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Guardian

Registered: 06-2006
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Vampire Folklore


This is not my work, it was taken from a website which is linked in the title.

Vampires in Folklore and Literature by Theodora Goss

I don’t like sparkly vampires.

Unless you’ve been hiding in the sewers of London, drinking the blood of rats and waiting until everyone aware of your existence dies off, you’ll know that I’m referring to the vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels: Twilight, Eclipse, New Moon, and Breaking Dawn. In interviews, Meyers has said that she was not familiar with, and did not research, the folklore or literature of vampires before writing her novels, and she does indeed create vampire rules that have little resemblance to the rules established in canonical novels such as Dracula. It surprises me, when I teach those novels, how unfamiliar my students are with traditional vampires. Once, one of them said to me, after reading Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” “It’s nice to see a vampire that sucks blood.”

However you feel about sparkly vampires, it’s worth exploring the vampire tradition, because vampires seem with us to stay; we have invited them in, and they have inhabited our culture, moving into small towns and suburbs from Bon Temps, Louisiana, to Sunnydale, California, and even selling Ray Ban sunglasses. There are a number of places you can go to experience modern vampires that don’t sparkle: Anne Rice’s novels Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned, and the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer have attained the status of cult classics, while Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries can be seen both on the bookstore shelves and in the television series True Blood. But their ancestors are the vampires of folklore and literature, who are a properly bloodthirsty lot.

I. The Vampire of Folklore

Tales about creatures resembling vampires have existed in various cultures, probably back to the beginning of human culture itself. Such creatures may be demons that suck blood or reanimated corpses. In the Sanskrit Baital-Pachisi, for example, King Vikram promises a magician that he will bring him a Baital, a spirit that animates dead bodies. He finds the Baital hanging from a tree like a bat. The Baital tells Vikram stories that end in riddles, and Vikram must guess the riddles or lose the Baital before he can present it to the magician. When Sir Richard Burton translated the Baital-Pachisi into English, he called it Vikram and the Vampire. However, by calling the Baital a vampire, Burton was connecting his story to what had already become a popular literary figure. Like any author, he was attempting to boost sales. The vampire as we know it comes primarily from Eastern European folklore, filtered through a long literary tradition. Burton’s friend Bram Stoker may have been influenced by the story of the Baital in his creation of Count Dracula; however, Stoker was certainly more heavily influenced by Eastern European folklore.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “vampire” is Slavonic in origin, “occurring in the same form in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, and Bulgarian, with such variants as Bulgarian vapir, vepir, Ruthenian vepyr, vopyr, opyr, Russian upir, upyr, Polish upior,” although the linguist Franz von Miklosich suggests that the word is ultimately derived from the Turkish uber, or witch.1 According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition, belief in vampires was prevalent “in Slavonic lands, as in Russia (especially White Russia and the Ukraine), Poland, and Servia, and among the Czechs of Bohemia and the other Slavonic races of Austria.” Since the 9th edition was published in the late nineteenth century, it can give us an accurate representation of what was believed about vampires during the time period when the most important literary vampires, such as Carmilla and Count Dracula, were created. It defines a vampire as “the soul of a dead man which quits the buried body by night to suck the blood of living persons,” and mentions a number of vampire rules, some of which have made it into the modern vampire canon. Suicides become vampires, as do people who have been cursed by their parents or the church. Since vampires feast off the blood of the living, when they are found in their graves, they appear to be fresh and rosy, replete with blood. The vampire can be stopped by a stake through the heart, decapitation, or burning. However, pouring a mixture of boiling water and vinegar over the grave also works.2

I’ve mentioned vampire rules because Eastern European folklore is filled with rules governing how vampires are created, how they feast on the living, and how they must be destroyed. In “The Vampire in Roumania,” Agnes Murgoci states that a vampire can be identified as follows: his or her family and livestock begin dying; a hole the size of a serpent is found near the grave, because vampires leave their graves by such holes; a white horse or gander refuses to walk over the grave; the corpse is red in the face, or has a foot retracted and forced into a corner of the coffin, or the mouth is filled with blood. Vampires can be stopped or destroyed in various ways. A stake can be driven through the heart, but in one district a needle is recommended while in another, a red-hot iron is preferred. Small stones, garlic, or millet can be put into the mouth. A nail can be put under the tongue. The coffin can be bound with canes of wild roses, or nine distaffs can be driven into the grave. Tow can be strewn on the grave and set on fire, to singe the vampire. Vampires are most active on St. Andrew’s Day and St. George’s Day, when garlic should be put on the windows and doors of the house, and all the cows should be rubbed with garlic. All lamps should be put out, all implements in the house should be turned upside down, and all of the inhabitants should turn their shirts inside out. Perhaps the most interesting suggestion is not to sleep at all on such nights, but to tell stories, for vampires cannot approach while stories are being told. Burton’s Baital must not have heard of that rule!3

