-William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum (circa 1199-1201 A.D.).
Since the dawn of mankind, people have held a certain degree of reverence for the dead. However, with that reverence comes fear: the fear of the dead returning to life. This belief may go as far back as the Neanderthals, who may have been the first human species to bury their dead. It is known that these early humans bound their dead into a fetal position with leather strips, and heavy stones were often piled on top of the gravesite. This was obviously to keep scavengers from digging up the corpse and eating it, but it also served another purpose: to keep the dead from rising. Since that time, most modern burial practices have evolved from precautions designed to prevent the dead from returning to life to torment the living. These creatures are known as revenants, the returning dead.
The word revenant is a sort of catch-all term for all members of the Undead. However, it is a species of the Undead unto itself. These creatures are rotting and vengeful, craving their righteous revenge against those who may have originally killed the creature while it still lived, or for wrongs committed against the creature during its life (whether those wrongs are real or perceived).
There are numerous names for those creatures that return from the grave after having died, and it is known as the Returning Dead, Taxim (Eastern Europe), Krvoijac, Craquehhe. The term revenant itself can be used to refer to any form of the Undead, whether it is a vampire, a ghost, or a zombie. The word English word revenant comes from the French revenir, “to come back”, and the Latin revenans, “to return”. Therefore, a Revenant is a once-living human that has returned from the dead.
The Revenant and it's various subspecies (one of which Vampires may be considered) can be found all over the world, in one form or another. The Revenant tends to haunt sites that were important or held some significance to it in life, but the creature has been known to haunt people that betrayed, wronged, or even caused the Revenant’s death. In other words, this creature is not strictly limited to graveyards, mausoleums, tombs, crypts, or other places of death where the Undead usually dwell. However, the Revenant discussed here has mainly been encountered in the British Isles.
The Revenant requires neither food nor drink of any sort, since the creature is technically dead in the first place. However, there have been exceptions when the Revenant has been known to prey on human flesh or blood (causing people to identify the Revenant with the Vampire), or even eating and drinking normally. A Revenant that has arisen from a desecrated gravesite is far more likely to be vampiric than others of it's kind. However, rest assured that the Revenant only craves one thing: vengeance. It will not stop until its prey is dead or the wrongs (real or perceived) have been righted.
Having recently arisen from the grave, the Revenant usually has the appearance of a corpse in an advanced state of decay, but still somewhat recognizable to those it knew in life. The creature has sunken eyes, which glow a fiery red in the darkness. Upon death, the creature's teeth lengthen and deform, giving the monster a mouthful of jagged teeth with which to tear flesh. The fingernails also became longer, but are most often cracked and dirty with jagged edges. Large portions of flesh may be missing, exposing the creature’s bones and innards. The skin tends to hang from the flesh in ragged strips, while maggots and worms infest the exposed flesh, the eye sockets, and other bodily orifices. The Revenant reeks of corruption and rotting flesh, and the creature can be detected from several yards away just by its smell alone. The Revenant is usually wearing its burial shroud or whatever clothes it was wearing when the individual was interred, now it tatters from clawing its way out of the grave.
The Revenant is dangerously obsessed with gaining its vengeance on those who wronged it while it was still living or caused the creature’s death. There have been some accounts of this creature being benevolent and protective of its loved ones, seeking only to prove its innocence of the crime of which it was wrongfully accused, or to complete some pressingly important task. However, this is extremely rare in lore and legend. The Revenant is single-minded and relentless in its pursuit of the one that wronged, betrayed, or even murdered the Revenant while it was alive. Rest assured, this creature will hunt down and dispense the justice that it feels the wrongdoer deserves, which usually means killing the unfortunate (but usually well-deserving) individual. Once in a great while, the Revenant will take up its own case, investigating the circumstances surrounding its death, and instigating a retrial until it is proven innocent or the killer is given justice. Again, this is extremely rare. Usually, the Revenant doesn’t interact with the living, unless someone is stupid enough to stand in it's way. If cornered, it will fight to the death. It knows that, wherever the traitor hides, it will find them eventually and take the revenge that it craves. At this point, the Revenant will return to its grave, never to rise again.
