Vampyre: Origins & Cultures
Vampires: Origins and Cultures
Lilith (1892), by John CollierTales of supernatural beings consuming the blood or flesh of the living have been found in nearly every culture around the world for many centuries. Today we would associate these entities with vampires, but in ancient times, the term vampire did not exist; blood drinking and similar activities were attributed to demons or spirits who would eat flesh and drink blood; even the devil was considered synonymous with the vampire. Almost every nation has associated blood drinking with some kind of revenant or demon, or in some cases a deity. In India, for example, tales of vetalas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses, have been compiled in the Baital Pachisi; a prominent story in the Kathasaritsagara tells of King Vikramāditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive one. Pishacha, the returned spirits of evil-doers or those who died insane, also bear vampiric attributes. The Ancient Indian goddess Kali, with fangs and a garland of corpses or skulls, was also intimately linked with the drinking of blood. In Egypt, the goddess Sekhmet drank blood.
The Persians were one of the first civilizations to have tales of blood-drinking demons: creatures attempting to drink blood from men were depicted on excavated pottery shards. Ancient Babylonia had tales of the mythical Lilitu, synonymous with and giving rise to Lilith (Hebrew לילית) and her daughters the Lilu from Hebrew demonology. Lilitu was considered a demon and was often depicted as subsisting on the blood of babies. However, the Jewish counterparts were said to feast on both men and women, as well as newborns.
Ancient Greek and Roman mythology described the Empusae, Lamia, and the striges. Over time the first two terms became general words to describe witches and demons respectively. Empusa was the daughter of the goddess Hecate and was described as a demonic, bronze-footed creature. She feasted on blood by transforming into a young woman and seduced men as they slept before drinking their blood. Lamia preyed on young children in their beds at night, sucking their blood. Like Lamia, the striges, feasted on children, but also preyed on young men. They were described as having the bodies of crows or birds in general, and were later incorporated into Roman mythology as strix, a kind of nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood.
Medieval and later European folklore
Main article: Vampire folklore by region
Many of the myths surrounding vampires originated during the medieval period. The 12th century English historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of revenants, though records in English legends of vampiric beings after this date are scant. These tales are similar to the later folklore widely reported from Eastern Europe in the 18th century and were the basis of the vampire legend that later entered Germany and England, where they were subsequently embellished and popularised.
During the 18th century, there was a frenzy of vampire sightings in Eastern Europe, with frequent stakings and grave diggings to identify and kill the potential revenants; even government officials engaged in the hunting and staking of vampires. Despite being called the Age of Enlightenment, during which most folkloric legends were quelled, the belief in vampires increased dramatically, resulting in a mass hysteria throughout most of Europe. The panic began with an outbreak of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734, which spread to other localities. Two famous vampire cases, the first to be officially recorded, involved the corpses of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole from Serbia. Plogojowitz was reported to have died at the age of 62, but allegedly returned after his death asking his son for food. When the son refused, he was found dead the following day. Plogojowitz supposedly returned and attacked some neighbours who died from loss of blood. In the second case, Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who allegedly was attacked by a vampire years before, died while haying. After his death, people began to die in the surrounding area and it was widely believed that Paole had returned to prey on the neighbours. Another famous Serbian legend involving vampires concentrates around certain Sava Savanović living in a watermill and killing and drinking blood from millers. The folklore character was later used in a story written by Serbian writer Milovan Glišić and in the Serbian 1973 horror film Leptirica inspired by the story.
The two incidents were well-documented: government officials examined the bodies, wrote case reports, and published books throughout Europe. The hysteria, commonly referred to as the "18th-Century Vampire Controversy", raged for a generation. The problem was exacerbated by rural epidemics of so-claimed vampire attacks, undoubtedly caused by the higher amount of superstition that was present in village communities, with locals digging up bodies and in some cases, staking them. Although many scholars reported during this period that vampires did not exist, and attributed reports to premature burial or rabies, superstitious belief increased. Dom Augustine Calmet, a well-respected French theologian and scholar, put together a comprehensive treatise in 1746, which was ambiguous concerning the existence of vampires. Calmet amassed reports of vampire incidents; numerous readers, including both a critical Voltaire and supportive demonologists, interpreted the treatise as claiming that vampires existed. In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote:
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.
The controversy only ceased when Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sent her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, to investigate the claims of vampiric entities. He concluded that vampires did not exist and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies, sounding the end of the vampire epidemics. Despite this condemnation, the vampire lived on in artistic works and in local superstition.
