A few days ago, I read a chance comment that perhaps the Shadow Men (as seen in 'Get It Done' in season 7 of BtVS) were not, after all, the people who created the Slayer - or at least, not exactly. This got me thinking.
Where did the power come from? The Shadow Men had a swirly black mist in a wooden box, that they said was the heart and strength of 'the demon'. Where did they get this from? How did they know what it would do?
There's also the question of the Guardians - that mysterious woman who pops up at the end of 'End of Days', gives Buffy some cryptic information about the Scythe then promptly gets herself killed by Caleb. Most discussions of the origin of the Slayers tend to gloss over the Guardians, or ignore them completely... hardly surprising considering how little build-up they get. But they need to be incorporated into the story somehow. As does the whole business with the Scythe.
As a result, I came up with the following. It's all speculation of course - bordering on fanfiction in places. But I think it explains all the important factors, and doesn't conflict with anything shown on screen (or in the shooting scripts)... at least, if you're willing to radically interpret the text in some places. But that is, in fact, one of the theory's symbolic strengths. :)
Why? Becauses the clash between the Shadow Men and the Guardians is linked to the whole conflict between male and female concepts of power, and the opposition between Received Authority and Shared Wisdom. The Shadow Men claim to be the original creators of the Slayer, and deny any feminine involvement in the process, except as a passive vessel. The parallel to the attempt by the patriarchal system to establish male control over reproduction and the family, refusing to acknowledge any active role for women in the process, should be obvious...
In the days when the entire human race comprised nothing but scattered groups of hunter-gatherer clans, they faced not only the natural perils of the world - famine, disease, accident, wild animals - but also the demons that still roamed the Earth freely.
Clearly mortals lacked the power to face True Demons one-on-one and defeat them. What they did have, however, was intelligence, flexibility and cunning. They used the demons' strengths and arrogance against them, causing them to fight and destroy each other. Notice how so many magical rituals call on gods or demons, invoking their power to serve the spellcaster's wishes? My hypothesis is that the greater demons themselves might never have thought to use their own powers in this way; their mindsets are restricted, narrow and limited. It took human ingenuity to see how to channel a demon's appetite for destruction into a weapon for good. (Or evil, of course, since power corrupts). And in the modern era, the only demons that survive in this dimension are those who were able to adopt something of the human mindset... not that they would ever admit it, of course.
Not all demons take physical form. Some lack bodies of their own, and so seek to steal those of mortals, possessing them and controlling them. One of the most powerful and dangerous of these entities we'll call the Slayer Spirit.
I have no speech. No name. I live in the action of death. The blood-cry, the penetrating wound. I am destruction. Absolute. Alone.
Any mortal possessed by this spirit turned into a feral beast that killed all in its path; equal in strength and speed to the most dangerous predator, and with a cunning that seemed almost prescient as it anticipated danger; but devoid of all pity or mercy or humanity. The Slayer Spirit was strong enough - or diffuse enough - that it could possess more than one human at a time; but the more of its essence that was concentrated into a single body, the more powerful it became.
Because the war against the demons was so desperate, some human tribes saw the Slayer Spirit as a weapon they could use. A chosen warrior would be prepared as a vessel - perhaps voluntarily, perhaps not. Once possessed, this Slayer could be turned against the tribe's enemies... but since he no longer knew friend from foe, such an action was just as likely to lead to the tribe's own destruction at his hands. It was therefore a measure of absolute last resort.
But then somehow, somewhere, one tribe discovered how to tame the Slayer Spirit. It was a force of destruction and death; summoning it to possess a warrior, a trained killer, only strengthened it. But if the Spirit was instead called to possess a woman of childbearing age, blessed with spells of Fertility and Life and Love, it could be blocked from taking total control. Its vessel would retain her humanity, her conscience, her ability to tell right from wrong, friend from foe... at least, as long as she remained connected to the world and did not give way to the Spirit urging her towards death and dissolution. And after the danger was over, the Spirit could be cast out of her body again, until the next time it was needed.
You're afraid that being the Slayer means losing your humanity... You are full of love. You love with all of your soul. It's brighter than the fire, blinding. That's why you pull away from it.
I'm full of love? I'm not losing it?
Only if you reject it.
The secret of summoning and controlling the Slayer Spirit was passed down from mother to daughter, and taught to other tribes who needed help. These women became the Guardians of their tribes. They called on the Slayer Spirit to empower them whenever grave danger threatened their destruction. The war against the demons went well; most of them were forced to abandon this dimension. The human race spread out across the globe. And the old ways, no longer needed, were largely forgotten.
The world changed. People learned to tame and control nature, instead of simply sharing its bounty. They planted crops, herded and bred animals for the slaughter. They built permanent homes instead of nomadic encampments. The concepts of ownership and private property were developed. And men sought to take control over their fertility away from women, by setting down the laws of marriage, and adultery, and the difference between legitimate and bastard children.
