Myths and legends of vampires are widespread. Tales of their existence can be found in virtually every culture across the globe and they date back to thousands of years ago. Contrary to Western beliefs, the vampire has been around since long before Bram Stoker's Dracula popularized the bloodsucking fiends and the presence of vampires have been rumored in almost every country. Indeed, these terrifying creatures of darkness are not limited to the folklore of Eastern Europe or to the confines of Gothic literature. The history of vampires is a long, dark, and brutal glimpse into the past. Most "rational" people will immediately dismiss vampires altogether as outdated mythology, escapist fiction, or the nightmarish delusions of the emotionally disturbed. But how is it then, that tales of vampirism have been echoed in eerily similar fashion on multiple continents over the course of millennia? Where did this concept of vampires come from and does it have its origins in reality? To find the answers to these questions, one must be willing to probe the dark secrets of the human subconscious and walk in the shadows of a forgotten history recorded in blood. Do you possess the innate ability to separate fantasy from reality and can you acknowledge the fact that science and history aren't infallible? If so, then maybe your mind is open enough to accept that we live in a universe of unlimited potential, where anything is possible... even the existence of the supernatural!
Lilith, The Origins Of The Vampire, And Female Empowerment Through The Ages
The origins of the vampire as a mythological figure aren't known for certain, however, the story of Lilith is frequently regarded as being of the greatest significance since it places the vampire's creation at the same time as humankind's creation by God in the garden of Eden.
In ancient times, when the rabbis were compiling the stories that would form the Old Testament, they came upon an incongruity of epic proportions. The Bible first states that God created man and woman on the sixth day and the rabbis felt that this meant that God created the sexes simultaneously. After all it specifically says that on the sixth day, God created all the beasts and man and woman.
"...Male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it..."
Yet, The Bible goes on to say that man was alone in his tending of the Earth and its creatures, so God made him a companion.
"...But for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman..."
This would imply that God made man on the sixth day and then some time later created woman. The rabbis found themselves confronting a severe and puzzling contradiction in the Holy texts and thus concluded that Eve, who was made from Adam's rib, was not the first woman. The rabbis poured over various pagan legends and apocrypha from the nearby ancient cultures and were startled to uncover the accounts of Lilith. In Sumer and Babylon there were myths of Lilitu, or more commonly Lilith, who was declared to be Adam's first wife and the true first woman.
According to apocryphal lore, Lilith was strong willed and fiercely independent and when the time came for Adam and Lilith to consummate their marriage in the sexual act, Lilith rebelled. Adam insisted that since he was a man and she a woman, that he should mount her from the top. Lilith refused, claiming that God had made them both as equals, and that to lay upon her back on the bare Earth was an insult since all lesser beings are of the Earth while God and his angels were of Heaven and divine. After Adam attempted to rape her, and there are some variations of the story in which he succeeds, Lilith called out the sacred and secret name of God and was hitherto exiled from the garden of Eden. In most stories, Lilith is said to be barren and her breasts produce not milk but blood, but there are some very different versions. In some, Lilith is raped by Adam and gives birth to Eve. There are also versions of the story in which Lilith is the serpent that seduces Eve and convinces her to eat of the forbidden fruit. Either way, from a modern Freudian analytical perspective, when the Bible says that Eve was created of Adam's rib, which is a blatant phallic metaphor, it could be indicating that Eve was the biological offspring of Lilith and Adam. This supports the belief that Lilith is Eve's mother, albeit, a reluctant and absent mother.
This idea is rather controversial, not only because of the inferred incest of Adam and Eve's relationship, but also because it contradicts the long-held belief in the original sin, wherein Eve is weak and is tempted by the serpent to eat of the forbidden fruit and then encourages Adam to do the same, thus causing humankind's fall from grace. For thousands of years, the Biblical tradition has held that men are stronger, more virtuous, more intelligent, and that they are "made in God's image" and therefore superior to women. But that is only because of the belief that Eve was responsible for the original sin and the fall from grace. If the stories of Lilith are true, then that would mean that the original sin belongs to Adam, who raped his first wife and then took the child that rape bore him as his second wife.
So the legend goes, that after Lilith's banishment from the garden of Eden, she took on a mission of vengeance against Adam and Eve and all of their descendants. She became the archetype of the "woman scorned" and of the sexual predator. She became the seducer of the virtuous and the cause of infant death. All of the duties of womanhood and of wife-hood, Lilith rebelled against with a demonic glee and as such her body took on the form of a succubus, a hideous winged demon that fed off the life force of others; the first vampire. Her offspring were the first members of the race of vampires.
Needless to say, the rabbis, who wrote and compiled the Biblical anthology, were all men. They projected their sexual insecurities, anxieties, and lust onto Lilith and vilified her. They made her into the embodiment of female power unleashed, but in their efforts to tell a cautionary tale to warn men of feminine empowerment and independence, they had also created an exemplary icon for women who aspire to be equals to men... or even superior to men. The rabbis had inadvertently created the first feminist icon. To this day, many feminists, as well as practitioners of goddess worship, cite Lilith as the sole figure in Judeo-Christian lore that stood up to the assigned gender roles and fought to be an individual. It's for this reason that the story of Lilith was ultimately removed from the Bible as we know it and as a result, the original sin now belongs to Eve for experiencing temptation and curiosity, which lead to disobedience. This was how the rabbis would convey their beliefs that women were "frail" and the "weaker of the sexes". But the rabbis had helped to create a monster and one that would not be so easily erased from the annals of history... both vampires and feminists would proliferate as a reminder of humanity's flaws in the garden of Eden.
Lilith's roots go even deeper yet, for she is but one of many mythological women who helped to shape the earliest images of the vampire. Generally, in ancient tales of vampires the vampire was almost always a women because women were mysterious to primitive men. The female represented both birth and death, creation and destruction, virginity and impurity; she was both a goddess to be worshiped on a pedestal and a whore to be ravaged in the streets. Women were dualistic conundrums and this was reflected in most of the mythological archetypes of the day. Other similarly strong female goddess archetypes include: Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and warfare; Kali, the Hindu goddess of life and death; Nyx, the Greek goddess of the night; Hecate, a Greek goddess born of the Earth and the Sky, who was associated with childbirth and crossroads; Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and desire, who was born of sea foam; Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and retribution; Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, art, music, warfare, and virginity; and Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, virginity, and hunting.
