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The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind Paperback – July 24, 2009

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The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind + The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices + Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Inner Traditions; First American Edition edition (July 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594773181
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594773181
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #565,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"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,, 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.” (, May 2011)

From the Back Cover


The impermeable border the modern world sees existing between that of the living and the dead 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 and remained on this side in order to right a wrong that had befallen them personally or to ensure that the moral code promoted by their ancestors was being respected. 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 just like the living, 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, including Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies. He lives in Paris.

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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By James on September 24, 2009
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This book is excellent! Lack of formal academic books devoted solely to the dead in Paganism has rendered this work a one-of-a-kind. Sure, there are hundreds of books out there on spirits, the dead, and "crossing over", but all of them are presented from the position of washed-up neo-Spiritualism, usually mixed up with heretical Christianity.

"Ghost hunters", Sylvia Browne fans, and new agers will either be immediately turned off by this book or enlightened; I see no middle ground. Likewise, many neo-Pagans will share the same sentiment, as they discard traditional Pagan beliefs of the afterlife and dead for the quackery of Victorian Spiritualism.

Dr. Lecouteux's ground-breaking work in this field has produced a volume that cannot be excluded from serious Pagan "recommended reading" lists; and one that is sorely needed to purge the nonsense from the Pagan movement once in for all. The dead must be returned to their original, true forms in the minds of polytheists, no matter how frightening and ego-shattering that may be.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By UbiK on April 17, 2010
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Have you ever wondered why a person condemned to execution wears a blindfold?
Or to what purpose could a debtor exhume and mutilate the body of someone who had failed to pay up before dying?
Or perhaps, why bodies were frequently bound before burial?

The answers will surprise you!

Gruesome topics for reading or discussion to be sure, but Claude Lecouteux's book will have you thinking a lot about the origins behind the rituals and beliefs regarding the deceased that underpins much of Western spirituality and superstition in the last millennia.

What really makes this book accessible in the manner in which it is written. Lecrouteux passes little judgement upon his sources by eschewing opinionated editorialising and specious theorising, instead presenting solid historical sources that explain the relationship between revenants (ghosts) and Europeans from Roman times to the Middle Ages (with some reference to the 20th Century). Whilst much of the book is devoted to Nordic/Scandinavian sources, Lecouteux spends time examining the beliefs and superstitions of many other Western European people. It is not a detailed study, and neither does it claim to be, but rather a easy reading survey of some fascinating beliefs which may, perhaps, frustrate serious historians for its brevity. Nonetheless, for the general reader it has much to offer and for those studying the topic, the book serves as a fine entry point.

Note, this is not a book for those who want to "communicate with the other side" or "contact the deceased" but a survey of the traditions of the past, which like a revenant itself, continue to haunt our present.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Forest Lady on September 19, 2012
Format: Paperback
I've just discovered Lecouteux--this book was my first--and have read two of his other works, as well: Phantom Armies of the Night, and Witches, Wolves and Fairies. He's phenomenal: a first-rate scholar, yet also one who has the eyes to see, feel and convey in words much of what the people of the time saw and felt. He reminds me a lot of the great Mircea Eliade. I thank Lecouteux for giving access to so much that has been unavailable to English-only speakers such as myself. Although he sometime seems unaware of both continental and UK Celtic traditions that echo and reinforce his discoveries, these medieval data from their cultural kin are invaluable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Garden Goddess on January 11, 2014
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I love this book- the author is a former Sarbonne Medieval Studies professor, and he goes into great deal about the now-forgotten undead problems going on during the Middle Ages. Who knew? We certainly wouldn't if not for this book because you need to understand Latin, Old Norse, Old English, etc and have access to old manuscripts to find this stuff. There is a lot of history and folklore, but the fascinating thing is how far and wide these beliefs have spread. Some of the customs are still in practice although most of us have forgotten why we do them, but you'll find out why in this book. You'll find out exactly how to answer if a monk or priest asks if you want to hold the keys to the cathedral.

This book covers the origins of funerary customs, sacrifices made during new building construction (still going on today, fortunately not human), and lots of tips on keeping the house spirits happy and how to keep the undead off of you if accosted outdoors & out of your house. There is so much of that advice that it makes you wonder what the heck WAS going on back then. Come to think of it, the world could still be full of old-school revenants and you'd never know it if you didn't know them personally. How creepy is that? At any rate, you'll have plenty of material to scare the living daylights out of everyone around the campfire.
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