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Research & Thoughts

Vampires -- Reality behind the Myth

The most famous vampire is, of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula, though those looking for a historical "real" Dracula often cite Romanian prince Vlad Tepes Dracula (1431-1476). The characterization of Tepes as a vampire is a distinctly Western one; in Romania, he is viewed as a national hero who defended his empire from the Ottoman Turks. His name means "Son of Dracul, who was his father. Dracul means Dragon.


I give some background information on King Vlad in Journal of an Undead: Love Stories (formerly Adventures in Death & Romance), now being edited with more history from a Great Courses I got on the Ottoman Empire. Turning him vampiric was for good reason, as you'd see in studying about him.


The vampires most people are familiar with are human corpses that return from the grave to harm the living; these have Slavic origins only a few hundred years old.


One of the earliest accounts of vampires is found in an ancient Sumerian and Babylonian myth dating to 4,000 B.C. which describes ekimmu or edimmu (one who is snatched away). The ekimmu is a type of a spirit or demon who was not buried properly and has returned as a vengeful spirit to suck the life out of the living.


Folklore vampires became vampires not only through a bite, but also if they were once a werewolf, practiced sorcery, were an illegitimate child of parents who were illegitimate, died before baptism, ate the flesh of a sheep killed by a wolf, child of a pregnant woman who was looked upon by a vampire, a nun who stepped over an unburied body, had teeth when they were born or had a cat jump on their corpse before being buried (England and Japan); a stillborn; a bat flying over a corpse (Romania); being excommunicated by the Orthodox Church (Greece); being the seventh son of the seventh son; a dead body that has been reflected in a mirror; red heads (Greece); people who die by suicide or sudden, violent deaths; and people who were improperly buried.


There are suggestions that the vampire was born out of sorcery in ancient Egypt, a demon summoned into this world from some other. There are Asian vampires, such as the Chinese jiangshi (chong-shee), evil spirits that attack people and drain their life energy; and the blood-drinking Wrathful Deities that appear in the "Tibetan Book of the Dead." Another who teaches on the subject calls the Eastern Europe "upir" the first recognized vampire.  An Old Russian term, it was thought to appear at festivals of the dead around 1054.


Female vampires were also often blamed for spreading the bubonic plague or Black Death throughout Europe in the 1300s. I suppose this led to a fear of female witches in general, but why did they blame women?  Women and cats have long been associated, but it was the lack of cats to kill rats that led to the outbreak of that disease, or so legend goes.


Vampire legend today says they can turn into bats or wolves. Some don't cast a reflection. Holy water, garlic and sunlight are said to repel them. All drink blood. Vampires are successful because of their rich history. Writers play with the "rules" while adding, subtracting or changing them to fit whatever story they have in mind. Many don't follow some of these rules, like sleeping in a coffin. You'll see Arabus Drake breaking all of them, by sticking more closely to what was real myth in history.


The first recorded accounts of vampires follow a consistent pattern: Some unexplained misfortune would befall a person, family or town — perhaps a drought dried up crops, or an infectious disease struck. Vampires were one answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. They were responsible for disease, especially those where no explanation or cure could be found. Rabies was one, causing all sorts of odd behavior such as fear of water and foaming at the mouth that was at first attributed to a bite from a vampire. Pellegra was another, making you extra sensitive to sunlight.


Villagers combined their belief that something had cursed them with fear of the dead, and concluded that perhaps the recently deceased might be responsible, having come back from the graves with evil intent. Graves were unearthed, and surprised villagers often mistook ordinary decomposition for supernatural phenomenon. Laypeople assumed that a body would decompose immediately, but if the coffin is well sealed and buried in winter, putrefaction might be delayed by weeks or months. Intestinal decomposition creates bloating which can force blood up into the mouth, making it look like a dead body has recently sucked blood.


Because the vampire craze had such a profound effect on European culture, religion provided one of the solutions to how we can fight against vampires. In the original myth of Count Dracula, he was cursed by the god for twisting his faith and slaughtering thousands in god's name. This religious aspect of the story caused vampires to be repelled by holy ground, holy water, crosses or any other religious objects.


Then there's Judas Iscariot, thought to be a red head. There are many beliefs as to how exactly Judas becomes a vampire, the first belief and most common is that god cursed Judas and his family to walk the earth until the second coming of Jesus, and until that time he would thirst for the blood of Jesus, which of course he could only receive through Christians. The second belief is not as common, but goes along with the Last Supper, in that during the last supper Jesus was being quite literal when he said to drink of his blood and eat of his flesh. There are people who believe Jesus himself was a vampire. In reality, most vampire beliefs were created by the Church to keep people from robbing graves, roaming the streets at night, and to generally instill fear in a relatively ignorant people.


Another myth is of Cain and Adam's first wife, Lilith. She supposedly showed Cain the power of blood—also thought to be the tree of life. It is said that this is why the Jewish people drain all blood from their meat before cooking and eating it. From this union between Cain and Lilith came forth a host of demons and vampires in myths across the globe.


Before Christianity, methods of repelling vampires included garlic, hawthorn branches, rowan trees (later used to make crosses), scattering of seeds, fire, decapitation with a gravedigger's spade, salt (associated with preservation and purity), iron, bells, a rooster's crow, peppermint, running water, and burying a suspected vampire at a crossroads. It was also not unusual for a corpse to be buried face down so it would dig down the wrong way and become lost in the earth. Garlic has been used as a form of protection for over 2,000 years. The ancient Egyptians believed garlic was a gift from God, Roman soldiers thought it gave them courage, sailors believed it protected them from shipwreck, and German miners believed it protected them from evil spirits when they went underground.

