The modern day term, Vampire (derivative of the German vampir), usually refers to mythological or folkloric beings that subsist on the life force of a human being and/or animal. In most cases, vampires are represented as reanimated corpses who feed by draining and consuming the blood of living beings. The word “vampire” is mentioned in Babylonian demonology, and the even more ancient bloodsucking Akhkharu is mentioned in Sumerian mythology. Bram Stoker’s Dracula arguably presents the definitive version of the vampire in popular fiction.
Ways purported to kill vampires range from putting sawdust in or around their coffins to carrying fresh rose bush sprigs. The most popular and well-known means of killing a vampire is driving a silver stake through its heart and presenting it with holy items, such as rosaries, crosses, and holy water.
Linked to the restless souls of the dead, the vampire may indeed represent the spirits of those who died unsatisfied with their time on earth and continue to seek fulfillment of their desires by sucking the blood of those who still have life. Without understanding the reality of the spiritual world, the appearance of such beings could well be interpreted in the context of real creatures, such as bats. However, the vampire is never satisfied in this way, but only torments those on earth until its “death,” and the spirit can finally find its way to an afterlife existence.
The English word vampire is a derivative of the German vampir, which became “vampire” when passed into French, and stayed the same when it was assimilated into English. The German form came from Slavic and Slovak variants, such as the Polish upior, the Belarussian upyr, Ukrainian, Russian upir, and Bulgarian vapir. The first recorded use of the English variation “vampire” comes from a police report in Austrian controlled Serbia during the sixteenth century, in which the police were investigating vampire claims made by local peasants.
In zoology and botany, the term “vampirism” is used in reference to leeches, mosquitos, mistletoe, vampire bats, and other organisms that subsist on the bodily fluids of others.
Nearly every ancient culture considered blood to be sacred. It was often thought of as not only a physical requirement for life, but also as the life-force of humankind. Rituals involving both animal and human blood (although human blood was usually held in higher esteem than the blood of animals) were common in many societies. It is, therefore, not surprising that ideas of creatures which lived off blood were popular in ancient times.
Vampire-like spirits called the Lilu are mentioned in early Babylonian demonology, and the even more ancient bloodsucking Akhkharu is discussed in Sumerian mythology. These female demons were said to roam during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. One of the demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted into Jewish demonology as Lilith.
In India, tales of vetalas, ghoul-like beings that inhabited corpses, are found in old Sanskrit folklore. Like the bat associated with modern day vampirism, they were said to hang upside down on trees found in burial grounds and cemeteries. A prominent story tells of King Vikramāditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive vetala. The vetala legends have been compiled in the book Baital Pachisi.
The “hopping corpse” may be considered the Chinese equivalent of the vampire. However, this creature fed on a person’s qi, or life force, which in China was understood as separate from the blood. In other respects it keeps within the tradition of vampiric behavior. The Ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, in one myth, became full of bloodlust after slaughtering humans and was only sated after drinking alcohol colored as blood.
These are but a few examples of the numerous traditions of creatures that practice vampirism. The anthropomorphic and demonic version of the vampire did not emerge until centuries later, however, in Eastern Europe folklore.
Folk beliefs in vampires
The modern day representation of vampires owes itself directly to the folklore of Eastern Europe. It is probable that the ancient beliefs in creatures that fed off human life carried over into this area of the world and mixed with other beliefs, producing the human vampire. Some scholars have suggested this belief in vampires arose because of a series of deaths due to unidentifiable or mysterious illnesses, usually within the same family or the same small community. The rare blood disorder Porphyria, which causes increased sensitivity of the skin to direct sunlight and makes teeth appear larger than normal, as well as rabies, which can make a human act like a wild animal, have been cited by some as misunderstood disorders that helped spur the belief in vampires.
Beliefs regarding death and mortality may also have played an important role. Often in old folklore, those who committed suicide or were brutally murdered were susceptible to becoming vampires, since the natural course of their life was interrupted.
