Think you know vampires? Maybe you do. But odds say all you know comes from t.v., movies and novels. But the undead arise from myth and legend, stuff far outside the imagination of Bram Stoker or Anne Rice. Consider these fifteen tidbits of genuinely creepy vampire folklore…
Our image of a vampire as seducer, an avatar of seduction, has nothing to do with most folkloric creatures such as the Portuguese Bruxsa or Filipino Aswang. These embody the opposite of the Earth Mother, a female who devours instead of engenders. A death dealer instead of one who gives birth. Not a being of beauty or pure love, but foul and disgusting, fueled by hatred. To most mythologies, the vampire simply finds the weakest and most vulnerable of us–children–to treat them as prey, nothing more. Such stories say nothing of romance or loneliness and everything about revenge.
Although touched upon now and then in fiction, a vampire god to us seems more an aberration or perversion of true faith than a genuine religion. Other cultures do not agree. Egypt had a war goddess Sekhmet, to whom the shedding of blood was in some sense worship. The Hindu Kali was the ultimate defender of mankind and the world, in no small part because she literally drinks blood! Naturally enough, worshipers of the latter sometimes go so far as to commit human sacrifice in her name (although to be fair, most do nothing of the kind).
You just thought of Transylvania didn’t you? Well, why not? Ever since the novel Dracula appeared in print the association between the undead and that part of Romania has only grown. Yet in terms of myth, no place in Europe seems more infested with vampires than Greece. Indeed it seems likely nosferatu derives from a Greek word for disease, nosforos. Indeed Greece and its thousand-plus isles gave rise to the ancient legend of the lamia as well as tales of how the dead long to drink fresh blood (see Homer’s Odyssey). Such a beautiful land, but one steeped in fear of the hungry dead.
Despite Buffy, we do tend to believe pretty much anyone with the right tools and training can bring True Death to one of the Undead. Not according to folklore. In many places genuine vampires are held to be utterly immortal (like the Bruxsa above). You, a mere mortal human, stand no chance in any combat with a vampire. None at all. All you can do is protect yourself as best you can, praying you’ve not made any mistakes. It is a paranoid world view, one that assumes we humans as very nearly powerless, at the absolute mercy of an uncaring Fate.
Operas and gothic literature of different stripes may seek to make romantic death by “consumption” but in fact tuberculosis means a steady fading of one’s strength, slow suffocation, coupled with the constant taste of blood in one’s mouth. Little wonder victims of such in real life were often seen as nascent vampires. It inspired genuine terror, especially when the cause for disease remained unknown.
It might startle some to realize how many viewed vampires not as in any way seducers but rather rapists. These days we rarely examine our dead personally, so all kinds of disturbing details escape our notice. Among these is the tendency for corpses to sport erections. Biologically speaking, nothing at all odd about this, but to many this indicated a desire by the dead for more than blood. Hence legends that spouses were among the first “visited” by a newly risen vampire–with the result sometimes a dhampir, half-breed between human and vampire.
No, not all vampires survive on blood alone. Hindu Pishacha for example follow battles in order to eat those who have fallen. Romanian Strigoi are straightforward gluttons, eating massive amounts of food, forcing people to starve. Then they drink the blood of those people, killing and then eating the people themselves–man, woman and child.
Unpleasant to think on, but in folklore nearly all vampires give off the odor of the grave. If you’ve never actually encountered the smell of a good-sized animal (like a dog or cat) decomposing, believe me you are missing nothing desirable in your life. However, such was far more common in ages past. It was said to be emanate from a vampire, a way to warn you such a creature might be near. In fact, this idea probably kept many a person from a real source of infection.
Some legends say vampires are easy to spot. Others insist, however, there’s no way to easily recognize one of the undead. Ever. Lots of myths make zero mention of sunlight causing any harm at all to the things, mirrors refusing to reflect them, crosses or holy objects having any impact upon them whatsoever. Most aren’t even cold to the touch, etc. Our fiction comes up will all kinds of ways to give humans the advantage, but folklore has no such imperative. So legendary vampires remain many times more terrifying.
For clear and obvious reasons, dramatic stories about the undead have them retain (or sometimes acquire) human personality traits. Legend sometimes insists nothing of the kind is even remotely true. The Hindu Peymakilir to give one example, isn’t even a former human being. They are demons, never spending their time as humans do in distorted versions of our own lives. Russia’s upir likewise seem little more than eating machines, their minds gone and replaced by all the conscience or emotion of a leech.
As mentioned earlier, legend insists that most vampires do not in fact seek out lovely young virgins to join them in an eternity of darkness. Rather, their meat of choice are the youngest of our species, the younger the better. Some legends even refer to Lilith, supposed first wife of Adam, who seeks with all her offspring to consume the children of Eve. When you blend this tendency with other types of vampires, we can see the undead as another version of our own modern monster of legend–the pedophile.
Yes we do. Human blood as well. For pretty much the same reason we imagine vampires to do so. Many a warrior in history proudly drank the blood his enemies, sometimes (as a matter of style or at least boasting) from the hollowed out skull of another enemy. Understandable in a way. When we lose blood, or are pale, we weaken. Certainly some animals live upon blood, like fleas and ticks and leeches. But we don’t do that anymore, right? Even if many of do adore our steaks rare enough to bleed. The less said about the ritual symbols of drinking God’s blood on Sunday the better, though. Right?
We think of zombies as shuffling mindless corpses motivated by a simple, implacable hunger. Our image of vampires focuses on temptation, infused with eroticism. But that really begins with Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyre novel. In centuries prior, what most peasants and others thought about “vampire” (or the equivalent) what they had in mind was a lot closer to what we call a George Romero-style zombie. No cape, but rotting rags. Not eyes burning with eldritch power, but filmy orbs lacking the spark of what made our loved ones human.
Movies might portray it easy to pierce a chest cavity with a pointed piece of wood. Actually, not really. Rib cages are tough precisely to as protect what’s inside! Mind you, according to folklore that really isn’t enough, usually. At the very least one is supposed to burn the vampire. That sounds easy, too, though. Well, no. You need a fair amount of kindling for one thing. For another, legend and legend says all kinds of things will crawl out of the flames–birds, frogs, snakes, insects and like. You have to kill every single one of these or the vampire will return. Every. Single. One. And there might easily be thousands.
This one in some ways is the most creepy of all. Movies and books portray some essence of divine power ready to defend you against the thirsty dead. Folklore doesn’t have that much hope in it. Most assume the universe just naturally wants to kill and eat you, with vampires just one vivid example of this. At best, even among the most Christian of nations, firm belief insisted the powers of the universe–God, his Saints, the Angels–will leave you to your fate if you do one little thing wrong. If you are born on Christmas, you become a vampire. If you forget to light a votive candle, God will let a vampire eat you alive. If a cat jumps over your corpse the Heavens reject you and back into your corpse you go, to prey upon your friends and family. Prayer may or may not work to protect them from you. And no one–no one–knows why.