(Illustrated by S. W. Orr, 1864)
On what presented itself to be just another ordinary winter’s day, when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old, my father and I set out to climb a nearby mountain. I say climb, but this mountain was so large, with such a subtle inclination, you could walk to the summit with relative ease. We traversed several dozen kilometers of bush land, gradually higher and higher still. There was a strange calmness and quietness that day, that haunts my memory still. The breeze sighed through the trees and though it was winter, as the day progressed it felt unseasonably warm.
As we grew closer to the mountain’s peak, the skies began to turn, the serene clear blue had darkened. To this day I’ve never witnessed atmospheric conditions change so incredibly fast. Then, in an instant, down came the rain. Immediately I found I had to shout to communicate over the sound of the downpour. I said, “should we go back!?” and my Dad just laughed and said “we’ve come this far haven’t we!?” So we kept on going.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to the mountain that day, but I remember feeling as though ‘something’ didn’t want us to reach the summit. As the rain grew heavier and the thunder grumbled in the distance, I looked down to realize the earth had turned to a dark mud beneath my boots. Each step suctioned and plunged more cumbersome than the last, as each layer of mud built up from the prior step.
It was then, I noticed something unusual, I stood still as my father kept a fast pace up the mountain side. The mud was alive. As I watched in disbelief, the mud was climbing up my ankle. I made my way to a clearing in the canopy and tried to further expose my ankle to the rain, I looked on as the mud became black. As the dirt washed away, wriggling black pieces of licorice were left in its stead. Then something fell from a branch above me, that struck the back of my hand.
When I raised my hand to inspect it, what had struck it had immediately fixed itself upon my skin. Flicking my hand in a whip-like fashion to rid it of the thing did nothing, so I inspected it more closely and cringed with unease, a long black leech had latched onto the back of my hand and had already began tapping into my blood. In fact, I was already unknowingly covered in dozens and dozens of leeches.
I was rapidly ripping them off of my arms, as several more fell from branches upon me. I felt one or two land in my hair, I tore one from my forehead and it was at that stage I realized I was quickly becoming covered in my own blood. I looked ahead and noticed my father was fighting his own battle with the swarm. I picked up a stick and started scraping at my boots attempting to hold back the masses of leeches that were climbing upward toward my exposed skin.
As the situation grew out of hand and my own fear of leeches reached its pinnacle, I started more vigorously stabbing and bursting the leeches around me, I began to turn the tide, enough at least to assist in scraping the many leeches off of my father’s boots. I remember seeing the red tinge of blood through the wet grounds we’d traveled. We were plucking leeches off of ourselves as we made our retreat.
Covered in blood, mud and soaked with rain we laughed almost hysterically the entire journey home. Even once I’d gotten out of the blood stained clothes I found another eight leeches still on my body. As odd and as gross as that day was, for some reason I’ve treasured the experience ever since. I think I came down from that mountain, not quite the same person. I realized two things, firstly, laughter makes everything easier. Secondly, the natural world is riddled with blood sucking, life draining Vampires.
Could the blood suckers of the natural world be the inspiration for the mythological/folkloric concept of the Vampire?
The romanticization of the vampire has culminated in all sorts of modern representations of a very old, in fact ancient idea. Even Brahm Stroker’s famous ‘Dracula’ (1897) took a great deal of creative license, turning a very broad otherwise mythological concept into an iconic legend. Even the character Dracula is quite far removed from the character it was based upon, Vlad III Dracula/Vlad the Impaler (Влад Дракула, 1428–1431), Dracula meaning ‘son of Dracul’, ‘Dracul’ meaning ‘Dragon’. But exactly how deep do the Vampiric roots truly delve into our collective human history?
The word Vampire, originally spelled Vampyre (of French origin) is believed to have begun circulating in the English language around 1734. The earliest surviving record of the word appears in a text called The Travels of Three English Gentlemen, in 1745. The English Vampyre (later becoming Vampire) is based off of the French and Germanic concepts (Vampyre and Vampir, respectively) which all have much earlier roots dating back to Slavic origins.
In many dialects throughout Eastern Europe, Vampir and/or Upyr are the names used to describe the creature we in the western world call the Vampire. In its simplest explanation, the vampire is a ghoul, the undead. Despite the modern concept of a lead figure, in some variations connected to the origin of evil (or Satan himself) turning unsuspecting or even willing humans into subordinate vampires, throughout antiquity however, it was often seen as a much more anomalous occurrence. Partly due to a misunderstanding of decompositional changes interpreted as something supernatural. Such as the bloating of a thin corpse, bleeding from the nostrils and/or mouth could erroneously suggest supernatural undead behavior to a misinformed highly superstitious/fearful individual/community.
