Belief in Vampire-Like Creatures

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Vampires have a very rich and varied history. Belief in vampire-like creatures can be found all over the world and dates as far back as ancient Greece, Mesopotamia and ancient Rome. There have even been periods in time when vampire belief was so mainstream it resulted in mass hysteria and public executions, and vampire hunters was considered equally valuable as healers or scribes. 

Though the creatures described in the ancient myths of these times did not carry the name vampire yet, they had corresponding fundamental qualities. Professor of Slavic languages and literatures, Jan Perkowski, uses the following definition for a vampire: “a being which derives sustenance from a victim, who is weakened by the experience”. This sustenance may be physical or emotional in nature. Although the specifics of any vampire in folklore may vary based on region, the principal aspects of a vampire can be outlined.

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Vampires are evil beings who are either dead or undead and subsist on the vital force of the living. They generally prey on the village they resided in when alive. One attack by a vampire is not typically fatal, but continued assaults may prove to be so. Folkloric vampires were not seen as human, though that was often their physical form. Instead, they were supposedly demonic entities or evil spirits having taken possession of the dead. They were described as wearing a shroud (a cloth that is wrapped around a dead person’s body before it is buried) and having a ruddy, dark and bloated appearance. In some cases, there was reportedly blood oozing from cavities like the nose, mouth and ears. These features were attributed to the recent feeding of the vampire. In some instances, the nails, hair and teeth had grown, but even so, fangs were uncommon.

The main cause of belief in vampires was pre-industrial man’s unfamiliarity with the decomposition of corpses and their incomprehension of social catastrophes, alongside a fear of death. In the winter, when the temperature is low, for example, decay of the dead can be substantially delayed. In old times, this was seen as unmistakable proof that a person had become a vampire. Events with a big negative influence that couldn’t be explained were also ascribed to the supernatural, which means vampires were essentially used as a scapegoat for social problems. Misfortunes such as droughts and epidemics were connected with vampirism. 

Traits of certain diseases subsequently became part of the characteristics of a vampire. Sensitivity to sunlight can be found in the diseases porphyria and pellagra. Insomnia and proneness to aggression are traits of people suffering from dementia, which could explain the nocturnal preference and irritability of the vampire. Epidemics cause many people in the same vicinity to suffer the same symptoms, which would be perceived as the dead returning to hunt the living and seek revenge.

Depending on region, there were different causes for suspicion of someone becoming a vampire. Vampires were commonly people who died an unnatural or violent death, or were cursed by their parents or the church, such as witches, suicides or drunkards. A corpse jumped over by an animal was also believed to become a vampire. Then there were the people born with some kind of irregularity or malformation. Marks like a caul (add definition) on the head, adjoining eyebrows or teeth showing were seen as a bad omen. In some cases, these individuals could be cured. A caul, for instance, would be burned and the ashes fed to the child when it reached age seven. Another reason for someone to rise from the grave was improper burial. It was believed that if burial rituals were carried out poorly, or insufficient respect was shown to a dead body, it would come back as a punishment. For this reason, in ancient Greece, the corpses of victims were often mutilated after a battle in an attempt to keep them from seeking vengeance.

While some of the vampires of folklore were almost impossible to get rid of, others did have ways of disposal; the so-called apotropaic measures. One of the most used methods to literally keep a vampire from getting up and trap it, was to stake it to its coffin. Depending on the local traditions, the stake would be placed anywhere from the mouth to the stomach and sometimes even the clothes would be pinned down. Additionally, a corpse would be beheaded and garlic or a brick stuffed in its mouth.

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