There’s a part of me that is convinced all those mythological creatures have to be real. Otherwise, how could they exist in so many different cultures? Of course, I also enjoy conspiracy theories so I’m not the greatest judge. Just saying.
Ancient Babylonians told tales of Lilitu, a female demon who drank the blood of babies. Lilitu gave rise to Lilith, a similar creature in Hebrew tales. Indeed, there are several similar characters found in Ancient Greek folklore – interestingly, all of them women. The idea of undead beings even appears in Homer’s Odyssey – although if you wished to communicate with those ones, you first had to drink blood yourself. Lucky old Odysseus. Personally, I particularly like the ancient Indian stories of vetala – creatures who would inhabit corpses and reanimate them. At least until they decided to sod off and find a better vessel anyway.
Perhaps the vamps took a bit of a break after those times and hid themselves away. Although stories of revenants (ghosts which could also reanimate corpses or were simply visible to the naked eye) abounded for centuries, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that vampires really came into their own. Europe, in particular Transylvania (naturally), went bloodsucker crazy.
There are a few very specific examples – such as that of Petar Blagojevich who died in 1725, reportedly returning the day after to have a wee chat with his son. Then his son dropped dead, along with several other villagers in the days following. Suspecting the worst, Petar’s body was exhumed. There were no normal signs of decomposition and his corpse was eventually burned. Of course, it would only take one contagious disease to cause those deaths and people did from time to time fall into the rather unfortunate situation of being mistakenly buried alive (hence the saying ‘saved by the bell’ – many Victorians were buried with their fingers attached to a string leading above ground to a bell which they could ring on the rare occasion they woke to find themselves in a coffin and wearing their Sunday best). However, this fairly recent news report of a corpse found with a stake through its heart is somewhat seared in my memory.
It was also around that time when sex began to play a large role. Female Romany vampires would return to their families and lead normal lives – but they’d eventually exhaust their husbands with their sexual demands. Croatian vampires arise as a result of incest. In fact, vampiric legends and sexual proclivity seem to go hand in hand. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.
Vampire stories aren’t confined to Europe. The Aztecs had slightly similar tales, as do various African tribes. Particularly disgusting is the Madagascan ramanga who drinks blood and eats toenail clippings. Here in Malaysia, there’s the Penanggalan – a beautiful woman who can detach her head so she can fly it around in search of victims to sink her fangs into. Now there’s a neat trick.
Bram Stoker may have defined the modern vampire as we know it today but he certainly didn’t invent it. Charles Darwin wasn’t kidding around with evolution – bloodsuckers are always changing. Sparkly, sexy, scary – what will we come up with next?