Stake through the heart comes from the medieval times when medical knowledge did not account for the presence of gasses in the decomposing corpses. After driving a stake in a corpse's heart, people could witness the moans coming from the corpse's mouth and deflation of body, all providing proof that something unnatural was present.


In folklore, the vampire's first victim would often be his wife. In some cultures, when a husband died, the wife changed her appearance; she would cut her hair and wear black for the entire period of mourning. These things were done to deceive the vampire, should he return. A vampire may engage in sex with his former wife, which often led to pregnancy. This belief provided a convenient explanation as to why a widow, who was supposed to be celibate, became pregnant. The resulting child was called a gloglave (pl. glog) in Bulgarian or vampirdzii in Turkish. The child was considered a hero who had powers to slay a vampire.


Modern literature often states that vampires have many powers, from telepathy and mind control to the ability to communicate with and/or transform into animals. There is no historical lore that corroborate these concepts and seem to be recent developments in vampire mythology. Modern writers have literally pushed the coffin aside.


How I formed the Character of Arabus Drake

Vrykolakas is Greek for an undead or unnatural spirit. It was believed that a person could become a vrykolakas by living an immoral life, being excommunicated, die a violent death, buried without proper church rites, or being buried in unconsecrated ground. It was also thought that if you ate sheep that had been previously wounded by a werewolf, you would become a vampire.


Early accounts of these beings described those who arose from the dead to attend unfinished business, usually with a relative or close associate. There also were stories of those who stayed with family for long periods of time, and even one who went off and got married, and fathered children.


The word vrykolakas is derived from the Slavic word vǎrkolak, and can be found in other languages such as Lithuanian vilkolakis and Romanian vârcolac. The term is a compound word meaning "wolf" and (strand of) hair" and originally meant "werewolf." In the mid 17th century story Vrykolokas by Pitton de Tournefort, he refers to the revenant as a "werewolf" which may have also been translated as bug-bears, a strange word that has nothing to do with bugs nor bears, but is related to the word bogey, which means spook, spirit, hobgoblin. Pitton wrote about his experience witnessing the exhumation and slaying of a deceased individual suspected to be a vrykolakas.


Some archaeological excavations in Mytilene have uncovered what have been called "vrykolakas" burials, though the 20cm spikes placed through the ankles, groin, and neck of each body is reminiscent of Balkan folkloric burial processes used to prevent vampirism.


The word in the form vukodlak has been used in the sense of "vampire" in the folklore of Western Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Apparently, the two concepts have become mixed. Even in Bulgaria, original folklore generally describes the vârkolak as a sub-species of the vampire without any wolf-like features.


The first "typical" vampire that might be traced to Greek mythology is the story of a young Italian man named Ambrogio and love of his life, Selena. According to the myth, Ambrogio fell in love with Selena after visiting the legendary Oracle in the temple of Apollo, the sun god. He asked her to marry him, but little did he know the jealous Apollo wanted her for his own. Apollo cursed Ambrogio by causing his skin to burn whenever it was exposed to sunlight.


In desperation, Ambrogio turned to Hades, the god of the underworld, and then Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, for help. After stealing Artemis's silver bow to fulfill a deal made with Hades, Artemis cursed Ambrogio so silver would burn his skin. She later took pity on him, though, and gave him super strength, immortality, and fangs to kill beasts to use their blood to write love poems to Selena.


Eventually, the mortal Selena escaped Apollo's grasp and reunited with the immortal Ambrogio. Artemis told Ambrogio he could make Selena immortal by drinking her blood which would kill her body but make her spirit live on. Their combined blood could then turn anyone who drank it into a vampire.


The Island of Santorini became especially fertile ground for vampire beliefs, considered the home of the vrykolakas, because the volcanic soil preserves bodies, slowing decomposition, in case you're ever up for a vampire vacation.


Originally, when the dead came back, they weren't really malicious. There's a story of a shoemaker who came back and helped his family out by making shoes. Other dead people who were thought to have returned from the grave were seen out in the fields eating beans. But those are ancient-vintage legends, before the evil Slavic vampire overwrote them. But they demonstrate the legend of how a vrykolakas longs to be with family again after coming back to life.


Their bodies have the same distinctive characteristics as the bodies of vampires in Balkan folklore. They do not decay; they have a ruddy complexion when they are, according to one account, "fresh and gorged with new blood".   

One myth says that the creature is believed to knock on the doors of houses and call out the name of the residents. If it gets no reply the first time, it will pass on without causing any harm. If someone does answer the door, he or she will die a few days later and become another vrykolakas. For this reason, there is a superstition present in certain Greek villages that one should not answer a door until the second knock.


Since the vrykolakas becomes more and more powerful if left to roam free, legends state that one should destroy its body. According to some accounts, this can only be done on Saturday, which is the only day when the vrykolakas rests in its grave. This may be done in various ways, such as exorcising, impaling, beheading, cutting into pieces, and especially cremating the suspected corpse, so that it may be freed from living death and its victims saved.


END OF PART ONE: See part two coming October 30th.


Sources for both parts:

Vampires, Burial, and Death-Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber (1988) Vali-Ballou Press, Birmingham, NY

Matthew Beresford, "From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth" (Reaktion, 2008).











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