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A Field Guide to the Walking Dead
By Bob Curran, Gina Talucci, Ian Daniels
Career PressCopyright © 2009 Dr. Bob Curran
All rights reserved.
Back from the Beyond
Resurrection, the corporeal return of the body from the grave or from some realm beyond Death, is almost as old as time itself. The origins of the walking dead may lie in ancient mythologies dating far back into the past, describing the return of either gods or great men from the Afterlife. Indeed, if we look at the legends of a number of ancient cultures we find similar tales where such entities are either brought back or return on their own terms.
Today, a vast number of philosophies and religions maintain that when we die it completely marks the end of our involvement in the living world. No matter what Afterlife we imagine for ourselves, it usually marks the end of contact with all that we know and with those whom we know. The grave—however we conceive it—is our final resting place, and from it we cannot return.
Life After Death
In many respects, the world of the living and the dead were often kept separate in many ancient cultures. In Greek thought, for example, once the soul of an individual crossed the River Styx (one of three major rivers in the Underworld), he or she was not supposed to be able to return to his or her former life or to the living world. In some cultures, such as Roman and Greek, as soon as they crossed the River Lethe (another of the Underworld rivers and the one from which we get the word lethargic) and inhaled its vapors, they would forget their previous existence and live in the caverns of the Underworld for eternity, totally unaware of the living world, and all connections with it completely severed.
And yet in a number of other ancient beliefs, this separation was not always so clear-cut. Indeed, in some aspects of Greek myth, death was not an absolute certainty. A persistent story dating from the time of the Roman writer Virgil, for instance, tells the story of Orpheus, a celebrated musician and monarch of the Greek kingdom of Thrace, who ventured into the Underworld in order to bring back his wife, Eurydice, from the dead. It was said that, while fleeing from the unwelcome attentions of Aristeaus, son of Apollo, Eurydice (her name is sometimes given as Agriope) fell into a pit of venomous snakes, several of which bit her and killed her. Beside himself with grief, Orpheus who besides being a superb musician was also well skilled in the magical arts, resolved to travel into the land of the dead and bring her back to the world of the living. This he did, appearing in the dreadful Underworld court of Hades, king of the dead, and his wife, Persephone. In that terrible court, Orpheus played his lyre so sweetly that he charmed the heart of the awful king, and Hades agreed to let Eurydice go. There was one condition, however: Orpheus must walk ahead of her all the way to the living world and must not look back—if he did so, she would be lost to him and to the living forever. Orpheus led her out of the dark Underworld and toward the light, but he forgot the condition imposed upon him and stole a brief glance backward to make sure that she was following him. At this, Eurydice returned to the dark and to death forever.
This celebrated legend, which has become a classical Greek story, may have been indicative of a belief that was reasonably common in the ancient world: It might be possible to return (or to fetch relatives or loved ones back), from the dead in a corporeal state. The dead person might then continue to enjoy life as he or she had done before, death being only a minor interruption and inconvenience. In fact, a number of cultures believed that death was simply a transition from one form of living to another, and that the dead frequently noticed little difference between the living world and the Afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that death was but a stage to another phase of existence, which was not all that different from our physical reality. This Afterlife lay in a land far away to the West. Consequently, great Pharaohs were buried with their treasures, so that they would be wealthy in this other existence; their favorite animals, so that they would continue to enjoy their company beyond Death; and their servants, who would continue to serve them in the Afterlife when the sun rose. Their bodies were preserved through a process of mummification, so that they would be whole and vigorous in the Afterlife. But once they had survived the transition from one phase to the other, there seems to have been no way back to the world of the living, in corporeal form at least, for the common Egyptian soul. Perhaps they did not wish to come back.
And yet Egyptian mythology—the ideas of gods and goddesses—is riddled with tales of return from the grave and resurrection. In Egyptian belief, even the act of transition from one world into the other through death involved a descent into the Underworld (and for the Egyptians, it was literally a journey into a subterranean world) and a reemergence, which was still in a corporeal form, just in a new existence. Some of the gods themselves had returned from the jaws of death in physical form.
Indeed one of the oldest gods in the Egyptian pantheon, Osiris, had been resurrected in such a fashion. The earliest reference to this god—who ultimately judged those who had died to see if they were fit for the Afterlife—comes from a group of writings known as the Pyramid Texts, which date from around 2400 BCE, when his cult was already well established along the Nile. In fact, the cult continued (as a mystery cult) for many centuries until its suppression during the Christian era.
