In this episode we look into the origins of vampire mythology, learn how to properly accomplish the art of dying, discover why you should not answer strange voices in the night and find out what happens when you are buried alive with a reanimated corpse.
For more history and folklore content:
Claude Lecouteux, 'The Secret History of Vampires, Their Multiple Forms and Hidden Purposes (2001).
Katharina M. Wilson, ‘History of the Word ‘Vampire’, Journal of the History of Ideas
Vol. 46, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1985), pp. 577-583
Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (2019).
Michael Ostling, 'Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland' (2011).
Scott G. Bruce, 'The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters (2016).
Stephen R. Gordon, 'The Walking Dead in Medieval England: Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (2013).
The Medieval Bestiary, 'Bat' http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast250.htm
Theresa Bane, Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology' (2017).
T.S.R. Boase, 'Death in the Middle Ages: Mortality, Judgement and Remembrance’ (1972).
Zteve T. Evans, 'Bat Myths and Folkltales from Around the World' https://folklorethursday.com/folktales/bats-in-mythology-and-folklore-around-the-world/
‘Vampires fit into no order, no class, or any reckoning of creation. They are neither death nor life, they are death taking on the appearance of life; or rather they are the terrifying grimace of one and the other. The dead reject the night with fear and the living dread it no less.’
Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at the history and folklore behind vampires, their origins and the beliefs and superstitions that surround them.
Vampires have really captured the popular imagination over the past couple of centuries. Over this time the vampire has seen many reimaginings, from early films such as Nosferatu, to later books and television series such as Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Vampire diaries. In Europe, the literary obsession with vampires began in the eighteenth century, with a number of ballads such as Lenore, written in 1773 by Gottfried August Burger.
The beginning of the romantic vampyre genre is believed to be the short story ‘the Vampyre’, written by John Willaim Polidori in 1819. In this, the protagonist Aubrey meets the mysterious Lord Ruthven at a social event and agrees to travel Europe with him, but leaving for Greece shortly after they arrive in Rome when he learns that Ruthven has seduced the daughter of an acquaintance. It is in Greece where he meets Ianthe who tells him of the vampire legend that is well known there.
Ianthe is killed by a vampire shortly after Lord Ruthven arrives, and Aubrey continues his travels with him. When Ruthven is killed by bandits Aubrey promises to lay his body out under moonlight and to not to talk of his death for a year and a day, an oath he regrets when he returns to London to see Ruthven living under another identity, and engaged to Aubrey’s sister.
This story includes many elements that modern audiences are familiar with. A pale, mysterious and high-class stranger, adept at seducing and manipulating those around them, whose body mysteriously disappears after death and who viciously kills and feeds off the life force of its victims.
These concepts are developed in later works, and it is probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, that has had the strongest influence on the modern perception of vampires and has cemented certain superstitions into modern vampire mythology. In this tale, the vampire Dracula is tied to his tomb, to the extent that he must bring earth from it with him to travel, he is able to transform himself into animals, he is nocturnal, he induces nightmares, can hypnotise mortals and drinks the blood of his victims, causing them to grow pale, weak and waste away, he is repelled by garlic and holy relics, has no shadow or reflection and can be killed by beheading and by piercing his heart with a wooden stake.
While stories such as this mark the beginning of modern popular vampire folklore, they did not mark the invention of the vampire mythology itself, and it is clear that these, and other eighteenth and nineteenth century authors were drawing from a much older and wider mythology, combining superstitions, folkloric beliefs, religious practices and cultural anxieties to create the modern vampire.
It is often claimed that Bram Stoker drew his inspiration from real historical figures such as Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracul, and Elizabeth Bathory. However, this theory has been widely questioned and Stoker’s notes mention neither figure. Instead, in a book that speaks of a local ruler named Dracula, his notes just state ‘Dracula in the Wallachian language means devil’ implying that this simple reason is the reason he selected the name.
Because of this, I am not going to focus on Vlad the Impaler of Elizabeth Bathory. They are interesting, if horrific characters, but I am not interested in talking about such horrors for the sake of it and I think that these stories will tell us less about the average person's general worldview than the folklore of vampires will, so that is what I am going to focus on in this episode.
It is interesting that Aubrey in Polidori’s Vampyre learns of vampires in Greece, as this is where a tale that claims to be the original vampire story comes from.
This apparently Ancient Greek tale concerns a young Italian man named Ambrogio, who travels to Greece and falls in love with a woman named Selene, who was attending Apollo's temple. This angers Apollo, who curses the young man to be burned by sunlight. In desperation, Ambrogio turns to Hades, who promises him and Selene protection if Ambrogio promises to get him a silver bow from Artemis. In exchange for Ambrogio’s soul Hades gives him a magical bow to hunt animals to gain Artemis’ favour and trust.
