In The Blood: A serious look at vampire-myth origins

Part One

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. (Leviticus 17:11)

Any broad exploration of pre-Industrial European society cannot help but touch upon the plethora of peasant tales that both served to entertain the populace and teach morality to the children of Europe. On surface examination, at least, this function of folklore seems apparent enough. It is a perfectly valid assessment of the function of common fable--but in many respects, it is inadequate. Peasant tales served, in many cases, as more than simple fables. The fact that the vast bulk of European humanity remained illiterate in pre-Industrial Europe should stimulate questions about the more complex and subliminal purposes of this entirely oral form of literature.

It is accurate to speak of the clergy as disseminators of morality, speaking in broad terms. After all, one of the primary functions of any religion is to legislate morality to both the elites and the commoners. However, the Catholic and Orthodox churches of medieval Europe were not fortunate enough to be working with a tabula rasa. Before the peoples of the continent had been converted to Christianity, they had obviously held to various other belief systems. While on the surface these pre-Christian institutions seemed to have disappeared rather thoroughly throughout most of Europe by the eleventh century, the nuances left behind by them and their companioned folklore continued to affect peasant life subtly for many centuries, and arguably continue to impact the broader culture to this day.

Of particular interest is the folklore of blood, due to the wide range of symbolism invoked by this vital substance. Blood folklore has a fascinating history in Europe, primarily because of the conflict between Christian blood myth and the more traditional blood legends that predate the introduction of Christianity to the European mass culture. In the words of anthropologist Reay Tannahill,

[Prehistoric man] knew that life was uncertain and sometimes short, that death was inevitable and sometimes abrupt. Every time he set out for the hunt he was aware that some day... the end would come with a slash and an outpouring of blood. It is not difficult to understand why... he should have come to the conclusion not merely that blood was essential to life, but that it was the essence of life itself.

The fact, therefore, that blood figures centrally in Christianity should be as unsurprising as its central importance in all of folklore and peasant tradition. Nonetheless, it is interesting to compare Christian blood ideology with pre-Christian blood ideology, specifically with that body of oral tradition that survived the Christian conversions and continued to be passed down through successive peasant generations by way of storytelling.

This series shall look at the ways by which these peasant tales began to alter due to the growing Christian influence over European society. One specific topic with respect to blood folklore - namely, the legendary creature known generally as the vampire today - will be discussed in detail. This concept, taken together with the wholly (pre-Reformation) Christian idea of Eucharistic transubstantiation, may further our understanding of the place of blood, blood potency, and blood magic in pre-Industrial Europe.

Part Two
SANGUINARIUS-Vampiri et commutatio sanguinis

It seems that every pre-Christian society on Earth has had some version of the legendary vampire tale as part of the repertoire of its common storyteller. Examples of vampires as a symbol in social legend can apparently be traced as far back as ancient Assyria, where excavations have unearthed vampires depicted on pottery art, including an apparent etching of a vampire copulating with a man. The idea of the vampire as a perverse sexual symbol shall be discussed later.

In fact, belief in the vampire seems so utterly universal that it is sometimes difficult to research "non-literary" examples of vampire folklore, because of the bewildering variety of names used to describe the creature. In Russian, there are the terms upir, and upyr. In Albania there is the shtriga , in Greece alone the ghello, drakos, drakaena, and the lamia , the vrykolakes, brykilakas, barbarlakos, borborlakos, and the bourdoulakos. From Sanskrit come the terms katakhanoso and baital. In Poland dwelled the upiory, in Germany the bl tsauger, in China the giang shi, and in pre-Columbian Peru the canchus and the pumapmicuc.

Obviously, due to the limited contact between these widely-differing cultures, the vampire legends among them differ significantly as well. However, from the outset, it shall be necessary to separate the traditional mythology from the modern Hollywood redefinition of the undead bloodsucker. In particular, this article shall explore the traditional concept of the vampire as viewed by the societies of eastern and southeastern Europe. The reasoning behind this is that, while the modern perception of vampires is derived from popular literature and the cinema, that perception, in fact, was drawn from the traditional Balkan stories of the monsters. Therefore, our own society in some ways does derive its perception of the vampire from traditional peasant folklore, but certainly not in others.

