Immortality from a time immemorial

Arianne Zajac

 

It seems that today we are surrounded by messages and symbols of immortality, or at the very least the idea of extending youth for as long as possible. We see it in the advertisement and promotion of beauty products, health foods, supplements, and the advocacy of lifestyle changes. We even hold on to deeper, cultural values that those who have died will still be present among us in some way, be it as spirits, a specific presence, or the idea that loved ones are waiting for us to join them somewhere. Ideas which have been passed down to us through generations, communities, and religions, to the point of which they have become culturally banal. While we may be seeing a new emergence of a fear of ageing and ultimately the acknowledgement of death that it brings, we may ask ourselves, is this the closest to immortality we will ever be?

A question like this tends to bring out thoughts of the future. As science and technology develop in the centuries ahead, there is no doubt that the human race will manage to ‘play God’ and become immortal. However, maybe our brushes with death and immortality are not something simply to be imagined. There have been times in human history where life during death was inescapable.

The Medieval period, more specifically the high middle ages, is one of these moments in history. The period was one of change, growth, and inconsistencies. There was widespread migration, the rise of new kingdoms and state power, as well as the spreading and consolidation of religions. 

In this period of transience, the boundaries between life and death were continually blurred. The power of the dead became characteristic of Medieval society and the majority of people felt that they had some direct experience of the supernatural realm, most commonly in the form of intimate confrontation with dead human beings.     

 Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg provides one of the most extensive accounts of the undead, also known as revenants. In 1013, Thietmar began collating stories that describe the experiences people have had with revenants. For example, the first of these stories took place in the town of Walsleben, in which the town’s priest arrived at the church cemetery to perform a ceremony at dawn only to find ‘a great multitude’ of the dead. They were making offerings to a dead priest, who was standing at the sanctuary doors. In this documentation, the beings are described almost as benevolent but there is something bloodcurdling about their nature. There is a juxtaposition of piety and violence, as these beings perform religious ceremonies but are also harmful in their nature. Within every experience with a revenant, there is a realisation of mortality.

 

“the majority of people felt that they had some direct experience of the supernatural realm, most commonly in the form of intimate confrontation with dead human beings.”

Significantly, all contemporary beliefs surrounding the returned dead were so pervasive that they would have been considered nothing more than ‘common sense’. The core ideas surrounding the existence of the dead centred on the belief that the dead live on in the embodied form, in this world; that they formed social groups, and were active chiefly at night in places familiar to them in life. It was felt that those who would return were likely to have suffered a ‘bad’ death, one that was violent or sudden, and thus they were unable to lie peacefully in their graves.

In other scenarios, descriptions of the returned dead were more horrific in nature. William of Newburgh chronicled the undead in England, during the twelfth century, these were typically putrid corpses that haunted specific areas and carried a ‘contagion’ which resulted in further deaths. One of the most famous revenants was Johannes Cuntius, who haunted the town of Pentsch, and indulged in malicious behaviour, such as strangling men in their sleep or bashing infants to death. 

It was these kinds of activities that people found so fearful and they even went as far as dismembering and decapitating bodies after death as to prevent them becoming reanimated. The undead were not simply a part of folklore, but a phenomenon that was thoroughly believed in and accepted as accurate.     

 It even appears that the undead were able to lead rich and fruitful lives. In the cases of the undead giving offerings during religious ceremonies, there is the implication that they had the capability to own possessions and material items. Material wealth was able to pass through from one life to another. While in Eyrbyggja’s Saga, there is mention of the dead engaging in feasts in the mountains. This has since become part of an established narrative that the dead form complex and busy communities, as demonstrated through a crowd’s conversation with Reyneke, another historically notable revenant, who explained that the life of the undead is not too dissimilar to that of the living, they eat, drink, marry, sow, and reap.

 

“the life of the undead is not too dissimilar to that of the living, they eat, drink, marry, sow, and reap.”

Historically immortality has had a difficult and contrasting place in society. The Medieval undead were eerie beings whose existence provoked fears of one’s own mortality. There were those that were there to terrorise, while others existed in their own societies neither accepted in this world nor that of the dead. Perhaps as society progresses, technology develops, we age and seek out immortality as our own we can look back to time periods in which life after death was completely accepted and understand the complexities surrounding the creed of immortality. In this light, perhaps immortality is not something we should be desiring or striving for as a society. As much as the process of death is painful for those who have yet to pass, it gives us purpose and direction in life; it pushes us to achieve our goals, maintain and build meaningful relationships with those around us, it makes us appreciate being alive.

 

First published Online, January 2021. Volume 16, Issue 2. Image: Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemunt 1493