'The Premature Burial’ by Antoine Wiertz

How Long Have We Believed in Vampires?

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Three decades after Tournefort’s encounter, the London Journal of 1732 reported some enquiries into “vampyres” at Madreyga in Hungary (a story later referred to by John Polidori). Greece and Hungary feature prominently in these early accounts – and this is mirrored in Romantic literature: Lord Byron for example makes Greece the setting of his unfinished vampire story  A Fragment  (1819).

But it was Polidori who was responsible for the vampire’s English pedigree and its elevation of social rank. There seems never to have been an urban, nor an educated bourgeois bloodsucker prior to  The Vampyre  (1819). A predatory sexuality is also introduced. We see for the first time the vampire as rake or libertine, a real “ lady killer ” – a trend that metamorphosed into Bram Stoker’s Dracula and anticipated the arrival of vampire romance in the beautiful undead form of Twilight’s Edward Cullen.

As this all reveals, the history of vampires is a disputed and uncertain one whatever your perspective, scientific or literary. But the “vampire” burials discovered by archaeologists of late do cohere with practices that are known to suggest a belief in vampirism (such as piercing the corpse, nailing down the tongue, putting a needle in the heart and placing small stones and incense in the mouth and under the finger nails to stop blood sucking and clawing). These “vampire” corpses do therefore go some way towards finding out how old our belief in vampires actually is.

But the history of vampires is still impossible to chart with any certainty, and we should probably take heed from British vampirologist Montague Summers (1880-1948) in our search for the lair of the original fiend. He referred to vampires as “citizens of the world”: to him, they existed beyond temporal or geographical boundaries.

Top image: ‘The Premature Burial’ by Antoine Wiertz ( public domain )

The article ‘ How long have we believed in Vampires? ’ by Sam George was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

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