Friday, 31 January 2014

Sacred Vampirism in the Child Ballads

If anyone ever wants to buy me a present - and has a few hundred quid to spare on it - I wouldn't say no to a full text, hard copy of Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. A online version can be found on the superlative Sacred Texts website, but while this is arguably more practical for my daily researching needs, it does not have Child's notes, nor can it replace that calm, reassuring weight of the blue cloth volumes, the smell of the paper, or the joy you can get by just flicking through the pages and seeing what you can see.

That's how I came across 'Leesome Brand' (Child15), one of those little curios that lodges in your brain, needling you. Child recorded only two versions of it, and, although they share some motifs, B is much more like 'Sheath and Knife' (Child16) than it is like Child15A.

The story is.... odd. It begins with a mother lamenting that her son Leesome Brand left home at a young age (ten or younger), going to a strange land where the wind doesn't blow and the cocks do not crow. In this land he meets a girl who - despite being improbably young (eleven or younger) - is sexually active. When it became clear she is heavily with child, she and Leesome Brand steal some stuff (horses and her dowry) and flee her father's hall.

As they are riding through the forest, the girl goes into labour with that much used and wonderfully resonant declaration that her "back will gang in three!" After a little discussion about the distance from the town and the unavailability of a midwife, Leesome Brand offers to deliver the baby: The girl tells him to go off hunting because childbirth is women's business. Still, she gives the caveat that whilst he can kill whatever he wants, he mustn't touch the white hind, because the white hind is a woman. 

Enjoying himself hunting, he forgets about the girl until he sees the white hind. Racing back to where he left her, he finds her dead, the baby lying beside her (also dead?). He returns to his mother's hall, where she, overjoyed at his return, asks the reason for his dejection. He says he has lost a golden knife and its far more valuable golden sheath (if I had to pick one thing I love most about folk songs, it would be the unsubtlety of their sexual metaphors), but after crude symbolism proves inadequate, he explains that the lady he loves is dead, as is the son she had borne him.

What happens next is, strictly speaking, a relic miracle. Leesome Brand's mother has three drops of St Paul's blood, which, splashed upon the bodies, will restore them to life. Leesome Brand does this, and the woman and child are reborn,

as lively [..], 
As the first day he brought them hame.

 Now, I could spend years picking my way through this. Such a dark little ballad of love, of neglect, of loss. There is a lot about childbirth, about the relative statuses and antagonisms between women.  Like in 'Gil Brenton', another ballad that haunts me, the initially hostile mother-in law becomes the agent of her daughter-in-law's restoration. There is a lot about pre-marital sex and legitimacy. There is magic; both that which works (the blood) and that which does not (the White Hind).

Besides, the story is so poignant. That sense of lament, the mother's lament, the lover's lament...  Leesome Brand's support of the woman he loves, and how despite that love, his powerlessness to help her, even to understand her... Actually, it got to me so much I used a verse as an epigraph in Time's Fool, my own little tale of uncrossable gulfs.

And vampirism, of course.

Because it has to be blood, doesn't it? This isn't a prayer to Saint Thomas at Canterbury, it isn't a fragment of the True Cross (what better symbol of resurrection?) it is the blood of Saint Paul, the one who some traditions claim was crucified upside-down. What is more, it isn't merely contact with the relic that restores the life. The ballad is specific: three drops of blood - two for the mother, one for the son.

Christian tradition has a very conflicted view regarding blood, self mutilation and bodily injury.  On the one hand, it has inherited the (frequent) Old Testament injunctions against eating the blood with the meat, as well as Leviticus 19:28 ("You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead"). On the other, it is a religion based upon martyrdom. Christians are redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb - the sacrament is (depending on your denomination) either literally, symbolically, or well-a-little-of-both, the blood of Jesus.  

The blood of saints, too, is powerful. The rituals of physical penance are often cited in the lives of Saints as a mark of holiness. It has been the cause of much worry in the church that the drawing of blood is seen as a visible mark of holiness. To be fair, when relics are venerated, what is more powerful than the blood? After all "the blood is the life" (Deuteronomy 12:23). After Becket's martyrdom, handkerchiefs soaked in his blood were sold as miraculous relics. 

But relics - at least in my limited understanding of these things - are incorruptible. Their power, coming as it does from sacred sources, is not diminished by their use. The sacrament renews with each consecration. The blood has been once spilt - to squander it would be sacrilege.

And, of course, there is the infamous 'Black Mass', where - one is told -  the cross upon the altar was inverted and human blood drunk from the chalice. Witches had familiars who came and suckled at their veins, giving them power over these humans, giving these humans powers beyond their lot. The promise of vampirism is the same: drink the blood of the right person, have the right person draw your blood and you will have eternal life. 

In his notes on the ballad, Child draws a comparison to the story The Transformation of a Maiden in to a Hind, where a girl is cursed by her stepmother and transformed into a hind. The curse can only be broken if she drinks her brother's blood. In the logic of story, it is her brother who shoots her and, at her request, cuts his fingers so she can be restored to her natural shape. He also references a Scandanavian ballad,
'Redselille og Medelvold', which follows a similar plot, but instead of the resurrection that we get in Leesome Brand, the protagonist buries the woman and her still living children, until their screams drive him to suicide. More concerns of the vampire genre - the dead coming back to seize the living. The curse that makes you prey upon those dearest to you.

A strange little ballad, Leesome Brand, one that asks more than it answers.

 Who is this woman who can be revived by blood? This precocious woman brought back from an uncanny land? The song begins as a lament,
MY boy was scarcely ten years auld, 
Whan he went to an unco land, 
Where wind never blew, nor cocks ever crew, 
Ohon for my son, Leesome Brand!

Yet ends 'well', or as well as these things ever do. The wording, too, is strange. They are as lively as the day he first brought them home. Perhaps folk ballads are not the place to analyse logic, but when Leesome Brand brought them home, weren't they dead?

(This article owes access to Child's commentaries to

No comments:

Post a Comment