Various regions of Africa have folkloric tales of beings with vampiric abilities: in West Africa the Ashanti people tell of the iron-toothed and tree-dwelling asanbosam, and the Ewe people of the adze, which can take the form of a firefly and hunts children. The eastern Cape region has the impundulu, which can take the form of a large taloned bird and can summon thunder and lightning, and the Betsileo people of Madagascar tell of the ramanga, an outlaw or living vampire who drinks the blood and eats the nail clippings of nobles.
The Loogaroo is an example of how a vampire belief can result from a combination of beliefs, here a mixture of French and African Vodu or voodoo. The term Loogaroo possibly comes from the French loup-garou (meaning "werewolf") and is common in the culture of Mauritius. However, the stories of the Loogaroo are widespread through the Caribbean Islands and Louisiana in the United States. Similar female monsters are the Soucouyant of Trinidad, and the Tunda and Patasola of Colombian folklore, while the Mapuche of southern Chile have the bloodsucking snake known as the Peuchen. Aloe vera hung backwards behind or near a door was thought to ward off vampiric beings in South American superstition.Aztec mythology described tales of the Cihuateteo, skeletal-faced spirits of those who died in childbirth who stole children and entered into sexual liaisons with the living, driving them mad.
During the late 18th and 19th centuries the belief in vampires was widespread in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut. There are many documented cases of families disinterring loved ones and removing their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness and death in the family, although the term "vampire" was never actually used to describe the deceased. The deadly disease tuberculosis, or "consumption" as it was known at the time, was believed to be caused by nightly visitations on the part of a dead family member who had died of consumption themselves. The most famous, and most recently recorded, case of suspected vampirism is that of nineteen-year-old Mercy Brown, who died in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892. Her father, assisted by the family physician, removed her from her tomb two months after her death, cut out her heart and burned it to ashes.
Rooted in older folklore, the modern belief in vampires spread throughout Asia with tales of ghoulish entities from the mainland, to vampiric beings from the islands of Southeast Asia. India also developed other vampiric legends. The Bhūta 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. Although vampires have appeared in Japanese Cinema since the late 1950s, the folklore behind it was western in origin. However, the Nukekubi is a being whose head and neck detach from its body to fly about seeking human prey at night.
Legends of female vampire-like beings who can detach parts of their upper body also occur in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are two main vampire-like creatures in the Philippines: the Tagalog mandurugo ("blood-sucker") and the Visayan manananggal ("self-segmenter"). The mandurugo is a variety of the aswang that takes the form of an attractive girl by day, and develops wings and a long, hollow, thread-like tongue by night. The tongue is used to suck up blood from a sleeping victim. The manananggal is described as being an older, beautiful woman capable of severing its upper torso in order to fly into the night with huge bat-like wings and prey on unsuspecting, sleeping pregnant women in their homes. They use an elongated proboscis-like tongue to suck fetuses off these pregnant women. They also prefer to eat entrails (specifically the heart and the liver) and the phlegm of sick people.
The Malaysian Penanggalan may be either a beautiful old or young woman who obtained her beauty through the active use of black magic or other unnatural means, and is most commonly described in local folklore to be dark or demonic in nature. She is able to detach her fanged head which flies around in the night looking for blood, typically from pregnant women. Malaysians would hang jeruju (thistles) around the doors and windows of houses, hoping the Penanggalan would not enter for fear of catching its intestines on the thorns. The Leyak is a similar being from Balinese folklore. A Kuntilanak or Matianak in Indonesia, or Pontianak or Langsuir in Malaysia, is a woman who died during childbirth and became undead, seeking revenge and terrorizing villages. She appeared as an attractive woman with long black hair that covered a hole in the back of her neck, which she sucked the blood of children with. Filling the hole with her hair would drive her off. Corpses had their mouths filled with glass beads, eggs under each armpit, and needles in their palms to prevent them from becoming langsuir.
Jiang Shi (traditional Chinese: 僵屍 or 殭屍; simplified Chinese: 僵尸; pinyin: jiāngshī; literally "stiff corpse"), sometimes called "Chinese vampires" by Westerners, are reanimated corpses that hop around, killing living creatures to absorb life essence (qì) from their victims. They are said to be created when a person's soul (魄 pò) fails to leave the deceased's body. One unusual feature of this vampire is its greenish-white furry skin, perhaps derived from fungus or mould growing on corpses.
In modern fiction, the vampire tends to be depicted as a suave, charismatic villain. Despite the general disbelief in vampiric entities, occasional sightings of vampires are reported. Indeed, vampire hunting societies still exist, although they are largely formed for social reasons. Allegations of vampire attacks swept through the African country of Malawi during late 2002 and early 2003, with mobs stoning one individual to death and attacking at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, based on the belief that the government was colluding with vampires.
