A to Z Challenge Folklore

Zombies in Folklore and Fiction #folklore #AtoZChallenge

Z is for Zombie

Learn more about the challenge here.

I’m doing folklore and book review posts to reach and please a larger audience. Previous years have shown select interest in both and to minimise blogging throughout the year, I’m focusing my efforts on April.

If you’d rather check out my book review for today, go here.

Learn more about the A-Z Challenge here.

I’m not sure where I encountered zombies for the first time, though I do remember recognising them as such in that scene in “The Mummy” (1999 film) where Jonathan saves himself by pretending that he is a mindless zombie himself.


The only original folklore sources concerning zombies, revenants and draugr, are long sagas, not appropriate for this blog. So, instead, I’m just sharing a lot of folklore from modern books.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

When Brân agreed to the proposal of the Irish king Matholwch to wed their sister, the sweet Branwen, Efnisien (Welsh hero or god; evil brother of the hero Brân the Blessed) used the occasion to stir up trouble by mutilating the Irish horses. Such sacrilege – for horses partook of divinity as well as being cherished by warriors for their usefulness in battle – ignited a war between the previous two allies… the Irish had a weapon in this war. Because of Efnisien’s troublemaking, Brân had given Matholwch a magical cauldron in which dead soldiers could be placed and which would revive them as zombie-like killing machines.

*More can be read in the book.

The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca by Rosemary Ellen Guiley

zombie A dead person brought back to life by a magician, but not to the life the person previously knew. Believed dead by all who knew him, and by himself as well, the zombie becomes more like a robot than a human being, staring ahead and blindly following the magicianleader, doing his every bidding.

To unlock the mystery of zombies Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis went to Haiti in 1982. Davis reasoned that the zombie (“zombi,” as he preferred to spell it) was a person buried alive, who only seemed dead. Such a person had to be drugged to appear dead, exhibiting no life at all, but could come out of his trance and resume living. He talked to two people who claimed to be zombies: a man named Clairvius Narcisse and a woman known as Ti Femme. They told how they died, how they witnessed their burials and how the bokor, or black-magic Vodun houngan (priest) lifted them from the grave. After months of study and conversations with various hougans, Davis confirmed his suspicions. The “zombies” were created by the administration of a powerful poison to an open wound or into the victim’s food, guaranteeing its entrance into the bloodstream. The poison contains various pharmacologically active plants and animals and usually ground human remains, but the most important ingredient is the puffer fish, which contains tetrodotoxin.

Once the bokor raises the zombie from his tomb, the victim is force-fed a concoction of cane sugar, sweet potato and Datura stramonium, or “zombie’s cucumber,” which causes hallucinations and disorientation. The bokor announces the zombie’s new name and new “life,” and completely confused, the zombie follows the bokor wherever he leads him. Tribal Africans believe that slothful persons in life risk being made zombies after death, condemned to work for the bokor into eternity.

Traditionally, zombies work the fields, although some believe they are responsible for other work performed at night, like baking bread. A few zombies reportedly have served as bookkeepers, and even shopclerks. Becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare, since death provided no release from unremitting labor. Zombies require little food, but care must be taken not to give them Salt. Considered a magical, purifying substance since medieval times, salt can give the zombie back his powers of speech and taste, releasing a homing instinct that calls the zombie back to his grave. Once there, he burrows deep into the ground, away from the bokor’s influence, and resumes his eternal rest.

Although making a zombie requires detailed knowledge of the poisons—and cannot work without tetrodotoxin’s peculiar properties—the entire process requires belief in magic and the faith that zombies are real. In Vodun, zombies are made by sorcerers, who have captured the soul—the ti bon ange (“little good angel”) of the deceased. When a person dies, the Vodunist believes the ti bon ange hovers about the cadaver for seven days, during which time the soul is most vulnerable to sorcery. If the bokor captures it, he can make not only a zombie of the flesh, as described above, but a “zombie astral”: a ghost or spirit who wanders at the command of the bokor.

Through sorcery, the bokor controls those who were alive either in the body or the spirit. To guard against such a fate, relatives of the deceased “kill” the body again, stabbing a knife through the heart or decapitating it. Others place a dagger in the deceased’s coffin to stab the bokor or sew up the deceased’s mouth so he cannot answer the bokor when he calls. Another trick is to place seeds in the coffin, which the bokor must count before taking the body. Such a tedious task can take too long, and dawn could break before the bokor can remove the body. And no black magic is performed during daylight.

*More can be read in the book.

The Vampire Book by J Gordon Melton

Witches also had the power to raise the dead and to capture a departed spirit, which they turned into a ghost capable of annoying the kinsmen of the departed person. There was also widespread belief throughout West Africa in the isithfuntela (known by different names among different peoples), the disinterred body of a person enslaved by a witch to do the witch’s bidding. The witch reportedly cuts out the tongue and drives a peg into the brain of the creature so that it becomes zombie-like. The isithfuntela similarly attacked people by hypnotizing them and then driving a nail in their heads.

