In his series, "Song of Ice and Fire", George R.R. Martin re-imagines a War of the Roses era-Britain where the British Isle is greatly enlarged and the continent compressed. He creates a history that mirrors the waves of historical migration ("First Men" for the Picts, and the "Andals" and the "Rhoynar" for the Angles and Saxons--Rhoyne is a combination of Rhine and Rhone.) He has a later invader, the Valyrians, take over rule of the island in similar fashion to the Normans under William the Conqueror. The island is divided by a massive wall in roughly the same place as the Antonine Wall. In terms of the supernatural, he creates the "Children of the Forest", who literally live under hills, as an analogue of the fairy folk. He also utilizes the undead as an adversary against mankind.

Is there any precedent for a mythology of the undead in the British Isles?

I know a little about Arawn and the Norse Draugr, but haven't yet found any specific stories.

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    The dead men raised by the white walkers are called wights. This is a reference to draugrs, wight is how William Morris translates draugr in his translation of the Grettis Saga. This is nothing more than pure speculation on my part, but I think George R.R. Martin may have picked up the reference from Tolkien (see: barrow wights). If Song of Ice and Fire wights are indeed based on draugrs, then perhaps the other primary undead creatures, the white walkers, are also based on creatures from mythologies outside the British Isles.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 22:11
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    There are dozens of them. This is too broad.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 8:56
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    @Yannis: Just about every barrow, mump, worm hill, ley spring and most spinneys have a legend of the guardian spirit that is usually a notable local who awaits their full return to this world. Most are benevolent, provided you don't annoy them.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 9:57
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    "Revenant" seems to be the broadest term, and one that implies corporeality (i.e. a re-animated corpse.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:54
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    Although GRRM had to be inspired by Tolkien, I see the influence more in the creation of a history and mythology that exists underneath the narrative. (Avoiding elves, orcs, goblins, etc. is a pretty big departure, and I'm guessing he wanted to distinguish his series from Tolkien clones.) GRRM seems very well informed on all aspects of medieval culture and technology, so I'm think there's an extremely high liklihood that like Tolkien, he is familiar with all of the relevant mythological canons.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:57

2 Answers 2


I'm not aware of a story that could possibly be a basis for the white walkers, but it could be argued that a zombie story exists in the second branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr. A key element of the tale is the Pair Dadeni, a magical cauldron able to revive the dead:

"And I will enhance the atonement," said Bendigeid Vran, "for I will give unto thee a cauldron, the property of which is, that if one of thy men be slain to-day, and be cast therein, to-morrow he will be as well as ever he was at the best, except that he will not regain his speech." And thereupon he gave him great thanks, and very joyful was he for that cause.

Source: The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest

Eventually, the cauldron is gifted to Matholwch, King of Ireland and Branwen's husband. When Bendigeidfran sails to Ireland to rescue Branwen from her husband's cruelty, in the main confrontation of the story, the Irish use the cauldron to replenish their ranks:

Then the Irish kindled a fire under the cauldron of renovation, and they cast the dead bodies into the cauldron until it was full, and the next day they came forth fighting-men as good as before, except that they were not able to speak.


Abhartach (Ireland)

Irish folklore speaks of Abhartach, a dwarf who rose from the dead multiple times after being slain. In The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (c. 1871), Patrick Weston Joyce relates the myth:

This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.

Abhartach has been compared to Dracula many times over; I am not aware of any writings by Bram Stoker that confirm this hypothesis. My understanding is that vampire legends stem primarily from the folklore of Eastern Europe, but it's entirely possible that Abhartach could have contributed to Dracula.

Knockers (Cornwall and Ireland)

Knockers - also known as tommyknockers - are mine spirits originating from Cornwall and Ireland. While legends differ, the consensus is that they are mischievous creatures, who can help or harm miners, especially before cave-ins or collapses. Some believed them to be spirits of dead miners, come back to life as small, leprechaun-like creatures. The connection to what you're looking for is admittedly vague, but I thought they were worth including.

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