Monster Monday: Revenant

We all know about vampires and werewolves, or at least we think we do. The legends and myths that inspired these monsters are sometimes surprisingly different, but no less chilling. In this series of posts, Monster Monday, we’ll investigate the monsters that have informed our modern notions, as well as some lesser known monsters. Today, we talk about the Revenant.

Vampire attacking a Christian, 15th-century German engraving
Vampire attacking a Christian, 15th-century German engraving (Note that the term vampire would not have been in use in 15th-century Germany.)

In many ways the revenant is the Western European counterpart of the Eastern European vampire. In fact, many historians and chroniclers use the term vampire when retelling stories of revenants. However, the term vampire did not come into common usage in Western Europe until the eighteenth century and even then it was used exclusively for the Eastern European monster of legend.

Like a vampire, a revenant is the reanimated corpse of someone who has recently died. The person is often depicted as having been vain, wicked or a nonbeliever. Revenants come back to terrorize the living. They emerge from their graves at night and stalk the countryside or nearby villages, crying out and banging on doors and preying on those unfortunate enough to encounter them. They are also associated with spreading disease, and sometimes they even drink the blood of their victims. In a few stories they are described as being able to change their shapes as well. A revenant is usually killed permanently by exhuming the body during the day, then beheading it and cutting out the heart before reburying it.

Most of the surviving stories of revenants come from medieval Britain, such as those written down by hisotrians William of Newburgh and Walter Map, such as the story of “a wicked man” who died but rose from his grave at night to wander the streets of his village, calling out the names of his former neighbors. Anyone whose name he called fell ill and died within three days. He didn’t stop until his body was dug up and beheaded with a spade, then sprinkled with holy water and reintered.

The term revenant comes from Latin reveniens, meaning “returning.” It is the same root as the French verb revenir, “to return.”

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