Vampires are undead beings who feed off the blood and life of the living. They have existed in the folklore of many cultures for thousands of years.
The fear that the dead can return to spread disease or sap the vitality of the living has caused many superstitions and beliefs to spring up concerning how vampires are made, detected, and destroyed. Legends of vampires are most common in Eastern Europe but also occur in China.
Although the vampire in recent fiction is often depicted as lanky, tall, and pale, the most common of the folkloric vampire are bloated and ruddy. In Greece, vampires sometimes are thought to have dark blue or black faces.
This may be due to the practice of burying people who were suspected of being vampires facedown. The blood in the corpse would pool in the face rather than the back; if the corpse was exhumed at a later date to determine if it had become a vampire, the face would be dark rather than pale.
The word vampire first appeared in English in 1679, but there is no agreement as to the ultimate origin of the word. One theory is that the word comes from the Slavic upior, or upyr, which are in turn derived from the Turkish uber.
Others think it may come from the Greek pi, Serbo-Croatian pirati, or Lithuanian wempti. The theory that is most widely accepted is that the word derives from the Serbian bamiiup, which essentially means “vampire.”
In Hungary and Romania, where legends of vampires are very common, the word was introduced fairly recently. In Hungary, the earliest evidence of the word occurred in 1786. In Romania, the word ﬁrst appeared around 1815, but the more common terms are strigoi and moroi.
While the term vampire has become widely accepted in Hungary, the older, more common terms still are preferred in Romania. In Transylvania, home of the historical Count Dracula, the term is siscoi.
Vampires in Folklore
The modern concept of vampires is that they are created when a person is bitten by another vampire, but folkloric vampires were created in a number of different ways. The following individuals might become vampires:
A person born with a caul, a membrane that covers the head.
A person born with teeth.
Someone who lived an immoral life or was an alcoholic.
Someone who committed suicide.
A murder victim whose murder was not avenged.
Someone who died while under a curse.
Someone who died while excommunicated from their religion.
A priest who celebrated Mass while living with an unconfessed mortal sin.
A person born or conceived on a Church holy day.
Someone whose godparents stumbled while reciting the Apostle’s Creed at his or her baptism.
A person also might be doomed to become a vampire after death if a cat or dog jumped across the corpse or if the shadow of a man fell on it. Consequently, the danger of becoming a vampire was very real and of great concern to people living with these beliefs, so precautions were often taken with every corpse to attempt to protect the dead.
Protecting the Dead
|Protecting the Dead|
Since piercing a vampire with a sharp object was one way to destroy it, placing a sharp implement, often a sickle, in the coffin with the recently dead was a custom designed to keep the dead from rising at all.
In some areas, the sickle was placed on the abdomen of the deceased; in others, the sickle was placed across the neck so that if the vampire tried to rise from the grave it would cut off its own head. In Morocco, knives were placed on the body for the same purpose.
Binding the deceased’s limbs was another way to keep the dead from rising, though local variations determined whether the dead could be bound inside the coffin. Sometimes, the dead had their ankles or knees bound for a time, but the knots were removed prior to burial so that they would not bind the soul to the body.
People in other districts left the knots in the coffin, as the vampire would be forced to untie them before it could escape. In some practices, nets were placed in the coffin in the belief that the vampire would be forced to undo each knot in the net at the rate of one per year. Poppy seeds could also be spread on the ground, as the vampire would be obsessed with finding every single one before it could move beyond its grave.
In Greek folklore, binding the corpse was thought to keep a vampire from returning from the dead. This may be why, in Greek mythology, the infant Oedipus had his ankles tied together when he was abandoned as an infant by his parents. This practice was not to keep the newborn from crawling away, but to keep the infant from returning from the dead.
Protecting oneself and one’s family from wandering vampires was a constant concern. As it was believed a vampire could only return to its home the same way it had left, corpses were sometimes removed from homes feet first, via a window.
|enter the home|
Turning the items in one’s home upside down would prevent a vampire from asking these items to open the door. People slept with their feet at the head of the bed to keep a vampire from finding them if one did enter the home.
Destroying a Vampire
Once someone was suspected of vampirism, his or her corpse was exhumed and examined. If the corpse was bloated and had bloody lips, it was presumed to be a vampire. The vampire could be dispatched by piercing its abdomen with a stake of ash or hawthorn, or a sickle, or another sharp object such as a needle, depending on the particular beliefs of the village.
Sometimes, a hide was placed on the vampire before staking it to control blood splatter, as being touched by the vampire’s blood could drive someone mad or even turn that person into a vampire.
|Destroying a Vampire|
In some traditions, staking was sufficient to destroy a vampire. In others, the corpse had to be beheaded and cremated. The heart had to be burned entirely to ash or the vampire might return. Sometimes, corpses simply were buried deeper than usual, buried face down, thrown into swiftly ﬂowing water, or buried at a crossroads.