It is difficult to make a single description of the folkloric vampire, because its properties vary widely between different cultures. However, here are some of the more common characteristics among vampire legends:
- The appearance of the European folkloric vampire mostly concerned features by which one was supposed to tell a vampiric corpse from a normal one, when the grave of a suspected vampire was opened. The vampire has a “healthy” appearance and ruddy skin, he is often plump, his nails and hair have grown and, above all, he or she is not in the least decomposed.
- The most common ways to destroy the vampire are driving a wooden stake through the heart, decapitation, and incinerating the body completely. Ways to prevent a suspected vampire from rising from the grave in the first place include burying it upside-down, severing the tendons at the knees, or placing poppy seeds on the ground at the grave site of a presumed vampire in order to keep the vampire occupied all night counting.
- Apotropaics, objects intended to inhibit or ward off vampires (as well as other evil supernatural creatures), include garlic (confined mostly to European legends), sunlight, a branch of wild rose, the hawthorn plant, and all things sacred (such as holy water, a crucifix, and a rosary).
- Vampires are sometimes considered to be shape-shifters, not limited to the common bat stereotype depicted in cartoons and movies. Rather, vampires are said to morph into a wide variety of animals such as wolves, rats, moths, spiders, and so on.
- Vampires in European folklore are said to cast no shadow and no reflection, perhaps arising from folklore regarding the vampire’s lack of a soul.
- Some traditions hold that a vampire cannot enter a house unless invited, although after this they can come and go as they please without further permission.
- Christian tradition holds that vampires cannot enter a church or holy place, as they are servants of the devil.
In Slavic lore, causes of vampirism include being born with a caul (the remnants of the amniotic sac seen as a shimmery coating of the head and face immediately after birth), teeth, or tail, being conceived on certain days, “unnatural” death, excommunication, and improper burial rituals. Many Serbians believed that having red hair was a vampiric trait.
Preventive measures included placing a crucifix in the coffin, placing blocks under the chin to prevent the body from eating the shroud, nailing clothes to coffin walls for the same reason, putting sawdust in the coffin (so that when the vampire awakens in the evening he is compelled to count every grain of sawdust, which occupies the entire night, so that he will die at dawn) or piercing the body with thorns or stakes. In the case of stakes, the general idea was to pierce through the vampire and into the ground below, pinning the body down. Certain people would bury those believed to be potential vampires with scythes above their necks, so the dead would decapitate themselves as they rose.
Evidence that a vampire was active in a given locality included death of cattle, sheep, relatives, or neighbors; an exhumed body being in a lifelike state with new growth of the fingernails or hair; a body swelled up like a drum; or blood on the mouth coupled with a ruddy complexion. Vampires, like other Slavic legendary creatures, were afraid of garlic and were compelled to count particles of grain, sawdust, and the like. The most famous Serbian vampire was Sava Savanovic, from a folklore-inspired novel by Milovan Glišić.
Romania is surrounded by Slavic countries, so it is not surprising that Romanian and Slavic vampires are similar. Romanian vampires are called Strigoi, based on the ancient Greek term strix, for screech owl, which also came to mean demon or witch.
There are different types of Strigoi. Live Strigoi are live witches who will become vampires after death. They have the ability to send out their souls at night to meet with other witches or with other Strigoi, which are reanimated bodies that return to suck the blood of family, livestock, and neighbors. Other types of vampires in Romanian folklore include Moroi and Pricolici.
Romanian tradition described a myriad of ways of bringing about a vampire. A person born with a caul, an extra nipple, a tail, or extra hair was doomed to become a vampire. The same fate applied to someone born too early, someone whose mother encountered a black cat crossing her path, and someone who was born out of wedlock. Others who became vampires were those who died an unnatural death or before baptism, the seventh child in any family (presuming all of his or her previous siblings were of the same gender), the child of a pregnant woman who avoided eating salt, and a person who was looked upon by a vampire or a witch. Moreover, being bitten by a vampire meant certain condemnation to a vampiric existence after death.
