Vampires & Vikings: The ancient origins of “True Blood’s” more interesting residents

Vampires & Vikings: The ancient origins of “True Blood’s” more interesting residents

Vampires & Vikings: The ancient origins of “True Blood’s” more interesting residents

Last week’s 5.3 million viewers of HBO’s True Blood prove that cannibalism, drinking blood, running around naked in the woods, still haven’t lost their appeal.

Every Sunday, the drama and bloodletting that surrounds the residents of BonTemp leave us asking – Did I just really see that? At first it was just Sookie and her undead beau that shocked with their sweetly, unnatural love. But since Maryann’s arrival, the nights in BonTemps have been filled with all kinds of nasty madness.  So as we wait for to Sunday’s finale, I’ve done a little research into the very distant past. Who will save Bon Temp?  Maybe Greek mythology can offer us some clues…

trueBlood2So what is Maryann?

She came to town as a boho,  do-gooder, playing mom and mentor to a lost Tara. Even then something about those lavish breakfasts she served seemed a bit excessive. Soon her wild parties,  and hypnotic shake, were loosening inhibitions, and leaving the towns citizens wondering just what they were up to last night.

As the season came to an end, Maryann’s supernatural powers and demonic intentions became clear. Driven by the desire to invoke her “God” she is determined sacrifice Bon Temps shape-shifting bar owner, Sam Merlotte.  After a narrow escape, a bewildered Sam learns her true nature. She is, what the Greeks called, a Maenad, (or others called Kali, Isis). Immortal, her ancient powers leave everyone looking for a way to stop her few options. Except for Sookie, who seems to have an untapped gift and the vampires, some of whom, seem to know more that they are willing to admit.

The Madwoman of Greek Mythology

In Ancient Greece’s complex poetic traditions, Maenads were consorts of Dionysus. Son of Zeus, Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, ecstasy and liberation from one’s every daily consciousness. As followers of Dionysus, Maenads played loud music and took part in ecstatic dances and orgies. They dressed in thin flowing robes, panther skins,  and wore wreaths of ivy or even snakes on their heads.

trueBlood3In their intoxicated state, they are said to have possessed supernatural powers, subduing whole towns, producing wine from the earth with their ivy-covered staffs and taming wild animals.  They also were particularly fond of hunting, tearing their prey to pieces, and devouring their raw flesh. The eating of raw animal flesh, often bulls ( the animal associated with Dionysus) was a way to commune with God and share in his strength. And scenes such as these are frequently depicted on Greek kraters, vessels used to mix water and wine.

Many of these mythological elements are evoked in True Blood, especially the party scenes and those of a clawed Maryanne hunting her victims in the woods. Maenads were also said to produce milk from the earth by scratching it with their fingers. Similarly the shape-shifting characters who roam the woods of Bon Temps as animals evoke the satyrs who were a part of Dionysus’s entourage. And btw is Sam an “animal” sacrifice?

True Blood’s Nasty Julia Child…

But what about that intoxicating “Hunter’s Souffle” Maryann feeds Tara & Eggs? She seems delight in food and cooking, especially when it involves serving the lovingly prepared hearts of Bon Temp’s residents. There is little archaeological evidence of human sacrifice, or cannibalism in Ancient Greece. However, in Greek literary traditions, Maenads were known on occasion to hunt and eat humans flesh as happens in  Euripides’ play The Bacchae. Maenads are an interesting parallel to the True Blood’s vampires, who of course don’t eat anything grown from the earth at all, preferring fresh blood from live humans.

trueBlood4The God Who Comes

So is it Dionysus that Maryann is hoping to woo in the wedding feast teaser? Do the rich traditions of Greek poetry and theater offer any clues to where Sunday’s finale will lead? Scholars believe Dionysus was a later addition to the Greek pantheon, and that his cult traveled along with wine-making to Greece from Asia or even Africa. It turns out he was also patron of  the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman World, secret societies that functioned along side traditional religious practices. Many of these involved complex rituals and initiations that are related to wine cultivation, agriculture and the cycle of life and death.

Interestingly these rituals often revolve around the idea of rebirth, after initiates go through some physical trial (sometimes ritualized flagellation or hanging) or travel to the underworld, and in which woman initiates prepare to be Dionysus’ bride…?? And how does this all relate to the vampires, who are also in a sense reborn from the earth? We’ll find out tonight…

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Queen of the underworld. Daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter. Enjoys pomegranates, curses, reading by candle light, and getting her hands dirty.