In order to gain a better understanding of the revenant, it’s important to know what the word means and what it categorizes. With great remorse, the latter is actually rather impossible for reasons which will be touched upon later; there’s just too much variation within the accounts. Referencing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) we find several definitions for revenant: 1) a person who returns; a reanimated corpse; a ghost, 2) that has returned from, or as if from, the dead; resembling or reminiscent of a ghost. The second definition is the usage found in the title of the DiCaprio movie – it was super disappointing to not have that flick be a medieval period piece about the super scary walking dead, trust me. The first definition has fallen out of frequent usage, but is the subject of this analysis. The definition supplied by the OED gives historical examples of the word, as well as its etymology. The word is French and came into the vernacular around 1690 in relation to the word revenue (as in ‘to return’; this totally gives me a whole new viewpoint on the Internal Revenue Service – they really are greedy, blood-suckers). The definition is pretty clear, but what categorizes a revenant is far more nuanced. They share so many similar aspects with many other walking corpses from across northern Europe; it’s hard to distinguish what’s a revenant and what’s a geinganger, draugr, or even a vampyr.
To make things even more confusing for scholars, in 1823, one entry in the OED definition directly correlates the revenant with the German geinganger (gjenganger in Scandinavian languages), or one who ‘walks again,’ and calls them both malevolent, vampiric spirits. In some, these undead are pretty indiscernible. Revenants, and geinganger aren’t what would be considered traditional vampires, but many stories refer to revenants and geinganer sucking health – sometimes blood, but mostly energy – from their victims. For the sake of argument, we’ll identify revenants with England and France, geinganger with Germany, draugr (and gjenganger, depending on what source you’re addressing) with Scandinavia, and vampyrs with Slavic countries. It’s easier that way.
In a 1910 volume by J.C. Lawson on Greek Folklore, Lawson relates “If the devil in possession of the corpse chose to agitate it and drive it out of the grave, the dead demoniac was at once a revenant.” He offers such a fascinating perspective on what makes a revenant that we need stop for a little bit to address this. Lawson, along with a number of other authors throughout antiquity has made the assertion revenants are dead bodies possessed by a demonic spirit. Though the viewpoint on death given by medieval people is as varied as the cultures that developed them, on prevalent theory is that the body was little more than a glove for an immortal soul. Once the soul of an individual took off this glove, if the rites and rituals were improperly performed, or the being was a bit of a scoundrel (which we’ll discuss in greater detail later), any spirit could enter into that empty vessel. One story from Thomas of Cantimpré (1201-1272) records the experience of one virtuous virgin (because they always are) who evoked the Devil’s wrath through her piety (like that always does):
- Getting up in the middle of the night, the virgin went to the church and found the dead man, but she was hardly afraid, or just a little, so she sat down and bean her prayers. When the Devil saw this he looked upon her with malice, and entering the body he moved it at first in the coffin. The virgin therefore crossed herself…Suddenly the Devil rose up with the corpse and said, “Truly, now I will have power against you, and I will revenge myself for the frequent injuries I have suffered at your hands!”
William of Newburgh, a chronicler who lived around 1136-1198, had many stories of revenants. His most well-known record, the Historia rerum Anglicarum (The History of English Affairs) has several important anecdotes elating to revenants (you can read this section online the through Fordham University here). However, in one section of Volume 5 of this work, Chapter 24, William speaks of his confusion about the origins of revenants, but the certainty of their existence:
- 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…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...
In William’s record, a pious monk who lived around the castle known as Anantis, possibly in what is now Annan in the UK relates an informative narrative. It’s about a criminal fleeing his life of sin in York to find refuge at the castle. He eventually marries, but hasn’t really changed his ways too much. In a twist of dramatic irony, he hears rumors of his wife’s faithlessness. In an effort to capture her in the act of adultery, he hides in the rafters above their bed after “going on a journey.” To his ire, he catches his wife in the very act and proceeds to fall from the rafters only to be mortally wounded. Needless to say, the young man whom the wife was in congress made a hasty retreat while the husband was otherwise occupied with dying. The monk was sent for and suggested the husband confess his many, many sins and take the Eucharist one last time before his passing, but it was put off in favor of the morrow. Well, it turns out that was just poor planning as he died the night he planned on confessing. Many of these stories are filled with their own little pieces of enjoyable dramatic irony. Unfortunately for the townspeople, though, the Christian burial the sinner received didn’t amount to much:
- For issuing…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.
Expanding on this idea of vengeance and ruin, a slight change of scenery is in order: draugr, the not-different-but-still-different cousin of the revenant. In one legend from Iceland’s Eyrbyggja saga, a shepherd mysteriously dies and begins to haunt the farm he worked as a draugr. Not long after, another individual falls ill and dies, Thorir Wooden-leg (I love Viking names). Eventually, it comes to light that the draugr of Thorir and the shepherd are haunting and area close to the farm and four more people fall ill and die one by one. This leads to a strange epidemic of undead and is only solved through some Christian rites and Icelandic law (apparently, undead don’t like lawyers either).
Revenants (draugr, etc.) are often notoriously hard to eliminate. Burying them deeper does no good. There’s even an instance of a burial site being piled high with boulders being no more of a barrier than a sheet of paper. Not even Christian rites always work. Sometimes, a good ‘ol body burning is just what the exorcist ordered. Referring back to the story from William of Newburgh and the wicked man with the adulteress wife, only the bravery of two young men whose father fell to the plague brought on from the revenant saved the town. After a rousing speech from a local man of religion, they laid a plan to wait for the revenant outside of its cemetery home to catch the thing at its weakest: while resting in its grave. The following quote will be rather longer than some of the others, but it’s super awesome:
- 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.
Okay, before we get to the most relevant part, let’s review a bit.
- A revenant is something that has “returned again.”
- They have a vampiric nature, usually in the form of an energy drain.
- They can be, but aren’t necessarily, possessed by a demonic spirit.
- If not a demon, they retain a malevolent psychic remnant of their former, wicked soul.
- Religious ceremonies and other precautions didn’t always stop a revenant from being made.
- Revenants are usually made from the corpses of wicked people.
- They don’t just try to murder people; they bring pestilence to a whole area.
- Someone murdered by a revenant can become a revenant.
- Fortifying the tomb of a revenant doesn’t work.
- Killing one often isn’t easy and usually takes a whole lot of work.
So, how does this apply to tabletop role playing games? Well, the revenant is a really awesome foe. They’re just not just tougher zombies with level draining abilities or a pestilent touch. They bring absolute devastation in their wake. They’re a herald of woe.
A whole campaign can be written around the coming and destruction of a revenant. Perhaps the last wicked enemy the characters encounter returns as a revenant seeking vengeance for the wrongs done upon him and haunts their town. The night is quiet as he begins his wanderings through a nearby village. The only sound to be heard is the baying of hounds as he slowly makes his way along his dreary path. At random houses the rotting corpse knocks on doors, then turns to leave. The next day, a plague hits the town and within hours kills its victims. Night after night the revenant returns. No force has been able to stop him. The guards of the city have done everything they can to fortify the city against this monster, but to avail. What’s worse, some of the victims have joined the ranks of The Returned. With the epidemic of revenants and disease spreading, the trek to the tomb of the revenant is fraught with danger. Perhaps the dungeon to the sarcophagus is populated with undead of every kind. They are surely hungry. The challenge for the party isn’t only overcoming the foes lined up to stop them, but whether or not they have been able to uncover the true way of defeating it. If they confront the revenant, can they withstand the rot of its pestilent breath and draining touch?
Have you used or encountered a revenant in your game? Lets us know the tale in the comments below!