Anyone studying mythology is familiar with the archetypes and characteristics that these goddesses share. In the King James version of the Christian Bible, Lilith is portrayed as a screech owl. One could argue that this ties her to the Greek Athena, who kept an owl as her sacred pet.
Lilith preys upon babies, housewives, pregnant women, and this could be seen as her way of opposing sexual intercourse... which would connect her with the various virgin goddess, especially Artemis, who was the goddess of the moon and a huntress. It is Artemis, in particular, that Lilith most resembles when comparing her to highly influential Greek goddesses. Artemis was capable of great cruelty and vengeance, but her beauty and strength made her one of the most venerated of the goddesses. The Amazon women, who forswore contact with men outside of sex for the sole purpose of procreation, worshiped Artemis much as some modern feminists do with Lilith.
The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians worshiped goddesses that ruled over both aspects of life and death, beauty and ugliness, love and hate. Lilith has direct parallels with the Sumerian Inanna, and her Babylonian counterpart Ishtar (also dubbed Astarte and Astoreth), but also with Kali. Both Ishtar and Inanna were usually depicted as nude and often were surrounded by certain symbols, such as stars and triangles, which were evocations of the female pubic triangle thought to be sacred by many ancient cultures. Also, Ishtar, Inanna, Kali and Lilith are usually depicted as having their arms upraised in a specific gesture. They are frequently in the company of owls and lions (Lilith and Ishtar), as well as snakes (Lilith and Kali). In ancient Egypt, the warrior goddess Sekhmet drank blood and was depicted as being part lion. Sekhmet was also associated with justice, order, female vengeance and menstruation.
Over the years, contemporary theories have been drawn on further connections between these goddesses, but one thing that they all have in common is that they were emblematic of female empowerment in a world dominated by patriarchal gods. The ancient world was a man's world without doubt, in which case, perhaps the origins of these legendary women comes from the real need of women of the day for role models. But they weren't idealized women, as we would think of them today. For most people in the modern world, Lilith is a vampire, a parasite, and a predator. Not a figure of gender equality, but a female counteractor of male domination.
Throughout the past two centuries, Lilith and female vampires have been of particular interest to artists, poets, novelists, and film makers. However, these ladies of the night have been around for millennia. Below are some example of feminine vampires in art...
This is perhaps the most classical image of Lilith, however, it should be understood that while this was originally identified as Lilith based on the iconography of the owls and lions, it is quite likely a depiction of the goddess Ishtar or possibly Ereshkigal.
The Burney Relief, also known as The Queen of the Night, is a Babylonian relief believed to date back to around 1800 B.C.E. and it is currently on display in the British Museum in London.
The Temptation of Adam and Eve (from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling) by Michelangelo (1508-1512)
This image, called "The Temptation of Adam and Eve", featured in the Sistine Chapel, depicts Lilith as being the serpent that convinces them to eat of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Note that during the Renaissance period, it was Eve and not Lilith who was portrayed as the most beautiful one. This is because at the time, Lilith was considered a predatory demoness and nothing more, whereas Eve was considered to be the feminine ideal. In the current feminist belief, it is the exact opposite. Eve is now seen as being weak and is blamed for the original sin and it is Lilith who is celebrated for her independence.
Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1863)
In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1863 painting "Lady Lilith" we are given a Pre-Raphaelite image of Lilith which shows her as beautiful and vain. One could interpret this as the artist's way of saying that the feminist depiction of Lilith is self-centered and narcissistic, which is not a very popular way of thinking about Lilith or feminism today.
Lilith by John Collier (1887)
John Collier's 1887 painting "Lilith" is a classic example of the Pre-Raphaelite style and portrays Lilith as an iconic feminist figure of beauty, seduction, and power. This is something of a contrast to Dante Gabriel Rossetti's version. The snake in this image reveals that Collier did not see Lilith as being the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve, but shows her cavorting with it.
Today Lilith is a revered feminist icon and her presence is not only found in poetry and artwork, but also in the concert series Lilith Fair founded by singer Sarah McLachlan as a showcase for women in the contemporary music industry. The concert film Lilith on Top, which focuses on the Lilith Fair concert, is a direct reference to the Lilith mythos.
Other feminine vampires in art include:
The Bat-Woman by Albert-Joseph Penot (circa 1890)
Vampire by Edvard Munch (1893)
Lamia (version 1) by John William Waterhouse (1895)
The Vampire by Philip-Burne Jones (1897)
Lamia (version 2) by John William Waterhouse (1909)
Lamia by Herbert James Draper (1910)
Vampire Myths Of The Ancient World
Throughout the ancient world, there have been many vampire-like beings, most of which were female. Whether in the Far East or in ancient Europe, the vampire and its minions have been prolific. They may go by different names and their characteristics may vary, but the idea of a humanoid that feeds off of others remains constant. But how is it that the myths surrounding these creatures are so similar when they are separated by geography and hundreds, even thousands, of years?
Because Lamia was typically depicted as part woman and part serpent some stories equate her with the Gorgons, three monstrous sisters with snakes for hair and a deadly gaze, who were cursed for their conceit by the gods.
In the poem by John Keats, Hermes, the messenger god, is searching for a beautiful nymph and accidentally comes upon Lamia in the form of a serpent. When Lamia unveils the nymph's presence to Hermes, he returns her to her human form. Lamia then heads to Corinth, seeking the handsome Lycius, but their love affair is brief. When the seer Appollonius reveals Lamia's serpent form to Lycius, he dies of a broken heart.
Lamia is also associated with Empusa, another daughter of Hecate, a fearsome demon of the netherworld.
