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The Return of the Dead

Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind

How the ghost stories of pagan times reveal the seamless union existing between the world of the living and the afterlife

• Demonstrates how Medieval Christianity transformed the more corporeal ghost encountered in pagan cultures with the disembodied form known today

• Explains how the returning dead were once viewed as either troublemakers or guarantors of the social order

The impermeable border the modern world sees existing between the world of the living and the afterlife was not visible to our ancestors. The dead could--and did--cross back and forth at will. The pagan mind had no fear of death, but some of the dead were definitely to be dreaded: those who failed to go peacefully into the afterlife but remained on this side in order to right a wrong that had befallen them personally or to ensure that the law promoted by the ancestors was being respected. But these dead individuals were a far cry from the amorphous ectoplasm that is featured in modern ghost stories. These earlier visitors from beyond the grave--known as revenants--slept, ate, and fought like men, even when, like Klaufi of the Svarfdaela Saga, they carried their heads in their arms.

Revenants were part of the ancestor worship prevalent in the pagan world and still practiced in indigenous cultures such as the Fang and Kota of equatorial Africa, among others. The Church, eager to supplant this familial faith with its own, engineered the transformation of the corporeal revenant into the disembodied ghost of modern times, which could then be easily discounted as a figment of the imagination or the work of the devil. The sanctified grounds of the church cemetery replaced the burial mounds on the family farm, where the ancestors remained as an integral part of the living community. This exile to the formal graveyard, ironically enough, has contributed to the great loss of the sacred that characterizes the modern world.

Claude Lecouteux is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. He is the author of numerous books on medieval and pagan afterlife beliefs and magic, including The Book of Grimoires, Dictionary of Ancient Magic Words and Spells, and The Tradition of Household Spirits. He lives in Paris.

"I've read all kinds of ghostly folklore type books. However, this book discusses revenants and ghosts from a whole new perspective, through the lens of medieval literature. . . . The Return of the Dead focuses, equally, on the steps the church took to eliminate Pagan beliefs and how the citizens adapted to the church's influence. I find the evolution of religions fascinating, making this my favorite thing about the book."

– The Magical Buffet, Sept 2009

"[Lecouteux's] conclusions . . . are stimulating and thought provoking. . . . I had no difficulty following his reasoning nor in accepting his conclusions. The book is well written, easily understood by even the average layman, and an invaluable addition to understanding the mindset of our European Pagan ancestors."

– Michael Gleason, reviewer, Aug 2009

" . . . [Lecouteux's] expertise lends to a powerful survey."

– The Midwest Book Review, Oct 2009

" . . . a scholarly survey of pre-Christian beliefs, focusing in particular on legends of revenants in Germanic and Scandinavian folklore. . . . highly recommended to those interested in thanatology."

– Psyche, SpiralNature.com, Oct 2009

"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 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."

– Jennifer Hopkins, New Dawn Magazine, No. 119, Mar/Apr 2010

"The Return of the Dead will change your perceptions and show you an ancient body of tradition and belief than can still be found today within some of our modern practices. Even better, this work will show the reader how to approach death from a polytheistic Pagan perspective and reading The Return of the Dead just may change your funeral plans."

– Sarah, Pagan Bookworm, Nov 09

“. . . a must read for any who like dark tales and great research.”

– EarthRites.org, May 2011

More books from this author: Claude Lecouteux