According to the tradition, Osiris was one of the sons of Geb, an old earth god who mated with Nut, the sky goddess; he was considered to be the god of fertility. In legend, Osiris was tricked by his brother Set (considered to be an evil spirit) to climb into a coffin, which Set then immediately sealed and threw into the River Nile. This casket was subsequently found, trapped in some reeds, by the goddess Isis, who was Osiris's sister and wife. By this time Osiris was already dead, but Isis was not undaunted, for she knew a spell that would surely bring Osiris back to life, if only briefly. This she did, with one specific purpose: so that he might impregnate her. In other variants of the story—thought to be even older—Set tore up Osiris's body and scattered it across Egypt. Isis patiently sought after the fragments and placed them together, except for the genitals, which she could not find (Set dumped them in the River Nile). Isis therefore fashioned herself a penis out of clay, which she attached to the body before reviving it, allowing Osiris to impregnate her. She would later give birth to their son Horus, the Egyptian sun god. (In a conflicting and perhaps much later myth, Horus is identified as the sun of Hathor or Nut and brother of Isis.) After this act, Osiris returned once again to the grave. In drawings contained within the Pyramid Texts, Osiris is portrayed as a green-skinned ruler or Pharaoh, with a crook and a flail, which were the symbols of office, suggesting that Egyptian Pharaohs were descended from him, and that they, too, might have the power to return from the dead (the land in the West) if they so chose. This conferred a kind of immortality concerning the Egyptian kings, who were considered to be the embodiment of Osiris, or his counterparts Horus or Ra (another manifestation of the sun god), and therefore had power over life and death.
As a passing issue, it is also interesting to note that the story concerning Isis, in which she hunts for the pieces of Osiris's body and assembles them into a whole, has resonance in the story of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Here the dubious protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, searches around for the remnants of dead corpses in order to return them into a form of life by way of his completed "monster" using elemental power (in this case electricity from lightning). It has been argued that Mary Shelley based her central character on the enigmatic and mysterious theologian and alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel (1673–1734), who was said to have inhabited Castle Frankenstein (the name Frankenstein simply means "Rock of the Franks") near Darmstadt in Hesse, Germany. Dippel was supposed to have engaged in macabre experiments within the fortress—including the creation of "Dippel's Oil," which was supposed to be a constituent of the elixir vitae, or the oil of immortality, the Elixir of Life). Similar to Isis and Frankenstein, he was supposed to gather up fragments of corpses to create life using his elixir, and was reputedly driven from his castle by angry and terrified locals. Although many have argued that Dippel is the original template for Frankenstein through his creation of an animated "monster" from the remnants of the dead, the idea is much older—perhaps stretching back as far as Isis's assemblage and reanimation of Osiris.
Of course, the Egyptian idea of the death and resurrection of Osiris may have had its origins in the death and reflowering of the vegetation along the Nile, coupled with the river's flooding and subsequent recession. The notion of returning from the grave in both visible and corporeal form was not a new one, even in ancient Egypt, and was closely linked into the cycle of the year and with dying and returning growth. Nor were the Egyptians the only ancient culture to believe that their deities returned from the Underworld.
In Babylonian and northern Semitic mythology, there were similar associations with the god Tammuz. In his original incarnation, Tammuz may well have been little more than a localized Assyrian fertility god who disappeared into the Underworld for part of the year (the onset of winter), to return in the spring. This journey was probably nothing more than a symbol of the turning year. Gradually, however, a more complex mythology built up around him, connecting him with other deities, most notably the goddess Inanna (Sumerian texts) or Ishtar (Akkadian texts). In latter texts, Tammuz also changes his name to the Sumerian Dumuzid, the shepherd-king. However, much of his tale concerns the goddess Inanna, and appears in both Sumerian and Akkadian mythology, albeit in slightly different versions. The oldest version may originate from around 2500 BCE.
For some unspecified reason Inanna made a descent into the Babylonian Underworld. This is a lightless and cheerless place known as Kur, which was inhabited by heroes, nobles, and commoners alike. According to tradition, the nobles and heroes sat in dark and gloomy caves where common people waited on them. Why Inanna should have wished to venture there is unclear; in some variations, she had been summoned there by a consortium of Underworld gods called the Anunnaki (meaning "a host of demons"), who were associated with magic and sorcery—although what their purpose was in doing so is mysterious.
There is a suggestion that they intended to take her prisoner as soon as she appeared before them, and hold her in the Underworld forever. Fearful and suspicious, Inanna instructed her servant to petition some of the other gods for their help and support. This her servant did, but only one god named Enka (also known as Ea) responded. Here the Sumerian and Akkadian texts vary slightly. However, through the magic of Enka, Inanna was restored to life with the understanding that she would find someone to take her place in Kur.
