'The Premature Burial’ by Antoine Wiertz

How Long Have We Believed in Vampires?

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Vampires have a contested history. Some  claim that the creatures are “as old as the world”. But  more recent arguments  suggest that our belief in vampires and the undead was born in the 18th century, when the first European accounts appear.

We do know that 1732 was the vampire’s  annus mirabilis . There were 12 books and four dissertations on the subject published over that year, as well as the term’s first appearance in the English language,  according to  gothic expert Roger Luckhurst. But archaeological discoveries of deviant burials in Europe in the last few years have unearthed a belief in vampirism and revenants before 1500, much earlier than was previously understood by literary scholars.

The body of a 500-year-old “vampire”, for example, is currently on display in an ancient cemetery in the town of Kamien Pomorski, Poland. The vampire corpse, discovered two years ago, has been reported on  widely in the  world’s press . Archaeologists have confirmed that it has a stake through its leg (presumably to prevent it from leaving its coffin) and a rock in its mouth (to stop any unfinished blood sucking). Even older deviant burials have been discovered in villages in Bulgaria.

An 800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod.

An 800-year-old skeleton found in Bulgaria stabbed through the chest with iron rod.  Bin im Garten CC BY-SA

Meanwhile, the medieval remains of the first English vampires in  Yorkshire’s village of Wharram Percy  have reputedly been found. The inhabitants who fled the village in 1500 showed widespread belief in the undead returning as  revenants or reanimated corpses . They fought back against the risk of vampire attacks and showed a medieval belief in an English zombie apocalypse, an episode that would not be out of place in a scene from  The Walking Dead .

So some form of vampire was evidently believed in throughout much of Europe from the medieval period. But the seductive Romantic vampire does not leave his calling card in polite society in London until 1819, when the first fictional vampire, the satanic Lord Ruthven  is born  in a story by John Polidori. So how did our understanding of vampires transition from dishevelled peasants into alluring Byronic aristocrats? We must return the creature to its beginnings in early folk belief to fully understand its history.

Vampire, vrykolakoi, velku

In the first written accounts of European vampires, the creatures are understood as revenants or returners, often taking the form of a diseased family member who reappears in the unfortunate guise of a vampire. In such tales, “unfinished business”, even something as trivial as the want of clothing or shoes, is enough to make the dead return to the world of the living.

The number of words for “vampire” can frustrate scholars:  Krvoijac, vukodlak, wilkolak, varcolac, vurvolak, liderc nadaly, liougat, kullkutha, moroii, strigoi, murony, streghoi, vrykolakoi, upir, dschuma, velku, dlaka, nachzehrer, zaloznye, nosferatu  … the list goes on.

The Oxford English Dictionary takes seven pages to define a vampire, but the earliest entry, of 1734, is of most interest here:

These Vampyres are supposed to be the Bodies of deceased Persons, animated by evil Spirits, which come out of the Graves in the Night-time, suck the Blood of many of the Living and thereby destroy them.

Le Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine, Les Tribunaux secrets (1864)

Le Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine, Les Tribunaux secrets (1864)  Wikimedia Commons

There is evidently little appeal or attraction felt for these early revenant figures. Unlike the English aristocratic vampire, modelled on Lord Byron, these early folkloric vampires are peasants and tend to appear en mass like modern-day zombies.

Agnes Murgoci explored  this folk belief further. She argued in 1926 that the journey from death to the afterlife is perilous – in Romanian belief it took 40 days for the soul of the deceased to enter paradise. In some cases, it was thought that it lingered for years, and during this time there are a myriad of ways that deceased family members can succumb to vampirism.

It was thought  that dying unmarried, unforgiven by one’s parents, through suicide or being murdered could all lead to a person returning as a vampire. Events after death could also have the same effect – beware breezes blowing across corpses before burial, dogs or cats walking over coffins, or leaving a mirror (a soul trap) not turned to the wall at this precarious time.

Entering literary spheres

It was a treatise  written in 1746 by the French monk Antoine Augustin Calmet that famously gave British writers access to a number of encounters with vampires. Calmet took inspiration from Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a botanising man of science, who had earlier claimed to have come face to face with a plague of bloodsucking vampires in Mykonos in 1702.  His account  was still being read in 1741.

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