In Greek myths, there were the tales of the dread vrykolakas, an undead person doomed to roam the Earth after having committed sacrilege. The vrykolakas is quite similar to the Slavic vampires known as varkolak, which also shared similarities with werewolves. These creatures were said to have excessive body hair, glowing eyes, and would swell after death rather than decaying.
Cannibalism and vampirism have long been intertwined throughout history. Even in Greek myths, the origin of the Greek gods begins with an act of cannibalism. When the titan Kronos (also spelled Cronus, and known as Saturn to the Romans) heard of a prophecy that declared that one of his sons would overthrow him, he began to swallow all of his children whole. The theme of the older generation feasting upon the younger generation is a recurring motif in vampire lore.
In Africa, Ewe tribes people dreaded the adze, which appeared as a firefly-like insect until it was caught and then it became humanoid. The adze also could take possession of people's spirits and inhabit their bodies. Usually women were accused of being adze, especially by feuding family members. The adze would spread disease and familial conflict while feeding off of children and eating the family's food. The adze caused great panic and paranoia in the villages where it was believed to have struck, for the adze was invulnerable and could not be defeated by any mortal means. In this regard, it is the only true immortal vampire, since it cannot be killed.
In Germany, peasants took great efforts not to cross the path of the blautsauger, which literally translates to bloodsucker.
In Russia, this same creature was called the upyr, from which we derive vampyr, and the modern vampire. The word dates all the way back to ancient Slavic belief in the oupyr.
In what is now Roumania, people feared the strigoi, dead bodies that returned from the grave with a thirst for blood and the ability to shape-shift. There were many theories about what caused a person to become a strigoi and they ranged from being unmarried at the time of death to being born under the wrong astrological symbol or with an unusual birthmark. Often the strigoi would attempt to reunite with its still-living loved ones and family members. Those that died virgins
would become strigoi and attempt to rape the object of his or her desire.
Generally, the strigoi was only able to roam during the night hours and could be repelled by sunlight and even by candlelight. However, it is almost unanimous that the only way to permanently destroy a strigoi was to pierce its heart via wooden stake, then cut off its head and incinerate its body.
Roumanians were also terrified of the moroii (moroi in the modern language), a ghost-like apparition that lived off of blood. Some legends say that a moroii is the undead offspring of two strigoi, while other later legends say that the moroii is the reanimated corpse of a un-baptized child.
Further to the East, the vampire flourished long before becoming the subject of nightmares and superstitions in Europe. But the vampires of Asia were capable of more than sucking your blood or giving you an uneasy sleep.
In India the churel was a woman who died whilst in childbirth or during her menstrual cycle, so she feeds off of blood and stalks young men. She is sometimes described as being of a dark complexion, having sagging breasts, and gnarled black hair. Yet in other descriptions she is a beautiful woman that resembles the traditional Hindi goddesses. The churel is also known by the name masan or masani.
Then there are the vetala, wicked spirits that linger in cemeteries and take possession of the dead. Like so many other vampires, the vetala take particular pleasure in causing fear amongst the living by causing miscarriages and murdering children. While the vetala inhabit their corpse host, the corpse does not decay and the vetala can remain inside of it until it either voluntarily leaves or is exorcised by performing the proper funeral rites for the corpse.
The Ramayana, the sacred Sanskrit text, told of the terrible Rakshasas, demons born of the Hindu god Brahma's foot. Rakshasas have poisonous fingernails, the power to shape-shift (often into a tiger), and they feed off of human flesh and rotten food. In some legends, Rakshasas were fallen warriors or wicked mortals who resorted to witchcraft and black magicks. Often Rakshasas appear on the battlefield and feast on the injured and the dead. In the Ramayana, during the great battle of Lanka, Rakshasas were organized into an army by the hideous demon Ravana and they battled against the noble warrior prince Rama and his army of warrior monkeys. Rama, his brother Lakshmana, and his monkey army defeated the Rakshasas with bows and arrows.
In China, it is the Jiang Shi that most closely resembles the vampire. The jiang shi is a grotesque reanimated corpse that fed off of the chi, or life force, of other creatures. The jiang shi's skin is typically grey and rotting and they are usually depicted as having large black tongues and hollow eyes. It was believed that one could become a jiang shi if one died a dishonorable death, such as suicide or dying a traitor, or if one died while traveling and could not be given the proper funeral rites. The jiang shi could only be laid to rest if they were buried in the dirt of their hometown and blessed by a Chinese priest. During this process, the priest would transport the weakened jiang shi on a bamboo cart with bells attached to warn off any curious peasants that might come too close.
In Japan, the nukekubi appear to be normal people during the daylight hours, but they are anything but. At night they reveal their true demonic form as they can remove their heads, which can fly of their own volition independently of their bodies, and they hunt the living for food. They shriek as they stalk their victims so that they may instill them with terror, which the nukekubi also feed off of. The nukekubi's headless bodies are completely inanimate without their heads and it is believed if the nukekubi cannot locate its body before the first light of dawn, then it is destroyed by the rays of the sun.
A similar demon haunted the Philippines. When the Spaniards began to colonize the Philippines in the 16th century, they were rather stunned to see that pagan superstitions still held sway over the indigenous peoples. Of all the ancient mythical monsters, they most greatly feared the aswang. Generally, the aswang is identified as being a vampiric creature, but the word was also used to refer to a number of supernatural beings, including witches and shape-shifters. The monster that one typically was thinking of when they uttered the term was a manananggal. The manananggal was a terrifying creature with wings and fangs that devoured its victims. In the folk art of the Visayan regions of the Philippines, the manananggal is usually shown as a corpse severed in half at the waist with its torso suspended in mid-air above the lower part of its body. The manananggal is often depicted as being a beautiful women, who can cut itself in half in order to take flight and pursue its prey on land as well as in the air. The manananggal is fond of stalking young girls and pregnant women and uses its long serpentine tongue to suck the blood from the hearts of babies.