So the now soulless Ambrogio goes out to try and steal Artemis’ bow which he finally manages after weeks of apparently just killing swans to write messages for Selene with their blood. Artemis catches him, and curses him to be burned by silver. Ambrogio apologises and explains his dilemma, which leads Artemis to take pity on him, and balances her curse with some blessings. He will be immortal, be almost as swift and as skilful of a hunter as her and will have fangs to allow him to get blood for his messages without the need of weapons. Eventually Ambrogio ends up with Selene, and the couple worship Artemis in thanks for her gifts. Towards the end of Selene’s life Ambrogio bit her, draining her of her blood and conferring her with immortality.
This seems like a clear cut vampire origin story. An immortal with no soul and a weird obsession with blood who is burned by both sunlight and silver. When I looked into it further, though, this story seemed to have been recorded in the ‘Scriptures of Delphi’ which don’t appear to exist outside of an article on the website Gods and Monsters written by a person who had a friend he calls ‘Dan’ whos Grandad wrote down stories that had been passed down through the family since the time of Ancient Greece, where they had been told them by the Oracles of Delphi.
So this tale is less of a conveniently neat ancient Greek origin story and more modern internet lore, which means you are going to have to listen to me talk for longer about potential vampire origins. Luckily, I think the actual origins are far more interesting and reveal a lot about contemporary anxieties about illness, death and the afterlife.
There is a long history of tales in Europe of the dead raising to torment the living. While these dead were not referred to specifically as vampires, elements of these tales were borrowed and adapted to become later vampire lore.
One of the earliest of these is found in The Russian Chronicle of Times Past reported a strange event in the Ukrainian village of Polotsk in 1092, where devils galloped in the street, killing those who dared to leave their homes so that it was said ‘the inhabitants of Polotsk are devoured by the dead.’
In the twelfth century Saxo Grammaticus recorded the tale of Asmund, who was buried alive with his sworn brother Asvith. When the then scarred and disfigured Asmund was discovered by a Swedish king and his army, hoping to uncover treasure in the grave, he described to them how Asvith’s soul returned from hell to repossess his corpse and had then gone on to eat the horse and dog they had been buried with before turning on Asmund himself, attacking with sharp teeth and claws, tearing off one of his ears before Asmund was able to decapitate his dead friend and pierce his heart with a stake.
There seems to be a wide variety of ways that the dead could harm the living. As well as directly attacking them, as in the previous tales, they were also known to passively harm the living through sympathetic magic while still in the grave. They would do this by eating their shroud, causing those they had been close to in life to weaken and die until the shroud had been entirely consumed.
In Germany, these types of living corpse were known as ‘nachzerer’, meaning ‘one who causes death by devouring something.’ One account of this type of revenant comes from fifteenth century Germany, where there was a rumour in a certain town that a plague was being caused by a recently deceased woman who was eating her shroud. When the woman was exhumed she was found with the shroud half eaten with pieces in her mouth and stomach. She was decapitated and the plague stopped.
Other revenants caused harm by visiting their family and neighbours at night, calling the names of individuals or knocking on their doors before returning to their graves. Those who the revenant called upon would quickly sicken and die. Walter Map recorded an example of this in 1182 when a fallen angel possessed a corpse. The corpse called the names of a number of his old neighbours, who then died. The townspeople were advised to cut the neck with a spade and to sprinkle the grave and body with holy water. This does not work, and the revenant is only stopped when he is cut through the head with a sword. It has been speculated that this type of knocking tale was the inspiration for modern vampires being unable to enter the house without an invitation/
The Greek broucalaca operates in a similar way. According to the seventeenth century thelogian Leo Allatius ‘on the Island of Chios the inhabitants do not respond to the first voice that calls them for fear it may be a spirit or revenant...if someone responds the first time they are called the spectre disappears but the one it spoke to will inevitably die.’
Others can cause death merely by their presence. The Polish strzygi will climb to the top of church steeple at night, causing the death of all those who are the same age as it, for as far as it can see. While these tales do not specifically reference vampires, it is apparent that there are many overlapping ideas between these revenants and the later, more specific, vampire that we know today. Revenants are active at night, drain the life force of those around them, are tied to their graves and often target friends and loved ones. There are also many tales across Europe of creatures described as revenants eating flesh and drinking blood.
Interestingly there is also a tale from the early seventeenth century Moravia where a village was getting terrorised by a vampire who rose from the grave. A man travelling from Hungary claimed that he could rid the people of the vampire which he succeeded in by waiting for the vampire to leave its grave and stealing its burial linens and cutting off the vampire's head when it came to retrieve them. This tale is interesting as the undead creature is referred to as a vampire, despite displaying no particularly vampiric tendency, such as drinking blood, further muddying the waters between vampire and revenant.
