Friday, April 11, 2008

The Right of the Living Dead

If you're anything like me, you've likely spent many moonlit nights wondering about the canonical status of zombies and female vampires (and no, I'm not referring to monks and nuns, respectively). Fortunately for us, Fr Patrick Viscuso, an Orthodox canonist, has written a valuable and intriguing study: "Vampires, Not Mothers: The Living Dead in the Canonical Responses of Iosaph of Ephesos," St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 44 (2000): 169-179.

Iosaph of Ephesos, a fourteenth-century megas protosynkellos (something like an important archpriest, I imagine), is the author of a series of fifty-seven canonical responses addressed to the questions of a certain presbyter, George Drazinos of Crete. "A number of the canonical answers presented," Fr Patrick writes, "concern demonic activity and superstitions. Examples include amulets, satanic incantations, repetitions of exorcisms, animated corpses, apparitions, and female vampires." Questions fifty-three and fifty-four deal with superstitions regarding "giloudai," that is, female vampires. This superstition "involved the belief that there existed a female demon which preyed on children especially within the first year of life, drinking their blood, causing death or illness, consuming them entirely, or stealing them," all the while having the appearance of old hags.

Iosaph, in responding to the question of whether there really are female vampires who suck the blood of, and kill, infants, writes that this belief is the result of "a confusion of the devil" and therefore should be rejected. Iosaph continues:
For just as he creates confusion regarding the dead, who they call grave dwellers (katakhthonious), so also here he aroused some women to suspect evil things concerning humanity (anthropopon). For which reason with as much force as possible prohibit the ones saying such things.
According to Fr Patrick, Ioasaph's central concern centers on the relationship between female vampires and blood, because in late Byzantine canonical texts "blood is frequently presented as a woman's chief contribution to human birth, particularly in discussions related to unborn children such as regarding abortion." He continues:
Consequently, in this framework of canonical thought, a woman or female vampire that actually consumed rather than produced blood to become a source of death as opposed to life would have an inverse role and existence compared to other women. Rather than purified through the excretion, their consumption of blood most likely would be viewed as resulting in impurity and defilement. The murder of infants through the taking of blood is exactly opposed to motherhood.
The other superstition mentioned by Ioasaph is that of "katakhthonioi" or "grave dwellers" (basically zombies), who were said to be corpses that walked the road, and could predict the future. Ioasaph again denies their real existence, but argues that they could exist as demonic manifestations, "the devil wishing to deceive men to do something unseemly for the provocation and wrath of God makes such signs and often deludes men during the night." Those who believe in zombies are, according to Ioasaph, themselves under demonic influence. Encouraged by the demons, these people exhume corpses that have an appearance of incorruption through satanic deception and, Ioasaph continues, "because they do not have firm faith, the devil changes form and enters the dead body, and the long dead for many days or years appears to be fresh, and has flesh, blood, nails, and hair." Those who burn such corpses, however, are committing sacrilege.

In the case of both female vampires and zombies, Fr Patrick writes, the common element is demonic influence or plani (prelest in Russian). He concludes with these words:
In conclusion, the canonical responses of Ioasaph of Ephesos written as a pastoral manual for clergy address popular beliefs in demonic activity and interests in death. Concerns in providing theological guidance emphasize proper attribution of power to the Divinity rather than to demonic forces. Satanic activity is viewed as concentrated in the minds and actions of the faithful, rather than in actual apparitions, animated corpses, and vampires. Within this context, the gilousai are portrayed as a superstitious and condemnable belief. If placed within the framework of canonical thought on the relationship between women, birth, and blood, female vampires occupy an inverse existence and role; one most likely viewed as foul and impure and in opposition by nature to motherhood. Speculation can be made that the belief was condemnable because of its attribution of a dominant power to Satan in the death of the new-born and infants. The implications of these texts may be seen perhaps as reflecting a popular culture preoccupied by demonology and necromancy.
The popular culture to which Fr Viscuso refers is, of course, that of late Byzantium. It could, however, just as well apply to our own. To my mind, the lesson to be taken home from all this is to remember that God is sovereign, not Satan and his minions. Vampires and zombies simply don't exist; belief in their existence is a act of deception (prelest). The demons, however, can take advantage of those predisposed to believe in the "paranormal" by, essentially, spooking them. Much the same, I think, can be said about ghosts, poltergeists, and UFOs. Namely, they don't exist. But demons can and will take advantage of people who do in fact believe in their real existence. In other words, there are no such things as ghosts or UFOs, but demons can appear to those looking for ghosts and UFOs by appearing in their guise, thus further driving them away from God and into their grip.

I wonder if we could take this one step further. I've enjoyed the fantasy works of Tolkein and Lewis, but haven't read either the Harry Potter books or the Golden Compass series. It could be argued on the basis of the points made above that such fantasies, even when intended to encourage virtue, nonetheless predispose readers (children, especially) to belief in, so to speak, a non-incarnate reality. This, in turn, can become a medium for demonic temptation. We all carry a moral imagination about with us, one forever being shaped by sense imagery. (Think of dreams, for instance, which draw their material from the mental debris of the day.) Ideally our moral imagination should be shaped by Scripture, liturgical services, church music, and the like. The better sorts of arts can shape our moral imagination in a positive way; the worser sorts, however well intentioned, can shape our moral imagination in the opposite direction, leading us open for temptation and delusion.

All this, however, is simply me thinking aloud once again. I'm open to dissuasion.


Maximus Daniel said...

Your last comments reminds me of an essay by Russell Kirk, called ""

I remember it being a good essay..

Felix Culpa said...

Very, very interesting. Thanks!

I myself couldn't remember where I had picked up the phrase "moral imagination. Kirk, of course!

Felix Culpa said...

What, no one wants to talk about zombies?!

the student said...

These seem to be a very strange phenomenon. I remember once when everyone was scared of vampires and now they seem to be so sexy that no one minds them around any more (see Bram Stoker's children and the Vampire Lestat et al.) As well the zombies used to eat the brains of our forefathers and now you don't see many zombies at all.

Felix Culpa said...

One doesn't seem to see zombies at all? That's odd. When was the last time you were in a classroom, a shopping mall, or walked down the street?

the student said...

I don't know if I would call these people zombies, I would say that there appears to be nothing there (ie. brains or a reasonable facsimile)that would satiate the hunger of zombies and therefore many zombies have died of starvation.