The History of the Vampire

"...The butcher swore that the body was still warm, from which they concluded that the deceased had the severe defect of not being quite dead, or, to state it better, of letting himself be reanimated by the devil for that is exactly the idea they have of a vrykolakas"
- Relation d'un voyage du Levant, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, 


Ever wondered how the vampire myth started? When the term "vampire" first came around? How certain beliefs about vampires stemmed from folkloric superstitions? And howthe vampire has progressed in legend, lore and reality over the centuries? Here I have written an essay with information gathered from various sources to answer all these questions and more.

From the beginning of time legends of vampires have existed on this place we call Earth. The interesting, distinguishing mark of the vampire is that unlike other "monsters", the vampire has its roots in nearly every part of the world. From Ancient Greece to modern Day, the Vampire has been eternally preying on our imagination, forcing us to ask ourselves whether those things we dismiss as myths are just that...or more.

 


An artist's portrayal of Lilith

 

The history of the vampire begins In ancient Persia, where a vase was discovered depicting a man struggling with a huge creature which is trying to suck his blood. Then, in Babylonian myth a deity known for drinking the blood of babies, Lilitu or "Lilith", was discovered. She was reputedly the first wife of Adam according to old Hebrew texts removed from the Old Testament, and left her husband due to his sexual ineptitude, becoming the Queen of Demons and Evil spirits. In China during the 6th century BC, traces of the "Living Dead", or revenants as they are known, were also found. More legends continued throughout all the world, including India, Malaysia, Polynesia and the lands of the Aztecs and Eskimos. According to the Aztecs, the offering of a young victims blood to the Gods ensured the fertilization of the earth. But truly, the vampire proper originates from European civillization...ancient Greece to begin with. There were numerous bloodthirsty Goddesses in both Roman ang Greek mythology, known as Lamiae, Empusae and Striges. These names eventually evolved into the general terms for Witches,Demons and Vampires. But these Vampires, though they do drink blood, were only Goddesses...not "living Dead", but disembodied divinities capable of taking on human appearances so that they might seduce their victims. As time passed on, and Christianity grew in popularity, the redemptive value of blood became apparant. Holy Communion, which includes drinking wine symbolizing Christ's blood and Bread symbolizing his flesh was at times taken quite literally. Some people, confusing pagan beliefs with transubstantiation (the actualy presence of Christ's flesh and blood during Communion) took part in feasting on human flesh and drinking human blood. During the 11th Century, witches and doctors alike prescribed virgin blood to cure all illnesses. Also during this time, some corpses found intact all over Europe began a huge vampire scare. The belief came about that people who died without a chance to receive last rites,or those who had commited suicide or had been excommunicated were destined to return to the earth as revenants. Various accounts of the discovery of Vampires can be read in books such as The Diabolical Dictionary (Dictionnaire Infernal) by the Bishop of Cahors; the Courtiers Triflings(De Nugis Curialium) by Walter Map, and the History of England(Historia Rerum Anglicarum) written by William of Newburgh. The phenomenon of Vampirism continued through the Renaissance era only sporadically, but again grew to epidemic proportions in the 14th Century, mainly in central European Regions of Prussia, Silesia and Bohemia. The bubonic plague was thought to be the work of Vampires and panic of infection led people to bury their dead without completely verifying that they were truly deceased. It was then no wonder that so many encounters of Vampires rising from their graves during this time were noted. A person, buried alive, would try to claw his way out of the grave and would be discovered covered in blood from the wounds he had inflicted upon himself by doing so. This, of course, would label him as a vampire.
In the mid-15th Century, Vampirism again reared its head, most notably in the trial of Frenchman Gilles de Rais. A former member of Joan of Arc's guard and erstwhile Marshal of France, he retired to his lands in Southwest France, devoted to his quest of finding the secret of the "Philosophers' Stone" in blood. He killed about 200 to 300 children by way of horrifying torture, in order to use their blood in his experiments. Later, in the 19th century, Joris-Karl Huysmans portrayed him as an authentic vampire in his novel La-Bas. Also during this time, another historical figure became associated with vampirism. His name was Vlad Tepes Dracula, Prince of Wallachia, an ancient kingdom which is now part of Romania. His double name of Tepes (meaning "Impaler") and Dracula (after his father, Dracul, meaning Devil or Dragon...the 'a' added on to mean 'son of...') suited him quite appropriately. Both a national hero for liberating his lands form the Ottoman invaders and a bloodthirsty tyrant who ordered thousands of people impaled for his pleasure, it is no wonder that his name became synonimous with the vampire legend. Four centuries later, Bram Stoker would write the infamous novel Dracula, which would forever give us the sterotype of the classic vampire.

