Vampires did not originate with Count Dracula. A revenant who returns from the grave to suck the blood of its victims in order to sustain its existence, the vampire has its origins in the folk legends of many countries, most specifically in central and eastern Europe.
From these roots it metamorphosed into the more familiar image that has dominated literature and popular culture for the past one hundred years. Attempts to identify the genesis of the vampire legend are fraught with difficulty.
Inquiry is further complicated by what folklorist Jan Perkowski refers to as “contamination,” the process by which the vampire has been merged with other supernatural beings such as the mora, strigoi, incubus, werewolf and poltergeist.
If one confines the search to legends associated with the word “vampire” or its many variants, the trail leads to the Slavic countries of Europe.
Most folklorists concur that the word “vampire” has Slavic roots, first appearing as a proper name (“Upir”) in an Old Russian manuscript of the eleventh century and as a generic term in a Serbian manuscript two hundred years later. The form “vampir” has been found in a fifteenth-century South Slavic source.
Perkowski defines the Slavic folkloric vampire as a half-human, half-supernatural being, a reanimated corpse that emerges from its grave to prey on the living and asserts that it arose as a consequence of the clash of orthodox Christianity with dualist heterodoxy. Other scholars contend that belief in vampires existed in southern and eastern Europe before the advent of Christianity and later spread among the Slavic people who apparently passed it to their non-Slavic neighbours. Some suggest that gyipsies may have brought some of the legends with them from India.
Explanations for what causes some individuals to become vampires after death differs from one folk culture to another. Some unfortunate persons are predisposed at birth: those born on certain holy days, or on the new moon; those born with a defect such as a caul, an extra nipple, or teeth; anyone who is the seventh son of a seventh son.
Others are doomed to return as vampires because of transgressions committed against acceptable codes of behaviour during their lifetime, such as practising sorcery or engaging in acts of violence.
Still others return from the dead because of the circumstances surrounding their death or burial: they died without baptism, they died in a state of excommunication, they committed suicide, they were in life attacked by another vampire, or their bodies were not buried in accordance with appropriate rituals.
We also find in the folk legends a variety of ways by which a vampire can be detected: a disturbed grave, a strange reaction by animals around a grave, tell-tale signs in a victim (anaemia, bite marks, nightmares, sleepwalking, weight loss, aversion from garlic), the appearance of the exhumed corpse of a suspected vampire (ruddy and/or bloated appearance, new nails or hair, lack of decomposition, presence of blood).
Not surprisingly, ways were devised to cure the community of such visitations. The most widespread was to drive a wooden stake through the heart of the vampire; other techniques included decapitation, drenching the body in garlic or holy water, extracting and burning the heart or burning the entire corpse.
Though the term “vampire” is of comparatively recent vintage, the image goes back much further in time. If one applies a more liberal definition (including either the return from the dead or the blood drinking), one can identify “vampires” in various cultures around the world, including a wide range of revenants, ghosts and restless spirits.
Thus we find evidence of “vampirism” in diverse places: for example, in drawings from ancient Babylonia and representations of the goddess Kali of India. Also identified by some scholars as archetypal sources for vampire legends are the lamia of Greek mythology and the Jewish Lilith. Vampire-like creatures appear in the folk tales of Malaysia, China, Australian aboriginals, Romania, Germany, Ireland and Greece…
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