The differences are quite striking. For example, in peasant Russia the vampire was able to walk the earth in broad daylight-according to legend, he rose at noon and could feed from the populace until midnight, when he was forced to return to his grave. In addition, many of the modern conceptualizations simply do not appear in medieval tales, or if they do they are too sketchy or ambiguous to assume they were directly derived from the folklore of the distant past.

The Balkan vampire was often a hideous beast, far from the princely count depicted in "Dracula" or later. The cape, tuxedo, jewelry, and grand estate which occupy much of the cinema vampire's inventory were inserted into the legend by none other than Bram Stoker (1847-1912) himself; this one author has done more to mutate the peasant tales than anyone else in history (aside from contributions by LeFanu, author of the earlier Carmilla, or arguably from much-later additions to the genre made by Anne Rice and other similar authors).

Obviously no malice need be felt toward the man, since he hardly erased the earlier tales from the unconsciousness of European society; they are, in fact, still widely told and believed by rural populations throughout the Balkans and into Poland and Russia. The following twentieth-century tale, recorded as coming from the mountains of northern Albania, serves as a good example of the real vampire (i.e. the true traditional perception of the creature):

I sat by many an open hearth, and heard of Kilmeni life. Much we talked of that dire being the Shtriga, the vampire woman that sucks the blood of children, and bewitches even grown folk, so that they shrivel and die. All Kilmeni, and indeed all the tribes, believe in her. She may live in a village for years undetected, working her vile will. . . .[They] have a sure way of catching her. It is to keep the bones of the last pig you ate at carnival, and with these to make a cross on the door of the church upon Easter Sunday... Then if the Shtriga be within, she cannot come out, save on the shoulders of the man that made the cross... She, and she alone, can heal the victim, who withers and pines as she secretly sucks its blood.

This peasant belief is a fine example of the nature of the vampire throughout the Balkans. Several excellent points are above illustrated; the vampire of eastern Europe was, traditionally, either a very old or a very young woman. There are only rare examples of male vampires, and when they turn up their characteristics are usually quite different. The vampire was most often not a noble; on the other hand, they tended to be on the opposite end of the social strata-hermits and the homeless were quite often put on trial for vampirism in medieval Europe.

Part Three
Feeding Practices

Another critically important characteristic of the vampire was its selective feeding practices. Traditional vampiresses seemed to have fed exclusively on either children or members of the opposite sex. As illustrated, peasants had all sorts of unusual concoctions and rituals for defeating the creatures. They progressed from the simple one outlined earlier to much more bizarre and complicated ceremonies. A traditional Lithuanian vampire tale (or a quasi-vampire tale, more appropriately, since there is never any direct reference to vampirism; yet the distinguishing characteristics contained within make it all to clear the young woman described suffered from either vampirism or something incredibly similar) goes something like this:

A poor farmer has a beautiful young daughter who he is unable to marry off, because every young suitor who tries to spend the night with her is found dead the next morning. The hero of the story hears of both the daughter and her father's offer of three hundred gold coins to whomever can survive but a single night with the girl. Before attempting to bed with her, he seeks out the advice of an old crone in the forest, who gives him a magic bridle. When he approaches the girl, she tries to attack him but he throws the bridle on her, turns her into a horse, and rides her through the countryside until he has worn her out and she dies of exhaustion. The farmer is enraged at the young man and orders him to bury her. Fortunately, before he attempts to do so he again seeks the advice of the old crone, who gives him a prayer book and a candle to protect himself from her evil.

That night, the girl rises from the dead and calls for help, and a horde of little devils answers the call and swears to exact vengeance on the young man. He has however, on the advice of the old crone, drawn a circle around himself with candle wax. The demons are unable to see him due to the protection of this circle, and as soon as the rooster crows the girl again drops dead. The same thing happens on the following night, but on the third night the devils finally catch him and are about to burn him when God manages to convince the rooster to crow early, which forces the imps to return to wherever they came from.

