Sunday, April 23, 2017

Supernatural Friday: Vampires

Vampire-like creatures date back thousands of years, and pop up in dozens of different cultures.  Humankind has always been fascinated with them, or more likely in fear of,  at least until modern times, such as why we have vampires in contemporary books, movies and television shows. According to the predominant mythology, every vampire was once a human, who, after being bitten by a vampire, died and rose from the grave as a monster. Vampires crave the blood of the living, whom they hunt during the night. They use their protruding fangs to puncture their victims' necks. At least the European ones anyway.

Since they're reanimated corpses—the living remains of a deceased person—vampires are often referred to as "the undead." This means they are deceased and yet, not. Vampires are potentially immortal, but they do have a few weaknesses. They can be destroyed by a stake through the heart, fire, beheading and direct sunlight, and they are wary of crucifixes, holy water and garlic. Vampires don't cast a reflection, and they have superhuman strength.

This vampire figure, with its particular combination of characteristics and governing rules, is actually a fairly recent invention. Bram Stoker conceived it in his 1897 novel, Dracula. The vampire changing into a bat came from this novel also, thanks to the real vampire bats in South America. Other authors reinterpreted Dracula in a number of plays, movies and books.

The legends of vampires date back at least 4,000 years, to the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamians feared Lamastu (also spelled Lamashtu), a vicious demon goddess who preyed on humans. In Assyrian legend, Lamastu, the daughter of sky god Anu, would creep into a house at night and steal or kill babies, either in their cribs or in the womb. Believers attributed sudden infant death syndrome and miscarriage to this figure. Lamastu, which translates to "she who erases," would also prey on adults, sucking blood from young men and bringing disease, sterility and nightmares. She is often depicted with wings and birdlike talons, and sometimes with the head of a lion. To protect themselves from Lamastu, pregnant women would wear amulets depicting Pazuzu, another evil god who once defeated the demoness.

Lamastu is closely associated with Lilith, a prominent figure in some Jewish texts. Accounts of Lilith vary considerably, but in the most notable versions of the story, she was the original woman. God created both Adam and Lilith from the Earth, but there was soon trouble between them. Lilith refused to take a subservient position to Adam, since she came from the same place he did. Lilith however came to Adam as he lay asleep and coupled with him in his dreams. By this means, she became mother of all the uncanny beings who share this planet invisibly with mortals, and are known as the fairy races or the djinnIn one ancient version of the legend, Lilith left Eden and began birthing her own children. God sent three angels to bring her back, and when she refused, they promised they would kill 100 of her children every day until she returned. Lilith in turn vowed to destroy human children. Accounts of Lilith as a child-killer seem to be taken directly from the Lamastu legend. She is often described as a winged demoness with sharp talons, who came in the night, primarily to steal away infants and fetuses. Most likely, the Jews assimilated the figure of Lamastu into their tradition, but it's also possible that both myths were inspired by a third figure. While she is often depicted as a terrifying creature, Lilith also had seductive qualities. The ancient Jews believed she would come to men at night as a succubus. They also regarded her as a queen of evil spirits, and made amulets to protect themselves against her. She is a personification of the erotic dreams which trouble men; the suppressed desire for forbidden delights. Charles Godfrey Leland, in his Etruscan Roman Remains (London, 1892), identifies Lilith with Herodias, or Aradia. He notes that in the old Slavonian spells and charms, Lilith is mentioned, and that she is said to have twelve daughters, who are the twelve kinds of fever. This is another instance of the witches’ thirteen.”
Dracula, along with all those modern vampire books and movies (and even the flesh eating zombies since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, too) are inspired by the folklore of eastern Europe. History records dozens of mythical vampire figures in this region, going back hundreds of years. They have their particular habits and characteristics, but most fall into one of two general categories: demon that become reanimated corpses so they could walk among the living and spirits of dead people that would not leave their own body.

The most notable of the demon vampires would be the Russian upirand the Greek vrykolakas. Sinners, babies not baptized, and those outside the Christian faith were more likely to be reanimated after death. Those who practiced witchcraft are also included, as they would be particularly susceptible because they had already given their soul to the devil in life. Once the undead corpses rose from the grave, they would terrorize the community and feed on the living. Not just blood, but the flesh, too.

Most of these legends account that these undead corpses must return to their grave regularly to rest (notice that it never said day or night—though night  would seemed the most fearsome time for evil to walk). When townspeople believed that someone had become a vampire, they exhumed the corpse to get rid of the evil spirit. They might try an exorcism ritual, but more often they would destroy the body so it would no longer have a form to use. Various methods include cremation, decapitation, even driving a wooden stake through the heart. Bodies might also be buried face down, so the undead corpses would dig deeper into the earth, rather than up into shallower ground. Other families might also secured stakes above the corpse so it would impale itself if it tried to escape.

Vampires in Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania (part of Romania) were called strigoi. Strigoi are almost exclusively human spirits who had returned from the dead. Unlike the upir or vrykolakas, the strigoi go through different stages after they have risen from the grave. Initially, a strigoi might become an invisible poltergeist, tormenting its living family members by moving furniture and stealing food. Eventually, it becomes visible, just as the person looked in life. The strigoi returns to its family, stealing cattle, begging for food, and bringing disease. It also feed on humans, at first the family members; of course, eventually the myths changing to anyone else they happened to come across. In some accounts, the strigoi sucked their victims' blood directly from the heart.

The strigoi need to return to the grave on a regular basis, just like the upir did. If townspeople suspected someone had become a strigoi, they would do the same as those did to the upir, exhume the body and burn it, or run spikes through it. But after seven years, if a strigoi still hung around, it could live wherever it pleased. It was said that strigoi traveled to distant towns and would begin new lives as ordinary people. These secret vampires even met with each other in weekly gatherings.

