Friday, 3 December 2010

True Blood Season Two (Part Two)


It took me a while, but I’ve really got quite into True Blood now – so much so that I’m most annoyed that season 3 will soon be coming to a channel I don’t get. I’m even starting to see the attraction to Eric, though he’ll never quite match up to Spike for me, and I prefer Sam, Hoyt and Jason. Especially Sam. (Edited later to add: Um, I may have changed my mind now. Season 3 plus the books = now I understand what everyone was on about).

We found out who and what Maryann was right after the halfway point, though it took all the season up to the finale to succumb to narrative imperative and put the cast in Daz-white, pseudo-Greek costumes complete with laurel leaf headdresses. We got two different explanations for Maryann, one (presumably less accurate) from her follower Daphne and one (presumably more accurate, though she dismisses it as bits of old folklore to Eric) from the vampire Queen (and by the way, I am totally confused by the vampire hierarchy on this show - the Queen is younger than Eric, and yet stronger than him?).

First of all, something that's been bothering me - Dionysus doesn't have horns. [Edited to add: there are a very few obscure references to him having bull horns - and one less obscure one from Euripides - but he is not depicted with horns in art and the idea is a rare one. See comments below]. The names Maryann calls him by are accurate, the story of his double birth and there being only a piece of his heart left is an unusual variant, but it did exist, even the eating of raw meat may have been part of Bacchic rituals, but it is Pan who is usually depicted with horns. The two are often associated with one another, since Pan has a clear relationship to Dionysus' satyr followers and Pan and the satyrs have goat horns, and Pan and Dionysus are often depicted together, but Dionysus himself is not usually 'the horned god' and Dionysus and Pan are two separate deities.

(The more usual version of his birth myth is that Dionysus' mother Semele tricked Zeus into appearing in his full glory in front of her, which killed her, so Zeus took the 6-month foetus from her body and sewed it into his thigh, from which Dionysus was born three months later - but the heart varient is known from the ancient world as well).

Daphne's explanation was that Maryann herself was as close to a god as a human being can be, and she compared Maryann to Isis, Gaia or Lilith. Isis is an interesting comparison - Maryann is a follower of Dionysus, the subject of an ancient mystery religion, and Isis was the subject of another mystery religion, so there's a vague link there that almost makes sense. The identification of one god with another is also, of course, common ancient practice and Isis was identified with a number of other deities including Demeter/Ceres (she was identified with others in that it was thought that they were all essentially the same deity, but unlike Demeter and Ceres who are literally the same goddess, there would still be differences in attributes and worship). Gaia, as a much more primeval goddess, would be much less likely to be indentified with a goddess like Isis and Lilith is a character from monotheistic Jewish mythology, so she's a different kettle of fish all together. It's an interesting mix of names to throw in, presumably intended to evoke the ancient Mediterranean to link with maenadism (Isis), ideas about the essential divinity of the earth and earth motherhood that the name 'Gaia' is more associated with now (Gaia) and Judao-Christian myth (Lilith).

Daphne also draws an explicit link between Bacchic worship and modern Christian conceptions of devil-worship, and these are drawn on again from time to time throughout the series. This is an interesting way to take the worship of Bacchus/Dionysus. The god was associated, in the ancient world, with all the wild behaviour he is associated with here, including sex, drugs and rock and roll. However, pre-Christian ancient religion did not have the same concept of sin that Christianity has and there was no devil. This sort of behaviour was uncivilised, improper and certainly not be encouraged outside the ritual (and the sexual behaviour, not outside mythology - no Greek man would let their wife or daughter behave that way) but it was not until Judaeo-Christianity became the biggest religion in the Late Roman Empire that such things could be thought of as sinful and the concept of the Devil is a much later development.