What are we to make of this variety? As Murgoci suggests, although there are common elements, each district had its own particular set of beliefs about vampires. Jan Louis Perkowski, a scholar of Slavic language and literature, examined nineteen stories about vampires from different geographical areas and concluded that although all of them referred to an undead creature returning to prey on the living, no one of them contained all of the story elements he identified. In some, a vampire is created when a cat walks over its grave; in at least one, the vampire causes excessive rain or hail. The vampire is dispatched in different ways in each of the stories: in one, it is burned and the ashes thrown to the winds; in another, it is reburied with millet. One vampire is stopped when a bottle of wine is buried near its grave, retrieved six weeks later, and drunk.4 Perkowski concludes that although the vampire rules differ from district to district, they all serve a single function: to magically deal with the very real problem of unexplained deaths, particularly due to contagious illness. He writes, “On the psychological level, illness and death of unknown origin, or even just the fear of them, evoke a condition of panic through frustration. The situation is hopeless. You cannot comprehend it and there is nothing you can do to help.” How does a family or village respond to such an illness? Nowadays, we would call the Centers for Disease Control. But before the advent of modern medicine, the solution was often magical. Perkowski continues:

On the sociological level, we find that the precautions and cures in their variety tend to be village specific. Each community establishes its own meaningful ceremony, choosing from its own stock of symbols to perform anxiety-relieving physical acts. The ill may not be cured nor the dead resurrected, but the anxiety, panic, and fear of the victims’ relatives can be allayed through those community rituals and life can revert to its normal course.5

In such rituals, the vampire functioned as scapegoat. Staking, decapitating, or burning it allowed the villagers to confront their fears, expel the contagion that had come to their village, and heal the community after a period of grief and loss.

This interpretation is reinforced by accounts of supposed vampire attacks. The remedy for such supposed attacks was of course spelled out in folklore: in parts of Eastern Europe, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, corpses were dug up in the belief that they were vampires. Church documents mention priests attempting to eradicate both the belief in vampires and the mutilation of corpses. The following account of one such attack was published in Ion Creanga, the Romanian journal of folklore, in 1914:

Some fifteen years ago, in Amărăşti in the north of Dolj, an old woman, the mother of the peasant Dinu Gheorghiţa, died. After some months, the children of her eldest son began to die, one after the other, and, after that, the children of her youngest son. The sons became anxious, dug her up one night, cut her in two, and buried her again. Still the deaths did not cease. They dug her up a second time, and what did they see? The body whole without a wound. It was a great marvel. They took her and carried her into the forest, and put her under a great tree in a remote part of the forest. There they disemboweled her, took out her heart, from which blood was flowing, cut it in four, put it on hot cinders, and burnt it. They took the ashes and gave them to children to drink with water. They threw the body on the fire, burnt it, and buried the ashes of the body. Then the deaths ceased.6


As this account indicates, at the end of the nineteenth century, around the time Dracula was published, the belief in vampires was still strong, at least in Romania. Such beliefs never seem to die out entirely; like the vampire itself, they return to plague the living. In 2002, the BBC reported rumors of vampire attacks in the African nation of Malawi. At least one man was stoned to death as a suspected vampire before the president denounced such rumors as political propaganda.7


Footnotes:

1. Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “vampire,” accessed December 30, 2010.

2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th ed., s.v. “Vampire,” accessed December 30, 2010.

3. Agnes Murgoci, “The Vampire in Roumania,” The Vampire: A Casebook, ed. Alan Dundes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 18-9, 21-3.

4. Jan Louis Perkowski, “The Romanian Folkloric Vampire,” The Vampire: A Casebook, ed. Alan Dundes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 42-4.

5. Ibid. 44-5.

6. Quoted in Murgoci, 16.

7. BBC News, “‘Vampires’ Strike Malawi Villages,” December 23, 2002, accessed December 30, 2010.

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Re:


II. The Literary Vampire

But the vampires of folklore, who can be created by a cat walking over a grave and stopped by a nail placed under the tongue, don’t sound much like the literary vampires we’re familiar with. Those vampires are the descendants of the first important literary vampire, at least in English literature: John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven in “The Vampyre.” There had certainly been vampires in literature before Lord Ruthven, such as the female vampire who is condemned to drink the blood of the man she loves in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “The Bride of Corinth.” However, it was “The Vampyre” and the various theatrical adaptations of Polidori’s story that popularized vampires across Europe. Even in the early nineteenth century, the vampire was a spectacle; it is no wonder that vampires have proven so popular in movie versions. Although they are monsters, they look enough like us that actors can portray them with white grease paint and artificial fangs, and their penchant for pursuing attractive female victims makes for satisfying melodrama.

