28 June 2010


Gillian Bennett. Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease and Death in Contemporary Legend. University Press of Mississipi, 2005

Though some time has elapsed since this book was published, it has only just come to my attention and is sufficiently important to note. In many respects this book marks a sharp contrast to Gillian Bennett's first book Traditions of Belief. which looked at the ghostlore of middle aged women in Greater Manchester, rather gentle and comforting traditions and experiences. This volume, to the contrary, deals with the dark side of contemporary legend.
Such legends are often presented as forms of comic entertainment, but as Gillian Bennett points out these stories are far from comic, entertaining or the stuff of gentle childhood tales. They are narratives of fear, hate and prejudice with the power to damage and even take lives.

Bennett deals with a series of dark and often subtly interconnected themes, such as stories of the 'bosom serpent', tales which involve the ingestion of some foreign body, usually a live one, such as a snake or insect, which proceeds in some way to eat up its victim from the inside; or the 'deadly fair thing', typified by the posh dress which has come off a corpse and which kills its new live wearer by seeping embalming fluid into her body.

This leads Bennett into a general examination of the whole range of legends of woman as polluter and destroyer. Related to that is a second range of stories of deadly sex, the person who deliberately infects others with an incurable, usually sexually transmitted disease, today most often AIDS. Another set of dark tales consist of the reverse of the prodigal son, a returning son who comes home wealthy but in disguise, but is murdered by his own parents, thinking him a rich stranger.

Thus to perhaps the darkest tales of all, those which tell of the desperate doings of the terrible Others, the foreigners who stalk the land trying to steal our, or our children's organs, to the bloody Blood Libels told against the Jews, onwards to the vision of the murdering anti-society.

All these themes Bennett traces backwards, showing that they are persistent narratives in the human imagination, and echo around certain common themes, that of pollution, loss of bodily integrity, the contaminating presence of the dead, the grim vengeance of fate, fear of strangers, and fear of being dragged back into the wilderness.

Bennett is rather sceptical of grand psycho-sexual explanations, but this sort of material can be very tempting. Two themes seem to run through them, fear of the wilderness and fear of death. The bosom serpent tales suggest that some secret wild thing has been ingested into the very core of the victim's being, turning them into something other (the serpent tales often stress the inordinate but unsatisfying appetite of the victim); the honey trap dress and related tales hint at the envy of the dead, who seek to take the living into their own realm - it is as if the dead have given something of their own in order to lure the living into their realm.

Those who stalk the land, infecting us with their own death, seeking our own vital life-giving organs, draining our blood, are also the dead, now represented by those in the liminal state between life and death (the person dying of AIDS or organ failure for example) In the closely related alien abduction legends, not covered by Bennett, the 'aliens' are often portrayed as having many aspects of the dead about them and come from a dead or dying wasteland, and in need of the life and emotions of the truly living. In the blood legends the Other becomes cognate with the dead (note for example that medieval Christians often regarded Judaism as a dead religion, superseded by the living Christ).

In some ways the most anomalous tale in this collection, that of the returning son murdered by his parents, contains echoes of the return from the dead. Perhaps in some original version the son really is some unholy revenant, who by playing a trick on the parents, tempts them to the worst possible crime, and thus ensures their damnation. Though this tale has been incorporated into high art it no longer features in modern lore, perhaps it is too contrived. A more plausible modern version would perhaps involve a drunken driver running down and killing their own child,

The realm of the Other is also the realm of the absolute wilderness, the demonic anti-society at the heart of the witchcraft fears ancient and modern; the cannibalistic, baby-killing, incestuous, promiscuous chaos, represents the rejection of all the values which make humans human. They become the realm of the totally antihuman, a regression to a wilderness which is not part of any orderly ecosphere, but a realm of total formless chaos.

The fears of sexuality lie not only in the misogynist portrayal of women as insatiable forces of wild nature, but in a recognition of the ambivalent status of reproduction itself, for every child born, someone has to die to make room for them life and death, creation and destruction are one and the same thing.

Bennett warns us not to automatically assume that the subjects of contemporary legend are false, and folklorists not to set themselves up as debunkers. The contents of the stories may be usually false, but they point to ancient and dark places. There really are ghosts and boggarts and horrors, dead things which clutch out to the living, wild things which seek to destroy the ordered world. Many of these stories, reeking of misogyny, homophobia, racism, all sorts of dead and decaying hates and fears which won't lie down, are themselves the pollutants, the snake in the gut, the poisoned honey, the corrupting, destroying, walking dead. -- Peter Rogerson.

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