An ancient Sumerian relief of the Lilitu.
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.
Awe...isn't she pretty...wait...where's the rest of her...aagggghhhh!!!!
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.
An Asanbosam on the hunt.
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.