Forget what you see in the movies! Real vampires are liable to be vicious and disgusting, when they look human at all. Tales of the dead returning to drink the blood of the living date back to the third millennium B.C.E. when the inhabitants of Babylon inscribed charms against the attack of the ekimmu. Subsequent civilisations in every part of the world have similar myths, and vampires were the object of serious scientific enquiry in 18th century Europe, a mere two hundred years before publication of Dracula.
An early depiction of a Vampire
In 1731, the Emperor of Austria launched an enquiry into the apparent epidemic of vampirism in his domain. Terrified villagers reported nightly visitations from the recently dead. These revenants appeared as they had in life except their faces were flushed and their breath foul. Some appeared to recognise living relatives, even speaking to them. When the suspect bodies were exhumed, the official medical examiner discovered they showed no sign of decay, that their hair, teeth and fingernails had grown, and that their mouths contained fresh blood. On his order, these corpses were dismembered and burned, and his report to the Emperor concluded that vampires indeed existed.
This was accepted knowledge throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Death-dealing, animated corpses that must be disposed of in such ways are spoken of in the 12th century Gesta Danorum ("Chronicle of the Danes", Saxo Grammaticus, Denmark) and De Nugis Curialium ("On the Courtier's Trifles", Walter Map, England), and the 15th century Malleus Maleficarum ("The Hammer of Witches", Johann Springer and Henrich Kraemer, Germany). They were termed vampir in Serbia, upyr in Russia and vrykolakas in Greece. Most bit or strangled their victims, although the Bulgarian ubour developed a barbed tongue with which to pierce the skin. Some, such as the Romanian nosferatu, raped their prey as well. These terrors were either the victims of vampires themselves, witches and werewolves while living, suicides or people who had otherwise transgressed the laws of religion. The vrykolakas was specifically someone who died excommunicate from the Greek Orthodox church. The 12th century English chronicler William of Newburgh recorded the reappearance of the "Dog Priest" after his death in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum. This cleric earned his nickname through his passionate love of hunting and resultant neglect of his priestly duties. His revenant attacked his previous employer and haunted the local abbey, before the monks exhumed and burned his corpse.
In China, from the 14th century onwards, the burial of the dead was often delayed until a lucky day as calculated by an Taoist astrologer. Sometimes they also dictated the location of the grave, which could be a long distance away. Unfortunately, corpses left above ground or in transit could be reanimated by their "lower soul". Without the "higher soul" to restrain it, the kuang-shi developed fangs and talons and went hunting for blood. However, the Taoists had ways to deal with such things. The simplest was to bind the corpse's feet together, so it could only move by hopping. A hopping vampire could easily be shepherded to its grave, where correct burial rites would solve the problem.
A superstition found throughout Europe since the Middle Ages was that should a cat jump over a corpse before burial, this too might cause it to wake as a vampire. This was derived from the belief that cats were creatures of the devil and the familiars of witches, or sometimes (as in the Malleus Maleficarium) transformed witches themselves. In India, such manifestation was termed the chordewa, a witch who sent her soul out to prey on the weak and sick in the form of a black cat. The Malaysian bajang was male and acted in much the same way. But the Wallachian muroni was an actual vampire who would transform into a cat to hunt. In Japan, a legend exists of a demonic, shape-shifting cat who plagued the province of Hizen. This creature murdered the daimyo's favourite concubine and assumed her shape. She drank his blood during nightly visits, during which she enspelled the guards to sleep. She was discovered when one man kept himself awake by stabbing himself in the thigh, and resumed her native form to escape.
Another hazard of the Japanese night, the rokuro-kubi appeared like a normal, living person. But at sunset, its head detached from its body and flew away to prey upon its neighbours. If the head was prevented from rejoining the body at dawn, the creature died. Some rokuro-kubi did not possess this ability, instead stretching their necks to incredible lengths to reach their prey through windows and roofs. Once again in Malaysia, the penanggalan preyed upon women and children. She was said to be a woman who died in childbirth and this was her revenge. At night her head detached from her corpse and flew away, dragging her intestines with it. These organs glowed in the dark and the fluid dripping from them caused sores and disease.
Vampires, Burial and Death, Paul Barbers, Yale University Press, 1988
Vampire: the Encyclopedia, Matthew Bunson, Thames & Hudson, 1993
Vampyres, Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling, Faber & Faber, 1992 (1991)
Malleus Maleficarum, Johann Springer and Henrich Kraemer, trans. Montague Summers, Dover, 1971 (1928)
Tales of Old Japan, A. B. Mitford, Charles E. Tuttle, 1996 (1966)
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