Zombies from Around the World

What does the Walking Dead and the Holy Grail have in common? Both are interpretations of an ancient Welsh legend involving a large cauldron and the world’s very first walking dead.

Haiti, West Africa, and Brazil

800px-Zombie_haiti_ill_artlibre_jnlThe word “zombie” was first recorded in 1819 in a history of Brazil. “Zombi, the title whereby he [chief of Brazilian natives] was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue.” (Oxford English Dictionary.) What this has to do with the undead is anyone’s guess. However, Haiti is usually considered the original source of zombies, and they use the word to refer to corpses reanimated by means of magic.

Wales, Ireland, and Great Britain

The Mabigonion are the earliest prose literature of Britain. If this confuses you because you thought that title belonged to Beowulf, the keyword there is prose. Beowulf is a poetic saga and therefore falls into a different category. The Mabigonion are Welsh in origin, and were recorded in the 12-13th century. They contain some of the earliest versions of Arthurian legend, and some of the finest examples of pre-Christian Celtic mythology. The story we are specifically interested in is the events surrounding Pair Dadeni–the Cauldron of Rebirth.

In the story, there’s a war being fought between the Irish and the Welsh, and the Irish are winning because they posses the cauldron. Every night they throw their dead into the cauldron and out come…zombie warriors. This is not a good thing. The Welsh are quickly struck by the horror of this act of reanimation. The soldiers are not alive as they once were, they still bear the wounds that kill them. They have no recognition of their friends or loved ones. They care only for killing. In fact, even after the Irish are well and truly defeated, the warriors continue to roam through the forests, killing whoever they can find and generally being a pest.

The cauldron is destroyed when Efnysian, the bitter idiot who started the war, hides among the slain Irish warrior and gets himself thrown into the cauldron. The rules state that only dead people should enter the cauldron, so the presence of a living soul causes it to shatter, killing Efnysian in the process.


the_cauldron_of_rebirth_by_roguewyndwalkerThere are two interesting cases of dead warriors who get resurrected and keep fighting. The first of these is one of the most well-known aspects of Norse mythology–Valhalla. Valhalla is often misrepresented, even by its own people, as a kind of heaven. Valhalla is were Viking warriors prayed to go when they died in battle, rather than of old age or sickness. Valhalla is the great long-house presided over by Odin where warriors eat and fight and wait for the final battle of Ragnarok.

But there’s a darker side to this paradise. All day, every day the fallen warriors practice the arts of war, hacking one another to pieces, and to death. And at night their wounds are magically healed, they rise up hale and whole, and walk as friends to the hall where they feast, sleep, and rise up in the morning and do it again. And again. And again.

The slain of Odin may not quite be zombies, but the warriors who fought in the battle of the Heodenings certainly were. The story starts when Freya, goddess of love and beauty, sleeps with four dwarves in exchange for the most beautiful necklace in the world–the Brisingamen. Odin, her lover, when he finds out, is exceedingly jealous, and sends Loki to steal the necklace. When Freya asks for it back, Odin says he will only return it if she causes the greatest war the world has ever seen to provide warriors for Valhalla.

Freya does this by inciting two kings, Hedinn and Hogni to have a falling out over Hogni’s daughter Hilgr. The two men fought each other to their deaths and Hilgr, broken hearted, used powerful magic spells to resurrect them and all their armies, only for the fighting to resume the next day. This goes on for a hundred and thirty-four years, until the arrival of Olaf Tryggvason and Christianity. Because of the ceaseless repetition of fighting, dying, and reanimation, by this point the warriors have become no different than those brought back to life by the Cauldron of Rebirth, and the Christians swiftly end the spell and dispatch all of them permanently to the afterlife.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.

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