Vlad Tepes Dracula (1431-76)

 
 


Elizabeth Bathory

Vampirism, though never completely vanished, dwindled slightly from the 15th through 17th centuries. In 1611, however, in the superstitious land of Hungary, Countess Erzsebet Bathory (Elizabeth Bathory or the "Blood Countess")began the legend afresh. She was accused of kidnapping and torturing young girls to death and then bathing in and drinking their blood. She believed that this would preserve her youth and looks. But how did she come to this conclusion? Well, apparantlym she was the wife of a Count who was always away at war. Becoming bored with her lifestyle, she began to study black magic which led to her horrible endeavors. When a large number of young women became missing, Bathory's cousin led a detachment of soldiers and policemen to capture her. She was spared execution because of her royal ties, but was locked up in a tower room for the rest of her life with door and windows shut. Her accomplices though were all executed. This event in history gave rise to numerous rumours of vampirism and inspired many writers unto today. Also, this coupled with poverty and illiterate populations of the time, led to an explosion of vampire and werewolf superstitions in Southern and Eastern Europe. The belief that "Vrykolakas" ( slavic for werewolves) would die and become vampires in the hereafter tied the two myths together quite conveniently. The word 'Vampire', until now unknown, became used as a term for the very first time in 1726, following thousands of reports of vampirism due to the plague. It was first coined in German as "Vanpir" in a report of one case of vampirism. This evolved into "vampyre" in 1732 (used in French) and finally into the English word "Vampire" later that same year. This was the beginning of the end for the vampire as we know it...
The 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment as it was also known, set out to destroy superstition. Scholars, doctors, philosophers and members of the church all cast doubt on the acomplishments of the Devil and his minions. A French Benedictine Monk known as Don Calmet published a huge tract which, he claimed, put the controversy of vampires to rest. But the legend of the vampire, true to its nature, refused to die. Categorizing and sterotyping the vampire only provoked superstition. People, especially those of the 'back countries' became weary of those who had bushy eyebrows drawn together, or hair on the back of their palms. To detect vampires, they employed virgins who would ride virgin horses (either completely white or completely black) through the length of a cemetary, and the horse would rear at the tomb of a vampire. The rumour began to spread that some people, born of a union between vampire and mortal could spot vampires. Interrment of supected vampires was done with special precautions, such as driving a nail into the forehead of the corpse, smearing the body with pig's fat, or placing a clove of garlic in its mouth. These were only some of the methods used to prevent the suspected vampire from rising. But such events diminished as the Industrial revolution began to change European life, and in this age of rationalism, the legend of vampires and other creatures of the ethereal world began to all but die...Well, that was the theory, in any case.
 


A Vampire killing kit (from the  Ripley's Believe it or not museum in San Francisco), such as might have been used in Romania and other such countries


 
 

