My books and other Gingernuts

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Who really was St. Valentine

Well after a few false starts on this Valentines blog I’ve decided to go with the facts on St. Valentine. So who was he? Simple answer is apart from the fact he was an early Christian priest and martyr nothing is known about him apart from the day on which he was beaten and the beheaded. Saint Valentine ( Or Valentinus to give him his real name.) may be a widely recognized third century Roman saint who died on February 14th but there the truth stops. All the rest is information added centuries later and further muddled by the fact there are three St. Valentines associated with February 14th . It gets better, in all there are eleven other saints having the name Valentine commemorated in the Roman Catholic Church.
So how did St. Valentine become associated with a day for love and romance? Well one reason was Geoffrey Chaucer and a poem he wrote to celebrate the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia, in in particular this line from the poem known as Parlement of Foules.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
This makes even my spelling look good but here is the translation:
"For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."

Well this one line about birds getting all loved up really started the whole day of love that is the 14th of February. Chaucer wasn’t the only one that was fascinated by the private lives of Mr and Mrs Bird. It was *ahem* ‘fair game’ around this period of time with at least three other authors doing their own versions of fifty shades of feathers. So there you go, the day of love started out as badly spelt poems about ruffled feathers in the late 1300’s.
So a little of the myth, this St. Valentine was an early Christian priest who is reported to have broken Roman law by performing weddings for soldiers and for spreading the teachings of Christ. The story goes that the Roman Emperor at the time, Claudius II supposedly had this great idea that married men did not make good soldiers and so outlawed marriage as he sought to increase his army. Saint Valentine ignored this law and performed weddings and also cut heart shapes from parchment, giving them to the soldiers and other persecuted Christians. These hearts were a gentle reminder to his flock of God's love and to encourage them to remain faithful Christians.
Not surprisingly his action drew the attention of the authorities and he was dragged before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. (mental images of Monty Python’s life of Brian and Pilate shouting: Thwow him to the floor spring to mind.) Claudius was impressed by Valentine and made an offer that if he converted to Roman paganism he could live. Valentine refused to be swayed and tried to convert Claudius to Christianity instead. This wasn’t the smartest move he ever made and he was condemned to be executed. While awaiting his execution he performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. This act resulted in the jailer and his family converting to Christianity and they were all baptized. On the evening before Valentine was to be executed, he wrote a note to Julia, the first ever ‘valentine’ card, signing it as "Your Valentine."
Saint Valentine was buried in the Church of Praxedes in Rome, located near the cemetery of St Hippolytus. According to legend, Julia herself planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. The almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship to this day.

So why would the Romans not like and persecute this small religious cult and kill so many of its followers? Well look at things from the Roman point of view. These Christians were a sect from the Jewish faith and the Jews were not really in favour in Rome at the time. Added to this they refused to acknowledge the Roman religions and ways so were also seen as traitors. But here is the clincher, the actions that kept the arena lions fed. These Christians had secret rites but details were known, they met in secret and drank the blood of Jesus and ate his flesh. This Jesus, who was a criminal who had been executed but then rose from the dead. In the very heart of the Empire was a secret cult that was spreading its vile practices. The Roman people came to the only conclusion that fitted the known facts, the Empire was under attack from Vampires.

Well with so few facts know about this St’ Valentine I’m running with this idea as it fits the rumours of the day. The patron saint of love was a blood sucker and the Emperor Claudius II had his head chopped off to prevent him rising from his grave.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Why the Vampire heart throbs?

Why the Vampire heart throbs?

I have a personal dislike to Vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets
Lord Byron.

I begin with a quote from Lord Byron, why Byron and not Bram Stoker you ask? Well the start of English literature’s fascination with Vampires did not begin with Dracula. In 1819 John Polidori's wrote a novella, “The Vampyre”, this story established the archetype of a charismatic and sophisticated vampire into the western consciousness. Many believe that this was the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century, it inspired such works as “Varney the Vampire” and eventually the epic that is “Dracula”. Yet “The Vampyre” was not itself a starting point of Vampire literature but based on Lord Byron's unfinished story "Fragment of a Novel" that was published in 1819 without Byron’s permission. Byron started the story as part of a ghost writing contest in 1816 with Percy Bysshe Shelley. (This little contest would have a major impact on horror writing as it also led to the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.)

So why was there this interest in these ancient creatures of folklore? Well in the early 18th century there was an influx of vampire folklore into Western Europe from the Balkans and Eastern Europe as the grand tours began in Europe. The arrival of this vampire superstition into Western Europe led to some cases of mass hysteria resulting in corpses being staked and people being accused of being vampires. As the stories were told to a new audience fear and distrust took root, the stage was set for the story tellers to write their tales of terror and the vampire horror genre was born. But how did this terrifying creature that caused panic in 18th century Europe become the romantic heroes and the high school heart throbs of today’s stories?
A quick look at the history of Vampires will show the terror they invoked. In the middle ages the church classed them as minions of Satan and used this allegory to describe them.

