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A cauldron is symbolic of the goddess Cerridwen, a goddess associated with rebirth, and have been useful to warring armies throughout the centuries. There is a spell involving ressureccting a corpse through a potion brewed within these magical items. Dead warriors could be placed within the brew and then be returned to life. The downside is that they lacked the power of speech, due to the lack of a soul.

This process has led to the creation of a perfect soldier. The resurrected corpse is completely obedient, willing to carry out his task without conscience or fear. These warriors can go back into battle until they were killed, in which case they can be resurrected again. Nations have used this magitech to bring back their fallen soldiers, reclaiming their bodies from battlefields and resurrecting them to send them back into battle again. This has led to variences on the procedure. Some countries have begun the practice of killing their soldiers in their prime years in order to resurrect them. Others have begun mixing and matching, cutting limbs and organs of the dead to mix within the brew, creating Frankenstein-like beings that have the best parts of each warrior.

The problem of this is seen when taken to the ultimate conclusion. Nations capable of this will no doubt seek to maximize this process and apply this in other ways, such as slave labor. It gets even worse when this tech trickles down into regular society.

I would like to keep the application this process only to warfare, specifically the resurrection of dead soldiers, and need to find a way to limit this magitechnology. How can I make this a reality?

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    $\begingroup$ Do resurrected bodies not age? If they do, killing soldiers in their prime isn't really useful. If they don't, I wonder about their longevity. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jun 11 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ Can the brewing and resurrection process be completely performed by a regular "muggle" with no magical powers? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 11 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ The cauldron was one specific item that channeled the magic of a goddess. They must have that one cauldron in order to resurrect the dead like that. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jun 12 at 4:09
  • $\begingroup$ Is there an afterlife and/or reincarnation? Where do souls go when they die? $\endgroup$ – Captain Man Jun 12 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ make the process take several hours or even a full day of soaking, that will put a very solid limit on how many can be resurrected. I also means you can win a war just by killing hte other side faster than they can resurrect. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 13 at 14:36

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Option A: Reanimation is Temporary

Just because you reanimate the body does not mean it is any less dead. After a major battle, you may find yourself low on man power; so, you start picking up corpses and throwing them into the cauldron to bring them back, but this does not make them alive, it makes them undead. I can think of two good ways to handle temporary reanimation: either the body continues to decompose after being brought back until it becomes useless, or the magic simply fades over time until the body just runs out of magic, then does a super rapid decomposition like vampires that turn to dust when you stake them. Either way, this will make them quite useless as permanent soldiers or slaves.

Because of this, it is never ideal to kill a loyal soldier or peasant. A living person might have another 2-3 decades of usefulness to you; so, as long as you trust them, it's better to keep them alive. On the other-hand, if a village full of peasants decide to rebel against you, and you need to kill them anyway, you might as well put them in the pot and get an extra growing season out of them.

The biggest consequence these pots would have on warfare is that routing would be a VERY bad outcome for a battle. If you engage an army and kill 90% of thier men but fail to take the battle field, then the next time you fight that general, he will have all of his men back plus everyone you lost too. This might be motivation enough that if you are going into an uncertain battle, that someone might occasionally choose to kill thier own army to make darn good and sure that they will not run away before the battle is truly won. Doing so always comes with the pretty big price of knowing that your whole army is lost in the long run, but in situations where short term gains are sure to determine the course of a war, it could be worth it.

That said, I think the most common tactic that would emerge here would be to form undead penal battalions. Instead of sacrificing living soldiers to the undead, when a war starts, you empty your prisons and ghettos of undesirables, and turn them into undead fooder. If this is a pre-modern army, your battle formations would probably look like a Roman Republic legion where the role of Hastati and Triarii are replaced with undead, and the living troops serve the role of Principii. This is because you would want the bulk of your undead in the front lines (Hastati) because they are the most expendable. Then you put in your living troops. Not putting them in the front line means that you improve thier moral, and keep them fresh for then the battle really comes to a head. Then the back few lines are more undead to kill any living troops who try to retreat and because they would hold the line best when things get so bad that ad Triarios redisse.