Religious writers often explained such events by saying that the corpse had been possessed by a demon, but there were other common explanations for what may cause such a phenomenon.
Sometimes it was believed that a person was born destined to become a vampire after death. In some parts of Europe those born with a caul were believed to become future vampires, unless the midwife burned the caul and forced the infant to injest the ashes. Children born with a tail were similarly cursed unless the tail was removed with a coin. People with red hair were believed to more often become vampires after their death, as were brothers born during the same month, or the fifth and seventh sons born to a couple.
There was a belief in some Slavic countries that some people were born with two souls, and one of these souls could leave the body in order to cause harm to people, making them excellent vampires. These people were known as dvoeduschniki and it was said that they often hid their second soul under a stone and could not die unless it was found.
This is an element found in the Romanian legend of the Strigoi, which is believed to have been a major inspiration for Dracula. In some versions of this legend the strigoi was created when a person with two souls died. When these individuals died the good soul went to the afterlife, while the evil one remained and would return to its body six weeks, six months or seven years after its death. These creatures would often have the same appearance they had in life, with larger teeth, claws and faces red from drinking blood. They were known for causing disease, spreading a pestilence that caused people to waste away.
Many of these tales describe the revenant's victims succumbing to a mysterious wasting sickness, suggesting a deep anxiety and need to explain a type of illness or plague, often thought to be cholera. However, many tales also appear to emphasize a widespread anxiety around death in general, and about the afterlife in particular.
Many tales of returning dead appear to highlight a real fear of not achieving the ‘good death’ that was the obsession of the medieval period to the extent that a significant amount of scholarly and religious thought and writing was put into the idea of the ‘ars moriendi’ or the art of dying.
According to this philosophy, how you lived your life had less impact on your afterlife than the way in which you died. To achieve a good death, you must die with all of your spiritual and temporal affairs in order, righting all wrongs, repaying all debts and confessing all sins. You must receive the appropriate Last Rites of the church and take the final Eucarist, known as a viaticum. The idea was to break all ties to the mortal coil, so nothing could compel you to return. Even overly mournful relatives could impede the spirit’s passing, as it was said their tears would soak the shroud and prevent the dead from resting.
Obviously this manner of death is difficult to achieve and there are a number of interesting stories of families meeting their deceased relatives, risen from the grave to beg for prayers or charity to be given or some wrong to be righted so as to shorten their time in purgatory. These tales often differ to some extent to those of the vengeful dead, so I will cover these tales in more depth in a Wild Hunt halloween special episode next month.
Other folk beliefs about the afterlife also fed into the fear of the dead returning. In many areas of Europe folk belief maintained that the dead continued their own communities much like the living. Coins were placed into the mouths or in the coffins of the deceased as it was believed that this money may be needed in the afterlife. They had their own inns, continued their trades, danced, sang and celebrated and carried on their lives much as before. It was said that revenants often targeted family members and loved ones as they missed them, and longed for their company in the afterlife.
It was even believed that the dead held their own sermons at certain times in churches and those that stumbled on these sermons often met a bitter end. One sixteenth century woman got lucky by first seeing a deceased friend at the church who warned her to run without looking back. She followed this advice, but the crowd of dead who chased her from the churchyard grabbed at her cloak and tore it away from her. The next day,when the woman returned she found her cloak torn to pieces and scattered so that each grave had a scrap laying on it, giving a fearful insight into her fate had she not heeded the warning.
The way in which a person lived their life may also lead them to becoming a vampire or revenant. A person who made a pact with the devil, for example, would likely become a vampire, those who cast the evil eye, witches and magicians, those who never ate garlic and those who lived what was considered an evil life, or a life that was in some way outside of regular society.
The manner in which a person died could also increase their likelihood of becoming a vampire or other type of malevolent revenant. Those who were hanged for a crime, children who died without baptism, those who were murdered or committed suicide may be more likely to linger on earth. Interestingly, it has been speculated that these types of deaths would have led to the people being buried carelessly in shallow graves, and so would more often rise to the surface and be regarded as revenants.
The time of burial may also affect your fate in the afterlife, and in Eastern Europe it was believed that the gates to the afterlife closed in the afternoon, condemning people buried this time to wander the earth. A Latvian folk song even implores the listener ‘bury me before noon, after noon do not bury me, after noon the children of god have closed the gates of heaven.’ In this part of Europe it was believed that those who were buried after this time would make their way into homes through the chimney and torture, disfigure, eat the hearts and drink the blood of those living there. It was also said that they could change into animals, flame and shadow and would vanish when the cock crowed.