During plagues, stories of vampires were extremely common. Since the manner in which the disease was transmitted was unknown, it was not unusual to blame outbreaks on vampire activity. When a plague killed great numbers of people, many remained unburied or were buried improperly. The misunderstood processes of decomposition were readily observable.
Those who were improperly buried often were dug up by wolves or dogs, or simply “rose” out of the ground due to the bloating of the body and the shallowness of the grave. This may be where beliefs that wolves and dogs were the enemies of vampires originated, as well as the belief that the earth might reject the unholy corpse.
Serbian vampires were active and out of their graves every day but Saturday. Romanian vampires were active at all times, but most particularly on Saint Andrew’s Eve and Saint George’s Eve.
In Romania, a vampire that remained undestroyed for seven years could pass into another country, become a man again, marry, and have children. But he and his children would become vampires upon death and ravage the wife’s family and her village.
Since it was widely believed in many parts of Eastern Europe that nearly anyone could become a vampire, identifying those who had become vampires was extremely important. If a village had some bad luck, such as terrible weather, a plague, or a string of unusual deaths, it could be blamed on a vampire.
The villagers looked for a vampire by checking recent graves. They would check to see if there were holes by which the vampire might have escaped. Or they might lead a white (or, in some cases, a black) horse over fresh graves.
The horse would refuse to walk over the grave of a vampire. Many traditions held that it would take either nine days or forty days for a vampire to rise, so anyone who had not yet been dead for the specified time would not be suspect.
In Russia, a woman who made a pact with the devil was believed to rise from her grave as an eretica. These undead creatures would be most active in spring and autumn, when they would spread death and disease via the evil eye.
In Poland, a child born with teeth or a caul was destined to become a kind of vampire called an ohyn. The ohyn did not leave its grave, but it did chew on its own ﬂesh and thereby magically brought death to its family.
The liougat of Albania rose from its grave armed with huge fingernails. It killed and devoured anything it found. The liougat could be thwarted by wolves, which tore off its legs. The maimed vampire then had to return to its grave, defeated, and remain there forever.
In Germany, the Neuntöter, which means “ninekiller,” would rise nine days after burial to spread plague. But a lemon placed in its mouth would keep it in its grave.
The nachzehrer of northern Germany chewed on its burial shroud and its extremities, so its appearance was often quite tattered. In fact, it was supposed to make so much noise while chewing on itself and its shroud that it could be located in its grave by sound alone.
A person could become a nachzehrer if his or her name was not removed from his or her clothing before burial. If the nachzehrer rang the church bells, whoever heard them was doomed to die soon thereafter. A nachzehrer could be destroyed through decapitation, as long as the head and body were reburied separately.
The Chinese xiang shi was often greenish in color and sometimes glowed. The xiang shi was animated by the po, or inferior soul of a person, and was created by a sudden or violent death or an improper burial.
A new kind of vampire was created in the nineteenth century by authors such as J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker. Le Fanu’s Carmilla: A Vampyre Tale (1872) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897) combined the horror of the revenant with eroticism and spawned an industry that equated the vampire with seduction. Though Bram Stoker named his vampire after a historical fifteenth-century Wallachian prince, the name of Dracula is not associated with vampires in Romania.
Since the publication of Stoker’s Dracula, vampires have developed into something completely separate from their folkloric antecedents. Modern fictional vampires cannot see themselves in a mirror, are afraid of crosses, and are friends with wolves.
They create other vampires by drinking victims’ blood, then forcing the victims to drink their blood. The stake driven through the vampire must be through the heart rather than the abdomen. And the vampire cannot enter a private residence without an invitation.
These vampires often rise from the grave after three days, rather than the more traditional nine or forty days. They possess a hypnotic gaze, and their overall appearance and demeanor can be quite sensual. They bear no resemblance to a bloated corpse.
They can turn into mist or shape-shift into a bat. Often, vampires cannot cross running water, and their coffins must contain a quantity of their home earth. The modern vampire is difficult to find and harder to kill.
More than a century since Bram Stoker brought the sensual vampire to life, the character of the vampire has been molded into many different forms in film. He has been a thing of horror (Nosferatu, 1922; Dracula, 1931), the subject of jokes (Love at First Bite, 1979), a misunderstood antihero (Dracula, 1979; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992), a mentor (My Best Friend Is a Vampire, 1988), and even a disaffected teenager (The Lost Boys, 1987). In China, the xiang shi has been transformed into the hopping vampire of Hong Kong kung fu films.
Writers such as Anne Rice, P.N. Elrod, Fred Saberhagen, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Barbara Hambly, and Laurell K. Hamilton each have their own take on the modern vampire. The concept of the vampire has proved malleable enough to be re-created again and again.