Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part IX: A More Familiar Vampire

Medieval Vampires usually weren't this pretty.

When most of you think of vampires you probably think of an undead bloodsucker, able to change shape into a bat or perhaps a wolf, susceptible to garlic, crosses, holy water, a stake through the heart, or sunlight…or perhaps as pale youngsters that sparkle in the sun…more’s the pity.  As you saw in my last vampire post, most of these beliefs have little, if any, basis in the oldest vampire myths.  In fact much of our modern concept of vampires originated in medieval Europe, most of it during the Renaissance.  While most of the superstitions of Europe were busily fading away in the face of rationalism, belief in vampires grew more common.  The majority of classical vampire lore comes from the 18th century and originates from Eastern Europe.

The Slavic traditions concerning vampires are many and varied.  In some practically anyone could become a vampire.  Causes of vampirism ranged from being an immoral person, a witch, or being excommunicated from the church, to being born with an extra nipple, hair in strange places, or deformed.  People with these attributes would undoubtedly rise as vampires after they died.  Other causes were improper burial, being killed by a vampire, or being a child born of incestuous parentage.  Perhaps the oddest belief is that a vampire might be created by an animal jumping over a person’s grave, or a bird flying directly over it.  Depending on the tradition vampires might be the risen dead, very evil but still living people, or a combination of both.  For instance the Strigoi is a Romanian witch that rises as a vampire after it’s death.  One oddity that some of you may note is that, while the majority of ancient vampiric creatures listed in my last post are distinctly female, medieval vampires (both Slavic and otherwise) tended to be male.

...yeah...that's a bit more like it.

In southern Slavic folklore, unlike the above, becoming a vampire was a relatively long process that began with a recently deceased person rising as a shadow spirit.  This spirit would attack others and drink their blood until it had enough strength to form a body of it’s own, usually resembling it’s body in life.  These vampires, known as Lugat, were almost always male, fully capable of physical interaction and sometimes even returned to their former lives.  They were also capable of having children and, in the folklore, only the child of a Lugat could identify and kill other Lugat.  These children were known as Dhampir.

It is during this time period that the Church became involved in vampire lore.  In Hungary, among other places, the Inquisition hunted vampires, and in Greece priests were hired to exhume the bodies of dead relatives (who were feared to be at risk of becoming vampires) and bathe the bodies in wine while reading or chanting scriptures over them.  By the time vampire lore had traveled to Germany, and then further into western Europe, they had become susceptible to crosses, holy water, and consecrated ground.  In fact a French Theologian named Antoine Augustine Calmet collected numerous accounts of vampiric activity that he published in a treatise in 1746.  While Calmet never explicitly argued for the existence of vampires, his treatise was considered by many, including Voltaire, to be supportive of such a belief.

My all time favorite Dhampir

The mid eighteenth century was the height of vampiric awareness as, beginning in East Prussia in 1721, a series of ‘vampire’ attacks spread panic across much of Europe.  There are two well documented cases from this period: that of Peter Plogojowitz, whose death in 1725 was followed by numerous sitings of him moving through his home village and a spate of unusual deaths, and Arnold Paole, who may be the origin of the idea that a vampire can be killed by decapitation.  At the very least, Paole is the earliest documented example of decapitation being used to kill a suspected vampire that I have been able to find.  The belief that a vampire could be killed by driving a stake through it’s heart also originated in eastern Europe, the preferred woods were Ash, Hawthorne, and later Oak.  Some European vampires were shape-shifters, in northern Slavic legends vampires would often appear as butterflies, while in Greek folklore vampires and werewolves were one and the same, known as Vyrkolakas.

Unlike most modern conceptions, which depict vampires as attractive and seductive, medieval vampires were usually extremely ugly.  Descriptions vary widely from descriptions of tattered, winged monsters, to bloated, pinkish cadavers filled with fresh blood, to withered corpses with unkempt hair and nails.  In fact of all the medieval vampire folklore only the southern Slavic folklore (the Lugat mentioned earlier), the medieval Jewish conception of vampires (children of Lilith that tend to be female and can often transform themselves into cats), and the Baobhan Sith (pronounced Baa’van Shee; a Scottish fairy vampire) were attractive or seductive in nature.

However, spread among these stories we can see many of the modern ideas of the vampire.  You may remember from my last post that the belief that vampires abhor garlic goes back to the earliest myths about vampiric creatures, as does a weakness to hawthorne and their need for blood as sustenance.  The medieval traditions add in a weakness to artifacts, images, words, and places connected with Christianity, the connection between vampires and werewolves, and the ability of vampires to change their shape.  However, at this point, our favorite bloodsuckers are still not injured or killed by sunlight, do not have to sleep in their coffins during the day or sleep on the soil of their homeland.  While some legends state that they can be killed with a stake through the heart or decapitation, there are others that require the use of fire or an exorcism.  You might also note that, at this point, only those vampires that have wings can fly, but they can cross running water, which is important if you ever need to get away from one.  Next time around I’ll be looking at the tradition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The skull of a 'vampire' found in a 16th century Venetian grave.

Upcoming Novel:  For any of you who are interested I am planning on publishing my first novel on July 1st through Kindle.  Right now I am going back and forth between titles, the two favorites being The Neshelim: A Journal of the Scholar Priest Chin Cao Yu and Among the Neshelim.  Other possibilities include Through the Desert of Hope and Darkness, The Duty of a Priest, and  A People Like No Other.  If you have an opinion please feel free to share it.

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