“But these are all dead, and I am alive!” I objected, shuddering.
“Not much,” rejoined the sexton with a smile, “—not nearly enough! Blessed be the true life that the pauses between its throbs are not death!”
“The place is too cold to let one sleep!” I said.
“Do these find it so?” he returned. “They sleep well—or will soon. Of cold they feel not a breath: it heals their wounds.—Do not be a coward, Mr. Vane. Turn your back on fear, and your face to whatever may come. Give yourself up to the night, and you will rest indeed. Harm will not come to you, but a good you cannot foreknow.”
George MacDonald, Lilith ch. vii (1895).
The other night I fell asleep with my windows open. A refreshing chill awakened me. Summer’s days were numbered. Autumn was literally in the air.
Vigorously as I maintain that spring is the joy and crown of the seasons, I have come to appreciate the retreat of summer before the advance of autumn. There are obvious reasons for this: crisp air, golden afternoons, brilliant leaves. There are, however, less obvious reasons: lengthening shadows, shortening days, death. If spring’s motif is resurrection, autumn’s motif is death. What is the succession of changing leaves but a vivid death march, with the brilliant maples in the vanguard and the subdued crimson of the stately oaks holding the rearguard? And, when the last of the oak leaves has given up the ghost, what remains on the branches? Thousands of magnificent little death monuments, the bronzed beech leaves.
For the conclusion of last year’s Trinity season, I wrote a paean to maturity under the sun. Under the sun, though, what follows maturity? Death. In embracing the former, we cannot help but receive the latter — to lay down in the cold, not knowing when we will rise.
In the merciful providence of God we need not flee the brilliance or the cold of advancing death. This thing, which once was our dread enemy, has been conquered by a Man. It is now His instrument for cleansing the old earth’s palate for the new earth, and our palate for the resurrection. Just as sleep has ever been His instrument for cleansing our palates for the new day, and autumn His instrument for cleansing the world’s palate for the freshness of spring.
When most of you think of vampires you probably think of an undead bloodsucker, able to change shape into a bat or perhaps a wolf, susceptible to garlic, crosses, holy water, a stake through the heart, or sunlight…or perhaps as pale youngsters that sparkle in the sun…more’s the pity. As you saw in my last vampire post, most of these beliefs have little, if any, basis in the oldest vampire myths. In fact much of our modern concept of vampires originated in medieval Europe, most of it during the Renaissance. While most of the superstitions of Europe were busily fading away in the face of rationalism, belief in vampires grew more common. The majority of classical vampire lore comes from the 18th century and originates from Eastern Europe.
The Slavic traditions concerning vampires are many and varied. In some practically anyone could become a vampire. Causes of vampirism ranged from being an immoral person, a witch, or being excommunicated from the church, to being born with an extra nipple, hair in strange places, or deformed. People with these attributes would undoubtedly rise as vampires after they died. Other causes were improper burial, being killed by a vampire, or being a child born of incestuous parentage. Perhaps the oddest belief is that a vampire might be created by an animal jumping over a person’s grave, or a bird flying directly over it. Depending on the tradition vampires might be the risen dead, very evil but still living people, or a combination of both. For instance the Strigoi is a Romanian witch that rises as a vampire after it’s death. One oddity that some of you may note is that, while the majority of ancient vampiric creatures listed in my last post are distinctly female, medieval vampires (both Slavic and otherwise) tended to be male.
In southern Slavic folklore, unlike the above, becoming a vampire was a relatively long process that began with a recently deceased person rising as a shadow spirit. This spirit would attack others and drink their blood until it had enough strength to form a body of it’s own, usually resembling it’s body in life. These vampires, known as Lugat, were almost always male, fully capable of physical interaction and sometimes even returned to their former lives. They were also capable of having children and, in the folklore, only the child of a Lugat could identify and kill other Lugat. These children were known as Dhampir.
It is during this time period that the Church became involved in vampire lore. In Hungary, among other places, the Inquisition hunted vampires, and in Greece priests were hired to exhume the bodies of dead relatives (who were feared to be at risk of becoming vampires) and bathe the bodies in wine while reading or chanting scriptures over them. By the time vampire lore had traveled to Germany, and then further into western Europe, they had become susceptible to crosses, holy water, and consecrated ground. In fact a French Theologian named Antoine Augustine Calmet collected numerous accounts of vampiric activity that he published in a treatise in 1746. While Calmet never explicitly argued for the existence of vampires, his treatise was considered by many, including Voltaire, to be supportive of such a belief.
