The Ancient Practice of Blood Revenge: Underworld (2003)

underworld_ver2_xlgBlood feud is “avenging the killing of kin by the taking of the life of the slayer by the victim’s kin.”1 In the opening credits of Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003) we learn of a centuries-old blood feud between vampires and lycans. The war between the vampires and lycans parallels the practice of blood feud in ancient history. A blood feud based on a single murder could lead to a war between two tribes or clans with each side wanting to exterminate the other.

Blood feud, or blood revenge, is an “immemorial custom.”2 If a member of a tribe was murdered by someone from another tribe, a surviving member of the victim’s family (the blood avenger) was obligated to hunt down and kill the murderer. Once the slayer was killed, the feud was supposed to end. However, it could often lead to war “because every man killed began a new request for revenge.”3 Also, if the blood avenger could not kill the slayer, “war would be waged by the one tribe against the other.”4 In ancient Israel, blood feuds that led to war “were the order of the day among the neighboring peoples of the time.”5

In Underworld, the war between the vampires and lycans began when Viktor (Billy Nighy) ordered the death of his daughter Sonja (Jázmin Dammak) who was the bride of the lycan Lucian (Michael Sheen). Sonja’s execution started a war that lasted for six centuries. Instead of Lucian seeking blood revenge against Viktor alone, the entire lycan clan went to war with the vampires.

The desire for blood revenge was common in the Old Testament. In the Book of Samuel, Joab killed Abner “for the blood of Asahel his brother.”6 Although no one had the right under the law of Moses to seek blood revenge, it was an accepted part of the culture, and cities of refuge were established to protect a slayer who killed a man unintentionally.7 If two witnesses testified that the slayer was guilty of intentionally killing someone, the elders were to “hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die.”8 When the elders handed a guilty slayer over to an avenger, blood revenge was not an act of murder, but the means of capital punishment.9

In Underworld, when the vampires and lycans kill each other, it is not considered murder, but an act of war. As a death dealer, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) must “hunt [the lycans] down and kill them off one by one.” Kraven (Shane Brolly) says the lycans have been hunted “to the brink of extinction.” The death dealers have a similar mandate as Joshua when he attacked Jericho: “They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old.”10

Under modern rules of war, killing unarmed civilians is a war crime, and exterminating an entire tribe is an act of genocide. However, 3,000 years ago, because of the cultural practice of blood revenge, if a tribe was attacked, the surviving sons, once they grew old enough to fight, would be obligated to go to war against the tribe that killed their fathers. This is why, in certain battles, the Israelites killed everyone. Like the vampires in Underworld, they did so out of self-preservation: to prevent a cycle of bloodshed that could last for generations. In Underworld, the blood feud between the vampires and lycans is like an Old Testament war.

Blood revenge is a barbaric form of justice. Without a fair trial and proof of guilt, it could result in an innocent person being killed. Today, we recognize that it is the role of the state to imprison (or execute) a murderer. However, in ancient history to seek blood revenge for a murder was a cultural norm. It is also a cultural norm for the vampires and lycans in Underworld. In the climax of the film, Selene slays Viktor, an act of blood revenge for the murder of her parents. For Selene, killing Victor is not murder; it is justice.

Notes 

  1. Pamela Barmash, “Blood Feud and State Control: Differing Legal Institutions for the Remedy of Homicide During the Second and First Millennia B.C.E.,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 63, no. 3 (July 2004): 185. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/424770
  2. Walter M. Patton, “Blood Revenge in Arabia and Israel,” The American Journal of Theology 5, no. 4 (Oct. 1901): 703. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3152697
  3. Patton, “Blood Revenge,” 708.
  4. Patton, “Blood Revenge,” 707.
  5. James Frederick McCury, “The Moral Evolution of the Old Testament,” The American Journal of Theology 1, no. 3 (July 1897): 685. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3153246
  6. 2 Samuel 3:27 (New American Standard Version).
  7. Numbers 35:11-12.
  8. Deuteronomy 19:12 (New American Standard Version).
  9. Numbers 35:19.
  10. Joshua 6:21 (New American Standard Version).
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