Since Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” published in 1897 people have been intrigued by stories of where vampires originated and whether they are real. Vampires are creatures that are sometimes considered to be demons, and other times undead, but they all have in common their need for human blood which they either drink or suck directly from their living victim.
In ancient times drinking blood was always considered demonic and monstrous so throughout human folklore from Europe to Asia and the Americas to Africa evil has always been personified as a creature that prays on living humans and sucks or drinks their blood, often the victim will become a vampire after being attacked, other times the victim was cast into the depths of hell with no chance of redemption.
The oldest known stories of vampires date back to ancient Babylon, although interestingly vampires in ancient history were more often women, and in most instances beautiful women who seduced their victims and either killed them or kept them in thrall to satisfy their sexual needs. Blood drinking didn’t always lead to death or the victim becoming a vampire themselves, instead it only helped sustain the life force of the vampire.
The Semitic demon Lilitu has been found mentioned on the Sumerian kings list and Babylonian pottery dating and her history has been dated back to 4000BC. She was the bearer of disease and death and was always portrayed as a beautiful woman who appeared in men’s erotic dreams. We don’t know what would happen to the men, but we surmise since Lilitu was a demon the consequences couldn’t have been good.
Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian societies all continued to fear Lilitu and in some traditions Lilitu was a class of demons who would appear out of the wind and enter a man’s dreams, copulate with him, and her offspring would be half demon half human, and who would then return to cause mischief on human settlements.
By the time of the ancient Hebrew people Lilitu had become Lilith, the first wife of Adam who refused to submit to Adam’s will, in fact arguing with both Adam and God that since she was created from the same clay (Genesis 2.18) that made Adam she should be his equal. She was banished from Eden and but returned in the form of a snake to tempt Eve.
Every story of Lilith is slightly different, in some she is half human half serpent and steals children to be devoured, in others she is a goddess, perhaps the sister or niece of God whose purpose is to bring wind and death. She was feared in every society in which she appeared. It is possible Lilitu/Lilith is also the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet who drank human blood, as well as the Greek demon named Empusae or the Roman demon Lamia, both of whom drank the blood of their victims.
Other societies have also developed their own vampire myths, such as Kali in India, a God around whose neck hangs a necklace made from corpses and skeletons and who drinks blood. Further East vampire demons are beautiful women who detach their heads or upper torsos and then fly thru villages and towns looking for victims, in many cases pregnant women.
European customs concerning vampires have originated from two main sources, the medieval Western European myths of revenants and the Eastern European myths of vampires. Revenants were a major problem in the British Isles during the late middle ages, with isolated cases occurring till the middle of the 19th century.
Revenants were deceased people who had died before their time for example from suicide, or who were evil by nature, or excommunicated from the church. Their souls were never set free from their bodies and are able to return during the night to spread fear and claim their victims. In most cases revenants were localized to their village or locality and weren’t known to drink the blood of their victims, although a few cases were reported of a revenant sucking the blood from its victim.
Whilst not specifically vampires in the modern sense revenants do have something very much in common with vampires, they could only be killed by exhuming the body and either decapitating it or driving a stake thru the heart, which were sometimes removed from the body and ritually destroyed before re-interring the remains.
The Eastern European myth of vampires originates in the pre-Christian religion of the Slavic people who had migrated to Central Europe and Russia from the Middle Asian steppes around the same time the Celtic tribes dominated most of Western Europe. The Slavs held a strong belief that the soul of a person would be free to roam the world for 40 days after death and before finally entering the afterlife.
During this time they could be either good or evil and proper handling of the body during the burial rites would protect the soul while it completed it’s wandering, but the dead who were not given a proper funeral or who had been sinners would be too weak to prevent the evil spirits from taking control of the soul and becoming vampires, and who would then return to wreak vengeance on the living, and would drink blood from the living to sustain their undead bodies.
The vampires were a source of incredible fear amongst Slavic people, especially if the recently departed had been a good and kindly person since becoming a vampire would forever bar them from entering the afterlife. For thousands of years, even after the introduction of Christianity, belief in the evil spirits that would attempt to invade the soul was common.
The modern vampire owes his literary existence to a real figure from Romanian history, Vlad the Impaler, a man who was not a vampire yet had such an appetite for torture and impaling his victims on long wooden stakes that he became an instantly accessible character to develop the vampire myth around.
The first work of fiction to immortalize the vampire was a short story published in the New Monthly magazine from 1819 entitled “The Vampyre” and written by John Polidori, and mistakenly attributed to Polidori’s friend Lord Byron. Within a matter of months the story had been reprinted and syndicated throughout Western Europe.
By the late 1800s vampire stories were proving every more popular but really took off around the world with the publication in 1898 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a story that for the first time fused history and fiction in a convincing manner and resulted in several well publicized adventures to Transylvania to find Dracula’s lair and castle.
There is no evidence that Vlad, also known as Dracula in his time, ever drank blood, and his death certainly was the end of him, but Stoker’s story was so convincing that even now many people do not know the true story of his life and death. Bram Stoker very cleverly wove his fiction in the real life events of Vlad the Impaler, including the death of his beloved wife and the torment suffered by Vlad for the remainder of his years.