In 1988, folklorist Paul Barber published an excellent book about vampire belief, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. In it he posits that historical belief in vampires and revenants depended, at least in part, on ignorance of the ways illness is transmitted and the ways dead bodies can decay. In looking at accounts of vampires, he separates actual observation of the bodies of alleged vampires from interpretations based on observation. For instance, according to the official report on suspected vampire Peter Plogojowitz:
Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. (Barber’s translation, Vampires 6)
The blood–or reddish liquid–is an actual observation. The assumption that the blood comes from the vampire’s victims is an interpretation of the physical evidence. This method works very well when Barber is discussing eye-witness accounts. If there is a weakness to the book, it is a tendency to treat all accounts equally: Barber applies the same method to literary works as he does for official accounts. For example, he makes several references to draugar, the undead of Old Norse sagas, particularly Glámr, an especially nasty draugr who appears in Grettis saga:
[While the appearance of Glam’s corpse resembles that of vampires, his] activities have little in common with the vampire, because he robs people not of their blood but of their consciousness and their sanity, merely by appearing, diurnally as well as nocturnally, in their presence. Note the the disparity between the assertion and the evidence: we are told that “terrible things happened,” but they consist solely of someone walking about or beating his heels against a roof. (Vampires 85)
This is an oddly cherry-picked account of Glam’s activities. He also kills both animals and people, sometimes breaking every bone in their bodies. The battle between Glam and the protagonist Grettir is described at some length and is very similar to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Before Grettir cuts off Glam’s head and burns his body, Glam makes a speech, cursing Grettir. There is no naturalistic explanation for this corpse’s behavior, and it can’t be dismissed as an interpretation of physical evidence. Glam’s activity is integral to the story and crucial to the formation and understanding of Grettir’s character.
Sadly, this minor flaw has become the foundation of When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, co-written by Barber and his wife, archeologist and linguist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This book has garnered a certain amount of interest among skeptics: Michael Shermer reviewed it for American Scientist and invited Wayland Barber to speak as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series. According to the blurb on the lecture’s video:
How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don’t exist? Strange though they sound, however, these “myths” did not begin as fiction. Barber shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies.
Considering their focus on oral cultures, the very short-shrift the Barbers give to some of the most important scholars of oral tradition is somewhat disturbing. Neither Walter Ong nor his extremely influential book Orality and Literacy merit a mention. Nor do Eric A. Havelock or John Miles Foley. Even Milman Parry and Alfred Lord receive only the briefest of mentions, and Lord’s monumentally important work, The Singer of Tales, is not mentioned at all. On the other hand, they seriously cite other works of a slightly more fringey nature, such as Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.
In seeking to find explanations for mythological stories in natural phenomena or real events, they seem to give credence to highly questionable tales. Take, for instance, their discussion of the Golden Calf: “What’s that all about? Why a calf?” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3). They gently nudge us toward the correct answer through the Socratic method:
Where had the Children of Israel been living? In Egypt, of course–the country from which they were escaping after centuries of servitude. One can reasonably conjecture that in all that time they had absorbed something of their captors’ culture. (Barber and Barber, chap. 3)
The Golden Calf, they suggest, derives from the Egyptian conception of the sky as a giant cow-goddess, “which could well have been known by folk who had lived in ancient Egypt for centuries. . . . In worshipping [sic] a Golden Calf at dawn, the Children of Israel would simply be reverting to Egyptian sun-worship: they were probably relieved that the sun finally came up, after all that thundering during the night” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3).
They seem to be suggesting that the story of the Exodus is historically true to some significant degree: the Children of Israel were kept enslaved in Egypt; they escaped during a time of dark portents; they wandered in the desert, and, in difficult times, they began to worship the deities of their captors.
There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this: the stunning lack of documentary, historical or archeological evidence that a large number of Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they wandered through the desert for forty years.
The Barbers make a number of dubious arguments (flood stories are really about the precession of the equinoxes), and, even when there may be some truth to their theories, their interpretations are monolithic and reductive, suggesting that there is a single source for a given myth, a single answer to a complex question.
In the last chapter, they discuss fire-breathing dragons, including the one in Beowulf. According to the Barbers, there is no dragon in Beowulf. I imagine that this would come as rather a shock to the poet, who went to such great pains to tell us about the dragon. The Barbers summarize the story and then use “the stripping procedure,” isolating actual “observations” and removing the “explanations,” as Paul Barber does in his vampire book. But how do you decide which are actual observations and which are added explanations in a poem? Apparently, you remove anything that doesn’t agree with your theory. Here are the “observations” that are left after they’ve stripped away the “explanations”:
(1) Someone steals a cup from an old barrow.
(2) Fire erupts from the barrow and spreads.
(3) Near the stone entrance, our hero stabs blindly at the source of flames while shielding himself (ineffectively) from them.
(4) It smells bad.
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes out.
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a dragon’s body. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)
One might argue that the Barbers themselves are adding “explanations” when they say that Beowulf stabbed “blindly,” and they have certainly left out a whole lot of detail. Why, they’ve left out an entire dragon.