The zombie, a creature from Haitian folklore, is a revenant who reputedly has been raised from the dead by magical power and now exists as an animated body in a soulless state, usually able to perform menial if laborious chores for the one who raised him from the dead. Within Haitian voodoo, there is an elaborate mythology around zombies related to Ghede (a.k.a. Baron Samedi), the guardian of the dead, a deity usually portrayed in a black top hat and black tail coat who waits for souls at the eternal crossroads. Zombies made their way into popular discourse as they were slowly popularized by anthropological literature early in the twentieth century.

*More can be read in the book.

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft by Judika Iles

The Lemuria was the second annual (but oldest) Roman commemoration of the dead. It was held on three odd days in May—May 9th, 11th, and 13th. During these days, the dead walk the Earth and must be propitiated. Lemures was the term used for these walking revenants, hence the name of the festival in their honor. They were understood as the angry, volatile, dangerous dead and so appeasement and protection was particularly crucial.

In Slavic areas, vampires were understood as revenants, living corpses of witches/sorcerers/magical practitioners who, for one reason or another, rise from the grave. At their most neutral, they are harmful merely because they are not obeying natural laws; at their worst, they rise with the deliberate intention of causing harm.

*More can be read in the book.

Encyclopedia of the Vampire edited by ST Joshi

Folkloric vampires are undead corpses, not immortal hero-villains. Unlike literary and cinematic vampires, the revenants of folklore are not attractive: they are hideous, deformed, bloated. They do not transform their victims into immortal vampires. Instead, they are noxious to the living: they spread disease. Accounts agree in outline: revenants prey upon their own families and villages.

Reanimated corpses—draugr—appear in Scandinavian sources, including Glam, “endowed with more power for evil than any other revenant” (79) of Grettir’s Saga (University of Toronto Press, 1974)

*More can be read in the book.

Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology by Theresa Bane

Draugr (Daw- gr)

Variation: Aptgangr (“one who walks after death”), Aptrgangr, Barrow Dweller, Gronnskjegg, Haubui, Haugbui (“Sleeper in the Mound”)

The draugr is a type of vampiric REVENANT from Iceland. Its name is derived from the Indo-European root word dreugh, which means “to deceive” or “to damage.” The word draugr’s more modern literal translation means “after- goer” or “one who walks in death,” but is usually taken to mean a type of undead creature (see UNDEATH). There are two types of draugr, those of the land and those of the sea (see DRAUGER, SEA).

Land draugr are created when a very greedy and wealthy man is buried in a barrow with all of his possessions. To prevent this from happening, traditional lore says to place a pair of iron scissors on his chest or straw crosswise under the burial shroud. Additionally, as a precaution it is wise to tie the big toes of the deceased together so that the legs cannot move. As a final precaution, pins are driven partway into the bottom of his feet to prevent him from getting up and walking anywhere, as it would be too painful to do so.

A draugr jealously guards its treasures and viciously attacks anyone who enters its tomb. It uses its supernatural strength to crush them to death or strangle them with its bare hands. It is impervious to all mundane weaponry and a few stories say that it can even increase its body size two to three times. Some draugr are able to leave their tombs and wander off into the night with the intent of crushing or rending anyone they happen across. If one should be encountered, an elderly woman must throw a bowl of her own urine at it to drive it away.

In addition to its physical abilities, a draugr has an array of magical abilities as well. It can control the weather, move freely through stone and earth, and see into the future. It can also shape- shift into a cat, a great flayed bull, a gray horse with no ears or tail and a broken back, and a seal. In its cat form it will sit on a person’s chest, growing heavier and heavier until the victim suffocates to death, much like the ALP of Germany may do.

The draugr’s skin is described as being either hel- blar (“death- blue”) or na foir (“corpse pale”). It smells like a rotting corpse, although even after many years it may show no real signs of decay. It retains the personality and all the memories of the person it once was. It longs for the things it had in life—food, loved ones, and warmth, but unable to have these things, it destroys property and kills livestock and people. The only pleasure it has in death is taken through its violence.

The oldest, best- known story of a draugr is that of Glam from the Grettis Saga. In it, after Glam died he became a draugr, killing many men and cattle. He was defeated by the outlaw hero Grettir in a wrestling match. Grettir promptly beheaded the creature and burned the body to ash.

*More can be read in the book.

Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore by Theresa Bane


In the Great Lakes region of the United States of America, the Ojibwa folklore includes a being known as the Baykok (“skin draped bones” or “skeletal decomposed remains”); it is undead and wanders the woods at night compelled by hunger, attacking only lone travelers and eating their livers. Wielding a bludgeoning club and invisible spirit arrows, Baykok will incapacitate his victims before consuming them.