"Just as a vampire takes a sinner's very spirit into itself by drinking his blood, so also can a righteous Christian by drinking Christ's blood take the divine spirit into himself."

The fear of these creatures was already set by the teaching of the church so when new stories arrived people listened just that bit harder.

The vampire myths, as we know them today originated in the folklore of Eastern Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. One of the earliest recorded vampire activities happened way back in 1672 in the region of Istria, in what is now Croatia. Reports at the time spoke of the village of Khring and the panic among the villagers there. A former peasant, Guire Grando who had died in 1656 was claimed by local villagers to have returned from the dead and begun to drink blood from people as well as sexually harassing his widow. The villages drove a stake through his heart, but that failed to stop him, so his body was beheaded and then the attacks stopped.

During the 18th century government officials were even engaged in hunting vampires and staking those bodies found. This ‘Age of Enlightenment’, when most folklore legends were dismissed saw the belief in vampires explode into the public consciousness. Mass hysteria took hold throughout most of Europe as people cowered in fear of the blood sucking creatures that stalked the night. Incidents involving vampires were well-documented as government officials examined the bodies and wrote case reports. The hysteria, commonly referred to as the "18th-Century Vampire Controversy", raged for a generation as books were published recording these official reports. Rural epidemics of these alleged vampire attacks saw locals digging up bodies to stake them as the terror continued. This ‘vampire controversy’ only ended after the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria dispatched her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, to investigate the claims of vampires praying on the living. After carrying out his investigation he concluded that vampires did not exist. The Empress then passed laws that prohibited the opening of graves and desecration of bodies and the panic finally passed.

So how did vampires change from the creatures that terrified the whole of Europe to some teenage high school student that sparkles in the sun? Is it all down to recent Hollywood movies and American T.V. shows that changed the myths of vampires and brought them into the daylight?

Well if we start with the gothic horror masterpiece that is ‘Dracula’ we can see the start of the humanisation of Vampires was even present there. Published in 1897 the story is based around a love triangle between Dracula, Mina and Jonathan. Dracula is a man condemned to become a vampire because of his reaction to a lost love. His aim in the story is to win the heart of a woman he recognises as his lost love but she is engaged to another. Even at this early stage at the beginning of the vampire journey into literature we have the introduction of romance and vampires seeing people as more than just food.
So is it any wonder that the modern vampire has evolved into what many see as fangless veggie vampires, teenage immortals getting crushes on their class mates? They have left the shadows of night behind and walk in the daylight losing their power to scare us. They are now moody emo-vampires that appeal to a new audience that don’t want to be terrified but to fall in love. We are drawn to their immortality and freedom but then we fill it with morals, only feeding on bottled blood or killing only the bad guys. We seek to tame the killer and make them acceptable. We may love our vampires but only if they have a very human set of morals so they are not heartless killers who see us as their next snack.
Vampires today have become pale shadows of their beginings and unless they are cast as a villainous monsters (30 days of night, a rare return to the folklore vampire.) they need a love interest and to show their brooding human sides with smouldering looks and the odd bit of action to show their strength. Even the action hero Vampire (Blade, Underworld) are not true blood suckers and do not kill to feed, the vampire world has become safe for humans to enter.

An exception to these new rules are the books of Anne Rice, seen by many as the greatest living author of vampire horror. With her vampires we still have vampires battling and searching out their personal ‘humanity’, questioning who and what they are but the essence of their past remains. In ‘Interview with the Vampire’ Louis is the new vampire, still remembering his human side, battling his instincts and morality while Lestat is the monster unleashed, totally amoral and enjoying his life. The two represent different sides of the creature evolution, the humanised Vampire of modern literature and what vampires once were, a terrifying amoral monster that killed without thought. In Lestat we have a vampire that is in essence what he should be, a killer that enjoys being what he is.

So where does that leave a would be story teller with a vampire story, does he go for the modern safe version of a vampire and write a glorified love story or delve back into the time when a vampire had no use for people beyond dinner? Is there a market for a killer vampire that is cast in the lead role and doesn’t fall in love?
Maybe my idea of a vampire comedy about a cross dressing teenage vampire that kills without remorse is no dafter than a vampire who lives in the woods and sparkles. After all how many years could you take the same classes and not have the teacher notice you are there again and not looking any different to when the teacher was fresh out of training collage thirty years before. My vampire Eloim may be a daft series of short stories but he knows what his fangs are for and would see high school as just an all you can eat restaurant.