The problem was that these vast new communities - dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people crammed into a narrow space - were perfect feeding grounds for vampires. A solution was needed.
The men who now ruled the tribes were impatient with the old ways. The idea of using your enemy's strengths to defeat him, of yielding to force in order to turn it around on itself, were foreign to them. They thought in terms of stone and bronze and iron, not wind and water and earth. They wanted tools: weapons to wield in their hands.
The Slayer Spirit was to be the most powerful of their tools. But it would have to be controlled; trapped and imprisoned, ready to their hand at any time, able to be directed against their enemies. Somehow, these powerful shamans learned the rituals for calling the Slayer Spirit into a chosen vessel. Perhaps the Guardians shared the knowledge with them willingly; perhaps they were tricked. But the Shadow Men who developed the great ritual learned the secrets; learned that only a blessed and enchanted woman of childbearing age could successfully contain the Spirit without losing her humanity. But in their eyes, this woman would simply be the handle of the sword, or the shaft of the axe. An necessary but secondary part of the weapon. A tool.
The Shadow Men captured one of the girls who had been blessed by the Guardians to serve as a potential vessel for the Spirit. Then they cast a ritual to summon the Slayer Spirit; but instead of allowing it to possess the girl immediately, they first trapped it and wove mighty enchantments around it. These ensured that once it was allowed to enter the girl's body, it found itself confined there, a permanent presence. The girl was no longer merely a temporary vessel for the Slayer Spirit; she was the Slayer.
With the entire magical strength and power of the Slayer Spirit trapped within her, the First Slayer became an overwhelming force of destruction that tore a bloody path through the enemies plaguing the Shadow Men's tribes. She had no respite from the killing; no option to lay down the burden and be released from her duty. Her hold on life and humanity became a fragile thread, with the ends firmly held by the Shadow Men. They provided her with her reason for living: her 'sacred calling' to direct her violence against the enemies of mankind. The Shadow Men, of course, defined for her who those 'enemies' were.
Even death was no escape from the binding spell. When the First Slayer eventually died, the Slayer Spirit was not released, but instead found itself pulled into the body of another of the girls blessed by the Guardians as a potential vessel. The Shadow Men quickly tracked the Second Slayer down with their magic, and bent her to their will just as they had the First. And so it continued.
The Guardians were horrified at what they saw as a betrayal, but they were helpless to stop it. None of them could summon the Slayer Spirit any more, since it was now trapped within the body of the Slayer. Their clans were left with no defence against the vampires and demons, unless they surrendered to the Shadow Men and accepted their protection. Many did. Others tried to fight; but they lost and were destroyed. The remainder went into hiding.
The Shadow Men, who became the Watchers. And the Watchers watched the Slayers. But we were watching them.
With the Guardian families scattered, their heritage was forgotten. Their secret rituals for consecrating a girl as a vessel for the Slayer Spirit were lost, so the Shadow Men had no way to deliberately create new Potential Slayers of their own. However, the bloodlines originally blessed by the Guardians still threw up Potentials from time to time, skipping generations and randomly appearing in a way that defied logical analysis. And garbled elements of the ritual survived in blessings for pregnancies, and for newborn children, and even adulthood initiation rites for women in different cultures throughout the world. Occasionally and unknown to the participants, these fragments of magic combined with circumstances of time and place to result in the creation of a new Potential.
However often the Slayer died, the Slayer Spirit was always drawn into a new vessel to house itself. The Shadow Men and their descendants tried their best to understand the process. They knew how to identify a Potential, even grade the candidates by their likelihood of being Chosen... and sometimes the Slayer Spirit would defy all their predictions and Choose someone else. Sometimes they wouldn't even find the new Slayer - she would be Called, live her brief and bloody life and then die, all unknown to the Watchers. Very rarely the Slayer Spirit might even possess more than one woman at once, as it had in the days before the Shadow Men cast their spell. This was highly disturbing to the Watchers since it suggested that their binding spells might be failing; but fortunately such situations tended to be short-lived and correct themselves as soon as one or both of the new Slayers died. In their fear the Watchers tended to suppress any records of this happening, apart from cryptic and dire warnings in books only made available to their inner leadership.
Any attempt to influence or manipulate the choice of Potential would fail - sometimes it seemed the Slayer Spirit was being deliberately bloody-minded in upsetting the Watchers' plans, although of course such a belief was irrational and so rejected by the Council. And despite the inexplicable nature of the process, it often seemed that the new Slayer would be called, not where it would be most convenient for the Watchers, but where she was most needed.
This was forged, centuries ago, by us. Halfway around the world. Forged there, it was put to use right here. Only once, to kill the last pure demon that walked upon the earth. The rest were already driven under. And then there were men here, and then there were monks, and the first men died and were sent away, and then there was a town, and now there is you. And the Scythe remained hidden.
