UMU’s Joe R. takes a look at the mythology and lore of vampires, including the most iconic of all – Count Dracula.
Bloodlust has driven war and predation for all time. Natural selection dictates that the strong outlast the weak. Over the manner of just five thousand years, human beings, with their superior intellect, upright form and opposable thumbs, have established themselves as the top of the food chain, so much so now that we have irrevocably etched ourselves into the very nature of the planet itself. However, as long as humans have existed, we have told stories. Always taking shape and always building on what came before, new stories are being born everyday. It wasn’t until writing and the dawn of civilization at that five thousand year mark could we see much more clearly into the past. We have always told stories. But humans have spread across the planet much longer than the invention of writing. Laid out over such great distances and often with entire civilizations coming and going without ever knowing of the existence of others at the very same time, everyone everywhere developed their own stories. It only becomes curious then, when they all have the same story. We often speak of dragons and elves or fairies dotting the world over. Some, like humans, changed drastically from one region of the world to another but these do not feast on us. This is the story of a hunter, like man but better somehow, faster and bolder. Stalking in the shadows, this wasn’t the form of a beast nor was it a revenant crawling out of its grave to feast on brains. This is the apex predator: The Vampire.
To begin, vampires are evil. That is not to be taken lightly. They do not shimmer or love or romance. From the oldest tales all over the world we see the legend of the vampire quickly grow apart from its predecessors dwelling in the pits of Hell. While demons and shades were natural born residents of the Underworld, the vampire was once a human, still primarily had the form of a human, though its soul had already been sent ahead to damnation. This is the original bargain that we see in return for immortality. While still susceptible to external forces, the vampire’s life may be sustained indefinitely. Whether the feast of blood and flesh was a byproduct of the mark or vice versa, the only thing that can sustain these creatures is healthy human blood. While vampires do tend to simply appear in the mythological record from the beginning, there is legend of a first vampire as well.
It has been popularized in the modern era that if a master vampire is killed, all of his or her kin will die immediately as well as it is the master’s blood that sustains them. However, a master vampire is not necessarily the first of its kind. In the extremely rare cases of first vampire myths, such as Lilith in the Middle East, they derive from the succubus, the female demon of lust. The succubus would come upon the unsuspecting young man to bed him only to devour his soul once she had been fulfilled. The incubus would later arise being the male equivalent. Either way, in pre-Biblical times, it was almost always a pact with incomprehensible forces from the Void that these mythic humans were transformed. Once transformed though, until their true form is revealed, the creature would have a supreme command over any normal human. Driven by desire, the vampire could simply choose his pick of the lust drunk people who crossed paths. Curiously though, in most Eastern cultures, the vampire is utterly repulsive and therefore prefers to hunt rather than herd their meals. However, that is not to say that the Western vampire does not hunt.
Over time, as more and more myths were put down more accurately as history, the vampire legend subsisted and even grew and became more organized. While resilient to sunlight, shapeshifting qualities and whether or not red hair was a clear indicator sometimes even today remain points of debate, many things became agreed upon during the slow collapse of the Roman Empire and later. A person who survived being bitten or marked in any physical way by a vampire would transform into a vampire. Subsequently, anyone who was killed by a vampire, so long as they were not too severely mangled, may become a vampire. Once again, anyone marked by a vampire was pre-damned whether or not he or she became a vampire. This is where the tradition of wooden stakes and grave cages began. To prevent the afflicted from rising from the dead, the wooden stake would be driven through the heart to keep it pinned down. Likewise, if the head were removed from the body, transformation would be rendered impossible. Furthermore, all manner of undead are associated with night. It was not until much later that we see the tale of vampires bursting into flames in the sunlight. However, they always tend to shirk from the light of day regardless. Much the same, garlic as a protective herb derives from the fact that, in many cultures, garlic is a natural cure and ward for many ailments including the repulsion of evil beings. Various other plants also have warding properties according to customs across the world.
Because of the deep-rooted prevalence of Catholicism in Europe, the crucifix and holy water blessed by a priest also were popularized as vampire deterrents. The image of Christ was believed to be so overwhelming to the soulless worm that it would be utterly sent back to the hole it crawled out of, temporarily at least, while holy water would burn it like fire. Also because of its status as undead, fire is also an extremely powerful ally in the fight against the vampire. Typically, in keeping with the Christian tradition, certain prayers and the intercession of saints such as Saint Marcellus were also effective in small circles of protection. One must also remember that silver defends against werewolves, not vampires. That was an association made much later by cinema, much like when a vampire sparkles like a rainbow in the sunlight. By all Western accounts, the vampire is the Earth-bound creature furthest away from God’s love. In its very biology, the blood that gives life is drained to sustain the corpse of a cursed immortal soul. It keeps the body moist and supple though the creature is cold and unliving. It takes and gives nothing in return for potential eternity. Its very existence mocks the notion of the Divine.
However, plucked from myth and put to fiction in 1897, Bram Stoker created the definitive archetype of the vampire for modern popular culture in Dracula. From here, all molds were put to one form as the Count Dracula of the book and later films shaped our twentieth century ideal of the monster. It should never be understated though that the vampire is perhaps the most physically and psychically imposing creature from any mythology save perhaps a handful of extremely potent dragons. Indeed the name “Dracula” is even 15th century Romanian for “Son of the Dragon” as the man who would lend his name to the most infamous vampire story of all time would bear. Vlad Dracula III, son of Vlad Dracul II, voivode of Wallachia, was deemed to be so bloodthirsty and cruel that his entire legacy would be compared to that of the most incomprehensibly powerful forces of the dark upon the Earth.
Be sure to check out Joe R.’s previous look at Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” and the mythology and lore of werewolves.