VAMPIRES IN MYTH AND HISTORY
by Beverley Richardson
Vampire myths go back thousands of years and occur in almost every culture around the world. Their variety is almost endless; from red eyed monsters with green or pink hair in China to the Greek Lamia which has the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a winged serpent; from vampire foxes in Japan to a head with trailing entrails known as the Penanggalang in Malaysia.
However, the vampires we are familiar with today, although mutated by fiction and film, are largely based on Eastern European myths. The vampire myths of Europe originated in the far East, and were transported from places like China, Tibet and India with the trade caravans along the silk route to the Mediterranean. Here they spread out along the Black Sea coast to Greece, the Balkans and of course the Carpathian mountains, including Hungary and Transylvania.
Our modern concept of the vampire still retains threads, such as blood drinking, return from death, preying on humans at night, etc in common with the Eastern European myths. However many things we are familiar with; the wearing of evening clothes, capes with tall collars, turning into bats, etc are much more recent inventions.
On the other hand, many features of the old myths such as the placing of millet or poppy seeds at the gravesite in order to keep the vampire occupied all night counting seeds rather than preying on relatives, have all but disappeared from modern fiction and film.
Even among the Eastern European countries there is a large variety of vampires.
The Slavic people including most east Europeans from Russia to Bulgaria, Serbia to Poland, have the richest vampire folklore and legends in the world. The Slavs came from north of the Black Sea and were closely associated with the Iranians. Prior to 8th century AD they migrated north and west to where they are now.
Christianization began almost as soon as they arrived in their new homelands. But through the 9th and 10th centuries the Eastern Orthodox Church and the western Roman Church were struggling with each other for supremacy. They formally broke in 1054 AD, with the Bulgarians, Russians, and Serbians staying Orthodox, while the Poles, Czechs, and Croatians went Roman. This split caused a big difference in the development of vampire lore - the Roman church believed incorrupt bodies were saints, while the Orthodox church believed they were vampires.
The origin of Slavic vampire myths developed during 9th C as a result of conflict between pre-Christian paganism and Christianity. Christianity won out with the vampires and other pagan beliefs surviving in folklore.
Causes of vampirism included: being born with a caul, teeth, or tail, being conceived on certain days, irregular death, excommunication, improper burial rituals etc. Preventative measures included: placing a crucifix in the coffin, or blocks under the chin to prevent the body from eating the shroud, nailing clothes to coffin walls for the same reason, placing millet or poppy seeds in the grave because vampires had a fascination with counting, or piercing the body with thorns or stakes.
Evidence that a vampire was at work in the neighbourhood included: death of cattle, sheep, relatives, neighbours, exhumed bodies being in a lifelike state with new growth of the fingernails or hair, or if the body was swelled up like a drum, or there was blood on the mouth and if the corpse had a ruddy complexion.
Vampires could be destroyed by staking, decapitation (the Kashubs placed the head between the feet), burning, repeating the funeral service, holy water on the grave, exorcism.
Romania is surrounded by Slavic countries, so it isn't surprising that their vampires are variants of the Slavic vampire. They are called Strigoi based on the Roman term strix for screech owl which also came to mean demon or witch.
There are different types of strigoi: strigoi vii are live witches who will become vampires after death. They can send out their soul at night to meet with other witches or with Strigoi mort who are dead vampires. The strigoi mort are the reanimated bodies which return to suck the blood of family, livestock, and neighbours.
A person born with a caul, tail, born out of wedlock, or one who died an unnatural death, or died before baptism, was doomed to become a vampire. As was the seventh child of the same sex in a family, the child of a pregnant woman who didn't eat salt or was looked at by a vampire, or a witch. And naturally, being bitten by vampire, meant certain condemnation to a vampiric existence after death.
The Vircolac which is sometimes mentioned in folklore was more closely related to a mythological wolf that could devour the sun and moon and later became connected with werewolves rather than vampires. The person afflicted with lycanthropy could turn into a dog, pig, or wolf.
The vampire was usually first noticed when it attacked family and livestock, or threw things around in the house. Vampires, along with witches, were believed to be most active on the Eve of St George's Day (April 22 Julian, May 4 Gregorian calendar), the night when all forms of evil were supposed to be abroad. St Georges Day is still celebrated in Europe.
A vampire in the grave could be told by holes in the earth, an undecomposed corpse with a red face, or having one foot in the corner of the coffin. Living vampires were found by distributing garlic in church and seeing who didn't eat it.
Graves were often opened three years after death of a child, five years after the death of a young person, or seven years after the death of an adult to check for vampirism.
Measures to prevent a person becoming a vampire included, removing the caul from a newborn and destroying it before the baby could eat any of it, careful preparation of dead bodies, including preventing animals from passing over the corpse, placing a thorny branch of wild rose in the grave, and placing garlic on windows and rubbing it on cattle, especially on St George's & St Andrew's days.
To destroy a vampire, a stake was driven through the body followed by decapitation and placing garlic in the mouth. By the 19th century people were shooting a bullet through the coffin. For resistant cases, the body was dismembered and the pieces burned, mixed with water, and given to family members as a cure.
GYPSIES AND VAMPIRES:
Even today, Gypsies frequently feature in vampire fiction and film, no doubt influenced by Bram Stoker's book "Dracula" in which the Szgany gypsies served Dracula, carrying his boxes of earth and guarding him.
In reality, Gypsies originated as nomadic tribes in northern India, but got their name from the early belief that they came from Egypt. By 1000 AD they started spreading westward and settled in Turkey for a time, incorporating many Turkish words into their Romany language.
