Folklore and Myth of the European Vampire

 vampire

The Vampire (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones

1.  Introduction

Vampires are beings of legend found in folklore and mythology who obtain their sustenance feeding on the blood of living creatures (Dundes, 1998). As such they are referred to in literature and folklore as vampiric or entities known as the ‘undead’ that appear in many cultures and who are considered to be as old as mankind itself (Frost, 1989). Indeed, almost all cultures throughout history “…have their own version of the vampire myth.” (Fahy, 1988; McCully, 1964). This implies that the belief in vampires goes back as far as prehistoric times. Not all vampires satiate themselves on the blood of their victims who are often killed by strangulation or contagious disease (Wright, 1924), despite the prevalent belief that vampires appear nocturnally to prey on the living by sucking their blood (Crystal, 2004). However, according to folk belief in Russia and Poland the vampire in fact appears from mid-day to midnight and not between dusk and dawn.

2.  Meaning and Origin

Etymologically the derivation of the term vampire is not clear. Popularisation of the word did not happen until after the influx of western European vampire superstitions during the 18th century. In Britain the belief in the vampire epidemic reached its height between 1723 and 1735 and can be compared to that in Serbia and Hungary. The term vampire in English can be found in 1734 which derived from the French vampyre and the German vampyr of the 17th century. According to the anthropologist E. B. Tylor vampirism could be understood in terms of primitive animism.

From the Balkan region and eastern Europe came the Serbian and Bulgarian word vampir, the Romanian strigoi (of Latin derivation), and the Greek vrykolakas. As far as ancient history is concerned vampirism was a part of Babylonian belief noted by references in Chaldean and Assyrian clay tablets. The belief in vampires differed from ancient Greece and Rome across Europe through Austria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Lorraine, and even to Iceland (Wright, 1924).

The Serbian form of the word for vampire, or revenant, has many parallels among the Slavic languages. In Bulgaria there is the vampir, in Croatia the upir and lupurine, and in Czech and Slovak the upir, whereas the Dutch use vampyr. In Poland there is the wamprior, or upior, or wopierz. In east Slavic there is the upior, the Ukrainian upear and upyr, and the Russians and Belorussians have upyr. Among Serbians, Montenegrans, as well as Albanians, there was the belief in the vampire or vukodalak, the vurkulaka or the vrykolaka, meaning wolf-fury, but in Crete the katakhana (Wright, 1924).

Theoretically the word used by the Slavs was borrowed from the Turkish for witch. For example the Tatar term ubyr which originally reflects a one time pagan worship of upyr. Old Russian first mentions the word upir around 1047 AD and in origin means ‘wicked vampire’ or ‘foul vampire’. The peoples of Transylvania believed everybody killed by the nos feratu or vampire became a vampire.

Originally many legends about vampires had their origin in medieval times, and numerous cultures have revenant traditions. In Europe occult beliefs have existed for centuries but vampire lore “…is, in general, confined to stories of resuscitated corpses of male human beings…” (Wright, 1924). In Romania the reanimated corpse underpins the commonly held vampire belief which illuminates local concepts concerning body and soul (Murjoci, 1927). Among Slavic peoples a firm distinction is made between the body and soul which underlies the Slavic invention of the vampire as a reflection of the distinction between body death and the soul which departs at demise.

In England records are scant (Barker, 1988; Jones, 1931). During the 18th century there was a flood of east European vampire sightings. Indeed, in the Slavic regions the idea of the revenant vampire pervaded the popular culture and folklore. Such perceptions of the iampir, the vukodlak or ‘wolf’s hair’ in Bosnia and Montenegro (Durham, 1923), and in Albania the lugat. In the opinion of Voltaire in his Philosophical Dictionary (Hoyt, 1984) “These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living…after which they returned to their cemeteries…It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.”

3.  Folklore, Myth, and Belief

In folkloric tradition there is no definitive description of the vampire. However, those descriptions of the creature that do exist share common characteristics. The vampire appears to have originated in south east and Slavic Europe during the 18th century. The shared common features of these revenants , or risen dead, are derived from witches, from suicides, malevolent spirits, sorcerers, un-shriven corpses, and those unfortunate to have bee bitten by a vampire. Descriptions say these ‘undead’ are bloated and reddish or purplish in hue wearing white linen, protruding teeth or fangs, long claw-like finger nails and overgrown hair. Revenants, as restless or returning spirits, are seeking to take still living people back with them to the afterlife (Crystal, 2004).

The myths concerning vampires have a number of shared features (Fahy, 1988) which include the death of an evil one; the return of the revenant of the ‘undead’; a breach of burial ritual or protocol; and the alleged magical properties of human blood. These beliefs and images of the vampire are a persistent archaic remnant from ancient Sumeria, China and Tibet.

According to legend and folklore vampires are repelled by sunlight, garlic and crucifixes (Crystal, 2004), as well as despatched by a nail through the skull, thorny roes placed on the skin, a stake through the body or heart, and decapitation (Wright, 1924; Crystal, 2004). The stake is preferably made of white thorn or from the ash tree. Mundane or sacred items used as apotropaics, including holy water and garlic, are also used to deter vampires and revenants (Marigny, 1993). In Bulgaria an 800 year old skeleton from Sofia was found with an iron rod stabbed through its chest and believed to a be a ritual associated with suspected vampirism.

220px-Vampire_skeleton_of_Sozopol_in_Sofia_PD_2012_06

Assumed vampire skeleton from Sofia with iron stake through chest.

