Are Zombies of Byzantium Relevantastic?

Byzantines were highly superstitious and used all sorts of magical and religious practices to guard against dangers and untimely deaths. In fact, their religious and spiritual imaginations were so rich, it almost seems unnecessarily complicated to add the dimension of an epic battle among the undead fighting for good and evil.

It’s always odd and interesting to see what surfaces with new internet searches about Byzantine culture and studies. I give you Zombies of Byzantium by Sean Munger, a new fictional horror book set in the eighth century of the Byzantine Empire as the Saracen armies attack Constantinople. The battle escalates to good zombies lead by a young monk fighting against bad zombies. The young monk, Stephen Diabetenos, happens to be an icon painter.

I can’t give a full review of the book because I haven’t read it and I’m not likely to buy or borrow the book any time soon. I can say that I appreciate Munger’s use of the horror genre and the “zombie trend” to bring fresh readers to Byzantine history. We don’t get many pop culture references to Byzantium unlike, say, the Vikings, who are almost constantly on the History Channel or in the funny pages. At best, we get comparisons to fantasy literature like Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.

And even though I am (unfortunately) more repulsed than intrigued by the zombie concept, I am happy to have a book like this open up this period in history to more people. We can use this book to talk about the history and social issues at hand. I’d like to embrace the curiosity of this book’s readers and engage them with further reading and conversation. Truth be told, I usually find actual history more interesting and complicated than fantasy and fiction. Ideally, books like this will motivate other readers to dig into scholarly publications and read our debates and analysis of historical events.

Among the inaccuracies and over-simplifications, I’d like to point to what I’ve read of Munger’s claim that he has “never once encountered the concept of fear and horror” in Byzantine history outside of a religious context. I think what he is trying to say is that because Byzantines attributed their experiences of fearful and scary things to religious and spiritual sources, those experiences weren’t actually dangerous. Their highly spiritual perspective somehow diminishes the quality and potential danger of their fears. They were too naive and too pious for their own good and therefore weren’t able to really perceive and then express the horrors of the violent raids and invasions by Saracens and other enemies.

And I think Munger’s claim also has an undercurrent of a false comparison with our own society’s current perspective on religious experience. I think he is implying that because our society claims that religious beliefs and practices are not relevant to life outside of the church, either because church people are too focused on trivial and immaterial concerns or because religion is only a personal and private thing, the same holds true for Orthodox Christians in the eight century. Wrong. We can’t transpose the same social values back into history. Yea, so I’m not on the same page with that one.

Similarly, I’d like to encourage readers to unpack the label “Saracen.” Who were these invaders and why were these Muslims from the Arabian peninsula invading Constantinople? We know that in the seventh and eight centuries a wave of Muslim Arabs conquered the Holy Land (western Palestine) and traveled north into Asia Minor which was held by Byzantium, and west through North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. They conquered Spain and most of the islands in the Mediterranean. Most accounts of their military might exaggerate bloodshed and lurid details. In reality, they were much more tolerant of local beliefs and customs than Christians were at that time. In addition, the Saracens were wealthy and used their gold to buy European goods which benefited the Franks’ economy. In 717, Constantinople was held under a year-long siege by Maslama (son of And al-Malik) with with Sulaymān’s navy. In turn, the Greeks used their tactics of Greek Fire and famine, and were aided with an attack from the Bulgarians on the Saracen invaders. The Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his Isaurian dynasty successfully resisted the Arabs and maintained the eastern border with the caliphate. Interestingly, Ravenna, however, was lost to the Lombards, not the Saracens and it was the Franks who posed the stronger threat to Byzantine authority in the Mediterranean.

As a premise for writing thrilling historical fiction, Constantinople in the eight century is a rich context. But please don’t claim that they were too religious or naive or pious to perceive and express horror. They may not use the same tropes and genres that we are familiar with from other contexts. But medieval Byzantium had just as violent an imagination as the rest of medieval society. From reading the stories of the bloody deaths of Christian martyrs to depicting gory scenes of battles in their books (including liturgical books), fear and horror were ever-present in the minds of many, many Byzantines.

 

 

3 Replies to “Are Zombies of Byzantium Relevantastic?”

  1. Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    Here are some fascinating thoughts by a Byzantine scholar on some of the historical and religious implications of “Zombies of Byzantium.” Although the author disagrees with my views in some ways, this is still an extremely worthwhile and thought-provoking piece!

  2. Thank you, Byzbets, for your fascinating analysis and very interesting thoughts on my book. I highly enjoyed this article and reblogged it for my own readers. I had hoped the book would attract some attention from people interested in Byzantium from a scholarly angle as well as from horror fans who are attracted by the zombie concept.

    Let me address a few points, if I may. First, a minor one–the book isn’t about “good zombies” vs. “bad zombies,” but the plot centers around an (ill-fated, as it turns out) attempt by Leo III to use the zombie hordes as a weapon against the Saracens. Aside from the zombie angle and a few concessions to modern sensibilities for the sake of meeting contemporary readers’ expectations, my portrayal of the Byzantine society and culture is as accurate as I could make it. A major subplot of the book, for instance, involves Iconoclasm. The delicate balance of Byzantium’s existence between the Islamic empire on one side and the Bulgarians on the other is also (I hope) accurately portrayed. The final scene of the book–which I’m still amazed the editors let me keep in–is taken almost verbatim from Theophanes’s “Chronographia.” So, I hope there is some material in the book of interest even to those people who might not be attracted by the horror story angle.

    I actually don’t believe there is much daylight between us on the subject of how Byzantines perceived fear and horror. My statement in the Anne Michaud interview was not intended in any way to diminish how the Byzantines recognized fear–I absolutely agree with you that they could, and did, perceive fear and horror as a palpable presence in their daily lives, as you point out very cogently. Nor did I wish to imply that I viewed their perception of fear as irrelevant or non-dangerous. I merely wished to point out that fear and horror were invariably experienced in a religious and theological context–a context that modern readers in our 21st century western, largely secular society would have a hard time relating to in the same terms. Clearly that didn’t mean that it made it any less frightening or horrifying to the people of the 8th century. It’s just a different way of conceiving of these emotions than we have today.

    Thank you so much for taking note of the book and expressing your thoughts on it. I really appreciate it!

    1. Sean, thanks for noticing my little-read blog and engaging my comments on your book! I’m sure your attention to Byzantine history is well rewarded in the entertaining pages of your book. In fact, it sounds like a rich treatment of a very complicated time which still ignites scholarly debate. It also sounds like your readers will encounter a lively, dramatic, and emotionally complex world. I, for one, am much more likely to buy and read the fruits of your labour!

      Your comments about the differences (in degree and kind) between the how seventh-century individuals understood their emotions and life experiences contrasted with our twenty-first century perspective touches on another layer of historical interpretation that I’m starting to explore: the idea of “the secular,” or more accurately, the myth of secularism. I’ll elaborate on this idea in some future blog post, but for now I’ll simply add that I’m trying to better articulate what it means for our societies to say we are post-Christian or post-religious. The example of Turkey’s plan to convert Byzantine churches (currently protected monuments and accessible as museums) into mosques shows the modernist ideal of a culture free from religious constraints is not the trajectory they are on.

      Thanks again for this conversation and best of luck with your writing!

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