Today, the word “vampire” conjures the image of a pale-skinned undead Count in a drafty castle. Vampires as we know them are nocturnal, immortal, charismatic, and use their sharp canines to bite necks and drink the blood of their victims. This creature is only about 200 years old, but cultures around the world have believed in blood-drinking demons for millenia.
Identifying vampires throughout history requires reworking the mental image of Dracula. Folkloric blood drinkers exist in an incredible variety of forms - from ghouls to gods. These spirits each have their own name and local edits, but a common thread of blood-drinking, seduction, revenge, and preying upon the innocent continues.
One of the oldest known stories of a blood-drinking deity harks back to Ancient Egypt. Sekhmet, the lioness-headed goddess, was the daughter of Ra and was sent down to exact revenge on disobedient humans. On assignment, Sekhmet became literally bloodthirsty as she destroyed the humans. Even after the slaughter had ended, Sekhmet could not stop her vampirism, almost to the extinction of humankind. Ra, however, tricked his daughter into drinking massive quantities of beer disguised as blood. When she had quenched her thirst on the beer, she rested until she no longer desired the blood of humans. Sekhmet peacefully returned to Ra, who sent her to the underworld. From her position as a queen of the underworld, Sekhmet protected humans in the afterlife and guided pharaohs in battle.
Ancient Babylon is home to a highly recognizable vampire which is often credited as the first of its kind. The Sumerian word, lilitu, translates to “night monster,” and these beasts were viewed as bird-footed demons who killed babies, drank the blood of mothers, and seduced men. Often seen as a creature that transformed into an owl, the mythical lilitu were later combined with a major religious character. In the Book of Genesis, Adam’s legendary first wife, Lilith, was expelled from Eden after refusing to submit. The legendary behavior of the lilitu were soon assigned to Biblical Lilith, who was described as the wife of demons, giving birth to hundreds of them daily. Her punishment for this transgression was to become a demon herself and for her children to be destroyed over and over. She exacted her revenge on the human women and babies of the world, drinking their blood, and causing crib deaths.
Similarly, Lamia of Ancient Greece was denied her children who were sired by Zeus. The fate of her children is unclear in the numerous retellings of the myth, but Lamia’s revenge is obvious. In her fury and grief at the destruction of her own children, she turned to drinking the blood of babies out of jealousy. She was described as a half-woman half-serpent who crept through the night and ripped children from their beds as well as their mothers’ wombs. Her envious thirst for blood made her a terrible shapeshifter who was doomed to creep through the night, never sleeping, never satisfied.
These old myths may not seem immediately recognizable as vampires, but the same mythology prevails. All of these ancient vampires drank blood and none were truly human at the time of their vampiristic habits. It is worth noting that these important ancient vampires were female. Women and children were the primary targets of Lamia and Lilith, who were cursed to seduce men and kill babies out of jealousy. Sekhmet stands out as a goddess who lost control, wreaking havoc over all humanity. She was subdued and became a benevolent goddess, leading pharaohs into successful battle and guiding the dead into the underworld. None were evil, but were either forced or led into a life of cruelty.
Vampires Around the World
The ancient vampiric deities in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece are in good company. Folkloric creatures of this type are quickly recognized in a wide variety of cultures around the globe. In Europe, Greek legendary vrykolakas are malevolent spirits that are classified somewhere between vampires and zombies. In parts of Africa, asanbosam hang from trees while they wait for victims to walk below. Firefly-like adze attack and drink the blood of children in the Ivory Coast while in South Africa, the sharp-taloned impundulu summons lightning and feeds on blood.
The Americas have a history with vampirism, as well. Ancient Mayans worshipped a blood-drinking bat-like god, Camazotz, who represented death and the night. The familiar modern monster, el chupacabra, is well-known for drinking the blood of goats and other livestock. The United States enjoyed a rash of vampires in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in New England, during a tuberculosis outbreak. Utterly terrifying vampiric creatures of the Pacific include the gruesome mandurugo, manananggal, penanggalan, and leyak. Many of these creatures had only partial bodies or detachable extremities, fearsome fangs, and an insatiable thirst for blood.
Many of these blood-drinking spirits do not immediately suggest the image of the vampire so familiar to modern people. Today’s vampire is heavily influenced by the legends of Eastern Europe, specifically, Romania.
