Saturday, February 24, 2007
Vampire legends hark back for millennia and are a leitmotif of cultures the world over. They come in various forms, from the vampire foxes of Japan to the half-woman, half-winged serpent Lamia of Greece to the red-eyed, green-or-pink-haired monsters of China to our very own manananggal, which is a half-woman from the waist up, with bloodshot eyes and disheveled hair.
Vampire stories in Western Europe were originated from the less sophisticated, more rustic and more “barbaric” Eastern Europe, where Far Eastern (China, Tibet and India) myths on vampires were transported via the silk route bound for the Mediterranean. Long before the Irishman Bram Stoker capitalized on the vampire legends in coming up with the monumental novel Dracula and long before the familiar vampires of today got transmogrified in film and literature, the Asia-originated stories were already widespread along the Black Sea coast to Greece, the Balkans, Hungary and Transylvania.
Vampire hysteria erupted in the 17th and 18th centuries when Eastern Europeans claimed seeing deceased relatives walking about and attacking people. Lots of graves were exhumed; their corpses burned and staked. These rumors jumped to adjacent Europe, creating scholastic speculations on such monsters as well as literary and artistic buzz. While the superstitious Eastern Europe lived in fear of the bloodsucking count residing in his mountain castle, the “civilized” Western Europe turned the lore on its head and sharpened the great divide from the eastern region with the moneymaking vampire-inspired artworks.
Western Europe shares the modern depiction of the vampire as blood drinking, returning from death, nocturnal human predator and others usual with the Eastern European myths. Contemporary inventions include the donning of evening clothes, tall-collared capes, bat transformation, among others. Meanwhile, certain elements of the ancient tales like the spreading of poppy seeds or millet at the tomb site in order to have the vampire count seeds instead of preying on humans, have been scrapped from modern retellings in fiction and film.
The Iranian-related Slavs including Russians, Bulgarians, Serbs and Polish have the most numerous vampire folklores in all the world. The Church Schism in history influenced the development of vampire myths: the Roman Catholics considered incorruptible bodies as saints whereas the Orthodox, to whom the Slavs belong, believed these were vampires. The conflict between pre-Christian pagan traditions with those of Christian’s resulted in the origin of vampire lore. According to Slavic folklore, vampirism might be caused by being born with teeth or a tail, being conceived on dreaded days, irregular death, excommunication, inappropriate burial rites, among others. Meanwhile, preventive measures included affixing a crucifix in the coffin, putting millet or poppy seeds in the grave for vampires were fascinated with counting or staking the body. A vampire might be lurking in the neighborhood if there was death of cattle, sheep, relatives, neighbors, if bodies seemed alive with new growth of hair or fingernails, if the corpse was puffed up drum-like or had blood on the mouth and if the body had a reddish complexion. It can be destroyed by staking, burning, beheading, repeating the funeral rituals, throwing holy water on the grave and exorcism.
On the other hand, Romanian vampire myths are only variants of those of the neighboring Slavs. They are named Strigoi, meaning screech owl or demon or witch. They emerged from persons born with a tail, born out of wedlock, who died before baptism or who died an unnatural death, who were the seventh offspring of the same sex in a family, who were the children of salt-deprived pregnant women, who were stared at by a vampire, and who were witches. It was but natural that to be bitten by vampire meant being condemned to a vampiric life after death. That person would be noticed when the family or livestock were attacked. Holes in the earth, an undecomposed corpse with reddish face and one foot in the corner of the coffin were telltale signs of a vampire in the grave. Distributing garlic in church and checking who did not eat it can enable one to discover a vampire. To prevent a person from turning into a vampire, the caul of the newborn must be removed and ruined before the baby could consume it; meticulous preparation of corpses, putting a thorny branch of a wild rose by tin their grave, and placing garlic upon the same. Much like its Slavic counterpart, the Romanian vampire variety may be destroyed by driving a stake through their body or shooting a bullet through the vampire’s coffin.
Greek vampire lore was popular that Aegean country during the nineteenth century. Instead of being cremated, Greek corpses are buried. Three years after, they are hauled out of the grave. The bones from rotten bodies are collected by the relatives, poured into a box and washed with wine and consecrated by the priest. Incorruptible bodies would cause a panic stemming from the vampire belief. Not unlike the Slavic and Romanian variety, the causes of such Greek vampiric tragedy were numerous. The dead must have suffered excommunion, curse by the father, or solitary when death arrived for him. Across Greece, other reasons include a feline jumping over the dead body, eating of meat coming from a sheep slayed by a wolf, incomplete baptism rites, conception during a significant religious observation, curse by a supernaturally powerful person, commission of a terrible crime, attack by a vampire when still alive, among others. What was weird was that only Christians were thought of to anguish over this misfortune. Generally, this type of vampire is believed to be hard to distinguish from the living and could elude detection. Nonetheless, in some parts of Greece, they were easy to recognize. They glow in the dark of Mount Pelion, they were hunchbacked and grew their fingernails long on the Saronic Island, they had long canine fangs like wolves and they often ventured during nighttime and during the daytime, as in Amorgos.
Bats cannot be dissociated from the modern day idea of vampires. The 16th century Spanish conquerors initially made this link when they noticed the similarity between the animals’ feeding habits and the mythical vampires. The association became stronger over time when fiction writers portrayed bats as bloodsucking creatures, a notion that got its seal of verisimilitude when Stoker fictionalized bats as vampiric monsters.
