V is for Vampire Part Two: A Bite Sized History

The irony of detailing any folkloric creature’s history is that at some point you will find yourself recounting the history of creatures which are no longer even remotely the same as the creature you set out to discuss. This leaves the writer with a dilemma: describe all of the vaguely similar folklore leading up to what is definitely the early forms of the creature in question, or give a less than complete description of the origin of the species (okay, okay, bad pun) and focus on that folklore which is definitely related to that creature – rather than just any vaguely similar creature or which could be related but which is missing links to connect the two.

I could begin by talking about the history of vampiric beings in folklore, but this is supposed to be about the history of the vampire – which overlaps, but is somewhat different. Certainly, the idea that something supernatural could be sucking human blood for food or nefarious purposes is far older than the idea of the vampire, and the idea of supernatural bloodsuckers would therefore have already been in the minds of our species as a whole by the time the vampire was invented, there is no real causal link between, say, the vampire and the Indian Vetala (a ghost-like creature which takes over a dead body).

A good place to start might be mentioning that some of the oldest known depictions of vampiric behaviour (the consumption of human blood) can be found on Ancient Persian pottery (for the record, given that I’ve been flabbergasted in the past by people who thought it was fictional; Persia is an Ancient Greek name for Iran) . It would be tempting to suggest that the vampire might be the result of Ancient Greek and Roman stories of Empusa (a demigoddess who caused sleep-paralysis in young men and drank their blood – but who has more parallels with the succubus than the vampire) and Lamia (a lover of Zeus whose children were murdered by Hera and who took to eating children in vengeance). It is very tempting to suggest that there may be some mixing of those Greco-Roman creatures and the Assyrian & Babylonian Lilitu – which it is believed may have given rise to the later stories of Lilith in the Abrahamic mythology – and that many centuries later this mixed of demonic, humanoid, often beautiful, blood-suckers gave rise to the Eastern European vampire that we all think we know and the subsequent Western Literary vampire which we all actually do know. It is tempting. It is also inappropriate and erroneous to imply such a direct link as records in those days were not so plentiful and we just don’t know. Similarly, a link between the vampire and the Estries of Jewish myth (recorded as early as 1465) is a tempting theory – we know them both in modern times as typically good looking bloodsuckers who can shape shift, can fly and have an association with cats. Indeed, modern depictions of estries often give them vampires’ weaknesses. However, this theory – just as the previous theory – has problems. Specifically, they make connections to earlier mythical beings which match the more modern depiction of the vampire, rather than the older and more traditional forms.

So where can we start without risking that we are going down the wrong road entirely? Well, obviously no matter what we do the earliest recording of a folkloric creature will inevitably occur much later than the idea comes into being, as to be believed enough to be passed down an idea needs time to grow and become common enough to seem reasonable. In this way, a background of Christian (and earlier Jewish and Babylonian and Assyrian and – you get the picture) demonology would have been fertile ground for such an idea as the older forms of vampire, but we cannot prove a direct link.

The vampire originated at some point in the Medieval Period (that is: 5th to 15th centuries) and can be presumed to have been present by the High Medieval Period (11th through 13th centuries) but may have already begun in the very late Early Medieval Period (5th through 10th centuries), as deviant burials found in Kilteasheen, Ireland, which date from the 8th century are believed to predate the idea of vampires. Certainly, as the vampire is of Eastern European origin and tales of them become less natively common with each body of water crossed (Danube, Irish Sea, North Sea, English Channel, Rhone, etc) for all that those more Western places have their own creatures of lore, the Kilteasheen burials can be said to predate the concept of the vampire in Ireland.