The manananggal was not without its weaknesses though. It was sensitive to sunlight, garlic, vinegar, and salt. If the manananggal was impaled by either a dagger, spear, or an arrow it could be killed. The manananggal's source of power was said to be a black chick in its throat and that if that chick was destroyed, the manananggal lost all of its strengths and died.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, similar creatures were reputed to exist. There they are known by the name of penanggalan.
Vampires In Religion, Folklore, Superstition, & The Occult During The Middle Ages
In the ancient world, the vampire myth, like all myths, was an attempt to grasp at an understanding of how the world functioned. The peoples of the time did not possess the knowledge of modern sciences that we do today, so they would tell stories to explain away the mysteries that they encountered. The early vampire myths served a particular purpose. On the one hand, they were a way of trying to comprehend the concept of death and make sense of natural processes like decomposition and decay, which most people were ignorant about. The early vampire stories also provided them with an explanation for the mysterious yet frequent deaths of infants and children during a time when the mortality rate was high. On the other hand, however, vampire stories were a primitive way for men to warn one another of uninhibited feminine eroticism and became the emotional outlet for their phobias and insecurities. Since the majority of ancient cultures were patriarchal, most vampires were women, but as the Christian faith steadily rose to become the dominant religion of Europe, the Church was eager to warn people of the evils and temptations of the Devil. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the prospects of an existence after death and how the consequences in the afterlife would directly reflect the choices one made while living. Since it was necessary to save as many souls as possible, both male and female, the vampire became unisex... for both men and women could be infected by the wickedness of the Devil and the bloodlust of the vampire.
During the early centuries of the Christian era (which lasted until about the 6th century A.D.) pagan followers still outnumbered those of the Judeo-Christian faiths, but pagan ideologies were slowly on the decline. Yet, while the old beliefs began to fall into obscurity, some myths and superstitions were re-popularized. It became apparent to the founding fathers of the Church that the majority of pagans and atheists were unlikely to leave their godless ways and convert to Christianity. In part, this was because the Church believed in and enforced a restrictive code of ethics while non-believers basically did as they pleased. In order to ensure the longevity of their foundling religion, priests and bishops throughout Europe began to make strange compromises in the hope of attracting more followers. One way in which they did this was to create days that would be sacred to Christians, holy days or holidays, which they then placed on the same dates as ritualistic pagan celebrations. Another way that they recruited new followers, and a far more insidious one, was to demonize and vilify all other religions and cultures as being Satanic. In fact, all foreign influences were deemed evil or tainted by some manner of devilry. Soon Christianity was waging a war for the souls of all of Europe and for political control of many nations. The vilification of minorities became particularly common during the Middle Ages (500-1600 A.D.) and especially during the Crusades of the 11th, 13th, and 15th centuries. During the Crusades, the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all at war for the possession of holy Jerusalem and control over the Middle East.
Yet of all the tactics that the Christian Church employed to convert people and to scare them into repentance, perhaps the most unexpected was that they reinforced belief in demons, devils, and other supernatural beings... including vampires.
The belief in vampires was most pervasive in the villages and towns of Eastern Europe. One reason for this was that the Eastern Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic Church in the west, was less concerned with stamping out pre-Christian belief systems. On the contrary, the Eastern Orthodox Church would at times even use local folklore and pagan myths in conjecture with Biblical tales in order to appeal to a greater number of people, but they also did this as a way to instill a specific moral ideal.
As a result, Christianity in Eastern Europe absorbed many of the superstitions and pagan mythical archetypes of that region and helped to keep the myth of the vampire alive. Believe it or not, there are still some remote regions where people still believe in and fear the existence of vampires as much as they believe in God or fear the Devil.
Later in 1215, the Catholic Church finally acknowledged the existence of vampires and officially declared them to be minions of Satan.
With a symbiotic belief in both Christianity and the occult in place, the image of the vampire would evolve into that of a more powerful and diabolical creature than ever before.
Now, I should probably point out at this time that the belief in vampires wasn't held just by the poor or the superstitious villagers of small isolated communities. People in the cities also were stricken with panic, though they had the benefit of greater educational facilities and thus superstitions were unfavorable amongst the elite social class.
One noted historian, very well respected for his reliable written historical accounts, recorded incidents of vampirism. In The History of English Affairs, William Parvus, better known as William of Newburgh, explained how the Church went to great lengths to destroy any vampires and how seriously they took any rumors of vampiric activity. William of Newburgh also documented an alleged case of vampirism in Buckinghamshire, where a man who was buried and believed dead, returned from his grave and repeatedly assaulted his former wife over the course of three nights. On the third night, she gathered family members and neighbors prior to the nocturnal attack and they managed to repel the "living corpse" away. But it wasn't enough. The dead man began to prey upon his own brothers until finally he was destroyed by being burnt to ashes.
This form of immolation was rare because it required a great amount of wood since the human body could only be completely incinerated if the temperature of the fire remains at a steady 700º Celsius or 1400º Fahrenheit (most modern crematoriums keep the temperature at 1600º Fahrenheit). Typically, to make things easier, the vampire would be destroyed by impaling it through the heart with a hard wooden stake, then by cutting off the head, and burning the heart into ashes. This was how vampires were usually dealt with throughout most of Europe, but especially in Eastern Europe. Sometimes, the ashes of the vampire's heart were used to make a concoction that was meant to have curative properties for those afflicted with certain illnesses. Other ways to kill or injure a vampire included dousing it with holy water or forcing it to eat Communion wafers, exposing it to the rays of the sun, or by tricking it into crossing the threshold of a church or temple. The vampire was also meant to be vulnerable to garlic, which was supposedly used as a repellant, but in actuality was used to cover up the foul stench of rotting corpses. Sometimes, according to folk tradition, the wounds of the vampire would be smeared with garlic or wolfsbane, which prevented it from returning from regenerating. A vampire could also be weakened if you prevented it from returning to its coffin or grave or if you could lure it into a circle of salt. Sometimes the vampire would also be buried at a crossroads, symbolically damning it to an eternal limbo, because peasants felt that if the vampire should arise it would be confused and not know in which direction its victims were. The vampire was also restricted to travel by land and air, so it could not cross over running water. The reason for this isn't really known. Some superstitions held that supernatural beings and magical spells could not cross running water, because water was the ultimate symbol of the purity of nature and would wash away all unnatural magicks. Other theories suggest that the vampire is unable cross running water because it simply cannot swim since it's so bloated with blood or that the water will dissolve the vampire's rotting flesh.