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 on the Gregorian, and May 6 on the Julian calendar), the night when all forms of evil were supposed to be abroad.
A vampire in the grave could be discerned by holes in the earth, an un-decomposed corpse with a red face, or with one foot in the corner of the coffin. Living vampires were identified by distributing garlic in church and observing who would refuse to eat it. Graves were often opened three years after the 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 from becoming a vampire included removing the caul from a newborn and destroying it before the baby could eat 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 and St Andrew’s day. To destroy a vampire, a stake was driven through the body, followed by decapitation, and placing garlic in the mouth. By the nineteenth century, one would also shoot a bullet through the coffin. For resistant cases, the body was dismembered and the pieces burned, mixed with water, and administered to family members as a cure.
Belief in vampires was common in nineteenth century Greece. Greek customs may have propagated this belief, notably a ritual that entailed exhuming the deceased three years after their death, and observing the extent of decay. If the body was fully decayed, the remaining bones were put in a box by relatives and wine poured over them, a priest would then read from scriptures. However, if the body had not sufficiently decayed, the corpse would be labeled a vampire.
According to Greek beliefs, vampirism could occur through various means: Excommunication or desecrating a religious day, committing a great crime, or dying alone. Other more superstitious causes include having a cat jump across the grave, eating meat from a sheep killed by a wolf, or having been cursed. It was also believed in more remote regions of Greece that unbaptized people would be doomed to vampirism in the afterlife.
The appearance of vampires varied throughout Greece and were usually thought to be indistinguishable from living people, giving rise to many folk tales with this theme. However, this was not the case everywhere: On Mount Pelion vampires glowed in the dark, while on the Saronic islands, vampires were thought to be hunchbacks with long nails; on the island of Lesbos vampires were thought to have long canine teeth much like wolves. Vampires could be harmless, sometimes returning to support their widows by their work. However, they were usually thought to be ravenous predators, killing their victims who would be condemned to become vampires. Vampires were so feared for their potential for great harm that a village or an island would occasionally be stricken by a mass panic if a vampire invasion were believed imminent. Nicholas Dragoumis records such a panic on Naxos in the 1930s, following a cholera epidemic.
Varieties of wards were employed for protection in different places, including blessed bread (antidoron) from the church, crosses, and black-handled knives. To prevent vampires from rising from the dead, their hearts were pierced with iron nails whilst resting in their graves, or their bodies burned and the ashes scattered. Because the Church opposed burning people who had been baptized, cremation was considered a last resort.
Traditional Romani beliefs claim that the dead soul enters a world similar to their own, except that there is no death. The soul lingers next to the body and sometimes wants to return to life. The Roma legends of the “living dead” have indeed enriched the vampire legends of Hungary, Romania, and the Slavic world.
The ancient home of the Roma, India, describes many vampiric entities. The Bhut or Prét is the soul of a man who died an untimely death. It wanders around animating dead bodies at night, attacking the living much like a ghoul. In northern India, there is the BrahmarākŞhasa, a vampire-like creature with a head encircled by intestines and a skull from which it drank blood. Vetala and pishacha are other creatures who resemble vampires.
The most famous Indian deity associated with drinking blood is Kali, who has fangs, wears a garland of corpses or skulls, and has four arms. Her temples are located near 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 him. Sara, or the Black Goddess, is the form in which Kali survived among Roma. Some Roma believe that the three Marys from the New Testament went to France and baptized a Gypsy called Sara. They still hold a ceremony every May 24, in the French village where this is supposed to have occurred. Some refer to this Black Goddess as “Black Cally” or “Black Kali.”