It is also worth noting that deviant burials (often erroneously called “Vampire burials”) could have begun in response to any number of revenant (that is: visible ghost or reanimated corpse) stories. The Strzyga (a type of female demon) of Slavic, and especially Polish, lore certainly was prevented from returning to the world of the living in this manner. Indeed, as vampires in their earliest forms are less like reanimated corpses and more akin to demonic poltergeists, it seems quite likely that as vampires of lore became embodied so too did the burial practises aimed at the other supernatural un-dead become adopted into their lore. A deviant (not vampire!) burial, for those of you who’ve been wondering, is a burial which is deliberately unlike the cultural norm – typically found with items meant to prevent the body coming out of the grave (rocks or bricks wedged in the mouth, a sickle placed across the neck, metal spikes driven through the corpse, etc) or in an unusual position (head separate or beneath the buttocks, head and arms in a skull and crossbones position, buried facing downward so that it would claw its way out in the wrong direction and wind up in Australia where it wouldn’t be noticed because everything there is trying to kill you anyway, etc).

Etymology, also, is quite useless in determining when vampire lore came into being. We can date the arrival of the word and concept into English at 1734, quite late in the game, in reference to matters in Eastern Europe, and which came to English via German (and possibly French) from the Serbian vampir. Unfortunately, determining where the word vampir itself came from – not to mention the origins and first meanings of its related terms; upir in Old East Slavic, Czech and Slovak, upyr in Old Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian, vampir in Bulgarian, Croatian and Macedonian, Iampir in Bosnian and finally upior and wapierz in Polish – is made exceedingly difficult by poor historical record keeping (that is to say people back then had better things to worry about) and lingual exchange. A piece of Christian propaganda in Old Russian dating from within the High Medieval Period (11th to 13th centuries) refers to the worship of upyri which could be a reference to older vampire lore, however as it was in an anti-pagan treatise all the information included therein is highly questionable. All we can say for certain, without taking a time machine to go demand answers from the person who wrote it, is that something called an upyr (presuming that upyri was a plural) existed in the native folklore at the time.

In the 12th century accounts from William of Newburgh (Newbury) and Walter Map give accounts of revenants which are traditionally associated with the history of the vampire; however it should not be forgotten that the older vampire legends have far less in common with revenants than they do with demons and poltergeists. Typically, older vampire lore describes the vampire as first non-corporeal or as a gelatinous lump (often a boneless “bag of blood” ) which only gains bones and a more human form after a certain amount of time (often forty days) and a sufficient amount of bloodsucking (sometimes done through a furry snout). Such older-lore vampires would often be invisible at first.

The first accepted record of a person being described as a vampire came in 1672; from the village of Kringa on the Istrian peninsula in what is currently Croatia. Jure Grando Alilovič was a peasant, who lived from 1579 to 1656, and was reported to return from his grave at night (some sixteen years after his death) to terrorise the village by knocking on their doors (foretelling a death in the house within a few days) and sexually assaulting his widow. As attempts to stake him with a stick of Hawthorn failed, he was eventually decapitated. His children were forced to flee the area. However, it is very important to note that the word used to describe Grando was strigoi (a somewhat more sorcerer and/or poltergeist like being from Romanian lore, being the troubled soul of a dead person rising from the grave or a living person with magical properties) not vampir.

Then in 1718, Austrian officials in newly-Austria ruled northern Serbia became aware of a local – and presumably relatively longstanding – practise of exhuming and killing vampires. The reports of the officers, prepared through 1725 and 1732, became a massive inspiration for gossip and panic alike, thus beginning what is now called the 18th Century Vampire Controversy – during which massive numbers of stakings and panics occurred (think pop-culturally-inaccurate-witch-trials-panic). The panic, I should add, occurred even though (or, rather, because) government officials widely publicised their investigations into the supposed vampirism of Petar Blagojevich and Arnold Paole (both Serbian). Blagojevich, in particular, is believed to have been the case which solidified much of the traditional image of vampires in popular knowledge – an image which did not significantly change until Bram Stoker came along. After Blagojevich’s death, within the next eight days, many people died of sudden maladies, claiming that he throttled them. The exhumed body showed all the signs of what we now know as decomposition (skin receding and giving the appearance of new nail and hair growth, bloating with decomp gasses and fluids giving the corpse a fat and ruddy appearance, and blood at the mouth). He was subsequently staked and his body burned.