The association of Bacchus with devil-worship does work rather well for the series. The Christian image of the Devil was developed from Late Roman images of Pan (goat horns, tail, goat feet) and the identification puts this somewhere on the same spectrum as those episodes of science fiction and fantasy series which imagine the Devil as an actual, nasty space beastie or other monster (Doctor Who's 'The Satan Pit', various bits and bobs in The X-Files, possibly the First Evil in Buffy). In such a strongly Judaeo-Christian culture, it makes sense to bring in the idea of devil-worship, and the strong echoes of Catholic communion in Maryann's final rituals (notably the chalice) make the whole thing seem an inversion of Christianity (complete with stabbed, crucified victim who sacrifices himself for others in Sam). It does seem a bit of a shame, though, to present a pagan religion as devil-worship; it seems to perpetuate nineteenth-century stereotypes that probably ought to be left to die.

The Queen's explanation for what Maryann is goes a little further. She implies that 'Dionysus' (some kind of supernatural being worhsipped before the Greeks, but she uses the Greek name) exists, but 'he just never comes', which makes sense in context. The explanation for exactly what Maryann is is, perhaps, less satisfying - she believed herself to be immortal, so she is. If that was true, Caligula would still be alive today. The Queen also makes an odd comment about humans having a tendency towards puritanism, which I don't think is true - you get tendencies towards puritanism in some places, but I don't think mankind as a whole has particularly puritan tendencies. On the other hand, I'm not judging this on vampire criteria - to the Queen, I'm sure we all look like puritans, and that's probably the real point of this statement.
I'm still not quite sure why Maryann had poor Eggs murder Daphne, but the scene where she serves up Daphne's heart to (presumably unsuspecting) Eggs and Tara is very much like a Greek myth, where this sort of thing comes up a few times (Procne and Philomela serve his own son to King Tereus and Pelops was served up to the gods, and there are other examples as well). It doesn't appear to worry them that the pie is bleeding, though, so maybe they're just under Maryann's influence and think freshly served (almost)-human heart is a good idea, which removes this somewhat from the myths, in which the ignorence of the diner is the most important aspect (otherwise they'd never eat it). Interesting that Tara thinks human heart tastes like rabbit - chicken is the usual comparison, and it's actually a similar meat to pig (hence the name 'long pig' in some parts of the world - Will Turner and Captain Jack could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they'd known that).

The minotaur thing also turned out to be Maryann herself - she can dig her hands into the ground and pull out claws, and she still has the bull obsession (it's implied that Dionysus' horns are bull horns - this and the emphasis on blood has me even more convinced that the writers have melded together Dionysus and Mithras. See comments below on possible bull-horn links, but to me, mystery religion + bull = Mithras). I don't even know where that comes from. But I'm amused that Bill flies Anubis Air. And the Queen's palace looks distinctly Nilotic to me - like some kind of fusion between ancient Egypt and the eighteenth century. The Queen isn't that old, but I suspect it's supposed to invoke Cleopatra, considered to be beautiful, sexy, dangerous and ruthless in the popular imagination.

This is quite possibly the most bizarre shop display I've ever seen, from the Bull Ring in Birmimgham. At first I thought it was minotaurs, but it's actually animal heads on human dummys, like Egyptian gods. Why? No one knows...

I enjoyed the rest of this series, and Lafyaette is fast becoming my favourite character ('Jesus and I agreed to see other people, that don't mean we don't still talk' is possibly the best line in anything, ever). Bill and Sookie are both kind of annoying; Sookie goes very Lois Lane, screaming for Bill for help all the time, and Bill stands there and says that he thought maenads were a myth. While, you know, being a vampire. And 'glamouring' is just way too much like Twilight's 'dazzling'. But Sam gets naked a lot, so it all evens out. I'll miss Maryann's weird juddering thing when she does her stuff, which reminds me of the Judder Man advert. All in all, I'm looking forward to season 3, and hopefully the series will continue to do interesting things in the corners of mythology, bringing in fresh new ideas like rampant maenadism to the vampire genre, rather than just repeating vampires vs werewolves ad infinitum.