*More can be read in the book.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John & Caitlín Matthews


Originally in African lore, a zombie was any person who had come under the magical will of a sorcerer, although nowadays it tends to mean a dead human being whose own soul is absent but whose body can be inspirited by the will to work. The word comes from the Kongo zumbi or zombi which means a ‘fetish’ or ‘enslaved spirit’.

The term ‘zombie’ is known primarily to the world from the Haitian vodoun religion which is largely misunderstood by outsiders. Some vodoun priests (books) used the nerve poison tetrodotoxin from the puffer fish to produce the effect of death.

Zombies are not exclusive to Caribbean shores, since they appear also in the legends of Ireland and Britain, especially in the Welsh story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, in which dead warriors are put into a cauldron to be brought back to life to continue as battle fodder for the conflict. In their fight against the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha de Danann similarly cause their dead warriors to come alive again at the Well of Slaine so as to replenish their army. The warriors who emerge can fight but cannot speak, since it is forbidden for them to speak of what lies beyond death.

*More can be read in the book.

Further Reading:

Zombies. Image credit

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

In folklore, there are three classifications for what we know today as zombies. Revenants, draugr and zombies.

As we all know, traditional zombie folklore states that a zombie is a dead person brought back to life by a magician or bokor. This creature is not the person they once were, rather a robot-like creature who obeys their master’s every whim. The only way to save the person from eternal drudgery and to kill the zombie, is with salt. It isn’t clear whether mere contact with salt will do the trick or if the zombie has to ingest the mineral, but either way, it will remove the bokor’s hold on the zombie and it will be able to return to its grave for eternal slumber.

During the first half of the twentieth century, it was believed that the night trains conveying miners from Mozambique to South Africa and back, were actual witches’ trains which turned the workers into zombies. Though more a fear about migrant workers having to go to the most unpopular places of employment, fears about Apartheid, and how the people were worked to the point of death (most were returned maimed, deranged, disabled and broken to their country of origin), stories about zombies continue to circulate.

The draugr comes from Norse mythology. They are usually created when a greedy, wealthy man is buried with all his possession. The draugr rises to protect his treasure against all who would come to take it. Even though it is believed that a man can take his possessions with him to the Norse afterlife, some grave robbers did exist. The draugr made sure none would take what is his, even after death. Though most stay within their tomb, some wander off to kill whomever they come across. They also possess a bit of magic, as it can see the future, move through stone and control the weather. It can also apparently shape-shift into a grey horse with a broken back, no ears or tail. For the most part, the draugr is death blue or corpse pale, depending on the tale. It smells like a rotting corpse, even though it doesn’t show any signs of decay. It has all the memories it had as a living person. The only pleasure it can derive in its undead state is the murder of humans and livestock alike. The only way to stop this creature is with fire.

Revenants are those who return from the grave – usually a magic practitioner of some kind. In Slavic mythology, they may rise to do deliberate harm. They sustain this unnatural life by consuming the life-force of the living. This eventually grew to the legend of the vampire.

Whether created as durable slave-labour or because it has some unfinished business in the world of the living to take care of, the zombie is an enduring motif in folklore.

Zombie. Image credit

Zombies in Modern Culture

Glee Thriller/Heads Will Roll

A good mashup of two songs while dressed as zombies.

Grimm TV series

Zombie. Image credit.

zombie is someone under the influence of Cracher-Mortel toxin, which induces Dämmerzustand (deh-mer-TSOO-shtuhn; Ger. “trance-like state”). The toxin appears to somehow sustain the victims, as zombies were shown to be contained for a few days without food or water and yet remained in perfect health (for their condition).

The Four Stages of Dämmerzustand
Paralysis – The victim is awake but is unable to move or react to the intense pain he or she feels.
Cataplexy – A lethargic, drugged-like state in which the victim can move but lacks coordination.
Death-like phase – The victim appears to be dead.
Increasingly violent behavior – This often leads to murder and mayhem.

Victims can’t be treated until they reach the fourth stage; treating victims in the first three stages is not only ineffective, it will very likely kill them. To treat them, the central nervous system must be stimulated. There are many ways to administer the treatment, including orally, with ointments, or subcutaneously using a Piqure-Gigantesque to administer three simultaneous shots. Subcutaneous treatment is the most effective method of treating a victim.

Learn more here.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Zombies. Image credit.

