THE RETURN OF THE DEAD
Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind
By Claude Lecouteux
Published by Inner Traditions
273 pages, paperback
So many people today say “when you’re dead, you’re dead – end of story.” It was not always so.
In many cultures, ancient and modern, East and West, the dead – or as they are termed in this book – revenants – were given a very important place and role in society. They did not go away to be forgotten or remembered only on anniversaries. This book will explain how revenants were part of the northern European medieval pagan culture of the Germanic peoples.
As a medieval scholar, Claude Lecouteux is the author of the popular Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages and has been a professor of medieval literature and civilisation at the Sorbonne. He specialises in pagan afterlife beliefs. His many publications and translations are not generally available in English, so we are indebted to Inner Traditions for this fine edition.
The work is the result of years of intense research, relying heavily on northern European medieval sources such as the Eddas and Sagas. Lecouteux also quotes from the classical sources in Greek and Roman antiquity.
The book is divided into four main sections. The First explores fear of the dead, funeral rites and how the Christian church affected common attitudes and behaviour to ghosts and revenants. The Second section looks at false and true revenants, the names of the revenants, and some questions and answers, such as the who, why, where and when of appearances.
Part Three discusses the death beliefs of the northern European pagan cultures, relying on quotations from those medieval sources. It looks at the very different concepts of the soul. In this section, the author also introduces the ‘Third Function’ of the revenants. This is the requirement of a pre-logical culture and is the function of maintaining fertility and regularity of the seasonal aspects of life. This is where appeasements and sacrifices to the dead happen.
In Part Four there is a discussion of disguised revenants. These include trolls and giants as well as other non-human entities. Then follows a discussion of the differing perspectives on death and dying beliefs in the various cultures of the Germanic peoples.
The style of the book is scholarly and packed full of research. At least 40% of the pages have quite long quotes from the primary research sources. It is not an easy read by any means, perhaps because it is a translation. For those interested in the medieval Germanic religious beliefs and practices surrounding dying, death, the dead and those that return, this is a mine of information.
It is clear from the research that the Germanic peoples had an ongoing relationship with those that had passed on. The Christian church bent and twisted many of the existing pagan beliefs to fit church doctrine. This turned ghosts, or revenants of various kinds into very negative aspects of heathenry such as demons and ghouls.
It is clear that many of the original pagan beliefs survive to the present day, as do the Christian beliefs. They tend to overlay each other not only in northern Europe, but also in every culture to which northern Europeans migrated.
Many parts of this book will resonate for the reader of European descent. For readers from other backgrounds it will be a fascinating insight into why we have such beliefs in this area.
I recommend this work to medieval scholars and students, those who wish to trace belief systems and present day pagans who want real information on their beliefs.