One form of vampire in Romani folklore is called a mullo (one who is dead). This vampire is believed to return and do malicious things and/or suck the blood of a person (usually a relative who had caused their death, or did not properly observe the burial ceremonies, or who kept their possessions instead of destroying them, as was proper). Female vampires could return, lead a normal life, and even marry, but would eventually exhaust the husband. Anyone who had a horrible appearance, was missing a finger, or had appendages similar to those of an animal, was believed to be a vampire. If a person died unseen, he would become a vampire, likewise if a corpse swelled before burial. Dogs, cats, plants, or even agricultural tools 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, one could hire a Dhampir (the son of a vampire and his widow) or a Moroi to detect the vampire. To ward off vampires, gypsies drove steel or iron needles into a corpse’s heart and placed pieces 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, as well as decapitating or burning the corpse.
Even today, Roma frequently feature in vampire fiction and film, no doubt influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the Szgany Roma served Dracula, carrying his boxes of earth and guarding him.
Modern belief in vampires
Beliefs in vampires persist to this day. While some cultures preserve their original traditions about the immortal, most modern-day believers are more influenced by the fictional image of the vampire as it occurs in films and literature.
In the 1970s, there were rumors (spread by the local press) that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in London. Amateur vampire hunters flocked in large numbers to the cemetery. Several books have been written about the case, notably by Sean Manchester, a local man who was among the first to suggest the existence of the “Highgate Vampire,” and who later claimed to have exorcised and destroyed an entire nest of vampires in the area.
In the modern folklore of Puerto Rico and Mexico, the chupacabra (goat-sucker) is said to be a creature that feeds upon the flesh or drinks the blood of domesticated animals, leading some to consider it a kind of vampire. The “chupacabra hysteria” was frequently associated with deep economic and political crises, particularly during the mid-1990s.
During late 2002 and early 2003, hysteria about alleged attacks of vampires swept through the African country of Malawi. Mobs stoned one individual to death and attacked at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, based on the belief that the government was colluding with vampires.
In Romania during February of 2004, several relatives of the late Toma Petre feared that he had become a vampire. They dug up his corpse, tore out his heart, burned it, and mixed the ashes with water in order to drink it.
In January 2005, rumors began to circulate that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fueling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. However, local police stated that no such crime had been reported. This case appears to be an urban legend.
Vampire style groups have developed where vampire behavior is practiced, such as a preference for night time and darkness, and the drinking of blood. However, it should be noted that a majority of these people do not believe they are vampires in the folkloric sense. Rather, they believe that drinking blood is a sacred ritual, and will often drink small amounts of their own or other members’ blood. Mainstream culture frowns on such behavior, and it is often seen as a perverse sub-culture and Satanic or evil in nature, even though many who practice such culture disavow any malicious intentions.
Vampires in fiction and popular culture
Lord Byron arguably introduced the vampire theme to Western literature in his epic poem The Giaour (1813), but it was John Polidori who authored the first “true” vampire story, called The Vampyre. Polidori was the personal physician of Byron and the vampire of the story, Lord Ruthven, is based partly on him—making the character the first of the now familiar romantic vampires. The “ghost story competition” that spawned this piece was the same competition that motivated Mary Shelley to write her novel Frankenstein, another archetypal monster story.
Other examples of early vampire stories are Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem Christabel and Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire story, Carmilla. However, it was undoubtedly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, portraying Count Dracula from Transylvania as the “undead” villain, that has been the definitive version of the vampire in popular fiction. Its portrayal of vampirism as a disease (contagious demonic possession), with its undertones of sex, blood, and death, struck a chord in a Victorian Europe where tuberculosis and syphilis were common.
Vampires were among the first cinematic creations of the early twentieth century with the silent classic Nosferatu, followed by a string of Dracula inspired movies. Soon, vampires became staples of the horror genre, for both television and film, often depicted in similar representations to Stoker’s. Television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Konami’s Castlevania and Crystal Dynamics’ Legacy of Kain video game series, role-playing games such as Vampire: the Masquerade, and Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing manga have been especially successful and influential.