The mid eighteenth century was the height of vampiric awareness as, beginning in East Prussia in 1721, a series of ‘vampire’ attacks spread panic across much of Europe. There are two well documented cases from this period: that of Peter Plogojowitz, whose death in 1725 was followed by numerous sitings of him moving through his home village and a spate of unusual deaths, and Arnold Paole, who may be the origin of the idea that a vampire can be killed by decapitation. At the very least, Paole is the earliest documented example of decapitation being used to kill a suspected vampire that I have been able to find. The belief that a vampire could be killed by driving a stake through it’s heart also originated in eastern Europe, the preferred woods were Ash, Hawthorne, and later Oak. Some European vampires were shape-shifters, in northern Slavic legends vampires would often appear as butterflies, while in Greek folklore vampires and werewolves were one and the same, known as Vyrkolakas.
Unlike most modern conceptions, which depict vampires as attractive and seductive, medieval vampires were usually extremely ugly. Descriptions vary widely from descriptions of tattered, winged monsters, to bloated, pinkish cadavers filled with fresh blood, to withered corpses with unkempt hair and nails. In fact of all the medieval vampire folklore only the southern Slavic folklore (the Lugat mentioned earlier), the medieval Jewish conception of vampires (children of Lilith that tend to be female and can often transform themselves into cats), and the Baobhan Sith (pronounced Baa’van Shee; a Scottish fairy vampire) were attractive or seductive in nature.
However, spread among these stories we can see many of the modern ideas of the vampire. You may remember from my last post that the belief that vampires abhor garlic goes back to the earliest myths about vampiric creatures, as does a weakness to hawthorne and their need for blood as sustenance. The medieval traditions add in a weakness to artifacts, images, words, and places connected with Christianity, the connection between vampires and werewolves, and the ability of vampires to change their shape. However, at this point, our favorite bloodsuckers are still not injured or killed by sunlight, do not have to sleep in their coffins during the day or sleep on the soil of their homeland. While some legends state that they can be killed with a stake through the heart or decapitation, there are others that require the use of fire or an exorcism. You might also note that, at this point, only those vampires that have wings can fly, but they can cross running water, which is important if you ever need to get away from one. Next time around I’ll be looking at the tradition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Upcoming Novel: For any of you who are interested I am planning on publishing my first novel on July 1st through Kindle. Right now I am going back and forth between titles, the two favorites being The Neshelim: A Journal of the Scholar Priest Chin Cao Yu and Among the Neshelim. Other possibilities include Through the Desert of Hope and Darkness, The Duty of a Priest, and A People Like No Other. If you have an opinion please feel free to share it.
It was inevitable. You all knew it was going to happen. How could I run a series on things that go bump in the night (or day, sometimes twilight) and not talk about the dark lords of the night? Now, obviously, I am not going to be able to cover the entirety of vampire lore and fiction in one post, I’m not even going to try, so do check back for other posts in this sub-series. I’m not going to promise them immediately, but I’ll get around to them eventually. For this post I’m going to focus on the oldest vampire legends, probably, hopefully, where everything else originated from.
It is interesting to note that the term ‘Vampire’ does not appear until the mid 18th century, though related terms appear as early as 1047 AD in the Slavic form ‘Upir’ Likhyi’ or ‘Wicked Vampire’. However, stories of blood drinking monsters that we now associate with the term Vampire go back at least as far as ancient Assyria and Babylon and exist worldwide. These ancient creatures were usually considered to be demons or deities of some kind. For instance, in ancient Bablyon and Assyria the Lilitu demons drank the blood of young children. The Lilitu may be connected to the Hebrew demon Lilith, who was believed to be the first wife of Adam that rejected her husband and God (though this belief does not seem to arise until the 8th or 9th century AD). Similar to the Lilitu, Lilith preys on young children (though she does not drink their blood), as well as pregnant mothers, and seduces young men. In most stories Lilith is considered to be infertile with breasts unable to produce milk, thus her hatred of pregnant mothers and children.
