A spate of cannibalistic attacks has raised public fears to such an extent that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to address concerns with assurances that the “CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).” It doesn’t help that almost exactly one year ago they put out Zombie Apocalypse guidelines, in a strange and darkly prescient attempt to engage the public through humor.
Zombie Apocalypse: It’s a funny phrase, evoking the more colloquial meaning of the word apocalypse – which is to say, a gruesome battle, ending the world as we know it. But that is not what the word actually means. Apocalypse comes from the Greek apokálypsis and means something more along the lines of “the big reveal” or “lifting of the veil.” In that sense, a Zombie Apocalypse is an oxymoron. Zombies are all about ignorance.
Zombies tend to spike in the public imagination when we are struggling against some fear of authoritarian control. They reflect a collective anxiety about being reduced to mindless automatons, animated only by base impulses to eat… and shop. In the Dawn of the Dead movies they spend a lot of time at the mall, glazed over with their need to consume, the same in undeath as in life.
The zombie is one of our most ancient archetypes, at least as old as literature itself, making its first appearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Most famously, the fickle goddess Ishtar, spurned by Gilgamesh, threatens to raise the dead. This is the first known description of a Zombie Apocalypse and it goes back to the dawn of civilization.
“Father give me the Bull of Heaven,
So he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling.
If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!”
But more to the point, the central struggle of Gilgamesh is his quest for immortality. Gilgamesh seems baffled that people die and that he will also. He is part god but he cannot enter the abode of the gods, the “land of the living.” And when he loses his beloved friend Enkidu, in some recovered versions of the story, a ghoulish scene unfolds. Gilgamesh, tormented by grief, stays with the dead body for a week, until it is so corrupted and crawling with worms he has no choice but to return it to the earth and commission a statue instead.
The upshot of this ancient horror story is Gilgamesh’s eventual discovery of the truth of life and death. His ancestor, Utnapishtim, the Sumerian precursor to Noah, was granted passage to the realm of the gods, but to mankind they dealt death and kept eternal life only for themselves. So death as we know it was created by capricious gods for the human survivors of the deluge.
The zombie archetype would seem to be a natural expression of a human race grappling with its own mortality. Like Gilgamesh we long for the immortality of the gods but fear that for us it would mean a gruesome undeath.
I would posit, though, that the symbolism is far broader than our fear of ourselves and our loved ones being consigned to living death, reduced to our motor impulses. It’s a reminder that we already are in a kind of living death, consuming endlessly, numbly wandering shopping malls, dying from the moment of birth. Gilgamesh, for instance, begins as a bored monarch, engaged in mindless, purposeless violence. So the gods give him a companion and together they begin their quest to find meaning in a nonsensical existence. Taken in that light, the zombie archetype is a wake-up call, challenging us to undertake the hero’s journey and courageously look death in the eye.