M.G. Piety

Ahasverus and Vampires

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on February 25, 2011 at 10:54 am

The second chapter of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) deals with the legend of Ahasverus, the “eternal Jew” in Danish, or “the wandering Jew,” in English. Ahasverus is a character who supposedly taunted Christ on the way to his Crucifixion and was condemned, as a result, to wander the earth forever. This chapter, which is more than one hundred pages long, examines the legend of Ahasverus in such detail it could legitimately be published as a monograph on the subject independently of the rest of the book.

Students of romantic literature will eat this chapter up because it is filled with references to that period of literary history. In addition to a general survey of literature on Ahasverus, there is a great deal of interesting material on the history of Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the concept of the wandering Jew. In fact, the material in this chapter could easily form the basis of a dissertation on the subject. I’ll confess, however, that I found making it through this portion of the book something of a hard slog.

One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter, from my perspective, was the similarity that gradually became apparent to me between the legend of Ahasverus, and the mythical character of the vampire. I promised earlier to come with a post on Kierkegaard and vampires. Given the current popularity of vampires, cynical readers might have interpreted this as a shameless attempt to boost the popularity of my blog. I should confess that that was part of my motivation. There really is a striking similarity, however, between Ahasverus and vampires. First, both are “undead.” That is, both are condemned to live forever and, unlike so many people today who appear to think an indefinite extension of the human lifespan would be a wonderful thing, both see this as a fate much worse than death. Both are melancholy and incapable of forming close emotional relationships with ordinary human beings. Even more interesting is that, according to Tudvad, the character of Ahasverus in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab, like the vampire, casts no shadow.

The legend of Ahasverus apparently originated in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages (there is no support for it in Christian scripture). So, it appears, did the legend of the modern vampire. Both were also favorite subjects of authors during the Romantic period. Jungians have argued that the vampire actually belongs to the collection of archetypes inherent in human consciousness. The similarity of Ahasverus to the vampire suggests this figure is simply another instantiation of the same archetype.

There are so many interesting topics to be explored here: What is the historical relation between the two legends? What is the literary relationship? Are they expressions of a single archetype? If so, what does this archetype reveal to us about human nature or about the psyche? So far as I know, none of these questions has been given serious scholarly treatment even though the time is clearly ripe for such treatment.

Please forward a link to this entry to anyone whom you think would be interested in tackling one of these fascinating topics. I can’t wait to read what people are going to write!

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  1. A very interesting observation. You’ve done a real service for graduate students looking for dissertation or thesis topics. Keep up the good work!

  2. An interesting post! With apologies for the plug, George Connell has a really interesting paper in ‘Kierkegaard and Death’ (edited by Adam Buben and myself and due out in November with Indiana UP) on Kierkegaard’s use of living death as a metaphor for despair. Ahasverus is obviously a prime example of living death, as is ‘The Unhappiest One,’ the one whose grave is empty because he cannot die. And at one point Connell even suggests that we can read Johannes the Seducer as a sort of “vampire who must repeatedly parasitize the immediate desire of his female victims to sustain his own jaded interest in life.” So in addition to the very interesting connections between the Ahasverus and vampire myths, there’s also a really interesting point about what imaginable forms of life can somehow phenomenally count as a form of death – about why being undead isn’t the same thing as being alive. (Without being a Chalmers-style zombie!) SK, according to Connell, has some really interesting things to say about that question.

  3. Maturin’s MELMOTH THE WANDERER evokes the Wandering Jew motif, and its protagonist has some vampiric traits in that he seeks someone to free him from his curse of immortality by voluntarily taking on his fate. He has characteristics of both Faust and Mephistopheles, and the episode with the innocent girl who falls in love with him is clearly meant to echo the relationship of Faust and Gretchen; however, it also reminds me of the interaction between a seductive vampire and his female prey.

  4. Interesting material. I’m researching on Ahasverus for my master thesis, therefore I’m very interested in Tudvad’s book. Do you happen to know if the book is also available in an English translation? Unfortunatedly since I am Dutch, I cannot read Danish.

    Very interested to learn more.

    Kind Regards,

    Joep Timmermans, student history and Dutch language at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

    • Unfortunately, it is not yet available in English. Tudvad may be able to direct you to some material that is available in English and that could help you with your research. He’s on Facebook. Why don’t you write him and tell him what you are working on.

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