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Vampires – Real or Legend?

Female Vampire taken at E3 Trade show

The history of Vampires

Vampires (or Vampyres) are creatures that survive by feeding on the life essence (usually blood) of living beings. The word “vampire” first appeared in English in 1734 in a book called Travels of Three English Gentlemen. In 1718, it was mentioned in German literature, where officials observed the local practice of digging up bodies and “killing vampires.” In other cultures, the word appeared as early as 1047 AD in a manuscript of the Book of Psalms, where a priest writes about a man whose name meant “wicked vampire.” Vampires and vampirism have been recorded for at least the past 1,000 years. References to beings similar to vampires can be found even earlier in historical texts.

Illustration large Vampire bat hovering over woman

The idea of vampirism has existed for thousands of years. Many ancient cultures, like the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, had stories about demons and spirits that would feed on the flesh and blood of their victims. These stories are seen as early versions of what we now consider vampires. In Egypt, there was a goddess named Sekhmet who was said to drink blood. In early Persian pottery, there were even images of demons trying to drink blood from humans. However, the vampire as we know it today mostly comes from the verbal traditions of various ethnic groups in 18th-century South-eastern Europe. These stories were recorded and published, and they described vampires as evil beings who were either resurrected from the dead, suicide victims, witches, or people who were turned into vampires by being bitten by another vampire. These legends became so widely believed that in some places, it led to mass panic and even public executions of people who were suspected to be vampires.

During the 18th century, people in Eastern Europe believed they saw vampires. They dug up graves and used wooden stakes to kill what they thought were vampires. Even government officials joined in. Vampire attacks were reported in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734. Some attacks were blamed on people being buried alive by accident or having a disease that made them act like vampires. But many believed the attacks were really done by vampires. In the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote about this.

“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.”

Vampires in folklore

Describing the traditional vampire from folklore is not easy, but there are some common elements found in many European legends. People believed that vampires had pale skin or rosy cheeks, which they thought was because of the recent drinking of blood. Sometimes, when a vampire’s body was viewed in its coffin, blood could be seen seeping from its mouth and nose. There are also many stories of buried bodies that were dug up later, only to find that the teeth, hair, and nails had grown a bit. In the original folklore, there were various reasons why a person could become a vampire. In Slavic and Chinese traditions, if an animal, especially a dog or a cat, jumped over a corpse, people feared that it would become an undead creature. If a person had a wound that hadn’t been treated with boiling water, their body was also considered at risk. According to Russian folklore, vampires were believed to have once been witches or people who had rebelled against the Church when they were alive.

People used to have certain customs to stop their deceased loved ones from becoming vampires. They would bury the body upside-down and place tools like scythes or sickles near the grave to satisfy any demons that might enter the body. In Europe, other practices included cutting the tendons at the knees or scattering poppy seeds, millet, or sand on the ground at the presumed vampire’s grave to see any footprints left behind after the vampire left the grave.

How to identify a vampire

Many elaborate rituals were used to identify a vampire. One method of finding a vampire’s grave involved leading a virgin boy through a graveyard or church grounds on a virgin stallion—the horse would supposedly balk at the grave in question. In addition, holes appearing in the earth over a grave were taken as a sign of vampirism.

Apotropaics—mundane or sacred items able to ward off revenants—such as garlic or holy water, are common in vampire folklore. The items vary from region to region; a branch of wild rose and hawthorn plant are said to harm vampires; in Europe, sprinkling mustard seeds on the roof of a house was said to keep them away. Other apotropaics include sacred items, for example, a crucifix, rosary, or holy water. Vampires are said to be unable to walk on consecrated ground, such as those of churches or temples, or cross running water. Although not traditionally regarded as an apotropaic, mirrors have been used to ward off vampires when placed facing outwards on a door (in some cultures, vampires do not have a reflection and sometimes do not cast a shadow, perhaps as a manifestation of the vampire’s lack of a soul). This attribute, although not universal, was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula and has remained popular with subsequent authors and filmmakers. Some traditions also hold that a vampire cannot enter a house unless invited by the owner (although after the first invitation, they can come and go as they please). Though folkloric vampires were believed to be more active at night, they were not generally considered vulnerable to sunlight.

How to destroy a vampire

800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with an iron rod

Methods of destroying suspected vampires varied, with staking the most commonly cited method, particularly in southern Slavic cultures. Ash was the preferred wood in Russia and the Baltic states, hawthorn in Serbia, with oak being the primary choice in Silesia. Potential vampires were most often staked through the heart, though the mouth was targeted in Russia and northern Germany and the stomach in north-eastern Serbia. Decapitation was the preferred method of vampire disposal in German and western Slavic areas, with the head buried between the feet, behind the buttocks, or completely away from the body. This act was seen as a way of hastening the departure of the soul, which in some cultures, was said to linger in the corpse. The vampire’s head, body, or clothes could also be spiked and pinned to the earth to prevent rising. Gypsies drove steel or iron needles into a corpse’s heart and placed bits 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. In a 16th-century burial near Venice, a brick forced into the mouth of a female corpse has been interpreted as a vampire-slaying ritual by the archaeologists who discovered it in 2006. Further measures included pouring boiling water over the grave or complete incineration of the body. In the Balkans, a vampire could also be killed by being shot or drowned, by repeating the funeral service, by sprinkling holy water on the body, or by exorcism. In Romania, garlic could be placed in the mouth, and as recently as the 19th century, the precaution of shooting a bullet through the coffin was taken. For resistant cases, the body was dismembered, and the pieces burned, mixed with water, and administered to family members as a cure. In Saxon regions of Germany, a lemon was placed in the mouth of suspected vampires.

Corpses thought to be vampires were generally described as having a healthier appearance than expected, plump, and showing little or no signs of decomposition. In some cases, when suspected graves were opened, villagers even described the corpse as having fresh blood from a victim all over its face.

Modern-day vampires

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 still reported. Indeed, vampire-hunting societies still exist today. 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.

1734 book on vampirology by Michael Ranft
Title page of a treatise on the chewing and smacking of the dead in graves (1734), a book on vampirology by Michael Ranft.

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, and the vampire hunt was even televised on local television stations. Sean Manchester, a local man who was among the first to suggest the existence of the “Highgate Vampire,” later claimed to have exorcised and destroyed a whole nest of vampires in the area.

In January 2005, rumors circulated that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fueling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. The attacker bit a local pedestrian and later bit several onlookers who had come to the man’s aid. A woman had large chunks bitten from her neck and hands. Police investigated but were never able to find the culprit.

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 new kind of vampire.

In Europe, where much of the vampire folklore originates, the vampire is now 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 still occur frequently. In Romania in 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 magical qualities, allure, and predatory archetype express a strong symbolism that can be used in ritual, energy work, and magic 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.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with an iron rod via Wikimedia Commons by Bin Im Garten with usage type - Creative Commons License. October 4, 2012
1734 book on vampirology by Michael Ranft via Michael Ranft with usage type - Public Domain. 1734
Female Vampire taken at E3 Trade show via Flickr with usage type - Creative Commons License. May 12, 2000
Illustration large Vampire bat hovering over woman via Punch The Irish Vampire with usage type - Creative Commons License

Featured Image Credit

Female Vampire taken at E3 Trade show via Flickr with usage type - Creative Commons License. May 12, 2000


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