Writer Walter Map, who claimed to be Welsh, but was likely from Herefordshire, served as a courtier to King Henry II. Map encountered many prominent historical figures and witnessed many important events. His only surviving written work is the De Nugis Curialium (or The Trifles of Curriers) and consisted mainly of gossip and satirical tales, but little in the way of authentic historical information. Map ostensibly wrote a story about Lancelot, the chivalrous knight of Arthurian legend, but is best known for having documented some of the earliest stories of vampires.
There seemed to be various types of vampires in various regions of Europe. The aforementioned strigoi stalked the forests, mountains, and villages of Eastern Europe, particularly in the lands that formed what is now modern Roumania. There in the east, the vampires were not only numerous, but also extremely powerful. Like the werewolf and other shape-shifters, the vampire could assume the form of an animal. Typically, they would change into predatory creatures like wolves, venomous snakes, and cats, but they were also known to take the form of rats. The association between vampires and rats is of particular interest to historical scholars today, but I'll expound upon that later on.
Further to the west, in England, France, and in the Mediterranean, the vampire was less powerful and less prolific. However, that would change dramatically in the 14th century... as the plague swept across Europe leaving behind a seemingly endless trail of corpses.
Vampirism, Disease, Death, And Decay
In 1347, all of Europe was consumed with paranoia and rabid fears about human mortality. Death was everywhere and affected everyone; like a curtain of black oblivion that hung over the population, ready to swallow up the people it ensnared. The plague was on everyone's minds, yet few ever dared to speak of it because they thought doing so would summon it forth and that the life of the speaker would become forfeit. Superstitions grew around the dreaded disease since no one had any medical knowledge of its origins or how it spread.
Today, we know that the Black Death originated in the Byzantine Empire sometime in the 6th century or thereabouts, and that it came to Europe in the 1340s when the Mongol army fought in Crimea, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea. The Mongols were desperate for victory, so they devised a plan that would enable them to destroy their enemies' ranks from within. They developed an early form of germ warfare and catapulted the carcasses of diseased animals and people over the walls of their enemies' fortresses. One of the fortresses that was attacked was being defended by Italian soldiers from Genoa. When they returned home, they unknowingly brought the plague with them. Soon, all of Europe and much of Asia was reduced to a state of panic.
Many Christians feared that the Apocalypse of Biblical prophecy was upon them. They blamed the plague on the Devil and those that refused to embrace the Christian faith (mainly Jews, Muslims, and foreigners from the south and east). Some religious fanatics even went so far as to form masochistic parades, in which they would march up and down the streets whipping themselves. Thinking that the pain it brought them would purify their souls, they did this in emulation of Jesus who was whipped before being crucified. More shocking still was that many people turned upon one another and destroyed friendships and familial bonds in order to place blame on each other for the proliferation of the Black Death. Naturally, when entire towns were lain waste by the plague, it became clear that no single person could be responsible for the devastating disease. It wasn't long before people returned to outdated ideas and beliefs, from virtually extinct pagan religions, in an effort to explain the disease. If indeed the Devil was to blame, then it seemed likely that demons were the carriers of the Black Death.
Since blood was considered the universal life force, all diseases were thought to come from bad blood. In those days, blood was usually only mixed through the act of biological reproduction, when two people had sex and produced offspring. Blood was deemed sacred by the Bible and blood transfusions weren't performed regularly until about three hundred years later when Jean-Baptiste Denys began to experiment with the procedure. Another way that blood was mixed was in certain ritualistic practices, many of them in the Voodoo (Vodun) religions of West Africa. However, neither Voodoo blood rituals or blood transfers were around in Europe during the plague. So, how did the "bad blood" continue to infect people?
The discovery came when people realized that there was a herald of the Black Death: the black rat. The black rat had come from Asia on ships and, as they multiplied, caused the disease to spread across the map, from one port to the next. It was decided that the black rat was responsible for the cycle of infection, but this answer did little to satisfy people's need to be comforted in their time of hysteric desperation. In Europe, the rat was already somewhat reviled as a harbinger of bad luck and as a familiar, an evil animal servant of demonic forces. In Eastern Europe, where the plague first infiltrated the European continent, rats were associated with witches and vampires. So, as the plague was carried from village to village, so too was the supernatural explanation.
However, we can safely say that vampires nor rats were the cause of the Black Death. In reality, the greatest army that ever walked the face of the Earth was so small that it almost escaped notice. The Black Death, now known as the bubonic plague, was carried by fleas. One can almost picture how it all began, as a number of fleas fed off of an infected animal and how they could so easily pass on the infection to the next animal they fed from. As the infection was passed from one carrier to the next, it would likely have evolved into a fatal bacteria. By the time that the bubonic plague reached the larger population of black rats, it had been cultivated into the most deadly natural weapon: an unstoppable, highly contagious disease.
But how the plague was transmitted is somewhat off-topic, the point being that it was partly responsible for making vampires one of the most feared of supernatural monsters.
With people sick and dying all over, the idea that perhaps some of them may leave their graves and propel the pestilence became very real and people who would otherwise have been very sensible began to let their fears take hold of them. However, when viewed from a perfectly logical perspective, almost all of the old vampire tales from this time can be discredited with simple scientific analysis.
There were certain signs that people looked for to prove that someone was a vampire.