The Revenant is a deadly adversary, despite not being as powerful as some other species of the Undead. The Revenant is a vicious monster, possessing supernatural strength, speed, and endurance. It will fight to the death, or at least until the creature is destroyed. In addition, some legends say that the Revenant is a shapeshifter, taking the form of a great hound (although this is a rarity). The creature’s rotting visage inspires mortal terror in the living, causing lasting psychological damage and horrifying nightmares, which continue for years to come (if not for the rest of the unfortunate individual’s life). The Revenant’s decaying flesh and fetid breath are capable of inflicting a terrible disease, causing those infected to waste away and die within a few days’ time. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Revenant is that the creature has the ability to withstand enormous amounts of damage to its body, often without so much as flinching. It takes on an incredible amount of damage, far beyond what could kill a mortal man. Even dealing grievous wounds to the creature won’t keep it down for long.
Although it is physically powerful and utterly relentless in pursuit of it's prey, the Revenant does have several weaknesses. Unlike most of the Undead, conventional weapons are capable of harming the Revenant. However, as mentioned earlier, the creature is unable to feel pain and can withstand injuries that would permanently incapacitate or even kill a human. Only a white-hot blaze can put the creature to rest forever (and save its chosen victim). For the most part, the Revenant cannot be repelled by holding a holy icon in its path, the only exception being if the creature was a deeply religious individual in life. It is unknown if the Revenant is adversely affected by silver or holy water, although it certainly seems possible.
Because the Revenant is nigh-unstoppable, anything short of decapitation or complete incineration will only slow the creature down. But unlike most other species of the undead, the Revenant can be harmed by ordinary weapons like firearms or knives. It takes a nearly unimaginable amount of damage to bring the creature down, but if left alone, it won't stay that way. So, in order to keep the creature from coming back again, the body must be beheaded and the body burnt to ashes (which must then be scattered). Dismemberment works well for this particular purpose, too.
A less extreme method of keeping a Revenant down is staking the creature to it's grave. A long stake, two to three feet in length and made of iron, steel, or hardwood, should be driven through the chest (not necessarily the heart) or the stomach. This should pin the creature down to the earth, and will hopefully impede the creature from attempting to rise again. There is a symbolic, almost metaphysical to this otherwise unsavory act as well: by forcing the Revenant back into contact with the earth, the natural forces of decomposition will (hopefully) catch up with the creature, rendering the monstrosity inert and harmless. But, to make sure that the creature stays dead and buried, it may be a good idea to behead the Revenant. The head should then be tucked under one of the arms or placed facedown in between the legs.
Other methods of dealing with a Revenant includes the grisly practice of excising (cutting out) the heart. The heart should be burned until only ashes remain. Some tales prescribe boiling the heart in wine. But destroying the heart is never guaranteed to work. Only by burning the creature to ashes can one ever be sure of having destroyed the creature.
Every culture has its legends of creatures that rise from the dead to prey upon the living. These creatures are known as revenants, the returning dead. Although any type of the undead may be referred to as a revenant, the creature discussed here is said to dwell on the British Isles, where it is known as the Revenant. There are a great deal of cases of the returned dead in Britain, and most of them were recorded by William of Newburgh (circa 1137-1199). In his book Historia rerum Anglicarum (A History of English Affairs), Chapter 22: Of the prodigy of the dead man, who wandered about after burial, he writes:
In these days a wonderful event befell in the county of Buckingham, which I, in the first instance, partially heard from certain friends, and was afterwards more fully informed of by Stephen, the venerable archdeacon of that province. A certain man died, and, according to custom, by the honorable exertion of his wife arid kindred, was laid in the tomb on the eve of the Lord's Ascension. On the following night, however, having entered the bed where his wife was reposing, he not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body. The next night, also, he afflicted the astonished woman in the same manner, who, frightened at the danger, as the struggle of the third night drew near, took care to remain awake herself, and surround herself with watchful companions. Still he came; but being repulsed by the shouts of the watchers, and seeing that he was prevented from doing mischief, he departed. Thus driven off from his wife, he harassed in a similar manner his own brothers, who were dwelling in the same street; but they, following the cautious example of the woman, passed the nights in wakefulness with their companions, ready to meet and repel the expected danger. He appeared, notwithstanding, as if with the hope of surprising them should they be overcome with drowsiness; but being repelled by the carefulness and valor of the watchers, he rioted among the animals, both indoors and outdoors, as their wildness and unwonted movements testified.