In Lord Ruthven, Polidori gives us the ruthless, aristocratic vampire that dominates vampire literature from Dracula to The Vampire Lestat, although Lestat himself breaks with that tradition to become the more compassionate vampire of modern interpretations. In her preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley mentions Polidori as one of those who gathered with Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron on those rainy days in the Villa Diodati to tell ghost stories. Shelley did not think much of Polidori’s literary effort: she writes that “poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady,” which he soon abandoned.8 However, based on the story that Byron began but never completed, Polidori wrote “The Vampyre.”

By that time, Polidori and Byron were no longer friends, and it is commonly accepted that Lord Ruthven is based on Byron: he too is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. It is clear in the novel that the vampire is a figure out of folklore. The protagonist, Mr. Aubrey, travels to Greece, where he meets a beautiful woman named Ianthe, whose family tells him about vampires. As in “Carmilla” and Dracula, the common folk know all about vampires, while the educated elite are too rational for such superstitions. However, these vampires do not follow the vampire rules of folklore, or even the more modern rules we have learned from Dracula and various movie versions. In “The Vampyre,” the vampire needs to ingest blood, but he does not sleep in a coffin, and he is not affected by daylight, crosses, or garlic. We are not even told how he can be destroyed. Indeed, when Lord Ruthven is shot by thieves, his body is exposed to the first rays of the moon, and he mysteriously revives. The story is also missing a figure that will become central in Dracula: the vampire slayer. In the end, Lord Ruthven prevails. He kills Ianthe and marries Aubrey’s sister, whom he kills on their wedding night. We are told that she “had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”9

The next important development in the vampire canon was a work of no particular literary merit but enormous popularity: Varney the Vampyre, or, the Feast of Blood, a serial written by James Malcolm Rymer that appeared weekly over the course of two years. It was cheap, lurid, and melodramatic, no doubt a satisfying combination for a Victorian audience. The following passage, in which the vampire Sir Frances Varney pursues the beautiful Flora Bannerworth, is representative of Rymer’s writing style:

The storm has ceased—all is still. The winds are hushed; the church clock proclaims the hour of one: a hissing sound comes from the throat of the hideous being, and he raises his long, gaunt arms—the lips move. He advances. The girl places one small foot from the bed on to the floor. She is unconsciously dragging the clothing with her. The door of the room is in that direction—can she reach it? Has she power to walk?—can she withdraw her eyes from the face of the intruder, and so break the hideous charm? God of Heaven! is it real, or some dream so like reality as to nearly overturn the judgement forever?

Do you think Flora is going to get away? No, me neither. Rymer’s audience wasn’t paying for the vampire to be defeated, at least not this early in the narrative. And sure enough, the chapter ends, “The girl has swooned, and the vampire is at his hideous repast!”10 In this passage, we see important themes that first appeared in Polidori’s novel: the ruthless aristocratic vampire, the beautiful female victim, and writing that focuses on shock value, on the horror of the vampire feeding.

Beautiful female victims are a staple of vampire fiction, but the next important development in the literary tradition presented the public with something considerably more subtle, and shockingly subversive if it had not been concealed as gothic horror: a beautiful female vampire who both seduces and feasts. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is perhaps the most interesting vampire of all, a beautiful girl who feasts savagely on the peasant girls of the village, but takes the time to seduce the heroine, Laura, whom she intends to turn into a vampire. Carmilla is a much more interesting vampire than either Lord Ruthven or Sir Frances Varney. For one thing, she can turn into a black cat and feed on her victims in that form. For another, she actually falls in love. She places her arms around Laura’s neck and murmurs into her ear,

Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible laws of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love…11


Translated out of vampirese, this means: “I’m going to suck your blood and turn you into a vampire. And then you’re going to turn other people into vampires.” But it is feeding as love and seduction—a staple of vampire movies, in which vampires have become the alluring creatures of The Vampire Lestat and Twilight. In “Carmilla,” Le Fanu gives us two important additions to the vampire tradition. The first is the beautiful, seductive vampire. The second is the vampire slayer. Baron Vordenburg, who identifies Carmilla as a vampire and locates her tomb so she can be killed, is the prototype for Professor Van Helsing, and perhaps even Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the other hand, Buffy herself is a modern version of Laura, the blonde heroine, who seems to have taken up vampire slaying.