Zombie was a term employed to refer to corpses that had been reanimated through magic.[1]

Zombies were commonly mindless, undead creatures capable only of certain physical actions, such as walking and killing,[2][3] though certain procedures and spells could create zombies that retained their memories, personalities, vocalization, and free will.[4][5][6] Even though the term typically referred to reanimated humans, other animals, such as cats, were able to become zombies.[3]

The process of reanimation into a zombie was different from a successful resurrection,[7] as zombies were not restored to how they had been before their death and their existence depended on a constant source of magic. This source could be an entity possessing the corpse[3][8][9] or the reanimating spell itself.[2][10][11][1][12]

Voodoo priests were also known for creating zombies out of corpses.[4]

According to Angel, the only way to kill a zombie was to permanently sever the brain’s communication with the body. This could be achieved through decapitation or completely destroying the head or brain.[13]

Learn more here.

Hotel Transylvania movies

Bellhop zombies. Image credit.

Zombies are part of the Hotel Transylvania Staff at Hotel Transylvania.

Expectedly, zombies appear to be stupid and clumsy; they break through the cab to get the luggage and can’t properly put Frank together again. During their performance as humans to scare Mavis, they blundered quite a bit; one briefly lost his head, another got pitch-forked through his head and the rest continued the charade even when lit on fire. They didn’t even notice Jonathan following them to the hotel through the tunnel, even with his scream from falling into the tunnel.

Perhaps rigor mortis is not the most desirable characteristic that comes to mind when considering hiring someone, but Dracula has found that zombies make loyal employees, even if they move at a painfully slow rate. The zombies do Dracula’s bidding, no matter what he asks of them and no matter what the risks: bellhop services may involve a zombie losing a limb when trying to lift heavy luggage, and posing as threatening humans may cause them to end up in flames.[1]

Learn more here.

Percy Jackson book series by Rick Riordan

An Eurynomos. Image credit

Zombies, also known as vrykolakai, immortuos, lamia, nuntius and jiangshi, are undead creatures created through the reanimation of a corpse. 

Greeks referred to them as vrykolakai. When Eurynomos scratches a Mortal, they get a wasting disease, and when they die they are reborn as a vrykolakai.[1]

Heartless zombies are innocent humans who had their heart cut out by the bow and arrow of Kamadeva.

Clarisse La Rue is given the CSS Birmingham, a Confederate ironclad crewed by zombies, by her father to explore the Sea of Monsters.

Nico di Angelo summons Jules-Albert, a deceased French stock car racer, to drive him, Dakota, and Leila through Octavian’s forces to the front lines.

Learn more here.

Zombie by The Cranberries

The term is also used in this song about social unrest. You can read a dissertation about the song here.

Zombies in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Zombies

Three distinct types of zombies: revenants, draugr and zombies.
Revenants are created by throwing a bone, lock of hair or blood of the deceased into a magical lake, cauldron, etc. endowed with the power to bring back the dead. These revenants are bloodthirsty creatures and will create more of their own – either by infecting humans or by killing them and then bringing them back the same way they were. A plague. They look exactly the way they did when they were alive, but they have no memories of the person they once were.
Draugr specifically guard graves. Whether actual treasure (gold, diamonds, etc.) or knowledge, they will kill to protect it. They have memories of the life they left behind, but as they cannot feel or taste or smell anything and find joy in the things they once did, they now find joy in murder.
Zombies, the slow-moving and even the fast-paced ones, are specifically created as soldiers. The slow-moving ones bring decay in their wake. The fast-paced ones kill all in their sight.
No matter the type of zombie, they can all be destroyed with fire. Their source of “life” lies with the dark fae or sorcerer who animated them. If you kill the source, you kill the zombie.

Zombie translated to Afrikaans: Wandelende Lyk.

See this fae in action in my writing:

Dark Fae (Origin of the Fae #7)

Remember that you can request all of my books from your local library!

Where did you encounter zombies for the first time? Anything about zombies you’d like to add? Do you use them in your writing? Do you enjoy zombie movies or books? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.

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image credit https://pixabay.com/illustrations/ai-generated-fairy-wings-magic-8121013/

No-one writes about the fae like Ronel Janse van Vuuren.

12 thoughts on “Zombies in Folklore and Fiction #folklore #AtoZChallenge”

  1. Congratulations on getting to the end, Ronel! I’m about to finish my “thoughts” post. Zombies are a good way to close here. I’m guessing that Tolkien’s Barrow Wights were inspired by Draugr.

  2. Of all the undead, zombies are the realiest. I mean, we have actually created some with the drugged version. And then there are insects and infections which kill their host and then act as puppet-masters. Zombies are scary because they can be real. They are real.

  3. I don’t like zombie stories much, but I love the Cranberries’ song, so it was fun that you included it! (You could have included Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” too!) Congratulations of completing another A to Z – or another 2 A to Zs, in your case!

  4. You did a great job bridging the old folklore tales with the contemporary culture Ronel. I just enjoyed watching Fallout which has Ghouls as a take on Zombies…
    Congratulations on reaching the end of A-Z – clearly many, many hours of work…

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