French Theologian Dom Augustine Calmet, in 1751 published a work called The Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants:
“They see, it is said, men who have been dead for several months, come back to earth, talk, walk, infest villages, ill use both men and beasts, suck the blood of their near relations, make them ill, and finally cause their death; so that people can only save themselves from their dangerous visits and their hauntings by exhuming them, impaling them, cutting off their heads, tearing out the heart, or burning them. These revenants are called by the name of oupires or vampires, that is to say, leeches; and such particulars are related of them, so singular, so detailed, and invested with such probable circumstances and such judicial information, that one can hardly refuse to credit the belief which is held in those countries, that these revenants come out of their tombs and produce those effects which are proclaimed of them.“
According to very old accounts throughout Europe, particularly Eastern Europe it is believed that the superstitious surrounding the Vampir/Upyr could ignite if it was suggested that a recently deceased person was seen wandering the night after their corpse had been buried. Resulting in such heightened fears of the dead plaguing the living that the suspected corpses would be exhumed. Once exhumed, a stake driven through the heart, and usually the corpse would also be decapitated. Religious icons would be placed with the reburied corpse, but in extreme cases the corpse would have to be burned to put superstitious minds at ease.
With the evolution of the concept of the vampire, so too did the apotropaic rituals/practices surrounding the creature’s treatment change. The most well known (mainly due to Hollywood’s depiction) being generally religious, more often than not Christian icons. The crucifix, rosary, the bible, holy water. Some of the older beliefs, being the use of mirrors (linked even to Greek belief, similar to the treatment of the gorgon, Medusa), silver amulets, swords and the use of garlic to ward off the damned. The reasoning behind some apotropaic practices are as elaborate as the superstition they’re connected to. I’ve heard people claim that the clove of garlic, along with its healing, antibacterial/antiviral properties have some superstitious value as a spiritual ingredient with various cultures. Garlic is also a very old remedy for treating intestinal trematodes (worms) and stomach parasites. These practical applications may have carried over into superstition. The same could be said for silver, it has natural antibacterial properties also.
What’s interesting about the specific religious apotropaic practices is that the concept of the vampire predates all existing religions by many thousand years. Older than Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.
One of the earliest Vampiric concepts could be the Yara-ma-yha-who, a superstition/belief of some groups of Indigenous Australians. This creature, said to have leech-like suctions on its fingers and toes waits in trees, some say specifically fig trees for unsuspecting victims to rest, preferably children (if fig trees is accurately mentioned in the myth, it could be localized to NE NSW and SE Queensland Australia). Once someone is beneath the tree, the Yara-ma-yha-who descends upon them and goes about sucking their blood to feed. Some variations indicate that the Yara-ma-yha-who after draining an individual of blood, will cause the deceased to rise and they themselves become one of the Yara-ma-yha-who. Because there is no written language and stories are passed on orally, it’s difficult to date how old this concept is for the groups that share it. But some cave illustrations suggest many thousands of years. The oldest this concept could be with Aboriginal groups across Australia could be around 40, 000 years (some estimate 60, 000).
So why is it that blood suckers, beings that can corrupt us and the rise of the undead are all such prevalent concepts across countless cultures throughout time?
The romanticized vampire is synonymous with the succubus/incubus. A being that preys on unsuspecting victims (usually at night, in their beds), gets intimately close to them (their necks) often attempts or succeeds at seduction, then ultimately drains the life-force causing death, or creating a subordinate whilst perverting a once good nature to succumb to evil. This concept struck fear into even the most pious individuals throughout time, it also piqued many sexual interests (hence prevalent vampire themes in erotic fiction today). Which has possibly helped sustain this concept throughout the ages, especially in modern times.
Another contributing factor, possibly linked to earlier, primal reasons for the preservation of the concept of the vampire, could be fear.
We fear most what we don’t understand. Death raises a lot of questions for us, makes us feel uncertain. In ancient times the decomposition of a corpse may have seemed like some monstrous transformation. Something off-putting and grotesque evokes fear in us (similar to the use and purpose of grotesqueries on buildings throughout antiquity). When something looks monstrous, our imagination makes a monster out of it. The sucking of blood could be a logical connection, the red liquid that spills from us is vital to our survival. Thus, the dead want this life essence for themselves. They flee from their graves in the dead of night and prey on the living to sustain their undead existence. When the corpse is exhumed to reveal a bloated body, with blood around its mouth and nose it only confirms suspicion. When a stake is driven through the chest, causing a groaning sound to emit from the corpse, that too further fuels the belief that the cadaver is/was in fact an undead ghoul, a vampire.
Another, simpler explanation for the interest and intrigue around the concept of the vampire is the conceptual embodiment of pure evil (similar to the interest toward the concept of demonic possession). Because once we have a tangible representation of supernatural evil, as morbid and frightening as it may be, we also assure ourselves of the existence of the positive counter-side of that religious/mythological doctrine. Meaning, if a vampire exists, and you can harm it with a crucifix and a vial of holy water, than that in itself is suggesting the counter-existence of true “good” and a biblical God. The concept of true “good” and “evil” is appealing to many people because it creates a simplified, easier to digest understanding of the world.
Then again, perhaps the answer to the human fascination with vampires resides in the blood itself. Because just like I realized on a mountain long ago, when something is sucking your blood, and the sight of the bright red liquid ignites that odd feeling inside you, you’re reminded that there is a limit of blood you can part with, and faced with the realization that there is a limit to your mortality also. Perhaps people are drawn to death, danger, morbid stories, blood and vampires because to be afraid, to be capable of bleeding, feeling pain, is to feel and be alive. The story of the vampire’s desperate lust for blood isn’t just a story about the horrors of death, but the value of life itself.