Fear Itself: Thinking About Vampires and Moral Panics – Part 2 (A History of Vampires Briefly)

The Origins of the Vampire, Briefly

Although the vampire, by the modern definition of the word, does not occur outright in the writings or mythologies of ancient Greek or Roman authors, there are numerous mentions of various rituals, funeral ceremonies, and spiritual characteristics that demonstrate that the concept of vampirism was not unknown to the peoples of the Mediterranean. The majority of references regarding the vampire involve nocturnal spirits, or most usually demons, which roam about and drain the blood or sexual essences of the living. These vampiric entities do not fall under the scope of ghosts, as by definition they were never living, and for those who were, they were considered little more than animate monsters whose souls had long left them (Wilson 1971). These spirits are called collectively succubi or Lamia for women and incubi for men and were believed to be the result of a body and soul’s collective infection by evil or spiritual uncleanliness during life or shortly after death. The taint, that which was the cause of vampirism, was often brought about by improper burial rites, disruption of the entombed ashes and bones, or anything that specifically disturbed the body from its purified state following the funeral rites. The Greek vampire also represents the cycle from birth to death and then rebirth, albeit in a false fashion, having been arrested in the state between life, death, and final burial, whereas the spirit and the body have not completely separated on their way to the next step. This was the genesis of the Western concept of the vampire and also of the definition of the vampire in respect to its existence as a semi-corporeal, night-dwelling, undead, being. Here also is the vampire’s initial association with damnation and devilry (Sommers 1929, Frost 1989, and Dundes 1998), later appropriated by Christianity during the Middle Ages.

In ancient Greece, many of the people who became candidates for vampirism after death were those who had died violent or tragic deaths, along with alcoholics, virgins, suicides, and heretics. One could also become a vampire if they were or had birthed a deformed child, were a prostitute, or a heinous criminal. In general, a person could become a vampire if they were a member of any particularly marginalized group considered ‘tainted’ by the general population. The criteria, of course, tended to revolve around the latent hostilities of the ‘in-group,’ who feared and loathed the perceived differences of the individuals under suspicion (Rickels 1995). This was somewhat in contrast to the later rise of Christianized versions of the vampire, where anyone viewed as an unrepentant sinner, a tainted ‘insider’ in these cases, was liable to become vampiric. Because the Church found vampire lore particularly useful to its expansion, this became the basis for the Church’s doctrines regarding vampirism, which would then become popular in the West beginning in medieval Europe. The earliest Classical associations with demons and devils, however, must not be confused with the Christian concept of the Devil and his expression through the vampire. The demonic vampire of Catholic Europe was based on different criteria than the Classic vampire of Greece or Rome, although the early classical writings were used as source material by the Church. Therefore, while the two concepts bear many characteristic similarities both in form as well as function, they are expressed differently within their respective contexts.

In Mesopotamia, the vampire was almost always female though she shared the semi-corporeal demonic fate of her Mediterranean predecessors. The Mesopotamian vampire was also given the added benefit of deification. Here, the vampire is a god-like monster under the three guises of Khalk’ru the Feeder, Destructor of All and the demonic Ekimmu (or Departed Spirits) which could only be subdued through the funereal sacrifice of blood (Frost 1989). In Babylonia, the earliest vampire on record is Lilitu the snake goddess, whose form is often shared among the Greek Empusae and the pagan Roman Lamia. Both the Empusae and the Lamia are characterized as naked, serpent-bodied, women whose aim is to seduce men and gain immortal power by stealing their bodily humors. In later Hebrew texts that were derived directly from these mythical characters, Lilitu and the characteristics of the Empusae and the Lamia would be incorporated into the biblical story of Adam and Eve where both the serpent and the demonic vampire play the role of adversary to Man.

In Greek and Roman legend, the vampire’s association with blood and the consuming of blood begins and was one of the primary characteristics that has remained a driving force throughout vampire folklore and literature through time. In pagan and earth-based religions, blood was regarded as having great magical properties which could be stolen by the drinker (similar to Frazer’s principle of contagion). It is within the classical mythologies of Greece, Rome, and the Fertile Crescent that the vampire concept also reflects an attitude regarding sex and to a greater degree, men’s sexual perceptions of women. The triumvirate associations of blood, sex, and women have continued into the modern era as the fundamentals behind the vampire as a symbol, particularly in regards to its expression as a form of false redemption, a reversal to the Christian Eucharist. The fear that followed among the populace and became attached to the mythos overall was brought about through faith in the religions that contained the vampire as a character. This fear is then later exacerbated through a tradition adopted by writers of the first stories containing the literary vampire, which was to claim that their stories were based on real events (Cohen 1971 and Frost 1989).

