Studies in Skyrim: Vampirism Yesterday and Today

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When your Skyrim character becomes a vampire, their skin becomes deathly pale and their eyes turn an otherworldly orange.

In the Elder Scrolls video game series, there are many fantastical creatures and monsters inhabiting the world, both friendly and hostile to the player character. One of these monsters (or perhaps that’s a bit too judgemental?) is the vampire, whose curse (or blessing?) is passed to others through a disease called “sanguinare vampiris”, also known as “porphyric hemophilia” in earlier games. The player character can become infected with this disease and become a “creature of the night”, obtaining all the advantages and disadvantages of vampirism.

Vampire lore was elaborated on extensively in Skyrim, specifically through the downloadable content Dawnguard, which places the player character in the middle of a conflict between vampires and vampire hunters. In this DLC, it is explained that there are many individual clans of vampires across the world, with the most powerful vampires known as “pure-bloods”. A pure-blooded vampire will have been granted their powers from the Daedric Prince (basically one of the Elder Scrolls deities) Molag Bal directly. The DLC also introduced the “Vampire Lord” form – this is considered the ultimate form of vampirism and is usually a power that only pure-blooded vampires have.

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The Dawnguard DLC reveals that one can become a “Vampire Lord”, which completely transforms the body into a powerful creature of the night.

The idea of the “vampire” is a relatively old one, of course. In Europe, it seems that vampirism became a topic of interest during the 18th century, with the word “vampire” officially entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1734. Many early stories of vampires appear to have originated from German and Slavic folklore, although there are many instances of vampire-like creatures in stories around the world (Barber 1988).

Literature and film eventually created what we may consider today to be the “archetypal vampire” – Polidori’s The Vampyre, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula provided the textual background for the modern day vampire, while F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula ultimately solidified the visual characteristics associated with the monster that are still used to this day. However, we still occasionally get new “twists” on the old formula in popular culture – from “sexy, brooding vampires” (see Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles series or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) to more hilarious takes on vampire culture (see Jermaine Clement and Taika Watiti’s mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows).

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A digital recreation of how some “vampire burials” would place a stone or brick into the mouth of the dead (Image Credit: Matteo Borrini)

But what about vampires in archaeology? We already looked at lycanthropes in the archaeological record – can we find vampires as well?

Well…kinda.

When it comes to “deviant” burials, or burials that differ from normative burial practices, it’s easy to draw negative assumptions of the deceased, particularly when combined with “flights of fancy” of local folklore. Among these deviant burials, many have been interpreted as possible “anti-vampire burials”; this was a term first used in 1971 off-handedly by Helena Zol-Adamikowa and eventually popularised throughout Slavic archaeological literature to refer to most burials that defied funerary norms (Hodgson 2013).

Some of the various evidence used to support these “anti-vampire burials” include protective burial goods (like sickles), stones left atop of bodies, stakes or knives stabbed through the chest, decapitations, and, perhaps one of the more prolific examples, stones or bricks placed within the mouth of the deceased (Barrowclough 2014).

While there are undoubtedly examples of how pervasive the idea of vampires or, more generally, the undead were throughout folklore in “deviant” burials, there should also be a bit of caution in generalising all non-normative burials in this way, of course! There has been plenty of debate even regarding the evidence mentioned above. But perhaps the most solid thing to come out of all of this archaeological research is how such abstract concepts can ultimately be reflected in the material culture that remains.

Oh, and that apparently if you run into a vampire, you should definitely stuff a brick in their mouth.

References

Barber, P. (1988) Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. Yale University Press.

Barrowclough, D. (2014) Time to Slay Vampire Burials? The Archaeological and Historical Evidence for Vampires

Bethesda Game Studios. (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Hodgson, J.E. (2013) ‘Deviant’ Burials in Archaeology. Anthropology Publications. 58. pp. 1-24.

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Studies in Skyrim: Werewolf? Therewolf! Can We Find Lycanthropy in Archaeology?

Content Warning: Photo of human remains included in this post.

“Legends can take a life of their own, particularly when there are grains of truth, as here we have the very real threat of werewolves”

Lycanthropic Legends of Skyrim, Lentulus Invenitus

Werewolves

In the world of Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), werewolves (and other lyncanthropes – for example, were-bears!) exist. Within the lore of the game, lycanthropy was created by the Daedric Prince (in the Elder Scrolls universe, the Daedric Princes are basically deities) of the Hunt, Hircine. The power to transform into a werewolf is seen as both a blessing and a curse to some characters – while the player can meet unfortunate souls who are tormented by their beastly curse, there are others, such as the Companions, who use and spread their power as a gift to members of their group. Regardless, nearly all non-playable characters within the game will be fearful and hostile of werewolves, illustrating a deep fear of such beasts embedded into Skyrim‘s culture.

In the real world, werewolves can’t be found in person as easily as they can be in Skyrim, but they are still prevalent in both myth and media. From the 1941 film The Wolf Man to the 2011 television hit series Teen Wolf, the werewolf has a long history of terrorising people, from our imaginations to the big screen. Werewolves can be found in the folklore of many cultures across the world, with a rich history that stretches as far as ancient Greece. In general, a werewolf is defined as a person who has transformed into a wolf – however, effects of the moon (i.e; full moon transformations) and particular powers vary across myths (Beresford 2013).