In the case of the living, they would become suspicious of anyone who avoided daylight, lived in seclusion, and acted outside of the behavioral norm. People afflicted with certain diseases were believed to be vampires. One such disease was porphyria, which was a rare genetic condition that had a number of strange symptoms including extreme sensitivity to sunlight (photodermatitis), muscle pains, and in some instances violent seizures. Porphyria would frequently cause the gums to tighten around the teeth and created the illusion of longer canine teeth and it also greatly affected skin pigmentation and would make the skin appear of a purple tint. One of the earliest folk treatments for porphyria was to eat foods rich in protein and to drink blood. However, it should not go unnoticed that the disease was incredibly rare and that the idea that it alone would inspire vampire lore is very improbable.
Another disease that might have attributed to the belief in vampires is catalepsy, which caused the affected person to go numb and immobile. Catalepsy would also cause people to drift in and out of consciousness and sometimes people with the disorder were believed to have died. Some historians feel that people who suffered from catalepsy may have been buried alive and then returned from their resting place.
Cholera is another disease which may have been misdiagnosed as vampirism. Cholera caused a deep unquenchable thirst, severe dehydration, and explosive diarrhea.
But the disease that is most likely to have been mistaken for vampirism, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, is pulmonary tuberculosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis had a number of symptoms that related to vampires and the undead. One symptom was labored breathing and the coughing up of blood. High-grade fevers would set in and sometimes the infected would have hallucinations and speak nonsensically. People suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis sometimes would sink into comas and were mistaken for dead and buried alive. This also fed into the idea of people returning from their graves.
In the case of the dead, people looked for a corpse that was bloated, had not visibly decayed as they should have, or for signs that the corpse may have fed. What they didn't know was that in the natural process of decomposition, a person will bloat as the gases in their bodies build up and as their organs liquefy. Their appearance may seem little changed from when they were alive since often in cold, dry climates the process of decay is slowed down (the opposite being true for warm, humid climates). The person's hair and fingernails may have seemed to have grown, ergo they were still alive, but this is not true. The hair and fingernails do not actually grow after death. Rather, as the moisture in the body evaporates, the skin and soft tissue tighten and pull back revealing more of the hair follicle and fingernails. The bodily fluids would rise up and escape through orifices like the mouth and nose. These fluids were typically pink or red since they contained blood and human tissue; as such it was assumed that these corpses had been drinking blood.
Vampires were of demonic origin in the eyes of the Church and the Devil's minions were thought to be born of the Earth, not of the divine Heavens, so people would stake the corpse into the ground so that it could not rise and attack the living. Often, the corpses legs were also broken so that it would never be able to walk again. In fact, vampire hunts became so common that it was outlawed by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who disbelieved in vampires and disapproved of grave desecration. She sent her personal physician to investigate an alleged case of vampirism and when he returned and said that he doubted that there actually was a vampire or that they even existed, vampire hunting was officially made illegal, but this in no way put an end to the vigilantism of fearful peasants.
The mythology of vampires would continue to evolve over the course of the next few centuries, until finally it met its zenith in the world of popular culture. Vampires would soon become the subject of literature and artwork and their transformation would see them go from being horrific walking corpses that carried disease to the debonair villains of popular Gothic novels.
The Vampire In Literature
Vampire hysteria was so pervasive that the Church actually hired full-time vampire hunters. In Eastern Europe, a dhampir was usually called upon to exorcise the living dead. In Slavic vampire lore, the dhampir was a man born of a vampire father and a mortal human mother, and was said to possess superhuman abilities, including a psychic awareness of other vampires. Because of his supernatural abilities, the dhampir was the perfect vampire hunter and has in recent years been something of a romantic anti-hero.
Vampire hunting became so frequent an occurrence that a legal guide to vampire hunting was written. The Magia Posthuma is widely considered one of the first true pieces of vampire literature, outside of the documentation of folklore and myth by William of Newburgh and Walter Map, because it took a purely logical (for the times, anyway) look at vampires. The Magia Posthuma was written by Catholic lawyer Karl Ferdinand von Schertz (a.k.a. Charles Ferdinand de Schertz) and was first published in 1704.
In 1725, deacon Michael Ranft attempted to explain vampirism and the reanimation of corpses in his book De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis. Ranft, who based his ideas on the folkloric tradition, theorized that the people most likely to turn into vampires or suffer from mysterious diseases were those with family members that had recently died. He also thought that people who experienced troubled sleep or bizarre dreams may have inadvertently come into contact with the undead.
Perhaps the most important book written on vampires around this time was The Phantom World: A Treatise on Vampires and Revenants, written by French Benedictine monk Dom Augustin Calmet. Calmet implied that he believed in the existence of vampires, however he doubted many of the myths surrounding them. In particular, he questioned the plausibility that a vampire could dig itself out of a coffin buried six feet in the ground. He also pondered exactly what powers a vampire might really have and even went so far as to explain them in early scientific terms.
As a distinct genre in the realm of literature, the vampire's fictional roots can be traced to poems by authors such as Heinrich August Ossenfelder, Gottfried August Burger, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But for the most part, readers don't catch on to the vampire's allure until the Gothic horror genre is born.
Gothic literature has its origins in Germanic folklore and medieval concepts of romance. Many of the writers of the Gothic genre also drew on Shakespearean melodrama and poetic irony. The Gothic genre is often characterized by a gloomy atmosphere and a combination of overt eroticism, xenophobia, and hints of the supernatural.
Most literary historians seem to agree that the Gothic genre first came into being with the 1764 melodrama, The Castle of Otranto, written by English writer Horace Walpole. Walpole's novel told the tale of the controlling Manfred and his dysfunctional family. Manfred attempts to avert a prophecy that his family dynasty will end in ruins, so he divorces his wife and woos Princess Isabella of Vincenza. Isabella, who had been engaged to Manfred's late son, is deeply in love with the handsome Theodore. Yet, Theodore lusts after Manfred's beautiful daughter, Matilda. In a bout of lust and madness, Manfred slays his own daughter while pursuing Isabella and then repents for his grave sin. The story mixes elements of the supernatural, which are very poorly explained, with unrequited love, which is very predictable. The end result is a book that is very hard to read due to its dated prose and concepts of courtship, however, it is noteworthy since it not only established a new and popular literary genre, but also because it helped to influence stories of the supernatural.
