Vampires, zombies and other various forms of undead beings show up in modern Western culture as creations of Christian-based mythoi and superstitions. However, the human imagination conceived these types of fearsome creatures long before this 2,000-year-old religion took root. A few examples from around the ancient pre-Christian world are proof that the seeds producing Dracula, the living dead and their creepy cousins may have far older origins.
Draugr: Viking Zombies With a Thirst for Blood
If you think television shows like “The Walking Dead” are frightening, you’ll really get the chills from “draugr.” They are revenants from Norse and Icelandic mythology, and a 2014 Unbound Worlds article describes them as reanimated corpses who retaliate against the living for any perceived slights or disrespect. Possessing some of the same qualities as the “white walkers” from Game of Thrones, draugr have enough intelligence and magical powers to hunt their victims, slay them and drink their blood. The Ancient Norse also believed that those killed by draugr would themselves be resurrected to stalk the same lands and continue the murderous cycle. Thankfully, they could be stopped by an intrepid hero who wrestles them back to their graves and removes their heads. In modern times, draugr have also been borrowed and reimaged for the popular “Skyrim” video game series.
Lilith: Feminist Icon, Demon Vampire or Both?
Depending on who you ask, Lilith was either the mother of all vampires, a wronged woman treated cruelly by her husband or possibly both. Long ago, various Mesopotamian peoples told tales about “lilitu,” or female demons, and their ideas eventually made their way into ancient Israelite stories. As a singular being named Lilith, she was Adam’s first wife and refused to acquiesce to his demands for her subservience. Filled with indignation, she apparently invoked the “ineffable name of God” and flew away, leaving the Garden of Eden for good. Adam pleaded with God for a new wife, and Eve was the result. Meanwhile, the tales insist that Lilith began having countless demon offspring by a fallen angel outside the confines of humanity’s first paradise. According to Bible History Daily, the ancient Babylonians feared her and wore amulets to protect their children from her blood-sucking ways.
While Lilith may have served as a cautionary tale in the ancient Middle East against perceived female insolence, she has become an inspiration to present-day women. One popular music festival, Lilith Fair, took its name from this legendary being. The Jewish Women’s Archive adds that Jewish feminists have been motivated by her tale, seeing it as a fight for equality with Adam.
The Wendigo: Insatiable Algonquin Ghouls
If you’ve ever watched the television series “Supernatural,” you might recognize the Wendigo. Prior to the arrival of European explorers in North America, this cannibalistic type of ghoul was dreaded by Algonquin peoples such as the Ojibwe, Cree, Naskapi and Innu. Some stories portray these beings as monstrous creatures with human features, while others insist that they are spirits that take over the bodies of the living to do their dirty work. With their withered, gaunt forms and pallid skin, they roam the countryside craving human flesh. Some Indigenous peoples see the Wendigo in modern times as a representation of greed, environmental destruction and reckless consumption.
Horror Is a Timeless Concept
As a genre, horror has existed since the beginnings of folklore and can be traced back to written legends from ancient Greece and Rome. These often served as cautionary tales warning against a range of social and religious taboos, such as unrighteous killings, straying from established gender and class norms, disobedience to parents, disrespecting the dead and not honoring the appropriate deities. As humans strive to understand their world and the mysteries of life beyond death, new tales and creepy villains will continue to emerge.