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Vampires Through History – Craig O Reilly

Vampires Through History – Craig O Reilly traces the common trope of the undead blood drinker from demonic middle eastern beginnings to literary fame

Every Halloween, among the children bobbing for apples or trick or treating, you will find vampire masks being worn. The image of the white-faced fiend, with slicked back-hair has become iconic, depicted in films like Nosferatu and Christopher Lee’s hammer horror Dracula films. The Count himself has become infamous as a supernatural blood drinker that haunts dark alleyways, or even worse, that comes as an uninvited guest to one’s party. But where do they come from, these creatures of the night? Do they have any real place in history? The answers may be stranger than you think.


In myth and legend

Myths, legends, and real accounts of supernatural blood-drinkers have appeared in nearly every culture throughout the world. None of these were called vampires, but many of them share the characteristics. In old Norse mythology for instance, a Draugr is an undead creature which treads slowly, often guarding it’s buried treasure. Translations of its name sometimes refer to it as an “again-walker”, like Lazarus returned from the dead, except for the fact the Draugr has come back wrong, with evil intentions. Interestingly, they can appear on sea or land, so be wary of them next time you go for a swim.

In Jewish folklore, a Lilith is represented as a demonic female blood drinker who prowls the night looking for unsuspecting victims, particularly, children. The terrifying story of this kind of creature is part of a larger mythology of ancient Mesopotamian demons. Lilith is also mentioned in some versions of the bible under the name Lamia: “And demons and monsters shall meet, and the hairy ones shall cry out one to another, there hath the lamia lain down, and found rest for herself”.

Curiously, she has been changed to a screeching owl in the King James translation. Another vengeful creature that shared these traits is Medusa, who could turn any man who looked at her to stone.


The Middle Ages: In search of the Vampire

Though we’ve seen that there is altogether nothing new about the undead, since these kind of tales go back far into antiquity, it wasn’t until the middle ages that a real fear of vampires began to emerge, with all kinds of stories and rumors springing up. Many of these concerned a supposed plague of vampirism which was feared to be emerging from Eastern Europe from the 16th century onwards. In a time before the internet, media, and photography, it is probably not surprising that rumors of demons could spread like wild fire, but you may be surprised to know just how seriously these stories were taken. There were vast amounts of research carried out on the veracity of vampires by the authorities, and this material built up over time.

The Abbot of Senones, Dom Agustine Calmet, was the best-known biblical scholar of 18th century France. He was the first to really publish information on vampires, his treatise on them took in formal reports, newspaper articles and eyewitness accounts, as well as critical reports of a supposed epidemic of vampirism which was said to be sweeping through Eastern Europe.

Though his open-mindedness and lack of criticism towards his sources were very much mocked later on in the century by writers such as Voltaire, the book also became a best-seller, and is one of the earliest surviving sources on posthumous magic.

“I have been told by the late Monsieur de Vassimont, that it was common enough in that country to see men who had died some time before, present themselves in a party and sit down to table with persons of their acquaintance without saying anything; but that nodding to one of the party, he would infallibly die some days afterwards.”

It may seem easy to dismiss these accounts as local superstition, but vampirism was a fear even the great thinkers and philosophers of the time could not outright dismiss, even if they were skeptical of their existence. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, poet and philosopher wrote:

“For some time now, the public news has been concerned with  nothing but vampires; there has never been a fact more fully proved in law than their existence, yet despite this, show me a single man of sense in Europe who believes in vampires or who would even deign to take the trouble to check the falseness of the facts… who will venture to tell me exactly how many eyewitness accounts are needed to make a phenomenon credible?”

In the 18th century, while books had become available, eyewitness accounts were relied upon to verify truth. For philosophers, they came to look at vampires as part of a phenomena of miracles; things which could not be explained by normal rational means. In other words, supernatural.

The best way to kill a vampire is to make him famous

Today you will probably find very few people who are afraid of vampires. This is because in almost every form of media we have seen depictions of Dracula on screen, in books, even in video games. It becomes hard to maintain an aura of mystique when the light of the camera is constantly upon you, even if you are Dracula himself. As you stand there in your black cape, fake blood trailing from the side of your mouth with children pointing and laughing at you, you may wonder how you, the vampire once feared throughout all of Europe, came to be a figure of fun rather than terror. In this case you will find a small trio of writers had much to do with it.

Probably the first time the vampire as we know him today entered literature was in John Polidori’s “the vampire”.  The origin of the story is as curious as the story itself. 1816 was known as the year without Summer, the eruption of Mount Tambora had locked the world in a cold volcanic winter.

During this bleak time, Percy Shelley and a young Mary Shelley gathered at the house of Lord Byron, where they each challenged each other to write a ghost story. Percy Shelley wrote his great poem Ozymundus, about a King who saw his marvelous works turned to dust.

Mary Shelley, at first unsuccessful, had a disturbing dream which became the main inspiration for her novel Frankenstein, a monster almost as popular as Dracula. Lord Byron’s young physician John Polidori however, surprised everyone by going on to write “the Vampyre”.

This rather short story, partly inspired by Polidori’s impression of Lord Byron but drawing on other legends, captured the public’s attention upon publication. It was the first time the vampire had really been associated with an aristocrat, rather than the more rural monstrous guise vampires had taken before. The idea that vampires could be in the midst of polite society caused a sensation, and there were all kinds of penny dreadfuls and plays centering around this vampiric aristocratic character of Lord Ruthven Polidori had conjured.

From here the vampire has led an altogether more civilised, luxurious life. No longer having to prey on the weak and vulnerable, vampires have become celebrities almost. But just remember next time you are walking through a cemetery to take the air, as Irish writer Samuel Beckett often did, that you are dealing with a creature older than literature itself, and maybe, just maybe, the vampire is not as unreal as you may have been led to believe.

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