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In studying many of the most successful civilizations throughout human history, a great number of commonalities begin to appear among civilizations that have had no contact: religion, codified laws, division of labor, and zombies! Although widely prevalent in modern literature, the concept of zombies can be identified in literature dating as far back as ancient Sumer. As surprising as it may seem, zombies are as old as humans and have appeared in the cultures of civilizations such as ancient Sumer, the Qing dynasty of China, Germany, and numerous others. Cultures across the globe have developed variations of the idea of a “zombie” because people need to confront their worst fears of what may happen to them to live free of a fear of the unknown.
Historically, the separate ideas of zombies developed by cultures have had many similarities, including a close association to spirituality. The Haitian Zonbi were turned to zombies when a vulnerable soul was captured by a powerful sorcerer. Similarly, in Germany, the Nachzeherer could cause death by ringing church bells which would kill anyone who heard the ring. The association with spirituality continued to England, where the Revenants were corpses re-animated by corpses. Zombies in Hindu mythology took the form of Vetala, or demons that take the body of humans. Shared traits between different cultures’ ideas of zombies often pointed to people’s biggest fear for their soul in the afterlife.
As well as a close association to spirituality, premature death was a common thread among different cultures’ versions of the zombie. Zonbi were created when one died unnaturally and lingered at the grave. The idea that premature death could lead to zombification was seen in China and Germany as well. In China, the Jiangshi could be created when a person suffered a violent death, which would be one manner of untimely death. Nachzeherer were created in Germany through accidental death, suicide, and sickness. The fact that cultural ideals of zombies were interconnected with instances of premature death shows how fearful humans are of dying a before they believe their time is up.
For all the similarities between zombies of differing origins, some distinctions do appear simply because each civilization was unique. The Chinese zombie, the Jiangshi, moved by hopping instead of walking, owing to the way dead bodies were carried in Qing dynasty China. The Pontianak of Indonesia made their presence known through baby cries that got quieter as the danger nears. In Nordic mythology, the Draugr relied on luring its victims into darkness as light sapped its powers. The Nordic likely put such a high emphasis on the effects of light and dark on zombies due to their unique position far north on the globe. These distinctions between different cultures’ concept of zombies show how people in widely different civilizations would project unique fears onto their idea of a zombie.
The similarities and differences of cultures’ zombies demonstrate that people need a way to confront what their worst fears of death are. Zombies scare because people worry, “of how dismal it would be to become one yourself”. Zombies are so closely tied to spirituality for this reason in particular. People were scared to suffer perpetually through slavery in Haiti, and that showed because their idea of zombification was to be a slave in the afterlife.
The fear of not being able to live in paradise during the afterlife was expressed in both Norse mythology and Chinese Taoist religion; in both of these cultures one could become a zombie due to improper burials. Fear of premature death was clearly a primary fear of many different cultures’ peoples because many cultures linked zombification to premature death. Nachzeherer, Jiangshi, Znobi, and others were each linked to premature death which shows how worried each of those cultures were to die prematurely.
Zombies have been used in many cultures throughout history as a way for people to face their worst fears of what may happen to them after their death. Zombies across cultures are similar in their associations to spirituality and premature death. Each culture did place their own spin on the zombie; this was reflective of the vast differences between their customs and beliefs. Considering the fears zombies have allowed people to face, perhaps zombies should be viewed as a force for good rather than evil.
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