Undead – once-living creatures who through some means continue to move. There are many types of undead creatures, some created, others naturally-occurring, but what they all have in common is a lack of a functioning body. Undead can be divided into three general categories: constructs, revenants, and discarnates.
Like any other construct, an undead construct is animated via an external force. This could be a soul bound to the body via necromancy, a mage’s power puppeteering the body, or in the case of the flesh golem, an alchemically-grown soul.
The most common undead construct is the garden-variety walking corpse, sometimes called a zombie (though the Ministry of Magic avoids that term to prevent confusion). Even within walking corpses there is some variation, from the well-known grave-risen half-rotted corpse to the Egyptian mummmies.
The other common undead construct is the animated skeleton. There’s no specific name for this, and the Ministry of Magic officially classifies it as a variant of the walking corpse, but most people prefer to view it as a separate thing.
Flesh golems such as Frankenstein’s monster1 (sometimes called ghouls, especially if animated necromantically), are distinguished from walking corpses by being composed of parts of multiple corpses stitched together. They’re quite a bit harder to create and thus not commonly seen.
Undead constructs have a heavy stigma against them not only because they disturb the dead, but because a necromancer must use an existing soul to animate the construct. This usually means killing someone to steal their soul and use it. A stolen spirit can also be used as an animating force, though a soul works better. More scrupulous necromancers would generally either use the puppeteering method or bind wandering ghosts to their constructs, rather than the souls of their victims.
Undead constructs generally have no awareness or personal will. Flesh golems, however, may be capable of attaining a certain level of sapience, depending on the species they are composed from.
Revenants result when a being dies, but something goes wrong in the metaphysical post-death process. There are a number of ways in which this happen, and in fact a few people have learned ways to deliberately interfere with this process. Revenants retain both their body and their awareness, but their body is no longer functioning as it was intended.
The best-known type of revenant is of course the vampire, where the soul passes on but the spirit remains bound to the body. The vampire is not the only type of undead that can result from a spirit failing to pass on, either - the draugr, gashadokuro, preta, and death knights are additional examples. Each has unique properties, powers, and weaknesses.
The opposite case, where the spirit passes on but the soul remains bound, is considerably more rare. This leads to a type of undead known as a wight, which from a layman’s perspective would appear to be a zombie that retains some sense of self. Unlike the vampire and many of its kin, most wights are unstable and eventually decay, allowing the soul to pass on after all. The fact that the soul passes on more easily than the spirit might also contribute to this.
Those who have deliberately interfered with the post-death process by crafting a phylactery are referred to as liches or baelnorns2. A lich has bound their soul to a phylactery, while a baelnorn has bound their spirit. Thus, it’s possible to be either a lich or a baelnorn, or both. Also, a lich or baelnorn is not necessarily undead, as the process of creating the phylactery does not harm the body. Indeed, if they resurrect themselves properly each time they die, then they would never be undead. However, if they neglect to resurrect themselves once they die, they would become an undead lich or baelnorn.
Some use the term “husk” or “hallow” to refer to a human who has lost their soul yet survived (or been born without a soul in the first place), classifying this as a type of undead. Though the body is still alive, they argue, the mind is dulled without a soul to support it. Since the condition is extremely rare, there is not enough experience to conclusively judge whether such people are right; however, both the Ministry of Magic and University of Atlantis prefer to take the stance that husks are not undead.
There are still other, far rarer ways for revenants to form. For example, according to legend, one of the Kings of Faerie placed a curse on Hela, the Norse goddess of the underworld, which made her unable to die until certain conditions were met; but apparently the curse’s understanding of “die” was more abstract than simply a non-functioning body.
Discarnates bear some similarity to certain kinds of revenants, and the general situation of their occurrence is similar. However, unlike a revenant, a discarnate does not retain their body – it is just a disembodied spirit. Discarnate souls are not known to occur, other than the unusual case of blessings where they’re reduced to a non-sentient source of powers.
Discarnates are not as well-classified as revenants or undead constructs. Though there are a number of different words used to refer to them – ghosts, ghasts, phantoms, wraiths, spectres – the exact meanings of these words are not well-defined. Typically, the word “ghost” is applied only to spirits who show no hostile intent, while the other words apply to the more hostile types of spirits. Some use the words more or less interchangeably. Others distinguish based on the types of emotions holding the spirit back – wraiths are angry and out for revenge, phantoms are simply afraid of dying, spectres are dead spirits3 bent on chaos and destruction. Still others distinguish based on the type of visible manifestation the spirit can pull off – wraiths show as just a black or grey shape, spectres are white but for two eyeholes (the stereotypical Halloween ghost, in other words), ghosts are recognizably human, ghasts are colourful apparitions.
All discarnates are immaterial, insubstantial, ethereal, etc; these words all refer to essentially the same state. They can pass through solid objects at will. Some can forcibly manifest themselves in order to physically affect the world in various ways. Most can produce a visual manifestation, though this may not be recognizable as their form in life or even as human at all.
Whereas revenants with a retained spirit occur from a mutation of the spirit bond, discarnates occur from an unintentional transfer of the bond to an inanimate object or a specific location, known as its “haunt”. While the exorcism ritual will free any discarnate, most also have specific conditions that will release the bond, such as wreaking vengeance on their enemy or resolving some regret.
You might be wondering by this point, what happened to the zombies? Why aren’t walking corpses called zombies? The reason is, zombies are not undead but are in fact living, breathing humans who have been drugged with a special alchemical concoction that shuts down almost all higher mental faculties, rendering them a few steps above a vegetable.
A zombie cannot speak more than one or two words at a time, typically things like “yes”, “no”, “tomorrow”. They can respond to simple commands and will usually obey them without question, no matter who they come from or how dangerous they are to the zombie. If given a command too complex for them to understand, they will simply stare at the speaker for a few moments and move on. When not being commanded, they generally just mill about aimlessly. They eat when fed, and being alive, this is of course necessary; typically the drug is included in their food in smaller amounts, to ensure the effect doesn’t wear off.
The story of Viktor Frankenstein is not a true story, but the method he used bears some similarity to the alchemical animation of a flesh golem. ↩
From an Elhŵnucũ (Elvish) phrase, “bailhun nõnû”, meaning “spirit cage”. ↩
Since a spirit is technically just an astral projection of a qalinor, it’s possible for the spirit itself to die yet remain animated for some reason. If such a spirit is still bound like a ghost, this makes them doubly-undead. ↩