There are clear-cut religious overtones in the fable, all of which suggest that the girl is somehow in league with the Devil. However, it is the end of the story that makes it rather clear that the girl is either a vampire or something like one:

[The old woman] gave him a hammer and a stake made out of mountain ash. 'If the girl tries to get up on her way to the cemetery, you just drive the stake into her heart.' The farmer's daughter lay in a coffin which had been put on the harrows and covered with nine hoops of iron. The young man straddled one of the iron hoops-pooff!-and it broke. When he rode on a little farther, the second and third hoops broke. All the hoops had broken, one after another, by the time he reached the cemetery, and the farmer's daughter tried to get up, but the young man grabbed the hammer, hit the stake, and drove it into her heart. The farmer's daughter fell back into her coffin, never more to rise. Now she was really dead.

The use of a wooden stake through the heart, usually of pine or ashwood, clearly links this story to the vampire mythology. That particular method of destruction is most commonly called for wherever vampires are to be encountered, although wards can often vary dramatically in their composition. It should be noted that there are twelve recorded variants of this story, some in Russian, some in Estonian, and, most interestingly, one in Icelandic. The fact that there is a version of this fable (called 'The Farmer's Daughter who was a Witch' in the source cited above) in Icelandic peasant lore suggests that the tale may originally have been a Norse one, or at least picked up by the Varangians when they settled the Lithuanian-Ukrainian region in the ninth century and from there transmitted through Scandinavia to Iceland. This would predate the conversion of the Lithuanian people to Christianity by five hundred years. It is no small detail, then, that a German variant of the same tale is explicit in identifying the girl (who is, in this version, the daughter of a king and queen) as killing the soldiers guarding her body 'bloodily' (i.e. analogous to the suitors in the prior tale).

Even more noteworthy is the detail that he saved the girl from the vampiric curse by biting down on her forefinger 'vigorously', again on the advice of a wise old person. This tale is said to have over sixty variants in both Germany and France. The primary difference here is the introduction of blood into the story. While it is very likely that one of these tales arose from the other, the fact that the Lithuanian tale, probably a pagan one, omits the blood references is extremely significant. While blood folklore, as we have seen earlier, is central to any society whether ultra-primitive or completely industrialized, blood figures centrally in the very nature of the Christian religion. There is, in Norine Dresser's work entitled 'American Vampires', a very useful paradigm to illustrate this. A young woman, believing herself to be an actual 'vampire' (meaning she feels she must ingest human blood in order to remain healthy), tells of a very religious upbringing in which she was educated in a Catholic school. She fondly remembers all of the beautiful artwork at the school, in stained-glass windows and on plaster statues, of a bleeding Christ dying on the cross, nails through his wrists and the wounds of the sword in his belly.

The central story of Christianity, of course, is the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of the son of God. Jesus dies on the cross, bleeding for all the sins of man, and after a short spell of death rises from the grave and transcends, joining his Father in heaven. Blood is thus symbolically associated with many different themes here: death and rebirth, suffering and eternal life, pain and everlasting peace. Blood has always figured strongly in Jewish folklore as well. Bram Stoker was certainly onto something when, in his novel 'Dracula', he had the Count quote the Old Testament, "the blood is the life." The rite of circumcision, for example, partly centers around the effusion of an infant boy's blood (and is one of the central foci of medieval blood accusation).

In addition, there is the midrash (rabbinical fable) of Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who was cast out from the garden because she refused to assume a subordinate sexual position. Lilith was transformed into a nocturnal monster who mated with animals and sought out the children of Adam and Eve, killing them vengefully and consuming their flesh.

Part Four
Parasitic Nature of the Beast

An even closer link between the medieval (and modern Catholic) Church and the vampire is seen simply in the act of communion, which tens of millions of Christians participated in during every single Mass; through the drinking of wine and the eating of bread, the laity are said to be partaking of the blood and the body of Christ. As a part of the proper path to salvation, the Church held Holy Communion to be a Sacrament. Thus, the religion of the vast majority of the people of pre-Industrial Europe taught that (if even in a rather ambiguous, indirect manner and as part of a greater ritual path) the drinking of blood would lead to eternal life.

Now, it should be duly noted that, in earlier vampire traditions of Europe, the vampire was never depicted as a creature that had risen from the grave. Indeed, it had preyed upon the living, but more in a purely cannibalistic manner, like a wild beast. Ancient 'vampires' were generally shown as man-eating monsters, such as the Cyclops of Homer's The Odyssey. Polyphemos is never depicted as being in a state of 'undeath' , and he is neither depicted as a parasitic creature that leeches blood from men; instead he is shown as a beast that simply eats men alive.

