to ensure they stayed buried below ground.