Sunday, February 10, 2008

Talismans

I'm re-reading a hefty piece of fiction--hefty in size, scope of story, and theme--The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

The Historian might be described as a story that tells a story about a story. It's about the historical Dracula, beyond Hollywood or Stoker or any of the modern vampire tales, and Kostova deftly handles the intertwined stories.

Remember the film Sliding Doors? The alternating storylines could easily have become tangled and difficult to keep separate, but the filmmakers handled them very well. The same with The Historian and its layers of stories that are centuries deep. It's the kind of tale that I'd like to write--not that I want to write about Dracula, but I want to write deep, absorbing, tangled stories that are as well handled as this one.

But, all that aside, one thing strikes me about the whole spectrum of Dracula/vampire myths: the use of a variety of talismans used to ward off Ol' Vlad or other evils. What makes a silver bullet through the heart any more effective than the average bullet through, say, the head? Why is garlic such a big deal? Or a sharp wooden stake? Why are crucifixes, holy water, or other holy symbols from other religions, such powerful weapons?

They are, after all, only things. What power do they have over what is, essentially, spirit? And what happens if a vampire's victim is non-religious? What's a poor neck-bitten atheist to do?

The topic is addressed in The Historian, but even then the atheists resort to religious talismans to protect themselves from an evil so far beyond understanding or human power to overcome that they don't know what else to do. One person carries a silver knife, another a gun loaded with silver bullets, and another an ancient vampire-killer kit. Garlic in their pockets, silver crucifixes around their necks. Again, just things.

I'm not a ghoulish person, nor do I revel in gore or evil, but there's something about the various vampire legends that have captured my imagination since I first saw a version of Dracula on TV when I was about six years old. It gave me nightmares for years, but--and this is odd, perhaps--it strengthened my faith in God. In my worst terrors, I prayed for peace. No teddy bear or talisman worked the same.

Where did all those traditional talismans originate? Why did/do people think they possess any power? Guess this means I'll be cruising Wikipedia...

4 comments:

The Texican said...

I think people realized certain bad odors repelled other people, and doubled the receipe for the spiritual world. I'm working on a formula now to repel the current slate of presidential hopefuls.

KEANAN BRAND said...

Let me know when you get a workable concoction.

Eaglewing said...

If people don't want to believe in God, and what goes with it, they seem to instead redirect that into believing in anything else. Maybe that's how the whole Dracula talisman legends came along. If man doesn't believe in anything, then there has to be something on this plane of existence to they can use to fight off evil, and man will be smart enough to come up with it, even if it defies any logical explanation. In the end, seems like just a transference of belief. If not God defeating Dracula, then maybe this silver mineral! Either way, it's a leap of faith.

The other thing is that in these monster legends, there always seems to be a built in "achilles heal" that can be exploited to vanquish the beast. Seems awfully handy that there are multiple ways to defeat a Vampire - silver, fire, garlic, wood, etc. What happens when a less frail monster comes along? Then what do they do? When it comes down to faith and strength of will, then it gets interesting. hmmm, maybe there's a story to write there somewhere...

KEANAN BRAND said...

You're right: people will fill the "God void" with faith in SOMEthing, whatever it happens to be. Very often, that faith is placed in themselves, human goodness, nature, ley lines and Mother Earth magic, whatever.

I like there to be a little science mixed with my mythology--the method of defeating the monster has to make sense, outside of some sort of symbology. WHY does that silver bullet do so much damage?

In my current fantasy novels (the first finished, the second in progress), there is a reason why a certain weapon defeats otherwise unbeatable dragons, a reason beyond just "it's cool" or "it's magic."