Anne Radcliffe's 1794 novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, is a far more interesting work of fiction and it further developed the supernatural mystery of The Castle of Otranto. The Mysteries of Udolpho centers around the young and beautiful Emily St. Aubert and her misfortunes. After her father's death, Emily is courted by her vile uncle, Montoni, who imprisons Emily in the crumbling castle of Udolpho. As the story unfolds, readers were treated to vivid descriptions of various terrors, sexual intrigue, and seemingly occult incidents, though all are explained with much contrivance. The story unravels at a slow pace, which may frustrate some contemporary readers, but its ability to progressively heighten the suspense is admirable. The Mysteries of Udolpho is an important book for a number of reasons, but most of all, because of its influence on Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
A book that moves at a much faster pace is The Monk. The Monk was the work of Matthew Lewis, who wrote the book over the course of ten weeks and the plot displays his feverish inspiration and his talent. The story focuses on Ambrosio, a pure and pious monk, who is tempted by the Devil in female form and is promptly lead to his own horrific downfall. Ambrosio's downward spiral could almost be seen as a reversed version of The Divine Comedy, though it is written in a much less respectable manner.
Following in the footsteps of Matthew Lewis, Irish author Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer is a superbly crafted story that tells of a traveling Jewish scholar, John Melmoth, who sells his soul to the Devil so that he may have an extension on his life. Much like in Faust, Melmoth's deal turns out to be a bad one as his world collapses into incendiary misery.
The Gothic genre then evolved into something new and more horrific with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shelley, at the time still Mary Godwin, had been present at a party one fateful night in 1916 in Geneva. There she, her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friends Lord Byron, and John Polidori took on an artistic challenge. The four of them decided to compete to see who could write the most frightening work of literature. Mary Shelley produced a masterpiece with Frankenstein, which was later published in 1818 anonymously. Lord Byron began a story about a vampire, but then gave up in frustration. His idea, however, provided the inspiration for John Polidori's 1819 short story The Vampyre, which in turn became the inspiration for future works.
The Vampyre is acknowledged by many to be the first true work of Gothic vampire fiction and it set the tone for almost all other vampire stories in the 19th century. The story is about Lord Ruthven, a vampire and nobleman, who infiltrates London high society and seduces women before feeding on them. The Vampyre is also the first time in which the vampire is portrayed as a romantic male figure and the first time that the act of sucking blood was used as a metaphor for rape, which was too controversial to discuss outright in literature at the times.
The next notable vampire story came in the form of a penny dreadful known as Varney the Vampire, which was published anonymously as most penny dreadfuls were. The penny dreadful was a popular form of fiction during the 19th century and shares much with the pulp magazines of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. The story unfolds in a serialized format, published over the course of two years in magazines. Varney the Vampire tells the convoluted story of an eccentric vampire figure named Sir Francis Varney and his interactions with the family that he has been secretly preying upon. The story has been attributed to two different writers, the prolific writer Thomas Preskett Prest, and the little known James Malcolm Rymer.
Then came the short story Carmilla in 1872. Carmilla was quite literally a new breed of vampire story. Author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu took the pre-existing romantic vampire archetype and brought a level of eroticism to it that hasn't really ever been surpassed since. The story functions as a Sapphic romance between the innocent Laura and the seductive stranger Carmilla, a lesbian vampire. The story is likely the most adept piece of writing in vampire literature up until that point and its startling eroticism was unmatched until D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover published in 1928.
The story is also significant in that it was the main source of inspiration for the greatest vampire novel of all... Dracula.
When Bram Stoker, Irish author and manager of the Lyceum Theatre, set out to write a vampire story of his own, he could have no idea what he was going to unleash upon the world. His novel took on elements of authentic vampire lore and combined them with all the trappings of a Gothic melodrama, and laced it all together with a primordial battle of good against evil.
It's not known when exactly Stoker first came up with the idea of doing a vampire novel or what inspired him, however, it is well known that he drew many of his themes from previous Gothic horror novels and Victorian tales having to do with the spiritual conflict of the emerging modernity and its rival in the beliefs of antiquity. As such, Dracula became a tale of science versus religion, immorality versus Christianity, and the English versus the foreigner. Dracula represented many of England's current fears and anxieties about foreign influence on their culture. Unsurprisingly, there are strong themes of xenophobia throughout the novel. There were also undertones of homoeroticism, which likely went unnoticed by the author (some have even suggested that Stoker was a closeted homosexual). There are a number of scenes within the story that suggest this, particularly a scene in which three of Dracula's brides descend upon the ineffectual English hero, Jonathan Harker, and the Count demands that the women leave him alone as he proclaims, "How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me! Beware how you meddle with him, or you'll have to deal with me!"
In Stoker's research, he not only read many of the vampire stories of the past (namely those of Polidori and Le Fanu, which provided the most influence), but he also read Scottish author Emily Gerard's books Transylvanian Superstitions and The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania. In all likelihood, it is because of these two books that Stoker latched onto two historical figures for inspiration.
While studying Eastern European folklore and history, Bram Stoker came across accounts of Vlad Dracula, a 15th century ruler in what is now present-day Roumania. Vlad Dracula was a notoriously bloodthirsty and vengeful Prince who fought against the Turkish invasion of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad Dracula was known for his brutal methods of torturing and disposing of his rivals. His preferred method was impalement, which he did on such a horrifically vast scale (historical documents suggest that he had as many as 10,000 people were impaled and as many as 100,000 murdered) that it earned him the nickname Vlad "Tepes", Hungarian for "The Impaler".
Another point of interest is the name Dracula, which inspired Stoker. Originally, Stoker's main character was called Count Wampyr (another Eastern European word for vampire), but the name Dracula was too tempting to use, not to mention that the connections between Transylvania and impalement were too good to pass up. I should also point out that the name Dracula has two meanings, which were of great interest to Stoker. Vlad Dracula was the son of Vlad Dracul, whose name means both dragon and devil in Roumanian, and as such Dracula literally translates to "the son of the devil". So, Stoker rewrote his novel with the name Dracula and ever since the historical Dracula and the fictional vampire Count Dracula have been linked together in the public consciousness.