In early 1970 local press spread rumors 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 a whole nest of vampires in the area. In January 2005, rumours circulated that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fuelling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. However, local police stated that no such crime had been reported and that the case appears to be an urban legend.
In one of the more notable cases of vampiric entities in the modern age, the chupacabra ("goat-sucker") of Puerto Rico and Mexico 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.
In Europe, where much of the vampire folklore originates, the vampire is considered a fictitious being, although many communities have embraced the revenant for economic purposes. In some cases, especially in small localities, vampire superstition is still rampant and sightings or claims of vampire attacks occur frequently. In Romania during February 2004, several relatives of 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.
Vampirism also represents a relevant part of modern day's occultist movements. The mythos of the vampire, his magickal qualities, allure, and predatory archetype express a strong symbolism that can be used in ritual, energy work, and magick, and can even be adopted as a spiritual system. The vampire has been part of the occult society in Europe for centuries and has spread into the American sub-culture as well for more than a decade, being strongly influenced by and mixed with the neo gothic aesthetics.
Origins of vampire beliefs
lithograph by R. de Moraine
Les Tribunaux secrets (1864), stakings often resulted in dramatic explosions of organic material from the corpse or other phenomena, suggesting a supernatural origin. However, this may have been caused by the build-up of natural gas and fluids that the body endures after death.Many theories for the origins of vampire beliefs have been offered as an explanation for the superstition, and sometimes mass hysteria, caused by vampires. Everything ranging from premature burial to the early ignorance of the body's decomposition cycle after death has been cited as the cause for the belief in vampires.
Although many cultures possess revenant superstitions comparable to the Eastern European vampire, the Slavic vampire is the revenant superstition that pervades popular culture's concept of vampire. The roots of vampire belief in Slavic culture are significantly based in the spiritual beliefs and practices of the pre-Christianized Slavic peoples and their understanding of life after death. Despite a lack of pre-Christian Slavic writings describing the details of the Old Religion, many pagan spiritual beliefs and rituals have been sustained by Slavic peoples even after their lands were Christianized. Examples of such pagan beliefs and practices include ancestor worship, household spirits, and beliefs about the soul after death. The origins of vampire beliefs can in Slavic regions can be traced to the complex structure of Slavic spiritualism.
Demons and spirits served important functions in pre-industrial Slavic societies and were considered to be very interactive in the lives and domains of humans. Some spirits were benevolent and could be helpful in human tasks, others were harmful and often destructive. Examples of such spirits are Domovoi, Rusalka, Vila, Kikimora, Poludnitsa, and Vodyanoy. These spirits were also considered to be derived from ancestors or certain deceased humans. Such spirits could appear at will in various forms including that of different animals or human form. Some of these spirits could also participate in malevolent activity to harm humans, such as drowning humans, obstructing the harvest, or sucking the blood of livestock and sometimes humans. Hence, the Slavs were obliged to appease these spirits to prevent the spirits from their potential for erratic and destructive behavior.
Common Slavic belief indicates a stark distinction between soul and body. The soul is not considered to be perishable. The Slavs believed that upon death the soul would go out of the body and wander about its neighborhood and workplace for 40 days before moving on to an eternal afterlife. Because of this, it was considered necessary to leave a window or door open in the house for the soul to pass through at its leisure. During this time the soul was believed to have the capability of reentering the corpse of the deceased. Much like the spirits mentioned earlier, the passing soul could either bless or wreck havoc on its family and neighbors during its 40 days of passing. Upon an individual's death, much stress was placed on proper burial rites to ensure the soul's purity and peace as it separated from the body. The death of an unbaptized child, a violent or an untimely death, or the death of a grievous sinner (such as a sorcerer or murderer) were all grounds for a soul to become unclean after death. A soul could also be made unclean if its body were not given a proper burial. Alternatively, a body not given a proper burial could be susceptible to possession by other unclean souls and spirits. An unclean soul was so fearful to the Slavs because of its potential for vengeance.
From these deeply implicated beliefs pertaining to death and the soul derives the invention of the Slavic concept of vampir. A vampire is the manifestation of an unclean spirit possessing a decomposing body. This undead creature is considered to be vengeful and jealous towards the living and needing the blood of the living to sustain its body's existence. Although this concept of vampire exists in slightly deviating forms throughout Slavic countries and some of their non-Slavic neighbors, it is possible to trace the development of vampire belief to Slavic spiritualism preexisting Christianity in Slavic regions.
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