149 – Intelligent Undead

The Mythcreant Podcast

We all enjoy a shambling horde of walking corpses, but what about the more intelligent varieties? Vampires get a lot of attention, but they’re not the only undead who can think, and that’s what we’re talking about this week. What makes something undead? What makes it intelligent? Why are liches evil? And surely, the most burning question of all, is Death undead?

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


The Hound

Bronte Family Water Contaminated By Graveyard

Death Photography

Eclipse Phase






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  1. SunlessNick

    iZombie was very loosely based on a comic of the same name, though almost nothing gets carried over – only the main character’s brain eating and visions. In the series, intelligent zombies that don’t eat brains devolve into the mindless shambling type over time.

    My own take on whether something is undead is whether the question “Who were they in life?” makes sense. You can ask that of a zombie or skeleton, but a bone golem is more like a new entity that happens to be made out of bones rather than mud or stone.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a good rule of thumb, but I’m afraid bone golems being undead is my hill to die on.

    • Cay Reet

      Good point. A zombie, a skeleton, or a revenant are still who they once were. Frankenstein’s creature on the other hand was made from dead flesh, but is no longer what it once was.

  2. Julia

    The ground in the Himalayas is too rocky and frozen for burials, so people leave the bodies of their dead out for scavenger birds to pick clean. Now imagine a society who leave their dead out for the ghouls to strip clean and afterwards the families recover the clean bones to bury. It could work as symbiotic relationship between living and undead.

    Also, have you seen the movie Warm Bodies? It’s a post-zombie apocalypse, and one of the main characters is a zombie who slowly regains his intelligence.

    • Cay Reet

      I really like that idea … although in the Himalayas, many bodies are also burned, which allows for the remains to be kept in an urn which needs no burial. Leaving the body out for the animals is a Budhist tradition.

      But the idea that the humans would leave out the dead bodies for the undead to feast on is really good. You could add to world-building that a body buried might rise again, but a body stripped of flesh by the ghouls is guaranteed to stay dead. So it’s a survival strategy of sorts: the living leave the bodies of the dead out for the undead, this way minimizing their numbers.

  3. Bryony

    Hmm, so if I died and came back as a zombie, I wouldn’t be considered undead because I am an evil mofo who never had a soul to begin with!

  4. Bryony

    Ooh, also: fact checking from a happy little deathling!

    Dead bodies are pretty safe actually, unless they have been embalmed which is a fairly recent thing. I hadn’t heard of the Brontë graveyard thing, but it doesn’t ring true to me.

    The Victorian death photos is a myth. “Ask a Mortician” channel goes into it, but basically all those pictures are of living people held still by frames because the process was so long.

    • Julia

      Hail, fellow deathling! I love Caitlyn, and a lot of the ‘post mortem’ photos weren’t actually post mortem like you say, but people did sometimes take photos of their deceased loved ones but they’re obviously dead (lying in a coffin, partially burned, etc.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Ah sadness. I should have known those photos were too cool to be true!

  5. Reiksson

    In one of my games of D&D I had a player that wanted to be a necromancer but did not want to be evil. What I ended up doing was making a guild of necromancers that only create skeletons (zombies are unclean) and use them for unskilled labor. The guild was headed up by a lich that was only interested in money not ruling or undermining a civilization. He went about it by using skeletons to corner the market in unskilled labor since they were tireless and did not need to be paid. This way I could have setting with precedent that liches and necromancers did not have to use their undead for nefarious purposes.

    • Kenneth

      Where did the ‘non-evil’ necromancers get their supply of skeletons? And what happened to all the unskilled labourers who were made redundant?
      I foresee riots!
      “Bloody undead – coming here and taking away our jobs…!” or “That’s my husband’s skeleton – why should he pay the money he earns over to some lich, just because he’s dead, instead of bringing it home to support his family!”

      • Reiksson

        The Necromancer’s Guild would pay for the recently dead from the locals and clean them up for use as functional skeletons. The skeleton supply was limited to the amount of dead that was being sold and there were laws in place to not allow purchase of dead that did not die suspiciously and such. If I remember they paid a person enough to maintain a modest lifestyle for a few months (D&D 5e). The skeletons were used as servants, militia, but most often in manual labor for construction. Unskilled laborers were left in a precarious place but it lead to more people trying to become skilled in some way or just doing something an automaton could not do. I likened it to robots being brought in to automate work.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Important note to remember: In D&D at least, necromancers can raise non-human skeletons as well.

  6. Kenneth

    It sounds as though it would make an interesting story – exploring the changes to society brought about by this new ‘technology’. Carriages and wagons drawn by skeletal horses that never get tired or need feeding would revolutionise transport. Skeletons working treadmills or cranks would provide a never-ending power supply for mills and similar machinery.

    I seem to remember Larry Niven mentioning something like this having existed in the past before the events of “The Magic Goes Away”. Of course, in his world, magic is a non-renewable (and critically dwindling) resource, while I don’t think that’s the case in D&D.

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