When she returned to her own country, accompanied by the servants of the Anunnaki, she found Tammuz occupying her throne and ruling as the monarch. It was Tammuz that she attacked and eventually consigned to Kur, although later he would rise again in some form, which is not specified. In an apparently older version of the tale (perhaps even pre-dating 2500 BCE) Inanna journeyed to Kur in order to retrieve Tammuz, who had been killed. To obtain his return to the world of the living, she had to stand before the Anunnaki—who in this version appear in the role of Underworld judges or assessors—to plead for his release from the world of the dead. Aided by the magic of Ea, she succeeded and returned with Tammuz to the living world, where he reigned as Dumuzid, the shepherd-king. He was equated with a couple of legendary kings: Dumuzid of Bad-Tibera (a Sumerian city-state), who was the fifth king who ruled before the Great Flood; and Dumuzid the Fisherman, who was counted as the third king during the first dynasty of Uruk. Both of these men, according to legend, were said to be extremely powerful prehistoric kings with supernatural connotations, which, perhaps, included returning from the dead. There is also a king by the name of Dumuzid mentioned in the ancient Sangam literature of the Tamils as ruling Pandan, one of three Tamil kingdoms that existed on the southern coast of India from prehistoric times until the end of the 15th century. According to tradition, around 1750BCE, part of the kingdom was destroyed by a great flood, and at this time Dumuzid (Tammuz) seems to have been king. It is the Sumerian king, however, who seems to have been most important, and who may have conquered death.
Indeed so important was Tammuz in the early Middle Eastern consciousness that a certain time of year was named after him, celebrating his descent into Kur. This period was not only observed by the Babylonians, but also by some of the northern Semites as well. Beginning at the start of the summer solstice, when the fierce heat began to decline and the days grew shorter, the festival of mourning the death of Tammuz lasted for approximately six days and was something of a spectacular event.
Such ritual mourning was even practiced by the strict Hebrews at the gate to the temple in Jerusalem, much to the horrified outrage of the prophet Ezekiel: "Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was towards the north and behold there were women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me 'Hast thou seen this O son of man? Turn thee yet again and thou shalt see greater abominations than these." (Ezekiel 8:14–15)
This, along with a number of other accounts, seems to suggest that the cult of Tammuz was quite widespread amongst the early Semitic peoples. It was probably a resurrection cult because the return of Tammuz from Kur, following his victory over death, was also a cause for celebration, signaling new growth and new life. The story of Tammuz was translated from the original Babylonian by scholars Noah Kraimer and Diane Wolkstein in 1983, and may be one of a number of early resurrection texts that showed a belief in the returning and corporeal dead in ancient cultures.
The story of Tammuz/Dumuzid's resurrection has an almost exact parallel in the ancient Chola culture, which is even further East. Indeed, the returning figure that vanquishes death is also known as Dumuzid, and is named as a Chola king.
The Cholas, a Tamil civilization, were one (and probably one of the most influential) of a number of cultures that characterized the southern part of the Indian subcontinent and display a striking similarity with the ancient cultures of the Middle East—particularly Babylonian and Sumerian. This was probably because of trading links between the Chola and Pandan empires in Sri Lanka, southern India, and the Middle East. The legend of Tammuz is almost identical to the story told in the Middle East. Here Tammuz/Dumuzid also descends into the Underworld at the command of the gods, but he is rescued and returns to the world of the living as "a whole man" to reign for many years. He is thought to have been one of the earliest kings who ruled after a great flood (comparable to that mentioned in the Bible) had also devastated the greater part of the Chola Empire. This corresponds roughly to the Sumerian belief that Tammuz/Dumuzid was the "fifth king to rule after the Great Flood had destroyed the world."
The Middle East
Tammuz/Dumuzid was not the only ancient figure to come back from the dead in Middle Eastern belief; there was also the cult of the resurrected Ba'al. The name Ba'al is a complex one in ancient Middle Eastern religious examination, as the figure takes on a number of guises and is found in a number of different cultures. In each culture, the name Ba'al seems to have revealed a slightly different aspect. The name itself seems to be of northwest Semitic origin and simply means "lord" or "master." It could therefore have been applied to any god or supernatural being, or even to human officials. Indeed, it was interchangeable with the names of other gods from the Semitic areas such as Hadad, a northwestern Semitic storm god. Hadad was also the god of rain, fertility, and growing crops, and at one period, the two names were practically interchangeable, thus making Ba'al a fertility god. It was believed that the name Hadad could only be spoken by the temple priests, so the common populace therefore used the name Ba'al to describe their god or to invoke him.
Excerpted from Zombies by Bob Curran, Gina Talucci, Ian Daniels. Copyright © 2009 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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