During research, Stoker also came across another historical figure: Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Bathory was a beautiful Hungarian noblewoman, who became famous (or perhaps more appropriately infamous) as one of the first known female serial killers. Bathory's family had a long history of mental illness and it could be said that she was the pinnacle of madness. Elizabeth is thought to have been a lesbian, despite having been married to Nadasdy Ferenc, to whom she showed little interest. Ferenc was frequently absent and while he was Elizabeth kept herself busy in a number of ways. Elizabeth and four of her personal servants took it upon themselves to hire girls from the nearby villages to serve as handmaidens. Allegedly when Elizabeth set about viciously punishing one of the young girls, some blood spilled on to her skin and soon she believed that the blood held some mystical regenerative powers and had restored her youth. After this fateful incident, Elizabeth and her four servants carried out a kidnapping plan and abducted, tortured, and murdered over 600 young girls. Elizabeth was under the delusion that bathing in and drinking the blood of virgin girls would make her younger. Soon, she became dreaded by the peasants and even the nobility. Eventually, after many accusations, she was investigated by order of King Matthias of Hungary, and her servants were put to death while she was confined to solitary imprisonment until her death in 1614.
Stoker would combine elements of both of these legendary killers while creating his own legendary monster. Stoker also drew inspiration from his employer and sometime friend, Sir Henry Irving, who was renowned for playing Shakespearean villains and anti-heroes like Shylock and Macbeth, as well as Mephistopheles in Faust. It's safe to say that Stoker and Irving's relationship was a contentious one and that Stoker, who idolized Irving as a theatrical genius, was often show little respect. Stoker modeled some of Count Dracula's mannerisms on Irving and even had hoped that, if the book were to be published, that Irving might play Count Dracula in a stage adaptation. However, this dream died suddenly when during a reading of the entire novel for the sake of copyright, Irving supposedly balked at the premise of the novel, shouted out "Dreadful," and then stomped out of the room. This was ultimately unwise.
Dracula went on to become a critical success, though at first commercially it was only moderate in its financial returns. The book has been in print, available by various publishing companies, every single year since it was published. Since its publication in 1897, the novel has epitomized the Gothic horror genre and given birth to a new sub-genre: Dracula. Dracula would go on to become the subject of more films (nearly 300) than any other fictional character. In 1922, audiences saw the first adaptation of Dracula in the unauthorized 1922 film Nosferatu and in 1931, Dracula was forever immortalized on screen by Hungarian actor Béla Lugosi.
Since 1897, barely a year has gone by that a vampire story wasn't published. The most noteworthy vampire novels in recent years include Richard Matheson's 1957 book I Am Legend about a sole survivor of a disease that turns people into blood-thirsty zombies, Stephen King's 1975 book 'Salem's Lot about a man returning to his childhood town only to discover that vampires are living there, and Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, which was a romantic and tragic take on what it was like to be a vampire. Countless hundreds upon hundreds of others have followed.
The vampire has permeated our pop culture like no other monster, but why?
Scholars and scientists have pointed out time and time again that in actual reality, vampires do not exist. Yet this fact seems to be almost irrelevant when one considers that whether real or imagined, vampires and vampiric creatures have terrified and fascinated peoples all over the world for ages. There is something inherent in the vampire myths that we, as humans, find to be attractive or at least intriguing.
One could argue that from a psychological perspective, the vampire represents all that humankind secretly desires yet fears to be. The vampire is powerful, undying, and capable of great feats of mental and physical skill. They can act on all of their most sexual, violent, and primitive impulses without guilt or regret. They, just as we, can appear beautiful or hideous to mask their true intentions. Their amorphous nature is as complex as our own is.
From a sociological perspective, the vampire represents the ultimate outsider, the powerful and enigmatic stranger. The vampire is an outcast, who can never be adopted into normal society and yet is doomed to live at its expense. It is the romantic, tragic, and often ironic expression of the individual wishing to integrate into a world that rejects it.
From a purely political perspective, the vampire is a predatory being that feeds off of the masses and rules over them through enslavement and the application of fear tactics. The vampire is the tyrant lusting for power and control, the capitalist who embraces materialism and inequality, the infidel who rejects spirituality, and the fascist who dominates the individual while forcing it to assimilate into a uniform persona. The vampire is a parasite that lives to fulfill its own selfish needs and desires while exploiting those with less power. The vampire is the immortal and immoral consumer with a hunger that is insatiable.
From a theological perspective, the vampire represents humanity's dark side. The vampire is the seducer, the corrupter, and the monster that seeks to not only pervert the soul, but the body and mind as well. It is a creature that knows neither love nor fear, outside of its own egocentric mindset. It embraces all things deemed profane or blasphemous and condemns all things perceived as holy. The vampire has no sense of community or altruism, but lives to taint the righteous and divide society for its own gain. It is the id from Hell.
So, did vampires ever walk the Earth? Maybe and maybe not, but their presence and their influence are profound, regardless of whether or not they existed. Like all religious and mythological icons, they may or may not be real, but our belief in them and our fascination with them imbues the vampire with a great significance.
Many people have wondered why the vampire is said to cast no reflection. Some feel it is because the vampire has no soul and lacks any spiritual substance. I have my own theory: vampires cast no reflection because they themselves are a reflection... of us. The vampire is a mirror that can be held up before the human race, a mirror that allows us to examine our fears and fetishes, our progress and our goals, our aspirations and our shortcomings. They are the external manifestation of our psyches unleashed. As we have evolved and metamorphosed into our current cultural state, so too has the vampire. That is why the vampire never dies except at our hand or at the hand of nature. The vampire is a constant critique of the human race and only with our continual mental growth and self understanding can we ever put that criticism to rest. So long as we are a flawed race, there will be vampires. So, to answer that most paradoxical of questions, are vampires real? Yes, they are us.