Having thus become a like serious nuisance to his friends and neighbors, he imposed upon all the same necessity for nocturnal watchfulness; and in that very street a general watch was kept in every house, each being fearful of his approach unawares. After having for some time rioted in this manner during the night-time alone, he began to wander abroad in daylight, formidable indeed to all, but visible only to a few; for oftentimes, on his encountering a number of persons, he would appear to one or two only though at the same time his presence was not concealed from the rest. At length the inhabitants, alarmed beyond measure, thought it advisable to seek counsel of the church; and they detailed the whole affair, with tearful lamentation, to the above-mentioned archdeacon, at a meeting of the clergy over which he was solemnly presiding. Whereupon he immediately intimated in writing the whole circumstances of the case to the venerable bishop of Lincoln, who was then resident in London, whose opinion and judgment on so unwonted a matter he was very properly of opinion should be waited for: but the bishop, being amazed at his account, held a searching investigation with his companions; and there were some who said that such things had often befallen in England, and cited frequent examples to show that tranquility could not be restored to the people until the body of this most wretched man were dug up and burnt. This proceeding, however, appeared indecent and improper in the last degree to the reverend bishop, who shortly after addressed a letter of absolution, written with his own hand, to the archdeacon, in order that it might be demonstrated by inspection in what state the body of that man really was; and he commanded his tomb to be opened, and the letter having been laid upon his breast, to be again closed: so the sepulcher having been opened, the corpse was found as it had been placed there, and the charter of absolution having been deposited upon its breast, and the tomb once more closed, he was thenceforth never more seen to wander, nor permitted to inflict annoyance or terror upon any one.
William tells of a similar occurrence in Berwick (most often called the “Berwick Vampire”) in Chapter 23: Of a similar occurrence at Berwick, he says:
In the northern parts of England, also, we know that another event, not unlike this and equally wonderful, happened about the same time. At the mouth of the river Tweed, and in the jurisdiction of the king of Scotland, there stands a noble city which is called Berwick. In this town a certain man, very wealthy, but as it afterwards appeared a great rogue, having been buried, after his death sallied forth (by the contrivance, as it is believed, of Satan) out of his grave by night, and was borne hither and thither, pursued by a pack of dogs with loud barkings; thus striking great terror into the neighbors, and returning to his tomb before daylight. After this had continued for several days, and no one dared to be found out of doors after dusk -- for each dreaded an encounter with this deadly monster -- the higher and middle classes of the people held a necessary investigation into what was requisite to he done; the more simple among them fearing, in the event of negligence, to be soundly beaten by this prodigy of the grave; but the wiser shrewdly concluding that were a remedy further delayed, the atmosphere, infected and corrupted by the constant whirlings through it of the pestiferous corpse, would engender disease and death to a great extent; the necessity of providing against which was shown by frequent examples in similar cases. They, therefore, procured ten young men renowned for boldness, who were to dig up the horrible carcass, and, having cut it limb from limb, reduce it into food and fuel for the flames. When this was done, the commotion ceased. Moreover, it is stated that the monster, while it was being borne about (as it is said) by Satan, had told certain persons whom it had by chance encountered, that as long as it remained unburned the people should have no peace. Being burnt, tranquility appeared to be restored to them; but a pestilence, which arose in consequence, carried off the greater portion of them: for never did it so furiously rage elsewhere, though it was at that time general throughout all the borders of England, as shall be more fully explained in its proper place.
Finally, William recounts what is now considered to be a classic case of a revenant in Chapter 24: Of certain prodigies, in which he recounts:
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. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, 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; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity.