Bram Stoker

Reality had other plans. The Romanticism at the end ot the 18th century tried to recapture emotion and nostalgia, lost in the Enlightment and Industrial Revolution. With this, the gothic novel had its rebirth. Johann von Goethe wrote his novel The Bride of Corinth(Die Braut von Corinth), preceded by Gottfried August Buerger's Lenore. These stories, as well as several poems of vampires of the 19th century by Keats, Coleridge and Baudelaire, included an element previously unkown to the vampire lore in traditional sense. This was the element of seduction, the bringing of pleasure in death. Then came the infamous The Vampyre by John William Polidori (well,he actually took over the story from Lord Byron) and Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu. Varney the Vampyre, written in 1847 by Prest and Rymer, became the longest novel ever written on the subject of vampires. Fantasy and horror were in great demand, but during the mid-19th century the popularity dwindled once again, due to its repetetive nature. But this did no last long, reappearing again in the victorian era. It is truly ironic that in a century where all things decadent and unsavory were supposed to be repressed, the legend of the vampire reached a peak. Perhaps viewed as an escape by many, the vampire appeared onstage, in novel, in poetry and in prose. The hypocrisy of society was in such a state that writing horrific stories was quite permissable so long as morality triumphed in the end. It was in this time that Bram Stoker wrote his legendary novel Dracula. Though he had never himself been to Transylvania, the setting of the story, nor truly studied as a professional writer, the success of his novel was phenomenal, and it would forever define our views of the vampire...
With the 20th century came a wonderful invention called the motion picture. It was with this that vampires and other movie monsters showed their faces on the big screen. The first vampire movie ever made was 1922's Nosfertau: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A symphony of horrors). This German movie, directed by F.W. Murnau, starred Max Schreck in the title role. The vampire in this case took on the semblance of the creature in folklore...hairy palms, large bat-like ears, and so on. Then came a series of vampire movies from the US with Bela Lugosi as the notorious Dracula. The vampire was given fangs to bite with and an air of seduction. Afterwards, Christopher Lee joined England's Hammer productions in comprising the next image of Dracula...he was given dark hair, a long black opera cloak and glowing red eyes. From here on, numerous other vampire movies were made, some based on original screenplays, some on historical novels, some even comedies. As technology evolved in the film industry and special effects developed more and more, so did the horrific looks of the vampire. In 1987's The lost Boys, the vampires have realistic fangs, greenish red eyes and wear leather jackets to complete the look. That same year, Near Dark followed suit in the 'tough' image of modern vampires. In 1992, Francis Ford Copolla made a beautiful remake of Dracula, starring Gary Oldman in the title role. And then we cannot forget 1994's Interview with the Vampire, based on Anne Rices' novel, which created an explosion of popularity in the vampire genre. This author, named Anne Rice, revolutionized the image of the vampire. In her Vampire Chronicles she portrayed her title character of Lestat as having a human, almost tragic side to him as well as a savage nature. In her series of 5 novels, Anne Rice gave us a dark world, peopled with vampires everywhere, not entirely unlike our own, with the anti-hero Lestat in its center. She is creating a series of new vampire novels currently, based in the same world, evolving around the same characters, who in the Vampire Chronicles played minor roles. In addition to her, the 80's and 90's included several notable names of authors who shaped the vampire genre. These include Poppy Z. Brite, P.N. Elrod, and Tanith Lee. Music also gave the vampire publicity, especially in the late 1980's...bands like Concrete Blonde, the Cure, Type O negative and so on all wrote several songs about vampires and most had a genral gothic or dark sound to their style in general. From the big screen the vampire made its way to television...first in the popular soap-opera series of Dark Shadows, then to Kolchak:The night Stalker and onwards to modern day shows such as Forever Knight, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Kindred: The Embraced. The latter series was based on a roleplaying game called "Vampire: the Masquerade" which came out in 1992 and has been quite popular ever since. At the dawn of the 21st century, the occult genre has grown to immense proportions. Everywhere you turn, a vampire seems to hide in the shadows. There are gothic nightclubs, vampire organiztions such as the ARVLFC and the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, roleplaying groups in practically every town on the face of the earth, and even on the internet, vampires live. There is no escaping the seduction and charm of the vampire, both in folkore and reality. It is everywhere we look...there are more vampires out there than one might imagine. The vampire truly is immortal. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of the word, but it has never been completely banished from the moment it reared its not-so-ugly head. From Ancient Greece to modern day, the vampire continues to bleed our imaginations dry...
 

A Drawing from Vampire: The Masquerade's Book of Nod

 
 


 
 

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