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that the vampire entered European thought or, particularly, literature. However, one of the earliest European vampires is recorded in the Icelandic and Teutonic Sagas and in an obscure eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon poem called A Vampyre of the Fens. After a humble start, the vampire is almost all but forgotten in literature until the 15th century publication of Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (Frost 1989). These early references to vampirism stemmed from the prevalence of pagan worship in Europe at the time, which took many of its beliefs from the classic stories of the vampire of a more ancient era. Here then is the binding thread from ancient times to the modern vampire concept. After Christianity had fully taken hold of Europe beginning mainly in the 12th century AD, the Church could do little to dispel the deeply rooted local myths of the vampire that existed among local cultures. Instead of trying to scour these myths out and possibly lose its dogmatic battle with local pagan traditions, it adopted them and began to perpetuate them as icons and parables. Thus, the contemporary vampire was born.

At this time, the vampire still maintained much of the same form as it had in ancient Greece and Rome but more importantly was still functioning in the same ways. The vampire remained the symbol of society’s greatest fears about itself. As Europe progressed into the Dark Ages, the vampire underwent a series of more Catholic transformations. At this point, the vampire was still usually female but the association with sex was not as important as the association with night, which in early Catholicism was presumed to be the time when the Devil was at his most powerful. It was also strongly associated with the Christian concept of Sin. Those who became vampires were those who had led lives of sin without salvation at the time of death or who were denied burial on holy ground. Such people were drunkards, suicides, perpetrators of incest, unwed mothers, or children born with teeth or cauls (a flap of skin over the face) who would rise at night to kill family or friends by biting them and draining their blood (Dundes 1998). It was not uncommon in eastern European countries to dig up corpses suspected of being vampires and burn or mutilate the body to save the rest of the town. There are hundreds of accounts of various local traditions and methods of destroying a vampire but the most popular methods are the most familiar to us today. The methods of burning, binding with holy incantations, and staking through the heart or staking the body to the bottom of the coffin with a sharpened wooden implement were thought to undo the vampire permanently. Later on, burning became increasingly more popular with the onset of the Black Plague.

In latter half of the 14th century, the vampire became better known as a harbinger of disease and the walking embodiment of the spread of the Plague. The vampire was still a soulless monster with no hope of salvation but now it had also taken on the purview of an even greater fear. No longer did a person have to die and then through immorality and damnation become a vampire. Even the innocent were now at risk, especially any family or close friends of the individual who died under unholy circumstances. The taint of the vampire now had the capacity to spread unwittingly much as the Plague itself did. The only way to save them, naturally, was to exhume the vampire’s body and usually to burn it. The town elders would hear rumors about the exploits of a vampire from certain symptoms suffered by residents of the town and then troop down to the graveyard to dig up the body and check for signs of decay.

Proper decay was seen as a sign of holiness and because the mortal body was inherently sinful, it must be seen to decompose in order to demonstrate the departure of the purifying presence of a soul. The decay thus also demonstrated the acceptance of the soul by God. If the corpse was not decayed enough, officials would then either cut the body up or drag it into the center of town where a funereal pyre would be built. The body thought to be the vampire usually was fresh-looking, having rosy skin, lengthened nails and hair, and fresh or recently congealed blood around its mouth or eyes. It also was often found in a different position than the one in which it had been buried. Unfortunately, this was not uncommon in the era of the Plague because little was known at the time about the stages of normal decomposition and it was also not uncommon for victims to be mistakenly buried alive only to die later of suffocation or dehydration in their graves. The townsfolk would then burn the corpse within the presence of a priest to ensure the dispelling of evil or devilish magic. Poignantly, this practice did work to stop the spread of the plague through the destruction of infected bodies but also, ironically, continued the belief in the vampire.

Once the body was ashes the night terrors and symptoms typically ended, the town returned to a state of calm through the ritualistic ‘final death’ of the vampire and the purging of evil through fire (Dundes 1998, Rickels 1995, and Sommers 1929). To note, this was the same method that was used to ‘purify’ witches around the same time. With the spread of the witch-cult hysteria during this same period, perceptions were changing towards women, and the mythos of the vampire was not immune. Although women were very often likely to be the vampire, they were also seen as being particularly vulnerable to the vampire’s seductions. This was part of the religious view of women as spiritually weak and inferior in regards to men and most notably weak to the trickery of the Christian Devil. This was in direct correlation with the biblical story of the Fall of Man in the book of Genesis, where the serpentine Devil seduces Eve who then seduces Adam. Women fell to the wiles of the Devil and men fell to the wiles of women. Women, therefore, required strict rules and guardianship in order to be sure that they would not be seduced or coerced by the Devil or his ever-present minion, the vampire.