10 comments:

  1. Actually, it's not at all out of line for Dionysos to have horns. He is called "bull-faced" in a couple of Orphic hymns and "bull-horned" in another. Euripides also calls him "the bull-horned god (theos taurokeros)" in the Bacchae. I got those from Theoi and I think there are other references. Also, since he's an eastern god, it's not unreasonable. Near Eastern gods usually had horns as a sign of their godhood. (That's why Alexander has them on his coins after he conquered Persia.)

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  2. All in all, I'm looking forward to season 3, and hopefully the series will continue to do interesting things in the corners of mythology, bringing in fresh new ideas...

    Uhm, I take it you haven't seen season 3 yet.

    Just uh, don't get your hopes up or anything... I for one think True Blood peaked at Season 2. I really missed Ensign Ro as weird cult woman.

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  3. *That's* who Michelle Forbes is! I knew I knew her from somewhere! Season 3 hasn't been on over here yet, though I'm intrigued by the idea of faeries being in it.

    The thing about the horns is, he's very rarely depicted with horns in art. I'm saying 'very rarely' to cover myself - I've never seen him depicted with horns in art, bull or otherwise. They've already used an incredibly obscure origin story and throwing in this rare idea that he has horns - and it is certainly rare, even if it does appear in a line of Euripides (who likes to reinvent things anyway) and some Orphic hymns - seems a very odd move to me. Meanwhile, there is a much stronger connection along the lines of mystery religion + bull = Mithras. This is popular culture, not an essay on obscure varients of Greek myths, and these just seem like odd choices to me.

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  4. That shop-display is like the end of The Wicker Man.

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  5. You're right, it is an unusual choice. I think they said at Theoi that there are some later Roman artworks that depict him as actually horned. The real question is whether they started with the bull thing and wanted a god to go with it, or started with Dionysos and did some research. If it was the latter and the researcher read/skimmed the Bacchae, for instance, the "bull-horned"line might have jumped out and they went with it. Hollywood researchers can stumble across some really obscure stuff and then production goes with it because of the Rule of Cool. (Or they just confused him with Silenos.)

    As for Mithras, to me the big thing is that he's the bull-slayer, which is something altogether different. Not really what they were going for.

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  6. Near Eastern gods didn't have horns in the sense of bull-type horns though. They had a crown of horns, which is depicted as a sort of sorcerer's hat (with not such a pointy top) with horns going round the sides, not jutting out. It somewhat resembles a soft-serve ice cream in a cone. Even if you take the 'Dionysus is an Eastern god' route the iconography doesn't quite fit. I suspect you are right Juliette in that either the researchers chose to associate Dionysus with his followers (the satyrs) or with Pan for whatever misguided reason. If we're judging by any other televisual or film medium, researchers hardly ever attempt to get any Near Eastern facts correct. (It's such fun to be an Assyriologist...this is why no one watches TV or films with me any more. :P )

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  7. @Erika: I was thinking more of the depictions of Alexander with ram's horns growing from his head. That was also really just a vague idea, wondering why Euripides or the Orphics might have called him horned. It is a bit odd for a Greek god.

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  8. You should have a look at Jacob's TWOP commentary on the whole Dionysiac aspect of season 2. Quite wacky and/or insightful. I'm not sure which... http://bit.ly/v0LV or long URL: http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/true_blood/release_me_1.php

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  9. Caroline - Ooh, thanks, I haven't been over to TWOP for ages, that sounds like a good read!

    Erika - thank you, I am so vague on the Near eastern side of things (except for anything involving dreams) that's the sort of thing it's hard for me to interpret!

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  10. I think you are right on target to associate the Hunter's souffle with Tereseus. He was transformed into a hoopoe, and, as strange as it sounds, Maryann was a were-hoopoe.
    http://www.ancientpythoness.com/2009/12/21/what-was-maryann/

    I agree with Demetrios that the horned god is connected to the Orphic Mystery Cult as is Maryann's belief in reincarnation and transmigration of the soul, the dirt rolling and cake smashing, the more obscure version of the Dionysus myth that Maryann told, the giant egg, and Maryann's particular interest in the sex life of Tara and Eggs (Nyx and Erebus, the 'parents' of the first corporeal god, Protogonos).

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