In addition to undead strigoi, referred to as strigoi mort, people also feared living vampires, or strigoi viu. Strigoi viu were cursed living people who were doomed to become strigoi mort when they died. Babies born with abnormalities, such as a tail-like protrusion or a bit of fetal membrane tissue attached to the head (cauls), were usually considered strigoi viu. Also, if any strigoi mort living among humans had children, the offspring were cursed to become undead strigoi in the afterlife. When a known strigoi viu died, the family destroyed its body to keep it from rising from the grave.

In other parts of eastern Europe, strigoi-type creatures were called vampir, or vampyr, most likely a variation on the Russian upir. Western European countries eventually picked up on this name, how the term became “vampyr” and later “vampire" in the English language.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, vampire hysteria spread through eastern Europe. People reported that they saw their dead relatives walking around, attacking the living. Authorities dug up scores of graves, burning and staking the corpses (like those accused of being witches and even werewolves earlier in history were burned at the stake). In eastern European folklore, it was said that a vampire could be warded off by scattering seeds on the ground, either on top of the vampire's grave or outside your house. Vampires, said to be obsessive creatures, were compelled to count all the seeds. If you hid a nail in the seeds, it pricked the vampire midway through the count. The vampire would then drop the seeds and have to start all over again.

Finding a vampire can have many ways to do so worldwide. According to one Romanian legend, you need a seven-year-old boy and a white horse. The boy should be dressed in white, placed upon the horse, and the pair set loose in a graveyard at midday. Keep an eye on the horse as it wanders around, and whichever grave is nearest the horse when it finally stops will be a vampire's grave. Potential revenants can be identified at birth, usually by some abnormality, some defect, as when a child is born with teeth. Children born with an extra nipple in Romania, with a lack of cartilage in the nose, or a split lower lip in Russia are suspect. When a child is born with a red caul, or amniotic membrane, covering its head, this was regarded throughout much of Europe as presumptive evidence that it is destined to return from the dead. Minor deformities were looked upon as evil omens at the time.

The vampire scare spread to western Europe. This led to academic speculations on the creatures, as well as vampire poems and paintings. It was these works that inspired an Irishman named Bram Stoker to write his own vampire novel, "Dracula."

Abraham (Bram) Stoker, a theater manager and part-time novelist, was not the first author to feature the vampire in a literary work, but his version is the one that really caught on. This is largely due to the novel's unforgettable villain, Count Dracula, as well as the foreboding setting. Stoker arrived at both elements through extensive research. He set much of the action in the mysterious mountains of the Transylvania province of Romania, and he based his vampires on eastern European and gypsy folklore.

Selectively sampling from several versions of the vampire myth and adding some details of his own, Stoker formed the standard for the modern vampire. Unlike the vampires in the eastern European tradition, Stoker's monster loses power in the sunlight, is repelled by crucifixes and has acute intelligence. Interestingly, Stoker's vampires do not have reflections, while many earlier vampire creatures were fascinated by their own reflection.

Stoker's research also turned up a name for his villain, based on a real Dracula. Vlad Tepes’ father was known as Vlad Basarab (inducted into the Royal  Order of the Dragon, a branch of the Brotherhood of the Wolf). From then on, until his death, Vlad Basarab referred to himself as Vlad Dracul. Dracul is a Romanian word for “dragon,” but also means “devil.” The suffix “a” means “son of,” so when Vlad Dracul’s second son, also named Vlad, was born later that year in Sghisoara, he became Vlad Dracula, Son of the Dragon. More often he was called "Vlad Tepes," meaning "Vlad the Impaler." This was in reference to his predilection for impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes. This form of torture and punishment actually came about due to both him and his brother, Radu, captured as prisoners of the Turks, and were allowed to watch the Turks do this to their enemies.

The real Dracula had a reputation for unfathomable brutality (a reputation many Romanians claim is inaccurate, but then again, they believe him to be a hero, due to defeating the Turks), but there is not much evidence showing that people believed he was a vampire. Stoker's fictional villain is not closely modeled after the real Dracula, though they are sometimes linked in movies based on the book. Stoker borrowed the name, as well as his social standing, for his vampire. Unlike the wandering, homeless strigoi, Dracula was written as a wealthy count, hiding out in a grandiose castle.

In the 1927 play "Dracula," and the film adaptation that followed in 1931, Bela Lugosi embraced this aristocratic notion. Dracula's familiar outfit – black formal wear and a billowing black cape, also was introduced. In the novel "Dracula," the count is described as a withered, ugly old man, more like Max Shreck's portrayal in the 1922 silent film adaptation, "Nosferatu," than Lugosi's presentation. But the suave Dracula caught on, showing up in scores of vampire movies, television shows and cartoons, even to this day, besides the creepier “nosferatu” version (like in 30 Days of Night, Salem’s Lot, and I Am Legend)

The vampire continues to evolve over the years, as novelists and filmmakers reinterpret and expand the mythology. In Anne Rice's popular novels, she takes vampires to the next level, giving them a conscience and a range of emotions. In her work, vampires are not necessarily evil -- they are presented as real, rounded people. On the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," creator Joss Whedon has pursued similar ideas, exploring the idea of a vampire with a soul and if you remember, his soulless vamps were called demons, not unlike the Russian upir and the Greek vrykolakas

                        (Countess Elizabeth Bathory: said to have bathed in virgins' 
                                blood to keep her skin supple and young. She was a real person.)

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