The vampire symbol would remain in this state for much of the 13th through the 17th centuries, changing only slightly within local contexts across Europe. For example, in Russia it was common that when a young girl died she was to be dressed in wedding attire and accompanied to the grave by a young man. This young man was from thenceforth considered a widower in order that she would not rise again from the grave having been seduced by the promise of betrothal by the Devil. Traditions regarding the vampire also bear remarkable similarities with tales of witches. The distinction of the vampire, however, was the ability to steal spiritual essences from people or objects and thereby sustain itself or its supernatural abilities through time. Some vampires could control the weather while others could command animals and certain characteristics of people. But in many cases, the vampire was still commonly female with powers over the home, fields, and children. Following the spread of Christianity this began to change and as time passed, more and more often, the vampire became male. For example, an Irish tale of a marauding vampire called the Dearg-dhul, meaning ‘red-blood drinker’ in Gaelic, appeared in the folktales of the peasantry beginning in the 7th century. In this tale the vampire was a druidess in life but by the latter half of the 13th century the Dearg-dhul had become not only male, but a Catholic priest as well (Sommers 1929). This shift was gradual and the changes in the vampire symbol were primarily localized, related to the incorporation of pagan beliefs into newly established Christian practices, until the coming of the 18th century and the debut of Dracula.

Beginning in the 18th century there was a veritable vampire epidemic in literature. The vampire went from the frightening undead demon stalking the night to the seductive and mysterious literary gentleman of the evening. He was no longer a strictly religious entity, instead becoming the idol of the Romantic movement and an icon for the hidden and generally forbidden desires of the Western Victorian world. For example, through her repeated encounters with Dracula, Lucy transforms from an innocent, empty-headed, girl to a powerfully erotic woman. This interpretation involves Lucy undergoing the culturally compliant woman’s encounter with her own sexuality, an encounter Victorian society feared as evil (Johnson 1992). But perhaps the most important revolution in the vampire mythos at this time was that, for the first time in history, the vampire had also gained something of a human soul. The undead monster was not gone but the man inside the vampire had begun to emerge with all his emotions and desires. Much of this transformation was due to the flowering of modern science, particularly medicine and psychology, as well as a harsh de-emphasis on the power and teachings of the once all-powerful Catholic Church (a dichotomy well represented in the characters of both Dracula himself and his nemesis, Abraham Van Helsing). The Age of Reason took its toll on the magics and myths of Europe by exalting the critical mind and tearing down much of the religious superstition of the educated classes, but the vampire was not vanquished. Instead, the vampire symbol was once again transformed to fit the society in which it existed, now as a literary character, remaining the staid portrait of the dark depths the human soul was keen to reach.

No character so changed the very face of the vampire in all of history than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Published in 1897, Dracula was instantly popular. It was not the first vampire story of its kind; following close on the heels of such works as 1819’s Vampyre by Dr. John Polidori under the tutelage of Lord Byron and James Malcolm Rymer’s (alternatively attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest) Varney the Vampyre of 1847 (Cohen 1971). Dracula, however, was destined to become the most famous vampire in literary history. As is now common knowledge, Stoker’s Dracula character was based on an actual person. The “real” Dracula was a 15th century Romanian warlord named Vlad Tepes born in 1431 in the fortified town of Strassburg, (now Sighisoara) Romania. He became famous in his own time not for being a ‘vampire,’ but for his exploits as a wartime general against the Ottoman Turks and his reign as Prince of Wallachia and Transylvania, an area near the Carpathian Mountains. His favorite method of execution and torture was of impaling his captured enemies — and occasionally his own nobles– on long wooden spikes and drinking their blood with his dinner. At the time this had much less to do with vampirism as it did with psychological warfare (Florescu/McNally 1989). Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler as he was later called, bore the family crest of the Order of the Dragon, called dracul in Romanian. This is where Stoker directly takes the name for his vampiric villain. Dracul can mean either ‘dragon’ or ‘devil’: the association between the two most likely comes from the biblical Revelations of John where the devil is referred to as the ‘ancient serpent’ or the ‘great dragon’ (Beal 2002).

Stoker also used early vampire ‘case studies’ written by clergymen of the Medieval period to set the Catholic associations with the vampire into the minds of his audience. Dracula was afraid of Christian crosses, holy water, and sacred ground and held sway with unholy animals and vermin. Bram Stoker also researched Vlad Tepes extensively and was aware of many of the characteristics regarding the Wallachian Prince and within a few years had made him the vampire villain of his novel (McNally/Florescu 1989 and 1994 and Stoicescu 1978). Therefore, the name and essence of Stoker’s frightening creature identifies him not only with the legendary ruler and his terrible reign but also with a long line of literary and religious symbols popular at the time. As Dracula became ever more popular it laid the foundation for all of the vampires that would follow.

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