Vampire-like entities, demons or similar creatures were known to ancient civilisations. The notion of vampires, even if they were not called such, has existed for thousands of years and can be traced to Lilith in ancient Mesopotamian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. In ancient Babylonian myth Lilitu, a demon who drank the blood of babies, was synonymous with Lilith of the Hebrews (Graves, 1990), whose daughters the Lilu were demons in Hebrew mythology. In ancient India the goddess Kali, who was intimately linked with blood drinking, had fangs and was garlanded with corpses and skulls (Marigny, 1993), whilst the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet also drank blood.

4031669733_0c46145059

Lilith (1892) by John Collier.

woman, and a daughter of Hecate. As a vampire Empusa could assume the shape of a female beauty who would seduce men in order to drain them of their life force. She was similar to Lilim of the Hebrews. The Empusae were greedy and seductive demonesses and known as the children of Lilith. One of these vampiric offspring was called Lamia.

373px-Lamia_Waterhouse

Lamia (1909) by J. W. Waterhouse.

Lamia also preyed on children in order to suck their blood during the night, as did Gello the Greek vampire, or Sumerian Galla, (Oliphant, 1913). Greek folklore, as well as Slavic folktales, relates that a corpse that does not rot after burial is due to non-baptism, or death in sin, or incomplete funerary ritual (Crystal, 2004), will become a revenant or vampire. The striges, stryge, or strix, were blood sucking ghosts or spirits of living witches in Roman mythology.

Modern fiction and the cinema and television tends to portray the vampire as an effete, polite and bland individualistic villain with a charismatic demeanour that inspires devotion and dependency (Barber, 1988). Early in 1970 the local media in north London spread rumours that Highgate Cemetery was haunted by a vampire (Manchester, 1991; Ellis, 1993) that contributed to the emergence of an urban legend. ITV’s Channel 4 popularised the story and a similar scare occurred in the red light district of Nottingham. Personal memory come from my own trip though Hungary and Romania in 1965 when, upon asking the locals in Transylvania about vampires, I received the whimsical reply “Only in Hollywood.”

Alternative explanations about the origin of ancient myths concerning vampires and revenants have referred to vampirism as a manifestation of porphyria, even though the theory has been debunked medically (Barber, 1988). The creation of the vampire myths refer to porphyriac ravaged skin, sensitivity to sunlight, and darkened teeth even though “…there is no evidence that vampirism is a true medical phenomenon linked to organic disease, or that vampires or other creatures in literature and myth ever existed.” (Winkler, 1990). Indeed it could be said that vampires would exist today if “…the definition is limited to blood ingestion resulting in erotic satisfaction…” (Fahy, 1988).

Clinical vampirism is referred to as Renfield’s Syndrome in psychiatric literature even though there is no official recognition of the condition (Jaffe, 1994). Apparently the syndrome is associated with the drinking of blood – despite there being “…no evidence that patients with porphyria (or any other medical disease) crave blood, and human blood in particular.” (Winkler, 1990). Again, we are back in the realms of the media medicalisation of a myth. However, there is a clear link between sexual behaviour and ‘vampirism’ which involves blood rituals coupled with fertility and dietary beliefs and practices (Fahy, 1988), not to mention cannibalistic activities, sadism, necrophagy and necrophilia. Moreover, research showed that drug abuse could precipitate a satisfaction  associated with autohaemofetishism when blood is drawn into the syringe (Bartholomew, 1973).

References and Sources Consulted

Barber, P.  (1987).  Forensic pathology and the European vampire.  Journal of Folklore Research.  24 (1).

Barber, P.  (1988).  Vampires, Burial  and Death: Folklore and Reality.  Yale University Press, New York.

Bartholomew, A.  (1973).  Two features associated with intravenous drug users.  Australia New Zealand Institute of Psychiatry.  7 (1-2).

Crystal, D. ed.  (2004).  Vampire.  In: The Penguin Encyclopaedia.  London.

Dundes,  A.  (1998).  The Vampire: A Casebook.  University of Wisconsin Press, USA.

Durham, M. E.  (1923).  Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans.  Man.  23 (189-192).   December.

Ellis, W.  (1993).  The Highgate Cemetery Vampire Hunt.  Folklore.  104 (1/2).

Fahy, T. Wesseley, S. & David, A.  (1988).  Werewolves, Vampires and Cannibals.  28 (2).

Frost, B. J.  (1989).  The Monster with a Thousand Faces.  University of Wisconsin Press, USA.

Graves, R.  (1955; 1990).  The Greek Myths.  Penguin.

Hoyt, O.  (1984).  Lust for Blood.  Chelsea, London.

Jaffe, P. D. & DiCataldo, F.  (1994).  Clinical Vamprism: blending myth and reality.  Bull.Amer.Acad.Psychiatry and Law.  (22 (4).

Jones, E.  (1931).  On the Nightmare.  Hogarth Press, London.

McCully, R. S.  (1964).  Vampirism.  Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases.  193 (1440-52).

Manchester, S.  (1991).  The Highgate Vampire.  Gothic Press, London.

Marigny, J.  (1993).  Vampires: the world of the undead. Thames & Hudson, London.

Murgoci, A.  (1926).  The Vampire in Roumania.  Folklore.  XXXVII (4).

Oliphant, S. G.  (1913).  The Story of the Strix.  Trans. Proc. Amer. Philolog. Assoc.  44 (133-49).

Spence, L.  (1960).  An Encyclopaedia of Occultism. University Books, USA.

Summers, M.  (1928).  Vampires and Vampirism.  Dover, New York.

Summers, M.  (1996).  The Vampire in Europe.  Gramercy Books, New York.

Winkler, M. G. & Anderson, K. E.  (1990).  Vampires, Porphyria, and the Media: Medicalisation of a Myth.

Wright, D.  (1924).  Vampires and Vampirism.  Willia Rider, London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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