There seems to be a widespread anxiety throughout Europe about being denied access to the afterlife. It was generally believed that a person was born with a fixed life span, usually given to be 70 to 80 years. The ancient Roman writer Censorinus claimed that if a person died before their allotted time then the gods may refuse him entrance to the other life. This idea was incorporated into popular belief, that a person’s soul must stay on earth, near their body, until their allotted time was over and they would finally be allowed to pass. Usually they remained in spirit form, but if the spirit became upset, or if some unfortunate event happened, they may reinhabit their body to attack the living.
Even if a person managed to reach their allotted time it was believed that their spirit still remained on earth for 40 days after their death. This was a particularly risky time in which it was important not to draw the spirit back by reminding it of its ties on earth or offending them in any way so that they would seek retribution. Because of this, many rituals were developed to facilitate the souls passing at the time of death, often calling on sympathetic magic.
Clocks were stopped, windows opened, mirrors covered and knots untied. The corpse would be carried feet first out of the house so the spirit could not look back and be tempted to stay. Often the body would be carried to the graveyard out of a different door and by a long winding route, so that the spirit could not find its way back to the house. When placed in the grave, they would ensure that no piece of fabric lay next to the mouth for the dead person to chew and spread disease.
If it was suspected that a person may return as vampire or revenant they may be buried facing down, so that if they woke they would claw themselves deeper into the earth. Strong smelling incense and garlic would also be put into the mouth, nose and coffin to prevent them from rising, presumably because they were believed to be repelled by strong smells. A stone may be placed in their mouths to prevent them from chewing or calling the names of their loved ones.
Sometimes poppy seeds would be scattered on the grave as it was believed the vampire would have to count every seed before leaving. Poppies or peas would be sown on the path from the graveyard while the funeral party chanted ‘may the dead man consume one of these every year, and not the heart of his kinfolk.’
These methods could also be used to protect the house. Poppy seeds could be placed outside the door, as the vampire would have to count each one before entering. The family of the recently deceased could eat garlic and spread garlic or incense around the boundaries of the house to use smell to repel their dead relative. In Denmark an old spinning wheel would be hung over the door as it was believed the dead person could only enter after walking around the building for as many times as the wheel had turned when it was in use.
Occasionally steps were taken to physically trap the dead person in their grave by tying their legs or big toes together, nailing them to their coffins or cutting the tendons in their heels or the veins in their knees to prevent them from walking.
In Scandinavia there were even laws put into place to prevent the return of the dead. The Saga of Erik the Red’s saga explains that since Christianity was adopted in Greenland it was common practice to place a pole on the chest of those who were buried on farmland instead of consecrated ground to fasten them to the earth. The pole would be removed when a priest arrived to perform a burial service and sprinkle holy water into the hole left by the pole, thereby laying the deceased person permanently to rest.
This appears to have been a relatively widespread practice. In 1007 CE Burchard of Worms condemned women who pierced the heart of deceased unbaptised children to prevent their return and claims when a woman and child die in childbirth and are buried, both of their bodies are pierced with rods that nail them to the ground so they do not rise and cause further death. It is likely that this means of securing someone into the grave later transformed into the known method of killing a vampire by piercing their heart with a stake.
If these methods of prevention and protection did not work, there were ways of identifying if a vampire was active and which of the corpses in the graveyard it would be. A number of people mysteriously wasting away would indicate vampire activity, which would necessitate opening the graves of those who had recently died. If the vampire was seen, it could be recognised by long teeth and claws, a ruddy complexion and in, central Europe, by lameness, iron teeth and the inability to count above three. This presumably would hinder its counting of any poppy seeds left out, although who is hanging round to ask the walking dead to count I don’t know.
Any corpses that did not show the classic signs of death or decay, those whose hair or nails had grown after death, those with red faces or whose stomachs were filled with blood when cut open could safely be regarded as vampires. If this was the case it could be stopped by putting a stake through the heart, cutting the head off and placing it by the feet where it could not be reached, placing strong smelling incense and plants in the grave and sprinkling with holy water.
Of course, there were those who were skeptical of the existence of vampires. In 1764 the Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet wrote a treatise on vampires, concluding that the idea of vampirism came from an overactive imagination fuelled by the malnourishment by the Balkan people, while Jean Cristophe Harenberg claimed that it was illness that caused the fear of vampires stating ‘that vampires do not cause the death of the living, and everything that people reel off in this regard should be attributed only to disorder in the sick person’s imagination.’
It is notable that the interest in vampires in Western Europe grew in a time when anxiety, fascination and even romanticisation of illness, tragic premature death and communication with spirits in the afterlife was at its height.
At the same time that many of the first modern vampire stories were being put into print, spiritualist mediums were gaining fame through communicating with the dead and women were applying makeup to mimic the pale yet flushed look of tuberculosis victims. I think that, even now, tales of vampires returning from the grave help us to explore and process, at least to some extent, our fear of death and the mystery of what may wait for us in the afterlife.
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