The last Guardians who went into hiding were too weak to oppose the Shadow Men directly; but as was their way, they resolved to turn their enemies' strength back upon them. They forged the Scythe as their instrument. This took the form of a weapon, partly on practical grounds: the Slayer destined to wield it would have many enemies. Mostly, though, it was symbolic: the purpose of the Scythe was to cut the chains which bound the Slayer Spirit and turned the Slayers into nothing but tools in the hands of those who would use them.
The real power of the Scythe was not as a weapon. It was designed to record within itself the memories, and dreams, and hopes of all the women possessed by the Slayer Spirit throughout the millennia. Their knowledge, and their humanity, and their wisdom. With every Slayer forced by the Shadow Men's spell into a brief and unhappy existence, the power of the Scythe grew greater.
Tomorrow Willow will use the essence of this Scythe, that contains the energy and history of so many Slayers, to change our destiny.
Eventually, the forces protecting the binding spell on the Slayer Spirit became disrupted by the event long ago foreseen by the Guardians: the mystical resurrection and calling back from Heaven of a dead Slayer. As long as she was [still] alive, the binding spell was overloaded and so vulnerable to being broken. However, this posed a huge risk to humanity. If there were no living Potentials at the moment the binding was broken and the actual Slayer was then killed, the Slayer Spirit would be completely released. No more Slayers would be called, ever.
(What would have happened in the hypothetical situation that there were no Potentials alive at the death of a Slayer before Buffy's resurrection? Presumably, the Slayer Spirit would have waited around, caught by the binding spell, until a potential-Potential hit puberty, then immediately empowered her as the Slayer. I'm assuming that it took The First a vast expenditure of Its power to even attempt to kill all the Potentials at once, especially since new ones are constantly being born. This Whack-a-Mole game was worthwhile for It in season 7 because if It ever once managed to get rid of all of the Potentials for even a single moment - then kill Faith and Buffy - there'd be no more Slayer ever. Before the binding spell was broken, it would have had to keep on killing the new-born Potentials forever; and It lacked the strength to maintain Itself and the army of Bringers It would need for such a huge task on a permanent basis.)
My hypothesis is that The First knew that the Scythe could be used to break the binding spell, which is why It had Caleb and the Bringers trying to pry it out of the rock. It was aware of the prophecy that 'she alone' would be able to take it, but Caleb had suggested using brute force instead, and there was no reason not to try it.
Is this going to do anything? Or is all of this just to make the Bringers sweat? Do the Bringers sweat?
Actually, I think they pant, like dogs. And, I don't know if this is doing any good. But we've got to try everything... what's a prophecy got on brute strength?
In the event, Willow was able to use the Scythe for its intended purpose: to cut the binding spell laid on the Slayer Spirit by the Shadow Men all those thousands of years ago, and free it from its prison of a single woman's body (or, in this unusual situation, two women's bodies). At that moment, all the Potentials throughout the world who chose to become vessels for its power could become Slayers themselves. The knowledge and wisdom of all the past Slayers stored within the Scythe became their heritage.
It's a rushing wind, a hammer blow, it's hard, soft, confusing, a first orgasm, a perfect equation, a fevered dream... it's power. And it's happening everywhere.
A girl has fallen to the floor, wide-eyed as the power and knowledge course through her.
Unnoticed by the throng, an African American girl leans against her locker, breathing hard, looking almost puzzled.
We see the back of a beefy fellow as he is about to strike someone - and her hand blocks his blow. She rises into frame, slightly bruised and bleeding, but with a cold fury in her eyes that suggests that won't be happening again.
The family is having dinner as the daughter backs away from the table, trying to keep her balance.
A twelve year old girl stands uncertainly at the plate as the power hits her: she takes it in, looking down in confusion... then looking back up, slowly, her stance straightening and a wicked grin on her face.
(And my addition:) Locked away in an insane asylum, a girl who's been tormented and driven mad by her helplessness and lack of power smiles grimly, knowing that she'll never be weak again.
I think the most vital metaphor of Season 7 is that power alone is dangerous, because it can turn you into a tool for others to use. Knowledge alone is equally insufficient, because knowing what to do is useless if you can't (or won't) actually do it. But put them together and you can change the world.
And a final note. Why is it called a Scythe when it's actually an axe? My guess is because the original (Egyptian?) manuscript named it using the word given to the weapon wielded by Death; the ultimate weapon used to sever the ties binding body and soul. In English, Death is usually pictured using a scythe, so the axe's name is translated into English as 'Scythe'. (Tolkien fans might like to compare Gandalf's sword Glamdring, which translates as 'Foe-Hammer' even though it was a sword, not a hammer...)