Sunday, 2 September 2007

Theories and Myths of Evil and Vampires

"This is a book about evil. More precisely, it is a book about human evil, and its central question is whether there can be a secular conception of evil, whether that idea can tell us anything about the human condition, explain anything about what human beings do, in the absence of its more familiar territory of the supernatural and the demonic. In seeking to understand human evil it asks the question whether evil exists at all, and one possible answer I take very seriously is that it does not."

Thus Phillip Cole of Middlesex University opens the first chapter of his 2006 book The Myth of Evil (Edinburg Univ. Press), and interestingly one of many themes in the book is vampirism, which is particularly dealt with (along with witchcraft) in the fourth chapter on Communities of Fear (pp. 77-94). As he writes, "The point of studying these historical events is to develop a political philosophy of evil, an awareness of how it has been used to marginalise and oppress. If we can make no philosophical or psychological sense of evil, it may be that this political sense is all there is." (p. 77)

Cole is inspired by what Rousseau wrote about vampires, or rather by what Christopher Frayling writes about Rousseau:

"The point he [Rousseau] made about them [vampires] was that however little so-called 'attested histories' instructed us about the status of vampires, they revealed much about the nature of authority in civilized society." (Vampires: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, p. 33)

Cole writes of the witch hunts and the vampire cases:

"I will suggest that we can draw general patterns about the nature of power in 'civilised' society from these two great panics in European history, and the most important element is the centrality of fear in constituting the identity of political communities. Rather than political communities forming themselves around shared identities, they are formed through the exploitation by political authorities of social fears and insecurities, by focusing those fears upon some threatening 'evil' figure - the vampire, the witch, the Jew, the migrant, the asylum seeker, the Gypsy, the 'Islamicist' terrorist - and claiming to protect the 'genuine' members from these deviant and dangerous threats. Political communities are constituted by an irrational horror of imaginary monsters. In this process, those who seek to hold or gain power do not only create the threatening figure, they also create the community itself, or a particular form of it, with themselves at its centre. The witch craze, the vampire epidemics, and, I will argue in the final chapter of this book, our present panics over such phenomena as immigration and terrorism are exactly parallel. What is especially terrifying about the vampire and the witch is their ambiguity - their ability to be among us without detection, and, in the case of the vampire, their ability to pass across borders undetected. They are the enemy within, and therefore, a source of intense fear and panic, which can be exploited in the pursuit of political power." (p. 81)

Whereas it is quite obvious that those fearing vampires usually went to the authorities to deal with actual cases of vampires and Magia Posthuma, the authorities generally neither instigated nor approved of the belief in vampires. This was the case with the Habsburg military surgeons, and this seems to have been the case with many cases of Magia Posthuma in e.g. Moravia and Silesia. That is, the notion that the authorities themselves deliberately sought to control or even suppress the populace by the belief in vampires and Magia Posthuma, is based on little or no historical evidence.

One proponent of this theory is Gabriel Ronay who in a chapter called Vampire Trials in his 1972 book The Dracula Myth wrote:

"The Inquistion, the Roman Church's instrument for dealing with schismatics and the like, was already in decline, the witch-hunt in the Protestant territories was slowly abating and heresy had lost much of the social dread attached to it. A vigorously pursued and dogmatically justified campaign against the widely feared vampires, however, offered a useful lever with which to re-establish the Catholic Church's dominant position and reassert its spiritual influence in the mixed border areas. With the motive clearly established, there can be little doubt as to whom the hunting down and prosecution of alleged un-dead vampires benefited. The psychological weapon furnished by the nature of the accusations was exploited to the maximum effect to belabour the Orthodox rite Church. The trials also provided a legal forum to discredit the fellow congregationalists of alleged vampires who, in the recorded cases in Hungary's southern border areas, were Slovenes, Serbs or other aliens." (p. 27)

Certainly, revenants played an important role in debates in e.g. the 17th century, but I find it hard to recognize Ronay's description of "a vigorously pursued and dogmatically justified campaign against the widely feared vampires" when reading material from e.g. the original vampire cases. The authorities generally regarded vampires as superstition and generally had no reason to encourage the belief, in fact, they tried to discourage it. Ronay's idea of a "campaign" is probably very appealing to the modern reader, because it is easy to grasp, but a theory should also be based on source material, and in my opinion it is hard to find documentation for Ronay's "campaign".

Cole is perhaps slightly more sophisticated and his analysis in some ways more interesting, but it is based on very little source material and even includes material on the fictional vampire! Regarding "the vampire phenomenon", he mentions that "historical scholarship here is much inferior to the work on the witch trials."(p. 86) And this lack of knowledge of the historical background is probably why his analysis of the vampire cases is not quite convincing.

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