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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

In ancient Greece, the Lamia evolved into a vampire-like succubus. In early Greek folklore, she was a bogeyman who fed on the flesh and blood of children. Stories about her were told to scare young children away from misbehaving. Later tradition transformed her into a shape-shifter who could appear to young men as a beautiful woman. After seducing them, she sucked their blood and ate their flesh.

The Celtic form of the succubus is a female demon who also has sexual intercourse with her male victims before sucking their blood. The following account of an assault by banshees could just as easily have been blamed on vampires:

Four young men were on a hunting trip and spent the night in an empty shieling, a hut built to give shelter for the sheep in the grazing season. They began to dance, one supplying mouth-music. One of the dancers wished that they had partners. Almost at once four women came in. Three danced, the fourth stood by the music-maker. But as he hummed he saw drops of blood falling from the dancers and he fled out of the shieling, pursued by his demon partner. He took refuge among the horses and she could not get to him, probably because of the iron with which they were shod. But she circled round him all night, and only disappeared when the sun rose. He went back into the shieling and found the bloodless bodies of the dancers lying there. Their partners had sucked them dry (Briggs 1976, 16).

Vampires and werewolves also blend, particularly in the folklore of Eastern Europe. Agnes Murgoci describes the regional variation that alternately combines or separates these related creatures of darkness. She points out the general term for a vampire in Macedonia and Greece, vârcolac or vrykolaka, is not commonly used to mean a vampire in Romania, where it typically refers to an animal that eats the moon. In Romania, where the animal significance is paramount, Vârcolac is a werewolf. But in Macedonia, where the human significance predominates, it is a vampire (Murgoci 1926, 337). In both, however, the idea of devouring is an important feature. In his study of vampire beliefs among Yugoslavian Gypsies, T. P. Vukanovic noted that werewolf and vampire at times are interchangable, a circumstance he attributes to the belief that the dead take the shape of a wolf. A man can become a vampire if, after death, “some kind of devilish spirit” enters his body (Vukanovic 1957, 129).

The Wallachian vampire, moroi, “is a human being who has died, but cannot find peace in the grave.”  In this region of northeastern Serbia, the moroi stays close to home, inhabiting the heart of a weaker person for the purpose of settling an injustice.

Posted By Michael Bell

Vampire-like creatures have ancient roots. The first woman apparently was the first vampire. More than 5,000 years ago, patriarchal warriors from central Asia began invading Europe and India. The God of these male-centered Aryans displaced the indigenous Goddess, a change reflected in creation myths. Lilith, the legendary first woman of Hebrew mythology, protests when Adam insists that she always lie beneath him during their lovemaking. She reasons that, since both were created from the same clay, they should be equal in all things. When Adam refuses to concede equality, Lilith leaves the garden to dwell in the depths of the Red Sea. After she is replaced by the subservient Eve, Lilith embarks on a relentless campaign of revenge. Copulating with sleeping men, beginning with Adam, she spawns succubi and demons--"the plagues of mankind." In some legends, Lilith returns to the garden in the guise of the serpent, thus initiating the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In ancient Sumerian and Assyrian depictions, Lilith often has the wings and claws of an owl. In some versions of the Bible, she simply is referred to as the screech owl (Isaiah 34:14).

Lilith's legend continued to grow over the centuries, and her killing powers expanded to include women in childbirth and young children. In a medieval tale, Lilith encounters the prophet Elijah. He asks where she is going and she replies: "I am on my way to the house of a woman in childbirth, to give her the sleep of death and to take her child which is being born to her, to suck its blood, and to suck the marrow of its bones, and to seal its flesh." Elijah evokes the name of God, rendering Lilith powerless and forcing her to reveal her many names. Among the thirteen names is Kali.

Kali is the dark side of Devi, the Great Goddess of the Hindu religion that emerged in the Indus Valley during the second and third millennia B.C.E. Kali suggests the dualism inherent in the old goddesses: she is both creator and destroyer,  birth-giver and blood-letter. Portrayed as the "black petal of night" with blood-stained fangs, Kali is surrounded by skulls and holds human heads. This embodiment of death consumes even the fruit of her own womb. Rivers of blood flow from her, and bloody sacrifices still are made to this terrible goddess known as Sleep, Illusion and Mother Everlasting.

Pre-Columbian traditions in Mexico included Tlillan, the snake woman who lived in darkness. She had sharp teeth of stone and demanded the blood of children. The Aztec Hungry Woman had ravenous mouths all over her body, biting and screaming for the blood of warriors and sacrificial victims. In Japan, the Lady of Snow is a pale woman who materializes through the door as a mist and sucks the breath from her victims. People of the Malaysian Peninsula developed several types of specialized “vampires.” The Penanggalan is depicted as a human head with a dangling stomach, floating through the air seeking to suck the blood of infants. Similar to depictions of Lilith, the Langsuir is represented as an owl, perching on the roof, ready to descend and destroy. Like the succubus, the once-beautiful Langsuir may copulate with men, giving birth to demons.

