The Slayer's Role through History
mundusmundi - October 13 2001
Learning history is invariably a challenge; and in central Ohio, the navel just above the Bible Belt, attempting to understand even the most basic historical concepts can be a daunting task. What students find especially difficult to reconcile is the body of evidence supporting humanity's gradual evolution out of the jungle to a more civilized state, with the independently unconfirmed account of our original ancestors as negligent tenants evicted out of the posh paradise of Eden Estates. This is not meant to castigate religion; merely to point out, as my mentor once did to me, that one cannot bring literal-minded notions of the supernatural into a legitimate historical discipline. (Well, one can, but then one would be the author of Chariots of the Gods.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, of course, a show about supernatural phenomena; yet it is a fantasy tempered by a clear-eyed view of the real world. In a previous essay I noted Joss Whedon's keen grasp of history, at how dramatically his titular heroine's historical consciousness has expanded in recent years. Buffy's mystical bloodline was formally confirmed in "Restless" with the appearance of the First Slayer, who initiated the war against the demons into which Buffy was drafted. It is no coincidence that Buffy's interest in Slayer genealogy piqued soon afterwards. Based on "Bargaining," the emphasis on both Buffy's role in history and her ties to her "primitive" nature show no sign of ceasing.
Until the Leakeys of the Jossverse end their silence and join the fray, any comprehensive study of past Slayers is largely speculative. But we do know that for all his fictions, Whedon is remarkably faithful to the Realverse's historical timeframe. Thus it seems logical to assume that such a chronology would fit within the real history of which we are all familiar. With what we do know about the First Slayer-a good place to start-it seems likely that she surfaced where the earliest humans dawned.
I. Out of Africa
Judging by their animalistic qualities, their herd instincts and their violent territorial disputes, it seems a good hunch that demons descended with modification like every other species. Furthermore, the fact that demons as a whole possess physical and in some cases embryological attributes similar to humans makes them a likely close cousin on the evolutionary chain. Perhaps an as-yet-undiscovered fossil of demonus erectus in Buffyverse East Africa is the "missing link" between we humans and our demonic competitors.
Whatever the case, the "Old Ones" as Giles called them likely fed on other animal species before coming into contact with the home sapiens sapiens who would forever alter their destiny. Perhaps at first we were an easy meal, as well as a host for the seed of vampirism that would eventually be planted. However, at some point in the Paleolithic Age (circa. 2.5 mil-10,000 B.C.), after the advent of hand-crafted tools and weaponry, the First Slayer was born.
As early as "The Pack," Whedon has suggested that humans and demons are inexorably linked, both prime beneficiaries of natural selection (if not genetic drift) in the animal kingdom. Dracula reinforced this connection to Buffy through the taste-test of his blood, and Spike too has repeatedly emphasized it, namely through his observation that demons, specifically vampires, have a predilection for human blood because they hunger for life. Whether the First Slayer was created entirely by the Powers-That-Be, summoned by tribal leaders, and/or began the battle on her own volition, there is a smattering of evidence that she was a feral hybrid of human and demon. Dracula suggested to Buffy that her power is rooted in darkness; perhaps then the Primitive had a touch of "demonstuff" within her.
Protected by the proto-Buffy, the tribe's population would have burgeoned considerably, tipping the balance of power in humanity's favor. The dynamic between predator and prey changed, and as humans spread it would have been the demons who, like other packs of animals, found themselves on the run. One can imagine that somewhere in the Jossverse there exist cave paintings of vampires embedded with stakes, depicting the "sympathetic magic" used by the Slayer to bring good fortune to her hunt. (It is speculated that prehistoric peoples believed something done to an image of an animal would produce the same effect on the actual beast.) These young women may have well grasped the significance of their role in the tribe and conveyed it as all ancient peoples did-through artistic motifs, buried deep within the caves' symbolic wombs.
Why then only one Serengeti Slayer? Why not an entire army of Slayers at humanity's disposal? If the PTB had a hand, maybe some symbiosis of "mystical balance" between good and evil was involved. Then again, maybe patriarchal concerns were at play. As the Neolithic Age dawned and tribal cultures changed from being relatively gender-balanced to emphasizing the role of women as domestics, there may have been a need to re-establish the concept of the "goddess" without giving women any real power. That the Slayer was "alone," in the Primitive's own words, implies that she may have been elevated to the status of protector-figure while at the same time kept apart from the tribe. The first Council of Watchers, likely a small group of male shamans, would appear a logical extension of the PTB, by proxy using the First Slayer, and her immediate successors, to do their bidding.
On the other hand, perhaps at one time there was an army of Slayers. These could have been the legendary "Amazons" mentioned by Herodotus, among others. While it seems unlikely that more than one true Slayer lived at any point, it is not inconceivable that an early Slayer may have rebuffed her solitude, rebelled against her fate, and created a legion of woman warriors. These women would have been feared by the demon hordes, pursued by the Slayer into other regions of the world. (Or possibly the demons pursued the humans, and the Slayers served to defend the latter group.) They most certainly would have drawn the ire of the original Watchers. Just as Quentin Travers has repeatedly tried to get Buffy to play ball, the first CoW would have sought to reclaim their stranglehold on the Slayer line. As early civilizations began, their patriarchal power would have been consolidated.
II. Between the Rivers
Mesopotamia seems a good bet, for no other ancient society endured as much turmoil as the peoples who inhabited this region. Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Mesopotamia, much more than Richard Slotkin's American frontier, was a regenerative culture of violence. The unpredictability of the rivers, the unstable divine kingships, and the unenviable location between marauding nomads created many hardships for those like the Sumerians, the first known denizens of the region. A Slayer would have felt right at home in such an inhospitable territory, and would have been enthusiastically employed by the citizens of Ur, Uruk and Babylon. An esteemed priestly class-again reflecting the patriarchy that continued developing during these times-would have been a natural candidate for a Watchers' Council.