Option B: Cerridwen decides who is born again

Cerridwen was not just the goddess of rebirth, she was also the goddess of death. Just throwing bodies into the pot does not ensure that she will grant you favor by bringing that person back, instead she only brings back those who are servants of death: soldiers, executioners, murderers, etc. only people who have willingly chosen to send a life to Cerridwen are worthy of a second one in her eyes. In this way, common peasants can't be brought back to life themselves.

As for super solders, how powerful they are when they come back could be proportionate to how many people they have killed. This would further encourage generals not to just kill thier soldiers, but wait for them to find a worthy end in battle so that they can bring them back as the strongest version of themselves they might become. Adding the idea of a worthy death would also line up with the other Celtic mythologies so you could introduce things like Valkyries who search the battlefield for fallen heroes to give eternal life to.

In this case, the most common strategy would be to put the mortals in the front-line where they can earn thier divine favor, and to only deploy your undead when needed.

If you do this, you may want to make sure to avoid chain killing exploits where you have each person in a group kill one other so they can all come back. This could be avoided if bringing someone back washes clean the "credit" earned by who ever killed them.

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    $\begingroup$ The ‘chain killing’ exploit is also naturally limited by the fact that you personally aren’t coming back afterwards - only your reanimated corpse. Only the most desperate or fanatical armies could get away with a stunt like that for long before their still-living soldiers start thinking that maybe they’ll have better odds knifing their bosses instead $\endgroup$ – Pingcode Jun 12 at 5:32
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If you want to limit it to warfare, the easiest way to do that is by giving the ressurected some atrributes that are wanted in soldiers but not in civil labourers. For example as the reborn bodies lack a soul, they could carry an inner drive to kill. Even if they carry out their duties as ordered, if something - or someone - hinders them in doing it, the destroy that hindrance. And they are not smart in any way. They carry out an order as spoken, but they do not think about the intention of the order. This combination would render those walking bodies acceptable soldiers but bad slaves.

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    $\begingroup$ They don't even have to be driven to kill, merely divorced from all traces of their former humanity. The living have a respect for life; they naturally try to avoid harming others and will protect and assist those that need it. The soulless dead place no value in life since they have none; they're prone to collateral damage and will protect themselves even at the expense of others. In civilian contexts, they're too much risk and not enough reward. $\endgroup$ – bta Jun 12 at 19:48
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It is super expensive!

People are cheap. These undead soldiers are each extremely expensive because of ingredients required for the potion. Because of the expense these undead warriors are useful only for very particular tasks where their imperviousness is useful - missions which would be suicide for live soldiers or circumstances (fire, toxins etc) not suitable for the living.


A cool fiction would be the use of the undead soldiers as messengers likely to be captured. If not captured they would write the message (they cannot talk) or bring the person to the correct place. If captured, they are impervious to torture. For the opposing side to get the message from such a messenger, there is only one method - the messenger must be tricked into delivering its message.

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  • $\begingroup$ For example the people who sacrificed themselves to stop the disaster of Chernobyl were already tired to be living and wanted to die anyway, they were young kids with their dreams crushed. Guys like that are hard to find and often change their minds. $\endgroup$ – user76358 Jun 11 at 21:42
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Bodies need to have died violently and around a lot of death

Only the bodies of those who died a violent death and were surrounded by it can be reanimated. These bodies have the soul rent from their bodies instead of peacefully released, The the resentment deep in the soul lingers.

The brewing and reanimating simply strengthens the soul fragments enough that the final wishes of the deceased are able to be channeled into controlling the body for its "soul" purpose. Killing the enemy that ended its life.

