By Light Unseen

The First Roots of "the Vampire Belief"

Contrary to the popular idea of "a universal vampire myth" going back to the dawn of time, the history of vampires--the word and the phenomenon--begins in a very specific time and place: Eastern Europe around the mid-1600's.

At that time, a number of localized "panics" began to break out in Eastern Europe and Greece, during which people in various towns and villages became convinced that they were being haunted, harassed and sometimes killed by something that resembled a person who had recently been buried. These "panics" were not caused by a failure to understand how bodies normally decay, or ignorance about diseases, or any other modern-day "logical explanation."

First, the "panics" almost all happened in places where the religion was (or was very influenced by) Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity had very specific teachings about the relationship of the soul and the body after death, the immense importance of correct funeral rites, and the condition of the soul when the person died. These teachings fitted into an overall worldview in which there was a "right order of things," an ancient and (unlike vampires) almost universal concept. Violate that "right order" and all manner of disastrous and chaotic events could follow. A major consequence of such violations was the invasion of the everyday world by beings that didn't belong there and wreaked havoc.

Second, the "panics" invariably happened after the community started to experience waves of unexplained paranormal phenomena. These waves happen constantly, everywhere, and have been explained in different ways by different cultures. The events almost never involved people actually thinking something bit them and drank their blood. Vampire hauntings could include:

poltergeist-like phenomena (dishes smashed, noises, furniture thrown around, people being dumped out of bed onto the floor, food being eaten or destroyed)
apparitions (people seeing the recently deceased skulking around)
monstrous human-like figures with a consistent set of characteristics, including an overpowering foul smell (often compared to sulfur or "rotten eggs"), glowing red eyes, a "hopping" gait, suddenly appearing and vanishing, sometimes able to fly
night-hag phenomena (people waking up with a sense of a heavy weight on their chest, a sensation of smothering, terror, and often a vision of a looming dark shape in their room)
incubus/succubus visitations (people experienced a complete sexual encounter with something that wasn't human)
injury, death or mutilation inflicted on animals that didn't match the damage of known predators
human injuries, illness or deaths (due to either a known disease or a mysterious wasting away).

In other times and places, identical "flaps" or clusters of these same paranormal events have been attributed to demons, fairies, mysterious monsters like Bigfoot or the Mothman, creatures from UFOs, and other culture-specific archetypes. In Europe between approximately 1650 and 1800, they were attributed to "vampires."

When the community had grown terrified enough, it would begin digging up graves, starting with the first person whose apparition had been seen. In some cases, hysteria was so high that the local people convinced themselves that the body was in a state that was "unnatural" (basically, undecayed) although objective witnesses who were not Eastern Orthodox Christians and not affected by the hysteria reported that the body seemed pretty seriously decayed to them. (For one such example, see the well-known Greek case reported by de Tournefort in 1701.)

One of the reasons for this delusion by hysterical witnesses is that in Eastern Christianity, it was believed that the body would stay undecayed if the soul was restless, excommunicated, or otherwise not in a state of Grace. Since the person who'd been exhumed was walking around and making trouble, the victims expected the body to correspond with the obvious state of the soul, and that's what they saw, no matter what their noses and eyes told them. Western Christianity did not teach this about lost souls and their bodies, and in fact, it was saints and the very holy who remained "incorrupt" after death in Western tradition. Because of this, there was no native vampire belief in countries where Roman-Catholicism was the predominant religion.

Although there were a number of names for these revenants, "vampire" is the one that got into English and stuck there. Why, and where this word really came from, is a matter of great disagreement, and I recommend an essay on the topic by Katharina M. Wilson in Alan Dundes' The Vampire: A Casebook to anyone who is interested. Whatever this bogeyman was called in the local language, it was usually one of numerous related words derived from Slavic and that often had a close relationship to words meaning "werewolf."

The original vampires were seldom described as drinking blood, although that was sometimes reported. Vampires were the hungry dead. They came back to eat, and they ate and drank all kinds of things, both normal food and noxious substances like excrement. They would often suck the teats of milk-giving animals like cows and goats. It was generally assumed that they would drink the blood of both animals and people, especially babies and children, if they could get it. If their visitations resulted in weakness, illness, or death, it was usually assumed that the vampire was drinking blood. The stories about them filled in that detail, and some local words were coined in later centuries that indicated this (for example blut-sauger in German, sugnwrgwaed in Welsh, both literally meaning "bloodsucker"). Direct accounts of attacks by victims, however, seldom described a clear perception of being bitten or sucked on for blood, the way fictional stories later imagined.

Besides food and drink, vampires also had insatiable appetites for sex. Not only would they return to sleep with their bereaved spouses or lovers, they would "pester" strangers, including virginal girls and nuns.

Vampires often were far from unattractive. They were commonly younger people who had died untimely, violent, or "unnatural" deaths in the prime of life. They returned from the grave craving the physical pleasures that a premature death had denied them. What made vampires truly horrible was that they came back from the dead at all, that they could physically affect people and things (ghosts usually could not), and that they were hungry.

Vampires hardly ever "haunted" for very long after their deaths. Unlike ghosts, who could go on appearing for century after century, vampires were usually detected and stopped very quickly. In some cultures, they were actually thought to have a "lifespan" after which they'd cease to be a problem. In only a few cultures did vampires continue appearing for long periods of time. In a couple of traditions, the vampire was thought capable of wandering from village to village indefinitely, appearing just like a normal human being, even marrying and raising children and then moving on. This led to folklore, especially among Romany people and in Greece, about families who had "vampire ancestors" and hence were gifted at detecting and destroying malevolent vampires.

There were also many traditions about "living vampires," who usually were called by special names of their own and were thought to be non-human people living within human communities. "Living vampires" had magical powers, behaved like supernatural vampires at night, and often were thought to return from the grave as full-fledged supernatural vampires after they died. Folklore about werewolves, vampires and "witches" overlapped and blurred together considerably in Eastern Europe.

Whether vampires were literally believed to be walking corpses is unclear. People in the grip of a "panic" weren't too sure, themselves, and their statements are contradictory. On the one hand, vampires weren't just ghosts--they were able to physically affect the material world too easily. On the other hand, they got inside locked and closed buildings like a wraith, appeared and disappeared without explanation, and then there was that little problem of how they got in and out of a sealed grave. So, the most general explanation was that vampires were souls that could project themselves out of their body, materialize to a certain degree, get what they wanted and then return to the body, which meanwhile stayed right in its grave. But people were a little confused about this detail. Given the nature of the paranormal phenomena that started it all, this is understandable.

The intense, large-scale vampire panics continued intermittently for about one hundred and fifty years and then seemed to die down and recede. In the meantime, they were observed and written about by a number of academics, clerics, authorities and travelers, all of whom were bemused by what they saw.