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Vampire Origins Part I
Vampires are the frequent subject of books and films. It’s interesting, however, to note that fictional vampires often demonstrate traits distinct from those of folkloric vampires.
According to the legends, Vampires are mythological or folkloric beings that subsist on human and/or animal lifeforce. In most cases, they are reanimated corpses who feed by draining and consuming the blood of living beings. The characteristics of vampires vary widely among different traditions. Some cultures also have stories of non-human vampires, including real animals such as bats, dogs and spiders.
Vampirism is the practice of drinking blood from a person or animal. In folklore and popular culture, the term refers to a belief that one can gain supernatural powers by drinking human blood. The historical practice of vampirism can generally be considered a more specific and less commonly occurring form of cannibalism. The consumption of another’s blood (or flesh) has been used as a tactic of psychological warfare intended to terrorize the enemy, and can be used to reflect various spiritual beliefs.
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.
Vampire Analogies in Ancient Cultures
Tales of the dead craving blood are found in nearly every culture, including the most ancient. Vampire-like spirits called the Lilu are mentioned in early Babylonian demonology, and the even more ancient bloodsucking Akhkharu in Sumerian mythology. These legends claimed that female demons roamed during the dark hours, preying on newborn babies and pregnant women. One of the demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted to Jewish demonology as Lilith.
In India, tales of vetalas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses, are found in old Sanskrit folklore. A popular story recites King Vikramaditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive vetala. Vetala legends have been compiled in the book Baital Pachisi. The vetala is an undead creature who, like the bat associated with modern day vampirism, hangs upside down on trees found in cemeteries.
After slaughtering humans, myths claim that the Ancient Egyptian goddess, Sekhmet could only satisfy her bloodlust by drinking alcohol colored as blood.
The Romanian word for vampires, strigoi, is derived from the word Strix, a nocturnal bird that, according to Roman myths, fed on human flesh and blood. The Albanian Shtriga also links back to this myth.
The Chinese have a hopping corpse as an equivalent of the vampire. It consumes the victim’s chi (life force) rather than blood.
Vampire Beliefs in Folklore
The vampire myth, as we know it, is most heavily rooted in Slavic folklore. Typically, vampires are suicide victims, criminals or evil sorcerers, though in some cases a vampire could pass his vampirism along to his victims. It was commonly believed that a victim of a cruel, untimely or violent death was susceptible to becoming a vampire. Vampires were often accused of killing people by drinking their blood. However, they were also believed to commit murder by strangling or sitting on their vicitms to prevent breathing. Stemming from Slavic folklore was the belief that a vampire could be destroyed by driving a wooden stake into its heart, beheading or by burning the corpse.
Vampires of Slavic Origin
Causes of vampirism were quite varied. In Slavic lore, these included being born with a caul, 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 or piercing the body with thorns or stakes. With stakes, the accepted belief was to pierce through the vampire and into the ground below, pinning the body down. Some communities would bury those believed to be potential vampires with scythes above their necks, assuming the dead would decapitate themselves as they rose.
Evidence of an active vampire 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.
Like most Slavic legendary monsters, vampires were believed to be afraid of garlic and were compelled to count particles of grain, sawdust, etc. Humans could destroy vampires by staking, decapitation, burning, repeating the funeral service, sprinkling holy water on the body, or exorcism. The most famous Serbian vampire was Sava Savanovic, featured in a folklore-inspired novel by Milovan Glisic.
Vampires of Romanian Origin
Vampire tales were found among the ancient Romans and the Romanized inhabitants of eastern Europe, Romanians (known as Vlachs in historical context). Romanian vampires, similar in many ways to Slavic vampires, are called Strigoi, based on the ancient Greek term Strix for Screech Owl, which also meant demon or witch.
There are a variety 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 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 many ways to become a vampire. It was believed that anyone born with a caul, an extra nipple, a tail, or extra hair was doomed to become a vampire. The same fate applied if you were born too early, if your mother encountered a black cat crossing her path or if you were born out of wedlock. Furthermore, vampires could be those who died an unnatural death, died before baptism, or possibly if they were the seventh child in any family (with all previous siblings of the same sex), if they were the child of a pregnant woman who avoided eating salt, or even 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 Varcolac, which is sometimes mentioned in Romanian folklore, was more closely related to a mythological wolf that could devour the sun and moon (similar to Skoll and Hati in Norse mythology), and hence later became connected with werewolves rather than vampires . (A person afflicted with lycanthropy could turn into a dog, pig, or wolf.) The vampire was usually first noticed when it attacked family and livestock, or threw things around in the house. vampires were believed to be most active on the eve of two religious holidays, the Feast of St. George (Julian calendar, May 4-5 Gregorian calendar April 22-23) and the Feast of St. Andrew . (Julian calendar, November 23-24. Gregorian calendar, November 29-30).
The Feast of St. George was a festival. Also known as the Great Martyr, George was a beloved Saint. Not only was he acknowledged as the patron of England, but many other countries as well. He was also the patron of horses, cattle, wolves, and all enemies of witches and vampires . On St. George s eve people would remain in their homes with continuous light throughout the night. They placed thorns across thresholds, painted crosses on their doors with tar, put thistles on windows, lit bonfires, and spread garlic everywhere. Throughout the night, prayers would be recited. If the night went well without any occurrences, the saint s feast was celebrated with much exuberance that day. The thorns and garlic were then replaced by roses and other flowers.
Bram Stoker, in his 1897 novel Dracula, used the fearful villagers on St. George s Eve to warn Jonathan Harker that at midnight “all the evil things in the world will have full sway.”
The Feast of St. Andrew was acknowledged as one of the most feared times of the year in Romania. It was on St. Andrew s Eve, in certain parts of Romania, that the vampire was believed to be the most active and dangerous. Vampires were also believed to be active throughout winter and rest at epiphany (January). During these perilous times, it was considered wise to rub garlic on the doors and windows to protect families from vampire attacks. Livestock was also at risk of attack, so they were rubbed down with garlic.
A vampire in the grave could be discerned by holes in the earth or an un-decomposed corpse with a red face. 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.
To destroy a vampire, a stake was driven through the body, followed by decapitation and placing garlic in the mouth. By the 19th 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.
Michael Clutton, a former full-time entrepreneur, now lives in south Florida. Having recently authored a full length novel, Michael now splits his time between fishing, writing and coaching friends in their online income opportunities. More about Michael s history, humor and original work at
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