Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Another Day, Another Necromancer

It's the season of the witch over at HBO, as vampires and witches prepare for a major showdown on True Blood. Putting aside my love of the vampirical, I've found myself drawn to this season's drama because of the witches, in part because of Fiona Shaw's amazing portrayal of a woman possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch with a battle-axe to grind re: vampires. The dead witch's plan? Possess the vampires and force them to self-immolate in the daylight, just like she did during the Inquisition. Queen Bill clutches at his pearls and fans himself: "They are necromancers!"

There's about ten (okay, four) different definitions of necromancy at work in Bon Temps right now. The witches (who start out being called "Wiccans," rather than necromancers) try and succeed in bring a bird back from the dead, albeit momentarily. (1. Death magic, bringing back animals from the dead.) They're successful because Lafayette (short-order cook, drug dealer, and clear-eyed realist) and Marnie (Wiccan leader, proprietrix of Moongoddess Emporium, and Sad Bird Lady) are both mediums (media?) and can be possessed by the spirits of the dead. (2. Summoning and communing with the spirits of dead people.) Canny vamps, like Eric and Bill, remember when a witch cast a spell on vampires to impel them to mass suicide by sunlight. (3. Controlling the dead.) And they should be worried, because Marnie-as-Antonia is able to force the vampires to do her bidding. (4. Manipulating will.)

Necromancy appears to a pretty elastic term on the show, just like it is historically. At first, I thought that the vampires were using it to define a particular power that witches had over them, since the vampires are dead. But then the witches were doing all this other stuff (even though their endgame is vampire obliteration), all called "necromancy." Gerbert of Aurillac was accused by many of necromancy, but in his case it meant anything from selling his soul to the Devil to practicing the rather vague "dark arts" to foretelling the future. And Gerard of Hereford (and Archbishop of York) was accused of necromancy by his own congregation because he was reading a book of forbidden knowledge--a Roman text on astral science and celestial augury. In the later medieval period, necromancy had a slightly more stable definition--clerical magic, practiced by those with priestly training and Latin knowledge, as a kind of inversion of Christian rites. Certainly Marnie/Antonia and her cohort chant and cast spells in Latin, as opposed to, say, the Greek of Maryann and her cult.

But with all this possession and Imperius-ing to force others--either vampires or humans--to do the bidding of another, it seems like True Blood isn't about sorcery, necromancy, witches, vampires, or even faeries, shifters, and weres anymore, it's about zombies.


hiddeneloise said...

It's about zombies! I knew it! Hahaha.

In all seriousness, I think the show is less concerned with mythological accuracy (or at all, really), and more interested in showing the common threads among the species: the general humanity that is at the core of anyone's actions. Human, vampire, shifter, faery, were... They are all either busy denying their humanity or wrestling with it.

I think the show's definition of necromancy -- if it had bothered to define it clearly -- would be the power certain witches have over vampires in so far as vampires can be considered dead bodies.

It's not a classical definition, but it serves the purpose. It's clear that, on the show, a powerful witch can basically generate a spell over the living, as well. That's how Antonia gets to posses Marnie. Sure Marnie welcomed and invited her, but it still requires magic to initiate something like this. Much like Jesus' grandpa opened some magical portal inside Lafayette, who is currently serving as a walking guesthouse for a ghost with an agenda.

But the necromancers on the show are those who can specifically wield powers over the dead (a diseased bird, a vampire). That is what they go by. And if you think about it, the only necromancer is Antonia. Yes, she needs to feed on the energy of others (the larger the circle, the stronger the spell), but it wasn't until Marnie was already partially possessed that she could even lift that bird off the table.

The others all feel less like witches, but rather like a bunch of beginner wiccans. Which is not the same thing. Actually, Holly is not a beginner, and last year she seemed to demonstrate the more of a religious/ritualistic side of her practices.

No doubt the show is using the terms and the practices with a lot of "creative" license. But I am not begrudging it to them. I'm easy. :)

E. R. Truitt said...

Hiddeneloise, first of all, let me say that I really dig your TB recaps and analysis.

I completely agree with you about the larger point of the show--what is the definition of humanity. The bestial loss of control via Maryann and some of the vampires and some of the weres, the animal natures of the shifters and weres, the struggle for self-mastery that the vampires go through. But certainly the vampires are way better (at least some of them are) at self-mastery than the humans. Anyway, you're right.

My point about necromancy was that, on this show, just like in ye olden times, "necromancy," like "magic" is this incredibly elastic, shifting term that doesn't have a stable definition or constitute a bounded set of practices. And I find that interesting. Yes, the witches (or just Marntonia) are controlling the vampires. But there's blood magic, mediums getting inhabited (and Lafayette certainly didn't ask to be inhabited--in fact, I believe he said, "Fuck this shit" to the whole thing), Latin chanting and spells, contacting the dead (Eddie, Gran), turning people into zombies, as well, as you pointed out, the more ritualistic/naturalistic side that we saw last season with Holly and Arlene. Just like vampires are this big category of all kinds of stuff that are scary (sex, death, loss of control, unbridled appetite and power, etc.), magic/necromancy is another whole bag of scary tricks. I think (?) the writers are using the elasticity of magic to put a lot of the vampire stuff into relief. (For example, now we clearly identify the vampires as victims...but it's also easy to see that the witches have a real beef with them.) Does that make sense?