These Revenants are not suitable for mundane tasks as they won't do anything that won't further its purpose in killing the enemy. Amazing soldiers, Terrible slaves. It actually also limits them in two additional ways if it fits the story. You can only ressurect soldiers from a recent battlefield and if they happen to kill the soldier that killed them before becoming a revenant? Well, the lingering resentment releases the hold on the body and the revenant is just like any other corpse.

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The process requires consent.

This won't perfectly solve your problem, but if the process only works if the, er, donor has to consent to the process, either beforehand (magical contract?) or if the body can only be reanimated if the previously-housed soul consents, then that might significantly mitigate the uses you want to avoid.

Soldiers, at least if you are dealing with volunteers rather than conscripts, generally accept the risk of being killed in battle. It's plausible, then, that if they are willing to die for their country, they might also be willing to allow their resurrected body to be used by their country (especially as they don't need it any more, and it lets them contribute even after death, sort of like organ donors in our world).

Conversely, you probably won't get a big pool of people willing to be killed so their bodies can be turned into slaves.

It's not perfect (there will still be some non-military use), but it seems plausible and maybe it's "good enough" for you.

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Any solution based on a limitation of some resource reduces abuse — but never removes it — unless something about the solution is undesirable

Increasing the cost of using the spell reduces the number of people who can access the spell — but you would always have politicians, the wealthy, etc. who will use the resurrection spell for selfish purposes: to bring back a loved one who died too early, to restore a hated enemy to become your slave, to resurrect yesteryear's supermodel to become your personal love monkey. No matter how expensive, there would always be somebody not the military who would access and use the spell.1

Unless there's something about the resurrected that makes them completely undesirable for any purpose but serving on a battlefield. And I can think of one!

They Smell2

And they don't just smell... they stink! They stink in a way that makes sewers the perfect spot for a picnic and the titan arum a wonderful centerpiece for the dinner table.

Which makes them perfect for soldiers! When they march into a city, the residents really, really want to leave town! When they're on the battlefield, no one wants to be anywhere near them! They're perfectly suited for soldiering because the only people willing to be anywhere near them are other resurrected beings.3


1To be honest, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that will stop everyone but the military from using this spell. There is no explanation that will be 100% believable that restricts it to the military. However, if you think about it, that could be the basis of some phenomenal stories set in your world that reflect very base, very negative human characteristics. I'm just sayin'.

2Yeah, no matter how much they smell, some rich dude will resurrect his childhood dog simply because he can afford it and you can't. It's funny the forms ego takes.

3And this brings up one last point: what's the difference between a soldier, a policeman, a security guard, a citizen with a concealed carry permit, and a bully? Asking for a way to restrict this spell to only soldiers requires a clear definition of what a soldier is. Religious missionaries are soldiers — they simply use different weapons. Teachers are soldiers in the fight against illiteracy. A pair of discussion leaders once required that the definitions we used had to be objective. In other words, you can't say red is red because it's red. Likewise, you can't define a soldier by the tools he/she uses or the uniform worn. It must be something objective that's distinctive from all other forms of combat and struggle. That's why I like the idea of the stench — because the result is something few if any would want within the boundaries of civilized society. IMO.

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    $\begingroup$ pretty sure the rich dude can afford perfume or spice outside of mummifying them (assuming it still can work) to reduce or remove the rotting smell. still in my opinion enemy can just burn the corpse to make sure they dont resurrect again, if they cant use or control it themselves. not considering they probably bring pandemic or disease or contaminating the farms, so it probably bad idea for fortification defense or near life population. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jun 12 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ @LiJun You're absolutely right - and the consequences and limitations are an important issue that I hope Incognito's paying attention to. I pointed some out myself. Those consequences and limitations can be a weakness in the story or, if used properly, can really improve the depth of the story. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 13 at 1:27
  • $\begingroup$ I had to look up titan arum - it's the largest flower on the world, but more importantly (for this context) it attracts its pollinators with an indole (rotting carrion) fragrance. $\endgroup$ – arp Jun 14 at 17:11
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It causes psychological issues.

When a person is reanimated, it also fixes all their physical problems, ranging from lost limbs to scars they incurred as a child.