A fascinating paradox emerges in ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia on the role of women. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is an epic poem featuring a typical (albeit semi-tragic) testosteroned hero. Yet in the creation myth Enuma Elish, it is the goddess Mummu-Tiamat who must be destroyed by the he-god Marduk before order can be restored between the deities. It is Tiamat's body, cracked by Marduk like an eggshell, that is used to create the world. This is of course an act of violence. But unlike the more tranquil, linear Genesis account, the Enuma Elish depicts creation as deriving through destruction. This is commonly regarded as a more cyclical concept associated with femininity (though the Noachian flood tale, deriving from earlier Sumerian sources such as Gilgamesh, also employs this motif). To further hypothesize, Sumerian Slayers-or Akkadian or Amorite-were viewed as a crucial part of this cycle, their deaths necessary for the preservation of the society.
Assuming the Slayers remained in the Near East, how then did they become westernized? This transition, philosophical as well as geographical, would have occurred as all Western civilizations evolved-through Alexander the Great's conquests, the Hellenistic cultural collusion between Occident and Orient, and the eventual rise of the Roman Empire.
III. When in Rome....
Knowing what we do about the Romans, it is wholly probable that they would have viewed an exotic entity like the CoW with a mix of admiration, suspicion and apathy. Following Augustus's debacle in Teutoburg Forest circa. 9 A.D. (three of his legions decimated by the Cherusci chieftain Arminius, a.k.a., "Herman the German"), the emperors may have decided it practical to employ the services of the Slayers against whatever demons pushed against their borders. It is not hard to imagine after-dark gladiatorial combats staged, pitting Slayers against vampires before colosseum throngs. The Roman government would have also siphoned the Council from its eastern origins and began its transformation into the powerful secret hierarchy-a Slayorum?-evident in the Jossverse today.
The real mystery is when the move further north take place. Was it as early as the Roman occupation of England (under Claudius, perhaps), or centuries later, following the Norman Conquest? That the vampire mythos is deeply embedded in Eastern European folklore, and has an intriguing relationship with Christianity, may suggest that the Slayers existed on mainland Europe long after western Rome's fall. Possibly they were part of Byzantium's "Bureau of Barbarians" (sort of Constantinople's CIA) and dealt with the despised and demonized Slavs, Bulgars and other "bar-bars" to the Eastern Empire's north. On the other hand, the strict Eastern Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantines would seem unlikely to accept a primitive, mystical, utterly heretical institution like the Slayer. (That Vlad the Impaler was so brutally successful in his vampiric incarnation may also suggest a Slayerless society.) My hunch is that the Slayer system was imported to England early on, relatively free of any Church doctrine-be it Roman Catholic or Orthodox-and thus continued to grow as the rest of English society did, both before and after the Norman Conquest.
IV. Hail, Brittania!
It is in the Age of Imperialism that the Slayer truly becomes a tool of the British Empire. As England comes to occupy two-fifths of the Earth's surface, the "one girl in all the world" is able to be chosen by the PTB from a wider range of prospects. The Chinese Slayer that Spike kills during the Boxer Rebellion is a good illustration; undoubtedly there were Indian Slayers as well. (Ah, what would Kipling had made of one?) This advances the theory that Slayers are meant to be subjugated by their superiors, powerful yet also powerless.
Choosing the Slayer from far-away lands also made it easier to hide her, to keep the magic of the Jossverse along the fringe of public view. The 17th through 19th centuries were most certainly the height of the Council's power. Yet Britain's expansion also proved to be the Council's undoing. Vampires, after all, have always gone where the action is. Thus it was inevitable that the Slayer would come to America.
V. American Slayer
We do not know as yet who the first American Slayer was. (For clarity's sake, I'm using American in the exclusive sense here, with apologies to our Canadian and Mexican friends.) It seems likely that she was imported via British colonialism, keeping the vampire populations low enough to maintain human dominance, yet not so low that the CoW would lose its sphere of influence. (Without any demon threat, the Council members would be about as useful as Prince Charles in a polo shirt.) The fact that the Council apparently maintains its status in the United States after the War of Independence suggests that the Slayer is the last vestige of British authority around these parts. Even that thread has been slipping away, ever since Buffy was called.
Although her primal nature is strong, Buffy Summers differs from previous Slayers in numerous ways. First and foremost, she is a product of democracy, a fairly normal young woman who initially enjoys what de Tocqueville might have called "the most insipid happiness imaginable." If she has had admittedly less to smile about of late, she is no longer a tool of higher powers. (The same could be said for Giles, having "gone native" from the CoW and loving Buffy like a daughter.)
Buffy is an active participant in American culture. She is a consumer. She likes the beach. She enjoys movies. She has friends and family, hopes and dreams. Unlike the African-American Slayer in '77 New York, Buffy is lucky enough to be living in the right place at the right time. For all her bad karma, she is, in essence, inexploitable.
With demon cells inhabiting the Jossverse as plenteously as terrorist cells in the Realverse (or troll cells in the Masqverse), Buffy still has her work cut out for her. And it is a job that remains largely thankless. There may be never sympathy for the Slayer nor even the simple bliss of an afterlife. Yet Buffy, possessing regenerative qualities that the immortality-seeking Gilgamesh would have envied, appears to have an opportunity to defy the role in which history has determined. She needs to figure out how to live in this world, to decide exactly what being a Slayer means.
Magic is abundant in the Jossverse. But even there magic has limits. Like the title character at the end of Candide, the time has come for Buffy to cultivate her garden. To stake out her own heaven, even atop a Hellmouth.