Posted By Michael Bell

In his monumental comparative study of magic and religion, Sir James Frazer amassed an enormous body of evidence showing a widely accepted belief that the spirits of the dead cause disease and death (Frazer 1977, 1:142). The notion that the dead feed on the living has been documented in ancient civilizations, including Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt, as well as among more recent peoples such as the Scandanavians, Teutons, Celts, and Saxons. Traces of such beliefs are scattered widely in contemporary times and can be found in a variety of settings. Indeed, they permeate our everyday folklore. While there is no explicit blame placed on the corpse in the following superstition collected in North Carolina in the first half early twentieth century, it does suggest the vampiric connection between living and dead family members: “If a dead man doesn’t get stiff at once, some other member of the family is going to die” (Hand 1964, 7:#5477).  The same belief was collected by Charlotte Latham in West Sussex, England, in 1878, illustrated with a personal experience story:

If a corpse does not stiffen soon after death, it is regarded as a token that another member of the family will soon die.  A woman who was speaking of the great mortality which had occurred in a neighbouring family, where she had lived many years as a servant, told me of this curious superstition.  She said, “The day after my master’s death, one of his sisters-in-law came into the room and asked the nurse if she had ever heard that a limp corpse was a bad sign; and nurse made answer, ‘La, miss! it’s nothing but an old woman’s saying.’  But she winked at me; and when miss was gone she said, ‘I didn’t like to tell her the truth; but master’s corpse not stiffening is a sure sign that death will be knocking pretty soon again at the door of this house for some other of the family;’ and Miss Susan did not live many years after that herself” (Latham 1878, 57).

A Variety of Forms

While we have been conditioned to think of vampires only as undead corpses who leave their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, worldwide folk tradition is not so clear-cut, nor particularly male-dominated. The distinctive forms that the carriers of death might take are diversified yet interconnected, and it is not just the dead or their ghosts who prey on the living. Demons, witches, succubi, werewolves, and vampires at times are indistinguishable in the folklore record. Traditional accounts of their origins and methods of assault, as well as means to avoid their attacks and identify or destroy them, often do not differentiate among the various supernatural creatures of death. Demons, for example, also suck the blood of the living or feed on corpses.

Posted By Michael Bell

Dundes (pp. 162-163) distinguishes two broad categories for interpreting the vampire figure: the literal-historic and the metaphoric-symbolic.  He labels Barber's attempt to account for the vampire legend with forensic data a literal-historic approach, arguing that, while Barber’s discussion is "plausible" it "falls well short of offering a satisfactory explanation of what is almost certainly fantasy, not reality" (p. 163). I fail to understand why the two must be mutually exclusive: cannot the fantasy of vampirism rest on the reality of forensic pathology?  Is it not possible for the literal-historic and the metaphoric-symbolic aspects to be operating simultaneously?

In my view, vampire lore as it developed in America is a regional variant of a worldwide tradition, with particularly close ties to European practices. The task of defining a vampire seems simple on the surface but becomes more elusive on closer inspection. Analogous concepts, practices and creatures merge and blend in the dynamic processes of oral tradition. All species of deadly beings, among them witches, hags, demons, devils, ghosts, vampires and werewolves, combine with a host of preventative and therapeutic practices to enliven the record of folklore.  Even the categorical characteristic central to commonly held definitions of a vampire—that it is a revitalized corpse—is widely distributed and dates from ancient times (MacCulloch 1928, 589-590).

Underlying the vampire belief is the general concept that the dead have a life after death (Tylor 1929, 2:19).  It seems but a short, logical step to the conclusion that it is the dead who cause death.  In many cultures there is a belief that, whether out of anger, jealousy or a desire for revenge, the dead prey upon the living unless certain steps are taken to placate or disarm them (Barber 1988, 197).  “It would seem that the most primitive phase of the vampire belief was that all departed spirits wished evil to those left,” wrote Agnes Murgoci in her description of Rumanian vampirism, “and that special means had to be taken in all cases to prevent their return.  The most typical vampire is therefore the reanimated corpse.  We may call this the dead-vampire type” (Murgoci 1926, 320-321).

Posted By Michael Bell

Just what are the folk traditions surrounding the vampire? Generous, inclusive “lumpers” see the vampire as a universal figure whereas conservative, literal “splitters” would limit the vampire to Europe and perhaps European-derived cultures. In his vampire casebook, folklorist Alan Dundes (p. 161) argues against the universality of the vampire:

Widespread as the vampire is throughout eastern Europe, it is not true, as has been claimed, that “the belief in vampires is found all over the world” (Anon. 1950:1154). This statement in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend is demonstrably false. The vampire is not universal by any means. Native Americans do not have vampires.  Nor do most of the indigenous peoples of Oceana have vampires. Fear of the dead is one thing; vampires in particular are quite another.

Dundes cites a definition offered by J. Gordon Melton in his vampire encyclopedia that includes the concept of a reanimated corpse rising from the grave to suck the blood of the living, thereby maintaining some "semblance of a life." This line of argument follows a precedent established in the nineteenth century by the likes of Jacob Grimm ("dead men come back, who suck blood," Deutsche Mythologie, p. 1586), Mannhardt (1859, in German), Hanush (1859, in German), Krauss (1892a, in German; 1892b, translation in Dundes), and Afanas'ev (1976, reprinted in Perkowski 1976) and continued in the twentieth century by Polivka (1901, in German), Vukanovic (1957-59), Burkhart (1966, in German), Oinas (1978, 1982), and Perkowski (1976, 1989, 1992a, 1992b).

While this definition seems to be the most commonly accepted, that proposed by Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial and Death would extend the concept universally: A vampire is "a corpse that comes to the attention of the populace at a time of crisis and is taken for the cause of that crisis" (Barber 1988, 125). Sith Thompson, in his Tales of the North American Indians, also apparently disagrees with Dundes, since he lists a number of Native American tales under the vampire motif E251 (p. 357). I would add, too, that the New England incidents labelled as "vampirism" (at least by outside sources such as the Providence Journal) also would not fall under the purview of the narrow definition defended by Dundes.  Although the practices undertaken to halt consumption epidemics most assuredly place the New England examples squarely within the folk domain of vampirism, there is no authenticated historical account from this region that has a reanimated corpse leaving the grave to suck the blood of the living. When such elements do appear in the region’s narratives, they are relatively recent additions grafted onto historical reports that have been filtered through popular and mass media sources.