A few years ago the chaplain of a certain illustrious lady, casting off mortality, was consigned to the tomb in that noble monastery which is called Melrose. This man, having little respect for the sacred order to which he belonged, was excessively secular in his pursuits, and -- what especially blackens his reputation as a minister of the holy sacrament -- so addicted to the vanity of the chase as to be designated by many by the infamous title of "Hundeprest," or the dog-priest; and this occupation, during his lifetime, was either laughed at by men, or considered in a worldly view; but after his death -- as the event showed -- the guiltiness of it was brought to light: for, issuing from the grave at night-time, he was prevented by the meritorious resistance of its holy inmates from injuring or terrifying any one with in the monastery itself; whereupon he wandered beyond the walls, and hovered chiefly, with loud groans and horrible murmurs, round the bedchamber of his former mistress. She, after this had frequently occurred, becoming exceedingly terrified, revealed her fears or danger to one of the friars who visited her about the business of the monastery; demanding with tears that prayers more earnest than usual should be poured out to the Lord in her behalf as for one in agony. With whose anxiety the friar -- for she appeared deserving of the best endeavors, on the part of the holy convent of that place, by her frequent donations to it -- piously and justly sympathized, and promised a speedy remedy through the mercy of the Most High Provider for all.
Thereupon, returning to the monastery, he obtained the companionship of another friar, of equally determined spirit, and two powerful young men, with whom he intended with constant vigilance to keep guard over the cemetery where that miserable priest lay buried. These four, therefore, furnished with arms and animated with courage, passed the night in that place, safe in the assistance which each afforded to the other. Midnight had now passed by, and no monster appeared; upon which it came to pass that three of the party, leaving him only who had sought their company on the spot, departed into the nearest house, for the purpose, as they averred, of warming themselves, for the night was cold. As soon as this man was left alone in this place, the devil, imagining that he had found the right moment for breaking his courage, incontinently roused up his own chosen vessel, who appeared to have reposed longer than usual. Having beheld this from afar, he grew stiff with terror by reason of his being alone; but soon recovering his courage, and no place of refuge being at hand, he valiantly withstood the onset of the fiend, who came rushing upon him with a terrible noise, and he struck the axe which he wielded in his hand deep into his body. On receiving this wound, the monster groaned aloud, and turning his back, fled with a rapidity not at all interior to that with which he had advanced, while the admirable man urged his flying foe from behind, and compelled him to seek his own tomb again; which opening of its own accord, and receiving its guest from the advance of the pursuer, immediately appeared to close again with the same facility. In the meantime, they who, impatient of the coldness of the night, had retreated to the fire ran up, though somewhat too late, and, having heard what had happened, rendered needful assistance in digging up and removing from the midst of the tomb the accursed corpse at the earliest dawn. When they had divested it of the clay cast forth with it, they found the huge wound it had received, and a great quantity of gore which had flowed from it in the sepulchre; and so having carried it away beyond the walls of the monastery and burnt it, they scattered the ashes to the winds. These things I have explained in a simple narration, as I myself heard them recounted by religious men.
Another event, also, not unlike this, but more pernicious in its effects, happened at the castle which is called Anantis, as I have heard from an aged monk who lived in honor and authority in those parts, and who related this event as having occurred in his own presence. A certain man of evil conduct flying, through fear of his enemies or the law, out of the province of York, to the lord of the before-named castle, took up his abode there, and having cast upon a service befitting his humor, labored hard to increase rather than correct his own evil propensities. He married a wife, to his own ruin indeed, as it afterwards appeared; for, hearing certain rumors respecting her, he was vexed with the spirit of Jealousy. Anxious to ascertain the truth of these reports, he pretended to be going on a journey from which he would not return for some days; but coming back in the evening, he was privily introduced into his bedroom by a maid-servant, who was in the secret, and lay hidden on a beam overhanging, his wife's chamber, that he might prove with his own eyes if anything were done to the dishonor of his marriage-bed. Thereupon beholding his wife in the act of fornication with a young man of the neighborhood, and in his indignation forgetful of his purpose, he fell, and was dashed heavily to the ground, near where they were lying.
The adulterer himself leaped up and escaped; but the wife, cunningly dissembling the fact, busied herself in gently raising her fallen husband from the earth. As soon as he had partially recovered, he upbraided her with her adultery, and threatened punishment; but she answering, "Explain yourself, my lord," said she; "you are speaking unbecomingly which must be imputed not to you, but to the sickness with which you are troubled." Being much shaken by the fall, and his whole body stupefied, he was attacked with a disease, insomuch that the man whom I have mentioned as having related these facts to me visiting him in the pious discharge of his duties, admonished him to make confession of his sins, and receive the Christian Eucharist in proper form: but as he was occupied in thinking about what had happened to him, and what his wife had said, put off the wholesome advice until the morrow -- that morrow which in this world he was fated never to behold! -- for the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death. 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. But those precautions were of no avail ; for the atmosphere, poisoned by the vagaries of this foul carcass, filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath.