Unfortunately, this comes at a high cost. As part of the healing process, the reanimation potion puts a soldier's endocrine system into overdrive. This provides him the necessary bravery to "carry out his task without conscience or fear." However, this same bravado also creates an extreme hubris, causing the soldier to not work very well with his companions.

This effect compounds over time. The end result is that no matter how good and kind a soldier starts out, he will inevitably end up a vain, conniving b**tard who nobody can trust.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 This is a great idea. The resurrection spell has as its primary engine the endocrine system, which means a whomping ton of food must be present to contribute to the hyper-metabolism - and like almost anything that's stressed, the overstressed condition become the "new normal." This wouldn't be desirable pretty much anywhere than in soldiers - berserker soldiers. This feels very realistic. Cheers! $\endgroup$ – JBH Jun 12 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ Also, requiring tons of food makes them undesirable as slaves. Is blind obedience really worth four times the upkeep? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jun 12 at 13:51
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Contracts.

In the normal modern world one can choose to be cremated, thrown into a grave or put into a box, they can also donate their bodies to science or even sell their bodies when they can't afford a normal burial, some people even pay companies to freeze their bodies or do other things like turning themselves into trees or diamonds or even corals.

This is not perfect, often the dying wish of a person is ignored. But not when it comes to money and contracts, in this case it's always taken seriously.

Contracts will limit the problem. People with a family won't sell their bodies as slaves and workers because they wouldn't want their familiars to see their bodies being used like that.

Would you enjoy seeing your son or father as a construction worker, knowing he died 3 years ago? I personally can't even talk with my ex after 1 year and a half..I would go crazy from seeing some of my parent's zombies around the streets.

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There's only a limited number of cauldrons to go around

Cauldrons are made from magicium, which is a very rare substance. Therefore only the military could get their hands on enough of it to make one, which is a requirement for casting the spell.

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The relic is connected with the God of War and the resurrection is performed under his watch or according to his teachings. Only a true high priest of the cult of War can perform the procedure and it only succeeds if done according to its purpose, which is resurrecting soldiers for a just war. Not having the right purpose when performing the ritual causes the procedure to fail. Misusing the soldiers after they've been created immediately kills them.

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The process produces too few.

  1. each one has to be done individually and it takes a day and an hour to be complete
  2. you need to keep the fire fiercely hot for the entire time, and that takes a lot of wood
  3. only a skilled practitioner can make the potion, it takes a week and this precludes doing anything else magical in the time.
  4. the ingredients of the potion are expensive.
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They eat people.

Essentially you've created an army of zombies, capable of following simple commands (like the original concept of zombies as undead slaves) but otherwise quite without humanity. Anything which moves needs a source of energy, which means they need to feed, and they'll take advantage of any potential food within range. That could be each other, or their overseer, or the animals they're guarding, or any random member of the public nearby.

This ties in perfectly with what we know zombies are like, of course.

When not in active use, they would need to be kept individually confined for safety. Their cages/cells would need some serious reinforcement to stop them breaking out, and they would need to be fed almost continually to stop them repeatedly beating at the cell wall to get to warm flesh they can smell outside until either their arms or the wall give way. This makes it much harder to keep them.

They also can't follow anything more than the most basic commands. So the scope for using these zombies in any context other than "go and kill and eat all the guys over there" is really small, meaning that they have very few civilian applications. If you need strength, it's much easier to use horses or draught oxen. If you need skills, you need actual people. As slaves, they really would be completely useless for most applications. About the only thing they could easily replace is free-ranging guard dogs patrolling the grounds of your property after dark, and that would be more as a "look what I can afford" status symbol.

"Some countries have begun the practice of killing their soldiers in their prime years in order to resurrect them": Not so much.

Soldiers are generally in favour of anything which means they and their friends don't die. Sending the dead out as shock troops is great for them.

