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Monday, May 3, 2010


Vampires in antic time
The vampire legend dates back to the earliest times of human civilization to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and other peoples of the ancient Orient. The original vampire was not like the sophisticated, suave European aristocrat that we know of today. The vampire, at its origins, was a monster.

The bloodsucking Akhkharu is mentioned in the Sumerian mythology and later vampire-like spirits called the Lilu in Babylonian demonology. These female demons were said to roam during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. One of these demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted into Jewish demonology as Lilith.

In northern India could be found the BrahmarākŞhasa, a vampire-like creature with a head encircled by intestines and a skull from which it drank blood. Tales of Vetalas and pisachas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses, are found in old Sanskrit folklore. A prominent story tells of King Vikramāditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive Vetala. The stories of the Vetala have been compiled in the book Baital Pachisi The vetala is an undead, who like the bat associated with modern day vampire, is associated with hanging upside down on trees found in cremation grounds and cemeteries.

The hopping corpse is an equivalent of the vampire in Chinese tradition; however, it consumes the victim's life essence (qì) rather than blood.

The Ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in one myth became full of bloodlust after slaughtering humans and was only sated after drinking alcohol colored as blood.

In Homer's Odyssey, the shades that Odysseus meets on his journey to the underworld are lured to the blood of freshly sacrificed rams, a fact that Odysseus uses to his advantage to summon the shade of Tiresias.

The strix, a nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood is mentioned in Roman tales. The Romanian word for vampires, strigoi, is derived from the word, and so is the name of the Albanian Shtriga, but the myths about those creatures show mainly Slavic influence.

In the Old Russian anti-pagan work Word of saint Grigoriy (written in the 11th-12th century), it is claimed that polytheistic Russians made sacrifices to vampires.

As an example of the existence and prominence of similar legends at later times, it can be noted that 12th century English historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of revenants that arguably bear some resemblance to East European vampires.

The 18th century controversy

During the 18th century there was a major vampire scare in Eastern Europe. Even government officials frequently got dragged into the hunting and staking of vampires.

It all started with an outbreak of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734. Two famous cases involved Peter Plogojowitz andArnold Paole. As the story goes, Plogojowitz died at the age of 62, but came back a couple of times after his death asking his son for food. When the son refused, he was found dead the next day. Soon Plogojowitz returned and attacked some neighbours who died from loss of blood.

In the other famous case, Arnold Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who had allegedly been attacked by a vampire years before, died while haying. After his death, people began to die, and it was believed by everyone that Paole had returned to prey on the neighbours.

These two incidents were extremely well documented. Government officials examined the cases and the bodies, wrote them up in reports, and books were published afterwards of the Paole case and distributed around Europe. The controversy raged for a generation.

The problem was exacerbated by rural epidemics of so-claimed vampire attacks, with locals digging up bodies. Many scholars said vampires did not exist, and attributed reports to premature burial, or rabies.

Nonetheless, Dom Augustine Calmet, a well-respected French theologian and scholar, put together a carefully thought out treatise in 1746, which was at least ambiguous concerning the existence of vampires, if not admitting it explicitly.

He amassed reports of vampire incidents and numerous readers, including both a critical Voltaire and supportive demonologists, interpreted the treatise as claiming that vampires exist.

According to some recent research, and judging from the second edition of the work in 1751, Calmet was actually somewhat sceptical towards the vampire concept as a whole. He did acknowledge that parts of the reports, such as the preservation of corpses, might be true. Whatever his personal convictions were, Calmet's apparent support for vampire belief had considerable influence on other scholars at the time.

Eventually, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sent her personal physician, Gerhard van Swieten, to investigate. He concluded that there was no sign that vampires exist, and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies. This marked the end of the vampire epidemics. By then, though, many knew about vampires, and soon authors would adopt and adapt the concept of vampire, making it known to the general public.