Parasitism is yet another defining quality of the post-conversion vampire of folklore. Vampires are usually not shown to kill their victims, only to extract some blood from them and move on to another host. Like a leech, a vampire attaches itself to a victim (traditionally at the neck, the wrists, the arms, or the fingers) and simply draws blood, leaving only puncture wounds behind. This is in sharp contrast to, for example, werewolf folklore, which tells of far more vicious and gory attacks in which victims are literally torn to pieces. The vampire's feeding procedure is far more subtle and subversive, which perhaps is why the creature is so much more frightening to the human mind.

To make matters worse, post-conversion vampires either are (since in some traditions vampires are not necessarily dead yet) or were once normal humans, so they are more difficult to spot than, for example, a werewolf, a Gorgon, a centaur, or a cyclops. To illustrate much of this, there is the following folk tale from France which is clearly of later origin than the earlier examples given:

A young girl lives in the forest with her two elder brothers, keeping house for them. One day they must go and chop wood, and they warn her to keep the fire going, because if it were to go out she would have to go get help from 'Malbrou', their hideous neighbor. The girl refuses to share her bread with their dog, and so the angry dog pees on the fire and extinguishes it. The girl has no choice but to go see Malbrou, and he helps her to get it restarted, but only on the condition that the girl let him suck on her little finger each day underneath the crack of the front door. He continues to do this for a while, until she begins to get thin and pallid from the loss of blood. When her brothers confront her about this, she admits that Malbrou has been drinking her blood, and, the next day, they wait at home for Malbrou to make his daily visit. When he does, the girl tells him to poke his head through the cat-hole this time to reach her. At that point the boys promptly behead the monster.

The above tale clearly illustrates the parasitic nature of the later, traditional vampire, which causes its victims to die slowly over time. This is perhaps a dark reflection of the life-giving qualities of blood folklore espoused by the Church in its doctrine; or, in fact, perhaps it even reinforces that concept, when one considers that the blood of mortals is what gives the vampire life and what keeps it animated in a dead body. It would seem that the Church itself endorsed this supernatural quality of blood in another respect during the early Middle Ages; take, for example, the passage from the Physiologus dealing with the mythical 'pelican' bird:

If the pelican brings forth young and the little ones grow, they take to striking their parents in the face. The parents, however, hitting back kill their young ones and then, moved by compassion, they weep over them for three days, lamenting over those whom they killed. On the third day, their mother strikes her side and spills her own blood over the dead bodies and the blood itself awakens them from death. . . .The Lord ascended the height of the cross and the impious ones struck his side and opened it and blood and water came forth for eternal life, blood because it is said, "Taking the chalice he gave thanks", and water because of the baptism of repentance. . . Physiologus, therefore, spoke well of the pelican.

In referring to the fable of the pelican, Saint Augustine, in his Ennaratio in Psalmum, declared, "Vos sic audite, ut si verum est, congruat; si falsum est, non teneat. . .Fortasse hoc verum, fortasse falsum sit; quae madmodum illi congruat, qui nos vivificat sanguine suo, videte." This translates to, "Thus it sounds to all of you, as if it is true, it agrees; if it is false, let it not hold. . .Perhaps this is true, perhaps it is false; it agrees with that man whom is soaked with [blood], who gives us life in his own blood, observe." Augustine seems to be taking a neutral stand with respect to the description of the mythical animal and its use of blood. In the latter part of his statement he is likely referring to Jesus when he speaks of "that man whom is soaked with blood", and who "gives us life in his own blood".

Thus, this great theologian and formulator of long-lasting Church doctrine appears to be re-asserting the ancient view that blood is the essence of life; it is the substance in which life is contained and by which life may be transferred. In advocating the transfer of the power of Jesus through the transubstantiated host, the Church is in fact providing powerful impetus for perverse interpretations of that very same conclusion; namely, that a dead human brought back to life by some infernal means or another may continue to walk the earth by extracting blood from those that are still living. This is the essence of the vampire myth, or at least the version of the vampire myth which has developed into the modern Western perception of vampires.