Most of this information has been derived from studying written texts and oral histories. But can we see this in the material culture of the past? Not necessarily in the guise of the “werewolf” that modern audiences are familiar with…but perhaps we can explore the individual elements that, together, create the werewolf of popular fiction.

The Ardross Wolf, a Pictish stone carved with the image of a wolf. (Photo Credit: The Highland Council, Museum and Art Gallery)

Wolves are not uncommon as artefactual iconography – across many cultures, one can find wolf motifs decorated various objects and ornamentation. For example, there are many instances of wolves depicted on artefacts of warfare in Iron Age Europe – from the rare carnyx (Celtic trumpet used in war) created to look like the head of a wolf, to armour decorated with ferocious animals of the wild, including wolves. There are also examples of wolf iconography on other artefacts, usually depicting the wolf in a natural scene, such as in the pursuit of prey, or as the victim of hunting by humans. Whether in war and peace, it can be argued that depictions of the wolf are centred on similar traits: wild and dangerous.

A burial from the Aztec’s Great Temple that included the remains of a wolf alongside gold artefacts (Photo Credit: Mirsa Islas, Templo Mayor Project)

Actual skeletal remains of wolves are, of course, found as part of the overall environmental narrative found within certain archaeological contexts. In many places, such as Great Britain, wolves are extinct, which makes the recovery of their remains an interesting development for interpretation. More interesting, perhaps, are examples in which there is evidence of the utilisation of wolf remains. During the Iron Age in Europe, there is some evidence that suggests that wolves were hunted and then eventually used as ornamentation, such as the perforated wolf teeth found at the site of Choisy-au-Bac in France. Recently, excavations at an Aztec temple in Mexico City has recovered the remains of a wolf surrounded by a large collection of golden artefacts – the current interpretation is that the wolf was part of an offering, and was adorned in gold prior to burial (Garcia 2017). Additionally, excavations in parts of Siberia have found wolves that had been buried in a manner similar to what would have been afforded to humans, suggesting that wolves and humans were considered similar in some aspect – perhaps similar to the kinship felt between dogs and humans (Hill 2013)?

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A panel from the Gundestrup Cauldron showing a Wheel God surrounded by various hybrid animals (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

If we consider the “werewolf” as a sort of hybrid creature, more archaeological material becomes available for consideration. Instances of hybrid creatures iconography are often associated with folklore and mythology – take, for instance, Medieval bestiaries or Egyptian statuary depicting sphinxes. The Gundestrup cauldron, a “cult cauldron” from Iron Age Denmark, is covered with an entire zoo of faunal iconography, both real and fantastical. These animals are portrayed with figures that have been interpreted as gods, thereby suggesting the religious significance of the artefact. Some of the more fantastical creatures are hybrids, including winged horse-like beasts and serpents with ram horns (Green 1998).

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The remains of an adult female buried with horse and cow remains from “Duropolis” in Dorset, England (Photo Credit: Bournemouth University)

As for skeletal remains, one can argue that we do see “hybrids” in the form of mixed assemblages of human and faunal bones – but it must be stressed that it does not mean that all instances of mixed burials represent ideas of hybrid creatures (although there are examples of what may be intentional hybridisation!). Instead, it may be more beneficial to examine these burials as possibly representative of ancient cosmological ideas regarding animals, or alternatively, how humans at the time related to the animals deposited alongside human remains. There are many examples of these mixed burials in archaeology, sometimes referred to as “special deposits” or “associated bone groups” and often considered part of ritual. The Iron Age site of Danebury is especially noteworthy for mixed burials of human and faunal remains recovered from pits, possibly used for rituals of fertility and renewal (Cunliffe 1992, Hill 1995).

So, okay…maybe we can’t find werewolves in archaeology (although please let me know if there are actual instances of lycanthropic iconography that I’ve missed!). But it did provide an excellent exercise in thoroughly investigating a concept by isolated certain elements of it, which is often an important aspect of developing archaeological interpretations. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for future archaeologists, modern day pop culture will certainly leave behind many instances of werewolf memorabilia to uncover.

References

Anonymous. (2016) Werewolf (Skyrim). Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Werewolf_(Skyrim)

Beresford, M. (2013) The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture. Reaktion Books.

Bethesda Game Studios. (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Cunliffe, B. (1992) Pits, Preconceptions, and Propitiation in  the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11 (1). pp. 69-83.

Garcia, D.A. (2017) Aztec Golden Wolf Sacrifice Yields Rich Trove in Mexico City. Reuters.

Green, M. (1998) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.

Hill, E. (2013) Archaeology and Animal Persons: Towards a Prehistory of Human-Animal Relations. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4. pp. 117-136.

Hill, J.D. (1995) Ritual and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex: a Study of the Formation of a Specific Archaeological Record. Archaeopress.