Already did the town, which but a short time ago was populous, appear almost deserted; while those of its inhabitants who had escaped destruction migrated to other parts of the country, lest they too should die. The man from whose mouth I heard these things, sorrowing over this desolation of his parish, applied himself to summon a meeting of wise and religious men on that sacred day which is called Palm Sunday, in order that they might impart healthful counsel in so great a dilemma, and refresh the spirits of the miserable remnant of the people with consolation, however imperfect. Having delivered a discourse to the inhabitants, after the solemn ceremonies of the holy day had been properly performed, he invited his clerical guests, together with the other persons of honor who were present, to his table. While they were thus banqueting, two young men (brothers), who had lost their father by this plague, mutually encouraging one another, said, "This monster has already destroyed our father, and will speedily destroy us also, unless we take steps to prevent it. Let us, therefore, do some bold action which will at once ensure our own safety and revenge our father's death. There is no one to hinder us; for in the priest's house a feast is in progress, and the whole town is as silent as if deserted. Let us dig up this baneful pest, and burn it with fire."
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, it was announced to the guests what was going on, who, running thither, enabled themselves to testify henceforth to the circumstances. When that infernal hell-hound had thus been destroyed, the pestilence which was rife among the people ceased, as if the air, which had been corrupted by the contagious motions of the dreadful corpse, were already purified by the fire which had consumed it. These facts having been thus expounded, let us return to the regular thread of history.
How does one become a Revenant? According to folklore, there are many different ways to become one of the Undead. Some of the more common reasons for rising from the grave include: improper burial, no burial at all, improper handling of the deceased’s body, jealously of the living, a curse, unrest due to sin or unfinished business, or suicide. Some of the lesser-known reasons are more sinister in nature. More often, the Revenant is created when an individual is greatly wronged before death and rises from the grave to seek vengeance. For instance, a man is murdered on the street for no apparent reason. After burial, he rises again from the grave as one of the living dead to avenge himself on his murderer. However, how one is “wronged” depends on an individual’s point of view. A criminal who is fairly tried by a jury and is legally executed may still rise from the dead. In this case, revenge is the trigger of undeath.
The Revenant may arise when an individual who has led a sinful or wicked life dies. Such a person may be described vain, wicked, or having no faith in God. Cursed by the Almighty, this individual is doomed to rise from the grave as one of the undead to feed upon the living. When this happens, an evil spirit takes possession of the body, forcing out any of the original person’s remaining personality. The Revenant may retain its memories from life, but there is no emotional attachment to these memories whatsoever. The evil spirit inhabiting the corpse is able to gain access to these memories and force the corpse to speak and act like the individual did during his lifetime, deceiving both friends and loved ones. The Revenant uses the memories for hunting, utilizing the knowledge of former friends, family, and locations as part of its strategies in obtaining prey. It then proceeds to slake its thirst for blood on the unfortunate, draining them of every last drop.
Fortunately, the Revenant doesn’t last forever. At most, the creature may endure for a few decades. The people that the creature seeks vengeance on may die of natural causes, while the ones who knew and loved the individual in life may stop thinking about them. This causes the animating force to wane and eventually dissipate altogether. When the Revenant’s revenge is complete, or the rest of the creature’s natural lifespan is exceeded, the Revenant either seeks out its grave and collapses, or it may just simply collapse into a pile of rotting meat on the spot.
It cannot be emphasized enough that a Revenant is relentless, and nearly indestructible. This makes the monster extremely dangerous, and not something that the everyday working man would want to deal with. While revenants are indeed rare in modern times, that doesn't mean that it can't still happen.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my very good friend Anthony Hogg for his helping me to find the dates and quotes for the William of Newburgh parts of this. Anthony and I have been friends since 2011, and he has helped me out on numerous occasions. But he's still trying to get the notion that Vampires don't have fangs out of my head!
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Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Willam of Newburgh: Book Five