Monstrous Myths: The Ghoul

Modern man has a highly unflattering image of the ghoul. That is to say that his impression is rather more like a zombie, mindlessly haunting a graveyard and stumbling around without fine motor skills. That is a very dangerous perception, and the Caliphates of the 14th century would shake their heads at you. The Sumerians would shun.


The ghoul is an ancient demon. In fact it is one of the oldest myths that the continuity of human history can supply. Its origins date back to the first written stories, and it is not something with which one trifles.

Much like a hungry Yours Truly.

The gallu of Cuneiform lived in hidden places: ruins, burial grounds, and mountain tops. They hovered around the outskirts and “dragged the souls of the dead to the underworld”. I set that last line in quotation for a reason – to draw attention to the fact that that phrase bears a very close resemblance to the modern one as a euphemism for committing murder. For a very very long time, humans have said “I shall send you to your maker” rather than “I will kill you.” – which of course, no one would shout within earshot of people who might stop them. It would not be too far from the mark to suggest that the primary occupation of the gallu is not in fact in service to a deity, or a divine order, but that they were simply killing folks because they felt like it. The author who set down their myth in clay was merely being artistic.

That aside, gallu hang about, weaving into the folklore of Judaism, Islam, and Christian. From the gollum to the ghul of One Thousand and One Nights, they haunt the desert, the outskirts, finding ways to tempt the unwitting out into their territory so that they may consume them in peace. It is said they also eat recently deceased corpses, devour children, drink blood, and hoard wealth by rifling through pockets, graves, unguarded houses. This insatiable hunger, like that of the obour, makes their name synonymous with greed, even in the vernacular of today’s Middle Eastern cultures.

Whatever your particular vantage on the myth, the ghoul is certainly a creature that prays upon human misfortune and is crafty, if only in its ability to ensnare humans and rip them to shreds.

The behavioral comparison to my species seems evident. What is less so are the physical descriptions of such creatures. They can apparently change shape, but as I have upon many previous occasions, I will argue that this is simply a human way of explaining some other catastrophic event, for which the ghoul is not to blame. If you are stupid enough to leave your infant unattended, and it is snatched away by a large and fearless hyena, of course you will not wish to blame yourself. Instead the hyena is not a normal hyena – the sort you have outsmarted a dozen times before, the sort your infant has cooed at and giggled over. That hyena must be a demon in disguise. You rage against heaven or chaos, instead of taking responsibility, instead of killing hyenas, one of nature’s most hideous and malevolent creatures, you instead target me and mine.

Perhaps the human mind must find reasons to blame us, if only to muster the courage to destroy their only natural predator. Perhaps your desire to blame us for all your misfortunes is simply an adaptation. Perhaps you need it. I will not argue that it is vestigial, like the appendix. Instead, I will absolve you of guilt, and say that while I find this annoying, I do not take offense. You cannot help it.

I digress.

In all other ways, the ghoul is a perfect analogue to the obour, the classic wendigo, even the more exotic sounding gorgon. They are all one monster, fast, strong, in love with shiny things, sharpening their intellect by hunting the sentient. Most importantly – they are ravenous.

The image used here is a painting entitled Blightborn Ghoul  by  yanzi-5 of Deviantart