The 18th Century Vampire Controversy raged until the Empress of Austria sent her own physician – Gerard van Swieten, b.1700-d.1772 – to Moravia to investigate the matter. Van Swieten recognised decomposition and panic for what they were and on his advice the Empress banned all further attempts to kill “vampires”.

Now, vampires had already been appearing in poetry in literature for quite some time (Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s 1748 poem The Vampire, for example) but it wasn’t until John Polidori’s 1819 short-story The Vampyre (featuring Lord Ruthven, who was based on Polidori’s patient Lord Byron) that vampires began to leave their traditional, rotting and bloated, roots and transform into the “original” vampires of Western fictional tradition. The modern vampire came most irreversibly to take over the meaning of “vampire” for most people in Bram Stoker’s 1897 massive act of cultural appropriation, ahem, novel Dracula, which at the time was considered quite risqué. Stoker’s creation cemented the idea that vampires were aristocrats, rather than peasants or overripe vegetables as was traditional, and the association with fangs and bats. Bats, specifically, were not involved in traditional folklore regarding vampires – owls were. Indeed, the associated creature Strzyga, from Slavic myth, has its etymological roots in the Latin strix (owl) and some believed that the Strzyga is the etymological root of the Strigoi.

But I digress. Stoker’s Dracula was not affected by sunlight (this came from the 1922 film Nosferatu), nor did he wear a cloak (an invention of 1920s stage plays done in order to allow an actor to ‘vanish’ while in the audience’s sight), and it was only due to Stoker’s cultural appropriation that Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad Drăculea) ever became associated with vampirism. Admittedly, Vlad III was already known as the Impaler, but being known for impaling one’s enemies is hardly the most ruthless or bizarre thing rulers of that era did. Indeed, in Romania, Vlad III is known as a folk hero because he prevented the Ottoman Turks from invading – and history has long proven that for the people being invaded a successful invasion is never good news. The patronymic epithet Dracula has often been mis-attributed to devilishness, however in truth it comes from Latin draco – dragon – and was not nearly as negative as it is now assumed. Thanks to Bram Stoker deciding to pinch that because it sounded cool, Romania has suffered through proof of how damaging cultural appropriation can actually be, as most people in the modern world only know it as “that place in Eastern Europe where Dracula came from and no one can pronounce their ws”.

This brings me to my last point in our abridged (yes, abridged) tour of the history of the vampire: Dracula, despite living from 1431 to 1476/7, was never associated with vampirism until Stoker came along in 1897 and therefore he is a modern addition to the folklore. This is mirrored by the case of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (alternately: Ecsedi Báthory Erzsébet) who lived from 1560 to 1614, was from a noble Hungarian family, and was put on trial for the supposed murders of up to 650 women. Nevertheless, it was only in modern times – long after her imprisonment in a locked and walled up set of chambers as punishment for her declared guilt – that she became associated with vampire lore and compared to Vlad III. It is also worth noting that when Bathory was accused of being a murderer, it was only after her husband had died and the king owed her family an awful lot of money. Furthermore, her son and sons-in-law organised a verdict with the king which would allow them to keep their own property (and large amount of inherited money) and the king’s debt would be wiped away. Whether this means that Bathory was not guilty, or that the crimes were exaggerated, is impossible to tell. She may well have been the monster she was viewed as at the time, but the version of her in modern vampire folklore is significantly different than the historical figure.

And so, patient readers, we come to the end of our investigation into the history of the vampire and can conclude that the traditional or ruddy vampire came into being somewhen in the High Middle Ages (11th through 13th centuries) and was popularised in the 18th century, while the modern vampire – despite beginning to coalesce in the 1890s – is truly no older than the 1920s, created by imitators of Stoker, some of whom may well have never read his book. And now, in the modern era, the vampire is changing again – turning from threat to lust object, slipping away from its demonic and revenant roots into something crossed between an angel, a drug addict and an incubus.


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