By the 14th century they were all through the Balkans and within two more centuries had spread all across Europe. Gypsies arrived in Romania a short time before Vlad Dracula was born in 1431.
Their religion is complex and varies between tribes, but they have a god called O Del, as well as the concept of Good and Evil forces and a strong relationship and loyalty to dead relatives. They believed the dead soul entered a world similar to ours except that there is no death. The soul stayed around the body and sometimes wanted to come back. The Gypsy myths of the living dead added to and enriched the vampire myths of Hungary, Romania, and Slavic lands.
The ancient home of the Gypsies, India has many mythical vampire figures. The Bhuta is the soul of a man who died an untimely death. It wandered around animating dead bodies at night and attacked the living like a ghoul. In northern India could be found the brahmaparusha, a vampire-like creature with a head encircled by intestines and a skull from which it drank blood.
The most famous Indian vampire is Kali who had fangs, wore a garland of corpses or skulls and had four arms. Her temples were near the cremation grounds. She and the goddess Durga battled the demon Raktabija who could reproduce himself from each drop of blood spilled. Kali drank all his blood so none was spilled, thereby winning the battle and killing Raktabija.
Sara or the Black Goddess is the form in which Kali survived among Gypsies. Gypsies have a belief that the three Marys from the New Testament went to France and baptised a Gypsy called Sara. They still hold a ceremony each May 24th in the French village where this is supposed to have occurred.
One Gypsy vampire was called a mullo (one who is dead). This vampire was believed to return and do malicious things and/or suck the blood of a person (usually a relative who had caused their death, or not properly observed the burial ceremonies, or who kept the deceased's possessions instead of destroying them as was proper.)
Female vampires could return, lead a normal life and even marry but would exhaust the husband. Anyone who had a hideous appearance, was missing a finger, or had animal appendages, etc. was believed to be a vampire.
Even plants or dogs, cats, or farm animals could become vampires. Pumpkins or melons kept in the house too long would start to move, make noises or show blood.
To get rid of a vampire people would hire a dhampire (the son of a vampire and his widow) to detect the vampire. To ward off vampires, gypsies drove steel or iron needles into a corpse's heart and placed bits of steel in the mouth, over the eyes, ears and between the fingers at the time of burial. They also placed hawthorn in the corpse's sock or drove a hawthorn stake through the legs. Further measures included driving stakes into the grave, pouring boiling water over it, decapitating the corpse, or burning it.
In spite of the disruption of Gypsy lives by the various eastern European communist regimes, they still retain much of their culture. In 1992 a new king of the Gypsies was chosen in Bistritz, Romania.
No discussion of vampires is even thinkable without talking about bats. They are integral to the modern day concept of the vampire, but this was not always the case.
Many cultures have various myths about bats. In South America, Camazotz was a bat god of the caves living in the Bathouse of the Underworld. In Europe, bats and owls were long associated with the supernatural, mainly because they were night creatures. On the other hand, the Gypsies thought them lucky - they wore charms made of bat bones. And in England the Wakefield crest and those of some others have bats on them.
So how did bats end up becoming associated with vampires? There are only three species of vampires bats in the entire world, all of which occur in Central and South America. During the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors first came into contact with them and recognized the similarity between the feeding habits of the bats and those of their mythical vampires. It wasn't long before they began to associate bats with their vampire legends. Over the following centuries the association became stronger and was used by various people, including James Malcom Rhymer who wrote "Varney the Vampyre" in the 1840's. Stoker cemented the linkage of bats and vampires in the minds of the general public.
EIGHTEENTH CENTURY VAMPIRE CONTROVERSY:
Today everyone is familiar with vampires, but in Britain very little was known of vampires prior to the 18th century. What brought the vampire to the attention of the general public? During the 18th century there was a major vampire scare in Eastern Europe. Even government officials frequently got dragged into the hunting and staking of vampires.
This controversy was directly responsible for England's current vampire myths. In fact, the word Vampire only came into English language in 1732 via an English translation of a German report of the much publicized Arnold Paole vampire staking in Serbia.
Western scholars seriously considered the existence of vampires for the first time rather than just brushing them off as superstition. It all started with an outbreak of vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Austro-Hungarian empire from 1725-1734.
Two famous cases involved Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole. Plogojowitz died at the age of 62, but came back a couple of times after his death asking his son for food. When the son refused, he was found dead the next day. Soon Plogojowitz returned and attacked some neighbours who died from loss of blood.
In the other famous case Arnold Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who had been attacked by a vampire years before, died while haying. After death people began to die and it was believed by everyone that Paole had returned to prey on the neighbours.
These two incidents were extremely well documented. Government officials examined the cases and the bodies, wrote them up in reports, and books were published afterwards of the Paole case and distributed around Europe. The controversy raged for a generation. The problem was exacerbated by rural people having an epidemic of vampire attacks and digging up bodies all over the place. Many scholars said vampires didn't exist - they attributed reports to premature burial, or rabies which causes thirst.
However, Dom Augustine Calmet, a well respected French theologian and scholar, put together a carefully thought out treatise in 1746 which said vampires did exist. This had considerable influence on other scholars at the time.
Eventually, Austrian Empress Marie Theresa sent her personal physician to investigate. He said vampires didn't exist and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies. This was the end of the vampire epidemics. But by then everyone knew about vampires and it was only a matter of time before authors would preserve and mould the vampire into something new and much more accessible to the general public.