Part Five

Now that we have established a possible reason for the evolution of vampire mythology from simple monster/cannibal legend-that is, the legend of the vampire as a blood-sucking, parasitic undead person-it is now necessary to explore why such myths became so widespread throughout eastern and, later, the entire continent of Europe. The myth could not have developed to the extent that it did without the help of Church theology and practice. Of course, it was not purposely fabricated by the Church itself; in fact, the medieval Church often worked hard to eliminate belief in the latter blood legend.

The core theme in both traditions, of course, is parasitism-parasitism of several different types. There is hardly anything more parasitic than the vampire, a literal leech of a being. Vampires were traditionally depicted as preying upon members of the opposite sex or on children, and in extracting a quantity of fluid from an unwilling victim. All one needs to do is invert the symbolic fluid extraction (thereby transforming it into fluid deposition), and you have the image of a rape.

Sexual imagery permeates through the entire legend of the vampire; a re-examination of the quoted fables will uncover numerous sexual undertones (i.e. the sucking of the little girl's finger, the taming and subsequent riding of the farmer's daughter, the Shtriga of Albania being forced to ride on the shoulders of a man) that speak volumes. The bite of the vampire-the so-called "vampire's kiss"-itself is sexually suggestive, as it takes place in a region which is especially tactile-sensitive and an erogenous zone. In this sense, the vampire is so symbolic of a human passion that it makes it literally impossible for the creature to exist in reality; it is far too one-dimensional a monster to have any realistic qualities.

Of even greater importance to the symbolic nature of the vampire is the fact that vampires are reported to regain their vitality after feeding upon a host; tales of vampires excavated from their graves tell of corpses, long dead, that look as alive and healthy as that of any mortal being. Thus, the vital essence of blood transfers from the host to the predator, taking the very life energy from the victim and siphoning it into the parasite.

Post-conversion vampire folklore only serves to further the transubstantiate claims of the Church, it seems; the power of blood that allows the vampire to remain eternally youthful, even though it resides in a dead body that should be rotting, seems to parallel the power of faith in transforming simple wine and bread to flesh and blood. Is it yet another unrelated phenomenon, then, that the bodies of saints were said to be immune to decomposition even while they lay in the earth?

The sheer power of blood in the human consciousness cannot be underestimated. The fear that blood of innocent victims was being used by the undead to extend their unnatural lives drove eastern Europeans throughout the Middle Ages to unearth bodies and drive nails into their heads, pound stakes into their chests, decapitate them, shove garlic into their dead mouths, or place the Host over their eyes, all to keep them in their tombs.

In this case, it is very important to note that in Romania, the moroi, simple revenants, are carefully distinguished from the strigoi, the vampires. Both are undead, and yet the moroi are often viewed as friendly spirits and guardians of their mortal families. It is the strigoi which attract the utter revulsion and fear of the populace. Even though a moroi may be destroyed by similar means, it is the strigoi-the blood drinkers-that peasants throughout the Balkans have made a career out of hunting.

It can be concluded, then, that Western civilization has maintained a rather schizophrenic position on blood imbibement. While the medieval Church maintained a position that the drinking of Christ's blood was not only beneficial but even necessary for Salvation, the other two 'minority groups' who allegedly consumed blood; namely, the Jews and the vampires, were widely reviled and looked upon as in league with the Devil.

There is yet another possible parallel in that by the latter Middle Ages the clergy was forbidden from sexual activity; was the symbolic blood imbibement of the priestly class able to serve as a form of compensation from lack of sexual stimulation? This is, of course, a very far-fetched conclusion, but one which should be kept in mind when studying blood folklore and the place it has in popular culture. It is one more possibility to consider when examining the relationships between blood accusations, the magical qualities of blood, and life. For just as "the blood is the life", so is sex a vital component of the continuation of the human species.

In both vampire folklore and the blood libel (in the case of the latter circumcision slander stands out as the shining example of sexual connotation), there are very potent and blatant suggestive sexual symbols. Now, one needn't necessarily conclude that both myths arise solely from deep-seated sexual origins, but it does appear that sexual motifs come closest to linking the blood mythologies of pre-Industrial Europe together into a rational set of thematic, related concepts.

Author: Steve Bernheisel


Voices of the Vampire Community (VVC)


Most Recent Additions


Silk icons by Mark James

Background by Taylor Satula