Everything we currently recognize as a vampire aligns very closely with the Southeastern European strigoi. Emerging in the 1700s, the strigoi is a dead body which has been reanimated, then is bent on drinking blood and attacking the living, especially members of its own family. They can turn themselves into animals or become invisible at will. Strigoi are known to live in Transylvania - a region of Romania that immediately springs to mind the legend of vampires. Many superstitions surrounding the circumstances of birth and death would doom a person to become a strigoi. Revenants, or returning corpses, were common sightings in 1800s Romania, leading many believers to take extreme measures when burying their dead, including removing and burning the hearts to ensure that they would not rise again.
From Legend to Literature
Since 1897, the word vampire has been synonymous with Dracula. Count Dracula, a fictional character in Bram Stoker’s eponymous novel, is by far the most famous vampire in history. In his castle perched high in the mountains of Transylvania, The Count would use his incredible charisma and old money wealth to attract visitors. He slept in a coffin, devoured his visitors by night, and even fed newborn babies to vampiresses living with him in his castle. Dracula, and all modern vampires like him, was incapable of existing in sunlight and could be killed with a wooden stake or by beheading. Most of these qualities are intertwined with Romanian folklore, but many others are recognizable in deeper, much older vampiric legends.
Bram Stoker learned about the mythos of vampirism in Romania from a friend and traveller, who also described Bran Castle in Transylvania. Stoker then learned of the story of Vlad the Impaler - also known as Vlad Dracul - who was a Wallachian ruler in Romania with a penchant for violence. Vlad the Impaler’s habit of impaling his enemies on a wooden stake and dismembering them inspired rumors that he also drank their blood.
Combining folklore with Gothic architecture and a dash of real-life inspiration, Count Dracula was born.
It was during this time that the image of a blood-drinking vampire transitioned from a demonic monster bent of violence to an unearthly seductive creature of the night. The new legend of vampires was firmly established. Pop culture fictional vampires from Nosferatu to Edward Cullen are strongly influenced by Stoker’s creation and Romanian folklore.
Before modern medicine was able to explain common ailments and postmortem bodily functions, many believers of folklore pointed at vampirism as the culprit. During The Plague in the Middle Ages, vampire legends enjoyed a resurgence. Lack of scientific understanding led many to believe the lesions on the body during the bubonic plague were caused by blood sucking demons. Premature burial of the severely infected led to occasional returns from the grave, understandably sparking widespread panic. Other diseases, such as the rare blood disorder, porphyria, was pointed to as a vampire disease, since the afflicted often suffer an extreme reaction to sunlight. The erratic human behavior following a rabies infection was also suspected to be the work of vampires.
Furthermore, normal functions of a body after death can be quite alarming without a scientific understanding. Internal fluids may leak from the mouth, giving the appearance of the deceased having eaten blood. It is normal for the hair and nails to continue growing for some days after death, leading witnesses to believe the person was not actually dead.
The legend of vampirism has deep roots in both history and biology. The vampires we recognize are supernatural beings, largely developed out of fear and scientific lack of knowledge. Yet, blood-drinking is a well-established phenomenon that exists in nature. Real vampires include vampire bats, vampire frogs, vampire moths, and even vampire finches. Some ordinary people today have a rare psychological illness called Renfield’s syndrome, in which they are compelled to drink blood.
These natural vampires are not the vampires of legend. Normal human functions, reactions to diseases, and mental illnesses may result in the appearance of vampiric behavior, but these are not true vampires. True vampires are supernatural beings which must drink blood to survive and are either cursed or punished with the compulsion to drink human blood. Some are demons, some are gods, and some are the undead, but none are natural.
Today’s term, vampire, comes from the relatively modern word vampir which originates in Eastern Europe. Slavic languages including Bosnian, Croatian, Polish, and Russian all have this word and associated meaning. The true origin of the term is unclear, but the word we use is clearly traceable to 18th century Eeastern Europe. This is where the modern image of vampires originates, though the legend of vampires is widespread and has deep roots.
The romanticized version of vampirism is extremely popular and several major vampiric figures remain to this day, not always as an evil being. The image of Lilith, for example, has been rebranded as a symbol of feminism and female empowerment. Sekhmet is recognized as a lifegiving, benevolent goddess of Ancient Egypt. Even Dracula’s inspirational Vlad the Impaler was violent, but also a well-respected leader in 15th century Romania. In no legend is a human-like vampire born into cruelty. All vampires are either demons, spirits, or humans cursed to become a vampire after being bitten or doomed. The legend of vampires, though the creatures may be vicious, is nuanced and ever-changing.