Persian pottery has also been found bearing images of creatures apparently drinking the blood of men. Similarly, in the Indian Katha-sarit-sagara, there are tales of the Vetalas, a spirit that rules over vampires, as well as other ghosts, and has some vampiric properties itself. The Greeks and Romans provided the world with three creatures that bear some resemblance to later vampires. The Empusae, Empusa, or Empuse (these creatures strongly resemble the demi-goddess by the same name and are likely an expansion of her character) were daughters of Hecate that preyed on travelers and young men, drinking their blood and eating their flesh. Lamia was a mythological queen of Libya that was transformed into a demon that drank the blood of children. Like Empusa, Lamia later became a race of child eating demons that are variously described as appearing as young women, serpentine creatures, and four-footed beasts with scales and human faces. Lastly, the Strix, or Stryx, was, originally, the name for a common Owl. However, the Strix eventually became a feminine/avian demon that fed on the flesh and blood of small children and, in later stories, young men.
Asia also has a wide mix of stories about blood drinking creatures. I have already mentioned the Indian Vetalas that, like Empusa and Lamia, later became a race of beings rather than a single creature. Malaysia and Japan are both home to stories of vampiric heads. The Malaysian Penanggalan and the Japanese Nukekubi both appear as beautiful women whose heads detach from their bodies and fly around at night seeking human blood, their spinal cords and important organs trailing along behind the head. While the Penangglan prefer pregnant women and children, the Nukekubi are not picky about their victims.
A similar creature that comes out of the Philippines is the Manananggal, which can detach its entire upper torso instead of just its head. The Manananggal flys around on bat-like wings and feeds on the hearts of unborn children with a long, mosquito like proboscis. The Manananggal is also said to be able to create hurricanes by shaking it’s long hair in a forested area. In opposition to these is a much more standard depiction of the chinese Jiangshi, which also has Japanese and Korean counterparts. Like most vampiric creatures the Jiangshi avoid the sun, hiding in caves or coffins during the day. At night they hop around searching for victims, from which they drain the Qi, or life force, rather than the blood.
The Americas have their own vampire legends. In the Caribbean the soucouyant takes the form of an old woman by day, but at night leaves its skin to fly around as a fireball and drink the blood of sleeping women. If the soucouyant’s victim dies she will become a soucouyant herself. These creatures are also, more recently, called Loogaroo, which is sometimes used to attempt to connect them to the french Loup-garou werewolf. South America also features legends of the Patasola, and the Chilean Peuchen. The Patasola is a doppleganger that lives in the jungles. It takes the form of a man’s wife or lover in order to lure him away and then drink his blood. The Peuchen, on the other hand, has no humanoid form. Instead the Peuchen can take on the form of any animal, though it usually appears as a flying snake, and uses it’s gaze to paralyze victims in order to drink their blood.
A more tenuous connection can be made between vampires and the Aztec Cihuateteo. The Cihuateteo were the spirits of women who died in childbirth. They often appeared as floating skulls and were known to steal children, spread disease, and drive men into madness by luring them into sexual acts.
African folklore provides its share of vampiric demons as well. The Sasanbosam, or Asanbosam, is a west African demon that drinks blood. It is said to have iron teeth and nails and to hide in trees in order to leap down upon its prey. The Adze, on the other hand, could appear as either a human, in order to possess people and bring misfortune, or as a firefly spirit, in order to pass through solid objects and drink the blood of its victims. The Impundulu, which comes from southern Africa, most commonly appears as a large, black and white bird, about the size of a man. It is said to be able to summon lightning and thunder, and to have an insatiable appetite for blood. The Impundulu will also sometimes take the form of a handsome man in order to seduce young women. It was commonly considered to be a familiar associated with witch doctors and sorcerers.
As you can see legends of vampiric creatures are common around the world in widely varying people groups. Generally these legends have a few similarities. All vampiric creatures drink blood, or life force, with the possible exception of the Cihauteteo. Most of the ancient vampires prefer women and children as their victims, and most are female in nature. Similarly, many ancient vampires are connected with the spread of disease or madness, and with the seduction of young men or women into sexual acts, often leading to their destruction.
Also in many widely disparate legends (ranging from Europe to the Philippines), vampiric demons fear garlic and thorny plants such as Hawthorne or Roses. It is also interesting to note that most of these ancient creatures, while nocturnal in nature, were not directly harmed by sunlight, and a few were actually more active during the day. Many aspects of the modern conception of vampires, however, come from the Medieval European legends rather than these ancient tales. More on that next time.