by Kevin Blood
Silent and dark is the night… the frightened, pale, face of a young boy stares out of the darkness, bathed in the lambent glow of a Cathode-ray tube, horrified, unable to tear his eyes away from the ghastly sights, he trembles, unwilling to cover his ears so as not hear the blood-curdling screams, he bites his lip, the vile things that have plagued his dreams for years are there on the screen, in the room, ravenous, insatiable, unstoppable,… zombies.
A fair description of a much younger me as I watched George A. Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985). Yes, I loved watching horror films and reading horror stories, old ones or new ones, it mattered little; images and descriptions of zombies, werewolves, vampires and ghouls held a spell-binding effect over me: they still do. I and many other moderns love horror, and at this time of year, with Halloween knocking on the door, we can indulge our yen for the demonic, spectral and unspeakable.
It is fair to say that a grim fascination and thrilling enjoyment with scenes of horror, gore, blood and guts, was something the ancient Greeks shared with us, they had their fair share of hideous monsters and terrifying tales to keep them awake in the wee, small, hours of the night.
Festivals of the dead were an important part of ancient Greek religion. One such festival was the Anthesteria, a festival of Dionysus, which happened over three days, the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth days of the month Anthesterion (roughly February – March). It involved: on first day the ceremonial opening of the vats of new wine that had been laid down the previous autumn; and on the second day copious drinking and ritual marriage and sexual intercourse between Dionysos, represented by the King Archon, and his ‘Queen’ (Basilinna, the King Archon’s wife); it was on the third day, the day of the cooking pots (Khytroi), when a mixture of vegetables cooked in these pots was offered to Hermes Psykhopompos (Conveyor of Souls), because on this day the souls of the dead held sway, and were thought to arise from Hades and roam the earth among the living – who took the precautions of daubing their doorways with pitch and locking up the sanctuaries to keep them at bay. At the day’s end, the spirits were expelled back to Hades again, with the cry of ‘ Get out, hobgoblins, the Anthesteria is over!’ sounding in their ghostly ears.
The spirits of the dead could arise from Hades and in Greek mythology, the living could take the grim journey down to the underworld (Katabasis). One such journey is described in Book XI of the Odyssey. It is fair to say, Homer does not paint a rosy picture of life after death, Odysseus’ trip to Hades is not sunshine and lollipops! He goes there seeking the spirit of the blind seer Tiresias, to whom he must make a blood-sacrifice of a black ram, it is he who will tell him how to return to his beloved Ithaca.
Picture the scene in the banqueting hall as the bard spins the tale in the lamplight… Odysseus offers solemn prayers and sacrifices to the dead, the last being a blood-sacrifice, cutting a ram’s throat and allowing the victim’s blood flow into a trench. He is terrified as the spirits of the ‘strengthless’ dead come flocking to the trench to drink the flowing blood, he holds them back, sword in hand, waiting for Tiresias. Tiresias’ ghost arrives, laps the blood, gains strength, and delivers true prophecy, telling Odysseus what he wants to know, adding that should he wish to question any of the other spirits he must let them drink the blood and they will speak only the truth. It is then that long suffering Odysseus sees the spirit of his mother, who was alive when he left Ithaca; distraught, he seeks news of home and bids mommy dearest approach and drink her gory fill. Grimly fascinated, he goes on to question myriad other spirits, until, he tells the audience, ‘the countless company of the dead came gathering with an eerie noise, and terror took its pale grip on me – fear that queen Persephone might send against me out of Hades the head of the terrible monster Gorgon.’
Odysseus, though brave, is no fool, and Homer’s audience would recognise his terror of the dreadful Gorgon. The female figure of the Gorgon is one of the oldest in Greek mythology, with descriptions and depictions dating back to the Bronze Age. In early descriptions, to look upon the grim visage of the Gorgon was to be petrified with fear. Gorgons were often depicted with fierce, staring, eyes, serpentine hair, with snakes emanating from a belt around the waist, broad mouths, with tongues protruding from between large dangerous looking teeth, tusks like a boar, flared nostrils, and sometimes with short, rough beards.
‘Definitely a candlelight date!’
Such was the belief in the dread power of the Gorgon’s gaze, archaeologists have found it on the exterior of important buildings, like temples, and shields. Such a shield is described in Iliad (Book XI), carried into battle by Agamemnon, in revenge for the abduction of his brother’s wife by Paris, the Grogon is accompanied on the shield by depictions of ‘Terror and Panic on either side’.
Vengeance for murder was the concern of the Furies (or Erinyes), a dread trio of sisters who exacted blood-vengeance on murderers and swearers of false oaths. The origin story, told in Hesiod’s Theogony, of the sisters is one steeped in gory detail, a tale of cosmic-horror and mutilation, fit for any slasher flick. A story of the separation of Earth (Gaia) and Sky (Ouranos) after their incestuous sexual union, a union which resulted in the conception of the twelve Titans and Titanesses, three Kyklopes (Cyclopes) and three Hundred – Armers. Ouranos, wary of the power of their offspring, covers Gaia; preventing their children from seeing the light of day. Gaia, not to be oppressed, fashions a sickle of hardest adamant, giving it to the youngest, Titan, ‘crooked-schemer’, Kronos (Time), ‘who loathed his lusty father’. Kronos rose up and castrated Ouranos, separating earth and sky, freeing his mother and siblings. From the drops of blood which fell to the earth the Erinyes were born.
Descriptions and depictions of the sisters vary, the scariest of which describe them as creatures of the night, crones, with snakes for hair, blackened bodies, wings, and blood-shot eyes; they carry brass-studded scourges to torment their victims, whom they, remorselessly, pursue and kill.
The Furies play a major role in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, they relentlessly chase Orestes for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra; they describe themselves thus : ‘For this our care: resourceful we are, and we bring to fulfilment, remembering sin, awesome, implacable to mortal men, pursuit our allotted role, yet dishonoured and kept separate from the gods, in slime without sunlight, on a path hard and rocky for seeing and sightless eyes alike’.
Vengeance rears its head elsewhere in Greek myth, in the Odyssey. Homer’s Odysseus, in an act of revenge for murder, leaves Polyphemus, the Cyclops, sightless, when he drives a hardened stake into his monstrous eye.
There are different versions of the myth of the Cyclopes, we touched on the Hesiodic version, in which the Cyclopes are giant, craftsmen, who fashion Zeus’ thunderbolt, with which he overthrows Kronos and the other Titans. They are willing servants of the gods, of giant size, possessing one eye in the centre of the forehead, strong and fiery, skilled craftsmen.
The Homeric Cyclopes, are of a different ilk, they are uncivilized – still giant and ferocious, but they live on earth – at the edges of Ocean; they are not skilled craftsmen, but shepherds, proud, coarse and lawless; they do not fear the gods and they know nothing of agriculture or craftsmanship.
Odysseus and his men fall afoul of Polyphemus – who inverts the Greek custom of welcoming strangers with food and shelter, instead imprisoning them and making a meal of some of them.
Odysseus describes the killing and devouring of his men and the crudeness of Polyphemus: ‘He snatched up two together and smashed them on the ground like puppies: their brains ran out and soaked the earth. Then he tore them limb from limb and made them his supper. And he ate them like a mountain lion, leaving nothing – guts, flesh, bones and marrow.’ Later, when Odysseus gets him drunk, so as to make his escape, he passes out and wine ‘and gobbets of human flesh came spewing from his throat as he vomited in a stupor of drink’ (Book IX).
‘George A. Romero eat your heart out!’