Any officer intending to kill his soldiers in order to turn them into zombies though, in any situation other than "We're all dead if they break through, so I want volunteers for zombies, and if the rest of us make it out then I promise your families will never be poor again" - well, let's just say that when it comes to being killed by your own side and made a zombie, he'll be leading from the front. There are always more soldiers than officers.

And any ruler who gives a similar order will rapidly find that "you and whose army?" doesn't work when the army is not on their side. The resulting slaughter of the ruler, their family, their friends, and probably the whole ruling class, would make La Terreur look like kindergarten. The executions would not be as clean as the guillotine either - it would very likely be by being tied up and given to a zombie as food. It might take days for the zombie to finally bite somewhere fatal. As exemplary punishments go, this really would dissuade anyone else from trying it again.

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Though some other answers give some very valid ideas to limit the spell use, I want to point out that your system will already regulate itself as is. Think about it, you have an army that you can resurrect, but only if you have the bodies. The same goes for your opponent. In this situation, the battle itself is important, but more important is how you manage bodies.

With such a powerful spell available, tactics will be built around it, and the battle plans will be made so that you can almost always retrieve the bodies and resurrect them. You don't want to have a soldier dying and lose his body, or even worse, give it to the enemy.

Battle plans would be much more safe, having both teams ensure they don't kill their man on inadequate territory, reducing death count and therefore, resurrection spell uses.

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Disquiet

Expanding on JBH's excellent idea of making them smell -- this would be a sort of psychic insanity-inducing aura. The game Promethean deals with resurrected creatures (essentially Frankenstein monsters), and they use "Disquiet" as a way to explain the negative reaction people have towards these creatures.

From the Promethean wikipedia page:

The Promethean is not human, in either the physiological or cognitive sense. It is a corpse that walks, its autonomic functions and soul replaced by the power of the Divine Fire. While the Divine Fire allows him to pass as a human from a distance, it does not make up for the lack of a soul. When a Promethean spends enough time around humans, the humans begin to fall prey to Disquiet, the feeling that there is something not just fundamentally different, but utterly wrong about the Promethean. Disquiet initially manifests itself as distrust or avoidance of the Promethean; at its worst, it can blossom into mindless rage that can only be abated by the death of the Promethean. Different Promethean Lineages generate different manifestations of Disquiet, each with their own enervating effect on the local environment and population. Disquiet affects more than just mortals; a Promethean who spends too long in one place will find the landscape and environment itself becoming tainted by his Disquiet, eventually turning into a Wasteland. Leaving the tainted zone far behind allows the land to eventually heal, but it does require the Promethean to keep on the move.

This would mean that you would want to keep these creatures in their own barracks, far from normal mortals.

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A Life for a Life

The process of resurrecting dead soldiers requires a living soul be sacrificed, and the soldier will only live for half as long as that victim would have normally. This would not only limit the practice to the most horrible of people, but it also results in a net-loss. You still end up with 1 living person at the end of the process, so unless you're willing to sacrifice all of your population to keep your soldier-slaves alive, you're putting yourself at a major disadvantage. Sure, you could capture enemy soldiers and sacrifice them, but eventually, you're going to run out of living souls to keep your necromantic army at full force. (Also, once the villagers have had enough of your stealing away and murdering their children in order to feed your army, they're going to rise up and rebel.)

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The family's Honour

Think about the relatives of the fallen, they want their father to have a proper burial and safe passage to the afterlife. They want his death to be respected, the family's honour maintained.

When father, a mighty and patriotic warior, is killed in battle, and his king uses magic to return his body to the battlefield so it can once more serve to protect the realm he so loved, then his family are probably somewhat honoured.

However, if father dies, and then some mine owning merchant across the river steals his body and pays for the local lord to raise it as a mining zombie: you are NOT happy. That is disrespectful. He deserves to rest in peace. You are going for your torch and pitchfork. Rebellion is warranted. They had no right to his body.

If people felt this way (which I think is reasonable to assume) it seems plausible that the great majority of the undead would be warriors.

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