|Lugosi as Dracula|
It’s that time of the month again – mythical creature time! This is part of a series of posts on mythical creatures. Previous posts can be found here - dragons, fantastical horses, mythical creatures of the sky, saltwater spirits - Part 1 and Part 2, freshwater spirits, and spirits of the desert.
I have put off looking at undead due to the current popularity of everything lacking a pulse, including vampires, werewolves and zombies, because, quite frankly, some of us are a little over it. But today I’ve finally bit the bullet and we’ll take a look at vampires – and only vampires , because there is so much lore it’s difficult to meaningfully summarise even a fragment here.
Don’t expect any glitter or sparkle though – this is a look at the origin myths of vampires, not the Hollywood glitz and glamour of recent years.
The origin of the vampire myth is unknown, but probably derived from very old tales of the restless dead. If you go far enough back in time, many cultures had stories of the spirits of the dead passing to some vague afterlife, where they largely forgot their material lives. Such undead were sluggish and largely harmless.
Scandanavian Folklore and Celtic Myths
Over time, these myths merged with the tales of angrier, more volatile dead in other cultures, such as the undead of Viking mythology – or draugr. The draugr were corporeal revenants wandering the night to commit violence against the living. This eventually evolved into Celtic myths of hostile corpses leaving their tombs to attack the living.
Blood played a central role in these myths. Blood was recognised as a life-force and a source of warmth, and after a long time in the cold earth the belief evolved that corpses needed blood for a semblance of vitality.
Eastern European Mythology
|The Blood Countess|
The notion of vampires then took hold in the Slavic and Eastern European peoples, and the word ‘vampire’ may derive from the ancient Turkish word oubir, meaning a ‘witch or malignant sorcerer’. At the same, the belief grew that for every vampire there was born someone who could slay it. By the late 13th century, so many vampire hunters roamed around that the King of Bohemia forbade the digging up of graveyards to ‘slay’ malevolent corpses.
Scottish Vampire Tales
In Scotland, there were two persistent vampire tales. The first was the Bad Lord Soulis, of Hermitage Castle in Roxboroughshire, sometime in the mid-13th to 14th centuries. He was said to kidnap people (including children) and murder them. He reputedly used blood in his evil rites, and drank it too. Eventually the people stormed the castle and boiled him in lead.
The other was Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch and brother to King Robert III of Scotland, who was also reported to drink blood. Supposedly, he possessed the notorious Book of Black Earth, which later formed the basis of the Red Book of Appin used by Stewart sorcerers up until its disappearance in 1745. The book was said to contain spells involving the drinking of human blood. While these tales may have been invented by his enemy, the Bishop of Moray, they nevertheless influenced highland vampiric lore.
Outbreaks of tuberculosis in Ireland contributed to vampiric lore, with sufferers of the disease sickening, wasting away, coughing up blood, growing pallid and sensing a great weight on their chest’, which were said to be the symptoms of vampire attack. Interestingly, Bram Stoker’s mother lived through such an outbreak in County Sligo in the early 1800s.
Vampires Travel to America
From the late 1700s onwards, stories abounded of families experiencing the sickness and loss of many members of the family. In particular, a raft of such stories existed in Rhodes Island in the American Colonies, giving rise to the tales of the Rhode Island ‘vampire ladies’. Four families lost a young daughter: Sarah Tillinghast, Nancy Young, Juliet Rose and Mercy Brown.
After their deaths (decades apart and spanning a period from 1796 until 1892) members of each family dreamed of the dead girl, and thereafter became sick, wasting away until they died. Sometimes family members recovered when taken away from the area. In each tale, the dead girl was eventually exhumed, her heart (and sometimes liver) cut out and burned, or the entire corpse burned. In all cases, any sick family members then returned to health.
First Vampire Fiction
|Buffy The Vampire Slayer|
The image of a vampire as the cloak-swathed aristocrat didn’t arrive until the late 18th century. Dr. John Polidori published a work of fiction called The Vampyre, featuring an aristocratic vampire unlike the brutal creatures of Slavic mythology, and creating the seed of the vampire we all recognise today.
Dracula and Vlad the Impaler
This was followed by the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is likely the novel drew on some of the history of Eastern Europe in the 15th century, in particular Vlad Dracul, warlord of Wallachia, and his son. Vlad was so-called because ‘Drac’ meant dragon, and after he joined the Order of the Dragon he used the dragon on his coinage. His son was called Vlad Dracula, meaning ‘son of the dragon’. Wallachia was a tiny territory, located between Transylvania, Moldavia, Hungary and Turkey.
Vlad Dracula was a despot, and during the course of his reign destroyed the local landowner system as revenge against Hungarian backed landowners who burned his elder brother to death; arresting, torturing and eventually executing them. He earned the nickname ‘Vlad the Impaler’ from the unusually cruel practice of placing Turkish prisoners on high stakes and then watching them slowly disembowelled as gravity pulled them down. Supposedly, he solved the problem of the destitute by inviting them all to a banquet, sealing the doors and burning the building down. However, there is no record of him drinking human blood.
The Blood Countess
|Michael Corvinas from Underworld|
Also adding to vampire lore was the ‘Blood Countess’, Elizabeth Bathory, of Hungary. After her husband died, leaving her a widow, she fell under the protection of her kinsman, King Matthias Corvinas of Hungary. It was then she turned to the notion that blood had youth-restoring properties. Over a period of ten years, from 1601 to 1611, she murdered many local girls, and then bathed in or drank their blood as a means to restore her youth. Eventually these tales reached the ears of the king, who attacked her stronghold and, after many trials, sentenced her to be bricked up in the apartments where she committed her atrocities. The door was sealed, except for a small hole for food, and all the windows sealed, leaving her in darkness.
Late 20th Century and Early 21st Century
Some of the more recent manifestations of the vampire include Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, which stayed fairly true to the notion of vampires as evil and soulless, and drew on the myth that there is a slayer born for every vampire. OK, so she got a bit frisky with a vampire, but she also had the guts to ram a sword right through him when necessary. You can't fault her for that one. Yeah, OK, you got me - I own seven series of Buffy on DVD.
Most recently we have Twilight, which has strayed a long way from the dark, gruesome origin of the vampire myth.
It’s also worth mentioning the Underworld films, which while taking a fairly friendly view of vampires and werewolves, also appears to have drawn from the history of Vlad the Impaler. At one point in his life, Vlad fled to the safety of the Hungarian king – Matthias Corvinas. In the Underworld franchise, the Corvinas family were the origin of vampires (and werewolves) and their last living descendant, Michael Corvinas, became the first vampire-werewolf hybrid.
If you missed my last post, Miscommunication Is The Root of All Evil (except vampires, it would seem) check it out here.
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Source Material: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Cannot Rest In Peace - Encyclopedia of the Undead by Dr. Bob Curran