Essay: Our Demons

Back Originally for Elder Gods' Rave 18
As for these shrieking statues, Ill not weep,
Theyll perish as they lived: dazed, witless sheep
In slaughterhouses far beyond their ken.
I shed no tear for those that die unshriven,
For they are men. Just men. And what are men
But chariots of wrath, by demons driven!

-Etrigan, the Demon, Swamp Thing #26, by Alan Moore

In many ways, we are defined by our demons. Who we are, who we want to be is largely a function of our unexplained or unexamined desires. Our demons. We are driven, some more than others, to do what we do by childhood experiences half-remembered, embarrassing incidents we wish to never experience again, and sudden joys in unexpected places.

These are what drive us, from the back-seat of the mighty subconscious. Some few of us can recognize and direct our demons, riding them rather than allowing them to control us, directing their restless energy. But these people are all too rare. We are not a culture of great personal insight, but rather focus on the outer trappings of success; wealth, power, and fame.

Those whose demons control them wholly are usually those people of whom one aspect of their personality overshadows everything else they are. Being a rapist, embezzler, censor, or misogynist really overshadows anything else a person could possibly be, and we label them with a single term. For these individuals, we will not mitigate; there is nothing that can justify their actions in our eyes. What is acceptable does vary from person to person--our own moral codes state what we will accept in other people’s behavior, and how much history we will forgive.

Consider two people with demons greater than any we have ever known: Egil Skallagrimsson and Vlad Tepes. Entire books have been written about both of these men, but I’ll settle for a paragraph or two on each.

Egil Skallagrimsson was an Icelander born in the Viking periods, about 910 AD. By the time he was seven, he had killed an older boy named Grim who had embarrassed him at a ball game, striking him from behind with an axe. Egil’s saga goes on to list the large number of people Egil kills, partially due to a bloody feud with the kings of Norway, but also because of his restlessly angry nature. Egil was never one to take an insult to himself or his family lightly. Because he was good at fighting; very strong, quick, and well-practiced by the time he was twenty.

Despite this, Egil was a master poet. His verses are some of the most striking, even in translation, that I’ve ever read. Because this bloody murderer, with more than two dozen deaths to his credit, had a true gift for poetry that resonates through the ages. Egil has come across something he cannot defeat with arms or intimidate; the sea, and the forces of nature. Stymied, he could do nothing but mourn, the tongue that put forth so many insulting and derisive works turned to insight, and created something beautiful that has lasted for nearly a thousand years.

We all know something about Vlad Tepes, the bloody impaler of Valachia, who served as a model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He was heartlessly cruel, impaling his enemies, and even his own people on spikes, condemning them to slow agony. He ordered impalement on the slightest crime--theft, murder, even lying. He once held a feast for the nobles in his country, and after they had eaten, he enslaved them and forced them to build a new castle. He forced one powerful pretender to his throne to dig his own grave, then lie in it to save his men the effort after they killed him. Vlad was possessed by the most active imagination, and a desire, even a talent for the infliction of slow death on people.

Yet this bloody monster, who killed an estimated 30,000 or his own people in less than ten years, is regarded as a national hero in Rumania. At terrible cost, he kept the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent from gaining a foothold on the Christian territories for which Valachia was the firewall. It is said that during his reign, a merchant could leave his wares in the streets of the capital city of Targoviste all night, without them being stolen.

How can we possibly reconcile the virtually exclusive aspects of these people? And yet they were one and the same, Vlad the monster and Vlad the savior of his people. Egil the butcher and Egil the father mourning the deaths of his sons. Undoubtedly, after a more than four hundred years, their story has been distorted, but they can hardly be unrecognizable.

People are not only more contradictory that we think, they are more complex than we can think. And we are fascinated by these people. Hundreds of years later, we remember them, and wonder what drove them to do what they did. Because what do we do if it’s the same thing that drives us?