They argue that the “dragon” is merely ignited gases produced by decomposition in a tomb that had been sealed until broken into by a thief:
We don’t know the dragon’s appearance, however, because while it’s alive all you can see is flame and once the fire is out there is nothing left. No one ever saw it–they saw only flames and smelled a bad smell. The dragon must be a figment of Explanation: a Willer invisible except for its fiery exhalations, postulated to explain the presence of that barrier of flames. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)
Except that’s not exactly true. The dragon is not visually described in detail, but it is described. It is referred to several times as coiled (hringbogan, l. 2561, coiled creature; ða se wyrm gebeah/snude tosomne, ll. 2567b-2568a, then the worm quickly coiled itself together; Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,/to geschipe scyndan, ll. 2569-2570, then, coiled in burning, it went gliding, rushed to its fate).
The Barbers’ argument rests, to a large degree, on the argument that the dragon’s body seems to disappear–that it is nowhere to be seen when Wiglaf, Beowulf’s young kinsmen who came to Beowulf’s assistance in the battle, inspects the hoard:
Næs ðæs wyrmes þær
onsyn ænig, ac hyne ecg fornam. (ll. 2771b-2772)
As they translate it, “not of the Worm was there any sign, for him the [blade’s] edge had destroyed.” In slightly simpler language: “There was no sight of the worm there, for the sword had carried him off.” Does this mean the corpse had disappeared? Does it mean there never was a dragon. Well, according to the Barbers,
The storykeepers are so sure that a tangible creature must have existed that, four hundred lines later, the poet hedges his bets by explaining the lack of dragon bones a second and contradictory way. When the frightened retainers returned, he says, they pillaged the mound, “shoved the dragon, the Worm, over the cliff, let the wave take–the flood enfold–the guardian of the treasure” [ll. 3131-3133] then carried the dead king to his pyre. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)
So, that would be a “no.” The poem mentions the corpse and what happens to it. Okay, so we have two passages: one says there’s no dragon body; the other says there is. The Barbers identify this as a contradiction and explain the latter passage as “explanation,” an interpretation rather than an observation. And, of course, they are the arbiters of which is which. Now no one claims that Beowulf is free of inconsistencies or contradictions, but I’m not really sure this is a good example. Let’s look at another passage:
Bona swylce læg,
egeslic eorðdraca ealdre bereafod,
bealwe gebæded. Beahhordum leng
wyrm wohbogen wealdan ne moste,
ac him irenna ecga fornamon,
hearde heaðoscerpe homera lafe,
þæt se widfloga wundum stille
hreas on hrusan hordærne neah.
Nalles æfter lyfte lacende hwearf
middelnihtum, maðmæhta wlonc
ansyn ywde, ac he eorðan gefeoll
for ðæs hildfruman hondgeweorce. (ll. 2824b-2835)
[Beowulf’s] slayer also lay dead, the terrible earth-dragon, bereft of life, oppressed by evil. The coiled worm could no longer control the ring-hoard, for iron edges had carried him off, hard battle-sharp remnant of hammers, so that the far-flyer, stilled by wounds, fell on the ground near the hoard. Not at all did he go flying through the air in the middle of the night, glorying in treasures, showing his form, but rather, he fell to the earth on account of the handiwork of the war-chief.
For three hundred years, no one could inspect the hoard, in part because no one knew it was there, but also because there was a big old dragon lying on it. Wiglaf, however, is able to examine the hoard and bring back selected items to show the dying Beowulf because the two of them had killed the dragon. The passage above says that the dragon fell dead near the hoard. Near it, not on it. Wiglaf can inspect the hoard because the dragon is lying dead nearby. He is not on the hoard as he had been for the last three hundred years.
The passage above makes it quite clear that there is a dead dragon lying around: bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-dragon!
Is it possible that marsh gases from sealed graves played a role in the evolution of the fire-breathing dragon? Maybe, but I think it’s clear that there is more to the story than this. More importantly though, the Barbers “strip down” Beowulf to a point that it is no longer Beowulf. They are not simply removing interpretation from observation, as Paul Barber did in his examination of official accounts of vampire exhumations. They are stripping away anything that doesn’t fit their theory and overemphasizing anything that they think does support their ideas. They are cherry-picking and, to a large extent, they are telling their own story, not the one the Anglo-Saxon poet told.
I recently wrote about the ways some Young Earth Creationists interpret the monsters in Beowulf to support their worldview. What the Barbers are doing seems precious little better. Unlike the Creationists, though, they are real scholars–they should do better.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Paul T. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton UP, 2004. Kindle edition. No page numbers.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Skeptics Society Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series, California Institute of Technology, Mar. 6, 2005. DVD.
Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight and Finnsburg. 4th ed. ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. U of Toronto P, 2008. All translations are mine, except where indicated.
Siebert, Eve. “Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My: Creationist Interpretations of Beowulf.” Skeptical Inquirer Jan./Feb. 2013.