Prior to the 18th century, vampires did not exist in the imagination of the British people. The blood predators came to the attention of the British Isles in Particular and Western Europe in general when a vampire scare in Eastern Europe became a major fanfare, so blown out of proportions that authorities were even dragged into the search and annihilation of vampires. This scandal directly spawned England’s present-day vampire legends. Because of the controversy, Western scholars seriously looked into the affair instead of shrugging off their shoulder over what was supposed to be their poorer European counterpart’s superstition. Two items that were considered were an outbreak of vampire attacks that erupted in East Prussia in 1721 and another in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1725-1734.
Two of such cases coming from the controversial vampire accounts featured Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole. At the age of 62, Plogowitz died but returned frequently begging for food from his son. The son refused and was found dead the morning after. From then on, Plogowitz came back to the village, attacking neighbors who died from blood loss. Anoher notorious case involved Arnold Paole, a former soldier turned farmer who had been preyed upon by a vampire and who died while haying. His death was the beginning of a series of deaths in the neighborhood, suggesting that the ex-soldier must have been preying upon his village people.
The two cases were very well documented. Government officials examined the incidents and the corpses, churned out reports and, afterwards, published books regarding the Paole case and disseminated about Europe. The controversy lasted a generation. The problem was aggravated by rural folks having an epidemic of vampire attacks and exhuming bodies all around. Many scholars said vampires did not exist—they cited reports to premature burial, or rabies which causes thirst.
Nevertheless, a well respected French theologian and scholar by the name of Dom Augustine Calmet came up with a intricately thought-out treatise in 1746 which claimed vampires did exist. This had relative influence on other scholars during the rage.
Consequentially, Austrian Empress Marie Theresa called for her personal physician to investigate. He reported that vampires did not exist so the Empress implemented laws prohibiting the opening of graves and mutilation of bodies. This halted the vampire epidemics. However, everybody was knowledgeable about vampires by then and it took only a matter of time before authors would mine the stories and would metamorphose the vampire into something different and much more accessible to the public at-large.
Western Europe struck gold when the vampires of Eastern Europe were introduced in the weird literature and popular culture of the modern world. It was commonly believed that Lord Byron introduced the vampire theme to Western literature with its mention in the epic poem The Giaour, but his personal physician, John Polidori, wrote the original vampire fiction The Vampyre using Lord Byron as distant basis of the story’s bloodsucker. The character, named Lord Ruthven, is the foremost of the much-romanticized vampires. Mary Shelley’s phenomenal Frankenstein, which also ran a parallel monster theme, was inspired from the ghost story contest generated by the buzz hounding The Vampyre. Among the earliest literary attempts dealing with the archetypal monster include Christabel, an unfinished poem, and Carmilla, a lesbian vampire story with Sheridan Lefanu as author.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been the prototype of the vampire character in popular literature the past 100 years. Victorian Europe with its widespread tuberculosis and syphilis seemed to have been lashed by the harsh depiction of vampirism as a devil-instigated illness and the underlying elements of sex, blood and death. The Balkan king from whom the name was taken was rumored to be bloodthirsty in a way war-freak rulers relished bloodshed of their enemy state’s people. The vampiric association stuck then since Stoker wrote about the fictional Dracula.
The persistence of vampire legends seems just an archetypal inscription in the human race’s collective unconscious. These myths come to us in life-like depictions as our way of keeping in touch with our primordial ancestors that encounter strange creatures in their dreams and lives. Also, they answer psychological issues that need to be addressed, such as conquering fear despite a formidable nemesis. Meaning, we have yet to see blood-and-flesh vampires who perform real vampirism rituals in order to perpetuate their undead lives. The closest vampires come to reality is the vampirism symptoms seen in pathological cases of porphyria sufferers who are anemic and, as treatment, blood drinkers and criminals who cannibalize on their victims. In viewing Western and Eastern European folkloric history, it seems to me that the vampire concern takes on a political angle as the poorer Eastern Europe is presented as backward and, therefore, irreparably barbaric for subsisting in superstition despite the advent of modernity. On the other hand, Western Europe is presented as the elegant Other that has too many modern issues to address to take vampire legends seriously. By subverting the onslaught of the vampire hysteria, Western Europe cultivated the vampire creature in order to benefit out of it. The persisting Great Divide between these two Europes is only a microcosm of the technological West and the exotic East, wherein all the standards of the true, the good and the beautiful are set by the West for the Orientals to follow. In a sense, the West in general (the Western Europe in particular) sucks vampire-like on the resources of the Other in order to sustain its parasitic self.
Barber, Paul. Vampire, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University, 1988.
Florescu, Radu R. and McNally, Raymond T. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Boston Little, Brown and Company, 1989.
Frost, Brain J. The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.
 Frost, Brain J. The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989, p. 7.
 Frost, Brain J. The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989, p. 15.
 Barber, Paul. Vampire, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University, 1988, p. 49.
 Ibid, p. 50.
 Frost, Brain J. The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature. Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989, p. 23.
 Barber, Paul. Vampire, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University, 1988, p. 56.
 Ibid, p. 59.
 Barber, Paul. Vampire, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New York: Yale University, 1988, p. 71.
 Ibid, 74.
 Florescu, Radu R. and McNally, Raymond T. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989, p. 119.
 Florescu, Radu R. and McNally, Raymond T. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989, p. 156.
 Florescu, Radu R. and McNally, Raymond T. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989, p. 88.
 Florescu, Radu R. and McNally, Raymond T. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989, p. 4.