Where and When Did Zombies Originate?

Up front, I’d like to apologize for neglecting my blog for the past few months. Some unfortunate recent events have sucked all of my time away in a most unpleasant manner. I’m back now (I hope, anyway), but in honor of the rotten stuff I’ve been facing lately, I thought focusing in on zombies might be quite appropriate for this month’s blog post.

I formulated a hypothesis about where zombies came from in the first place, but of course after you come up with a hypothesis, you then have to gather some data to find out if you’re really on the right track, so I thought I’d share what I dug up with you!

According to Roger Luckhurst, the zombie monsters we think of today trace back to a 1932 film called White Zombie, in which a Haitian voodoo master changes people into zombies. I find it interesting that in the White Zombie movie, the voodoo master changes the female lead into a zombie by first causing her death, then bringing her back to “life” as a zombie. This is consistent with one important requirement for zombies—being dead—evidenced in modern zombie renditions such as The Walking Dead.

Zombie walking through a cemetery next to graves at night. Image by geralt on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/illustrations/horror-zombie-ghosts-creepy-1848696/
Zombie walking through a cemetery next to graves at night. Image by geralt on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/illustrations/horror-zombie-ghosts-creepy-1848696/

In Haiti and Martinique, the term zombie can refer to a spirit, ghost, or any disturbing presence found at night and is thought to have come from the Mitsogo word for corpse (ndzumbi) and/or the Kongo word “nzambi” meaning “spirit of a dead person”. The definition of zombie evolved into someone victimized by a witch-doctor who rendered them dead, then revived them as a personal slave, somehow capturing their soul along the way. Thus, zombies have no will and are trapped in a living death.

A History.com article traces zombies back even further, pointing out how the ancient Greeks feared the dead—evidenced by archaeological discoveries of graves wherein the skeletons were pinned down with heavy objects, most likely to keep them from rising again. The same article also ponders Biblical references to resurrection (although those reanimated bodies were not zombies). One example from the Bible is that of Ezekiel and the dry bones.

Although Biblical references about people coming back from the dead aren’t referencing zombies, it is interesting to note that the Bible has a lot to say about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. … Perhaps this might be why a lot of zombie stories center around an apocalypse???

Wikipedia notes the zombie archetype can be traced back to Mesopotamia, perhaps as much as thousands of years before the Common Era, and quotes The Descent of Ishtar, wherein Ishtar states:

If you do not open the gate for me to come in, …

I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:

And the dead shall outnumber the living!

Rotting fleshed undead zombie image by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/illustrations/zombie-dead-monster-spooky-undead-1106756/
Rotting fleshed undead zombie image by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/illustrations/zombie-dead-monster-spooky-undead-1106756/

… So, it seems zombies go back a long, long time in history and originate with the dead being somehow raised. In addition to noting how zombies rise from the grave, Professor Ethan Watrall’s ANP264 website also lists rotting skin and a desire to eat human flesh as common zombie characteristics. Britannica adds zombies shamble and may seem to be uncoordinated, yet sometimes possess superhuman characteristics, such as increased speed and strength. Also, it’s nearly impossible to kill zombies since technically they’re not alive any longer.

And if you’re wondering how my hypothesis stacked up? Well, on the right track, but not accounting for every detail. My own thoughts were that zombie “originators” created the zombie myth after seeing people starve to death. I mean, zombies do sort of look like starving people—all bony and such—making you wonder how they can move around with virtually no muscle mass left, and this would also account for the rotting flesh appearance of zombies. Unfortunately, I’ve recently had the unpleasant opportunity to note that sometimes those starving also seem to move randomly and haphazardly, yet sometimes gripping with much more strength than you’d expect—also zombie-like—as well as mumbling or moaning, often incoherently. Plus, some near-starvation-but-still-alive folks do make you wonder why they aren’t dead and how is it can they still be alive?

Who knows, maybe zombie “originators” really did witness starving people either die or seemingly come back to life before filling in a few other details to create their own legend of the zombie….

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