“Carmilla” directly influenced Bram Stoker’s writing of Dracula. The novel was originally supposed to contain a chapter in which Jonathan Harker meets with a beautiful female vampire, but the chapter was later deleted and published as a separate story, “Dracula’s Guest.” That beautiful vampire remained in the novel as one of Count Dracula’s brides, and Jonathan Harker has a vague recollection of meeting her—although he does so only in the deleted chapter. Before Dracula, the literary tradition refers to few of the sorts of vampire rules contained in folklore. Carmilla must sleep in her grave each day, and she is restricted in her choice of names—they must contain the letters of her real name, Mircalla. In “Carmilla,” suicides become vampires and infect others, who also become vampires. They must drink blood, and they are killed by a stake, decapitation, and burning. But it is in Dracula that the literary vampire becomes subject to the modern rules.

For many years, scholars believed that Bram Stoker was a relatively careless writer, a creator of pulp fiction in the tradition of Rymer. However, the discovery of his working notes revealed that Dracula is a carefully researched and constructed text. Stoker took most of his vampire rules from Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest, about Transylvanian customs and beliefs. Gerard was a popular novelist who became familiar with vampire folklore when her husband, an Austo-Hungarian cavalry officer, was stationed in Transylvania. The Land Beyond the Forest mentions many of the vampire rules found in Murgoci’s “The Vampire in Roumania,” and many of these rules found their way into Stoker’s novel, including the vampire’s aversion to garlic. Count Dracula is the first literary vampire with that particular limitation. In Dracula, we find most of the rules that modern vampires have inherited: the vampire cannot be seen in the mirror, he can transform into a bat, and he must be invited in. These are staples of vampire movies, although the most important rule of all comes not from Dracula but from the movies themselves: Count Dracula is not affected by sunlight, and one of the most frightening moments in the novel occurs when Mina Harker sees him walking about in the middle of the day in Piccadilly Circus. It is in the movies that vampires become creatures of the dark.

In his research, Stoker must have come across a reference to Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian Voivode, or military leader, who was infamous for impaling his enemies on stakes. Van Helsing identifies the Count as “that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land,”12 and Vlad was indeed famous for his battles against the Turks. His father had been inducted into the religious and military Order of the Dragon, and had taken the name Dracul, the Wallachian for dragon. The name Dracula identified Vlad as the dragon’s son.13 Vlad’s identity as the “real” Dracula was popularized by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally’s In Search of Dracula. Florescu and McNally suggested that Stoker learned of Vlad’s history from the Hungarian historian Ármin Vámbéry, who is immortalized as Van Helsing’s “friend Arminius, of Buda-Pesth University.”14 Although Elizabeth Miller has contested this interpretation, arguing that Stoker actually knew little about Vlad, the Impaler has given us an important component of the vampire legend: it is only after learning about Vlad that Stoker changed his Count’s name to Dracula. It is difficult to imagine that he would have become the most important literary vampire with the name Stoker originally intended: Count Wampyr!

What has gone into the making of the modern vampire? Folklore of course, but also historical figures such as Lord Byron and Vlad Tepes, as well as considerable authorial imagination. Since Dracula, the literary vampire has taken many forms. In C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau,” the vampire is found on Mars. In Fritz Leiber’s “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” we see the vampiric power of advertisement; his story is a commentary on our consumer culture, which literally consumes. Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry” shows us the vampire in the psychoanalyst’s office. Why so many vampires, in so many configurations? Like most monsters, vampires are ultimately metaphors. They represent what we need them to represent at a particular time: a contagion that must be eliminated from the village, forbidden desires that can only be explored in a story or on the movie screen, even the fears evoked by our technological culture, which so often seems to suck our time and energy. What does it say about us, then, that we have come to sparkly vampires? Perhaps only that we have romanticized the vampire as much as we can. No matter how sympathetic we make them, giving them souls or detective agencies, they want to suck our blood. In the end, even the sparkly ones bite.

footnotes:


8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. Maurice Hindle (New York: Penguin, 1992), 7.

9. John Polidori, “The Vampyre,” The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, ed. Alan Ryan (New York: Penguin, 1987), 24.

10. James Malcolm Rymer, “Varney the Vampire, or, the Feast of Blood,” The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, ed. Alan Ryan (New York: Penguin, 1987), 30.

11. J. Sheridan Le Fanu, “Carmilla.” The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, ed. Alan Ryan (New York: Penguin, 1987), 89.

12. Bram Stoker, Dracula, ed. Maurice Hindle (New York: Penguin, 1993), 309.

13. Elizabeth Miller, “Vlad the Impaler: Brief History,” accessed December 30, 2010.


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