Halloween seems to be especially big this year - it hasn't always been much of a thing in England (though both Ireland and Scotland have celebrated it for years, I think it may have originated in one or the other). I've always suspected that this is because it's too close to Bonfire Night, and we have our autumnal light-bringing ritual to mark the drawing in of the nights then. Anyway, everyone seems very excited about it this year so in addition to the Halloween-themed Buffy post I have planned for Sunday, I thought I'd get in the mood a little early with some very different vampires.
True Blood is an intriguing show. I started watching it because a couple of friends alerted me to the fact there appeared to be a maenad among the main characters. The show has a largely likeable cast (Sookie, Tara and the rather yummy Sam the bartender) and a great opening credits sequence. I've never been to the American South (though I'd love to go) so I have no idea how accurately the images here portray it, but it certainly conveys a really strong sense of atmosphere, helped by the deliciously catchy and naughty-sounding song 'I Wanna Do Bad Things With You'. (I could live without the gross dead animals though).
The trouble is, the vampires on True Blood are just too nasty for it to really work for me. They're represented as an oppressed minority, chiefly drawing parallels with the gay community (the title sequence features a church with a notice reading 'God hates Fangs' and vampires supposedly 'came out of the coffin' a couple of years ago). I can see the idea behind it - there are good vampires and bad vampires, just as there are good and bad people in any group. But the 'good' vampires here are not vegetarian Cullens, ensouled Angels or well-behaved members of the League of Temperance. Of the two main vampires, who both serve as love interests for the heroine, one locked a man in a cell and tortured him for weeks, throwing the dismembered limbs of his former cellmate around at him, and the other recently turned a teenage girl into a vampire. Apparently this was because he had killed another vampire, so he had to make one to replace the dead one. Just think about the implications of that metaphor for a moment. I really don't think implying that members of minority groups really are inherently violent and sadistic (the main love interest is also shown enjoying sex while covered in the blood of a gasping victim who hasn't died yet - lovely) is doing anyone any good, nor do I feel the slightest bit of sympathy for any of the True Blood vampires, who are all downright creepy and not remotely attractive (no, not even Alexander Skarsgard) (Later edit: I would like to retract that last statement. I get it now. Boy oh boy I get it now...).
Anyway, I started watching at episode 2, season 2 to see what this possible maenad was up to. I didn't post about it immediately because True Blood is one of those very arc-driven US shows where plot developments happen veeery slooowwly over a number of episodes, so single episodes don't necessarily move things along very far. However, we're halfway through season 2 now, so I thought I'd stop and take stock.
A maenad is a female follower of the god Bacchus/Dionysus. In real life, they had a biannual festival in which they went into the mountains and had wild party, complete with drumbeats and getting themselves into a state of ecstasy but probably without vast amounts of sex, since they were all women (I'm not saying that rules out sex, but sex was not the object of the ritual - there are other types of ecstasy). In myth, they were, of course, even wilder, tearing Pentheus to pieces and so on. They crop up every now and again, most bizarrely in Prince Caspian.
Weird shaky-thing, complete with Greek-ish costume, in case we haven't got it yet.
Maryann the maenad's main trick so far is to throw a wild party, do a weird shaky-thing with her body (a quite bizarre CG effect) and make everyone have a lot of sex while their eyes go black and they go into a trance. I'm calling her a maenad because that, according to the internet, is what she will turn out to be, though so far signals have been mixed. According to Billie Doux, the first episode of season 2 (which I missed) featured this line:
Maryann: "The Greeks knew there was the flimsiest veil between us and the divine. They didn't see the gods as inaccessible, the way everyone does today."
There was also a mural of Pan, the goat-legged god of music and shepherds. Her reference to accessing the gods makes sense for someone who is, essentially, a worshipper, not a divine being herself (though she seems to have aquired some supernatural powers). But in addition to apparently worshipping both Pan and Dionysus (nothing wrong with that in a polytheistic religion) she has the ability to force shape-changers to change, which in the ancient world would be connected with witchcraft (Circe turned men into pigs, while the witch in Apuleius' Metamorphoses turns into an owl and her magic turns Lucius into a donkey). Then things get really confused; there is yet another minotaur running around (whether there's more than one or not remains to be seen) and the ritual at her latest party involves some kind of bull's head thing.
In the latest episode, Sam told Daphne (a minion of Maryann) that he didn't want to go near drums because they only lead to hippies and cults. Daphne replied 'not this time' in the sort of knowing, evil tone of a minion about to reveal her evilness to the guy she's been duping - except that is exactly, in the most literal sense, what the drums are leading them to. The cult of Bacchus/Dionysus was one of the most prominent of the ancient religions known today as mystery cults ('cult' from the Latin cultus, worship). These were groups dedicated to a particular god who carried out secret rituals known only to members, and which new members had to undergo sometimes lengthy initiation ceremonies to join. Their secretive nature leads to all sorts of speculation from modern writers on what might have gone on behind closed doors with, of course, no evidence to contradict even the wildest ideas, because it was secret. Daphne has most definitely led Sam into a cult.
(Daphne is also a Greek name, but whether or not she has anything to do with Apollo or laurel trees remains to be seen).
The trouble with the bull's head thing, though, is that it's connected to the wrong cult. Bulls were associated with another mystery cult, that of Mithras, joined chiefly by soldiers. Bulls were also essential to the taurobolium, a rite carried out by followers of the cult of Cybele. I'm not sure, however, what they would have to do with the cult of Dionysus. And the minotaur thing is getting weird now - just what is so attractive about bull-headed men?!
Maryann's ultimate goal has yet to be revealed, but so far her parties seem to bear more resemblence to the pop culture notion of a Roman orgy than a Bacchic festival (though the word orgy does come from orgia, a Greek word for ritual connected with mystery religions). Ecstasy, sometimes including sexual ecstasy, is certainly a feature of the mythology of Bacchus and may have been a big part of Bacchic ritual (hmm, that sentence came out wrong!). But on the television - unsurprisingly - sexual ecstasy seems to be the only type that Maryann the maenad is interested in. Considering the title sequence includes images of Christian religious ecstasy, it seems rather a shame to reduce Bacchic ritual to just sex and nothing more.
Further analysis will have to wait until we know more about Maryann and what she actually wants, which so far is unclear (well, she wants everyone around her to have a lot of sex, but I'm guessing there's more to it than that). Meanwhile, I will continue to watch and hope to see more of cute Sam the bartender, and less of blood, guts or really any vampire at all! (Later edit: I would also like to retract this statement. Except for the part about Sam, I still like him too).