Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind

Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind

Claude Lecouteux
Inner Traditions
273 pp, $19.95

Review by Christine Gertz

Revenants are spirits that return from the dead to perform a task or to harass the living. They can assume a corporeal form and are strong enough to overcome and kill armed men. In many of the stories a revenant is malevolent, often harming humans and animals, though they may also return merely to communicate peaceably with the living, or to force the living to keep promises that they made to the dead. The revenant also seems to experience a vibrant afterlife, interfering with the living, while also making their home in their burial mounds where their corpses do not decompose, sometimes keeping watch over treasures. These spirits are not amorphous ghosts, but physical and powerful, and some revenants need to be disinterred and dismembered by the living to stop a haunting.

Drawing on Norse, Germanic, French and English source material, as well as medieval exempla from Christian authors, Lecouteux recounts the stories of revenants. He makes a distinction between true and false revenants; a true revenant returns from the dead for personal reasons either physically visiting the living or returning in dreams. The author, as a former professor, refers to multiple medieval sources, mainly Sagas, to make an argument that the revenant, known even in Roman times, is part of the ancestor worship practices of Europe. He also recounts how Christian writers removed ancestor worship or pagan references from their retelling of revenant stories, smothering the pagan influence on folk beliefs.

Some of the revenants are extremely, sometimes literally, bloodthirsty, with stories that have as high a body count as a frantic episode of Supernatural. The book is entertaining, as well as scholarly, and it does make some convincing arguments that the revenant was a component of ancestor worship that carried on in the Germanic and Norse contact countries until the twelfth century. This book will be of most interest to readers who study medieval literature, paganism in Europe despite the efforts of Christianity, and persons who incorporate Norse beliefs in their personal worship.

Christine Gertz is a librarian and blogger who lives in Canada.

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