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.

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