Monday, 5 July 2010
Monsters of the Mind
There’s an intriguing article in the July issue of Standpoint by Ben Judah reporting from Tajikistan (In search of the Yeti.) Here he found villagers prepared to take a solemn vow on the Koran – no light matter – that they had seen the Yeti, the abominable snowman of Himalaya legend. I have not the least doubt that they have, not the least doubt that in lonely mountain passes the shadows of the mind have taken on a definite shape.
There are some interesting historical parallels here, as the author indicates;
Living close to nature, without thorough schooling, peasants have always been frightened of the mythical wild man. In the 18th century, the oppressed central European peasantry was gripped by a terror of aristocratic vampires in the run up to the French Revolution.
The hysteria raged for a generation. Thousands of sightings were reported. Villagers swore by Christ that they knew what they had seen. The Austro-Hungarian Empress [sic] Maria Theresa was concerned enough to dispatch her personal physician to investigate whether or not vampires existed. They were not real, but poverty, oppression, ignorance and superstition were.
Actually, the fear of the aristocratic vampire in this area of Europe was more than superstition, more even than a kind of metaphor for aristocratic oppression. Aristocratic oppression, particularly in Hungary, had been severe for centuries, sometimes taking on a very real, particularly bloody and vampire-like form.
I’ve blogged before about the aristocratic vampire, latterly in a humorous vein (I’d rather be bitten by a vampire!) but before that in an altogether more serious fashion in a piece I called Erzsébet Báthory, the Blood Countess.
For those who may not have heard of her, Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess, one of the best-connected in the land, who died in 1614. She was also one of the most prolific serial killers who ever lived, specialising in the torture and murder of peasant girls who lived on her estate.
The details of her crimes, carried out with a select band of accomplices, are truly terrible, but the most terrible thing was the powerlessness of the people in the face of her depravity. Her downfall only began when, running out of peasant girls, she turned on the daughters of the lesser nobility. Even then the decisive factor was that she owed money to Matthais, king of Hungary and emperor of Austria.
At the time the details of the case were embellished with rumours of witchcraft and sorcery. But it wasn’t until a hundred years after her death that a new interpretation of her actions began to emerge. This is how I concluded my previous blog;
Like Vlad the Impaler and the myth of Dracula, Erzsébet began to attract her own mythology, including the story that she bathed in the blood of her victims, believing it to be a way of preserving her youth, a tale that goes no further back than 1729. Such a suggestion is, of course, horrible, but it at least supplied both a dark rationale and a motive. The real horror of Erzsébet's life is that she simply had a taste for suffering and blood as ends in themselves. A vampire of a kind, yes, but infinitely more terrifying than any of the monster's of fiction.
It is therefore true that the monsters of the imagination have a firm grounding in reality. Fear is most often accompanied by a sense of powerlessness, an inability to deflect or avoid the malevolent forces that govern one’s destiny. Given the form of politics that prevail in present-day Tajikistan, politics that Judah makes plain in his article, it comes as no great surprise that the Yeti continues to walk the mountain valleys.