Deities or Vampires? Hecate and other Blood-Drinking Spirits of Ancient Times
Vampires are a relatively recent creation. However, most of the ancient world knew of the practice of consuming blood. It seems that this was a fascinating ritual centuries before the term ''vampire'' appeared.
The ritual drinking of blood may sound today like a practice related to Satanists or fictional characters in fantasy novels or horror films. However, it was a part of mysterious rites related to many past civilizations. The custom of consuming blood always had a magical and mysterious meaning. It was used as a part of witchcraft, as a symbolic connection of the powers of life and death, as a religious practice, or as a form of offering to the gods.
The Blood of the Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris
According to many history books, the oldest ancient deity who consumed blood was probably Lilith. She is also described as the first demon, or a female spirit which exemplified all of the darkest attributes of the world.
Lilith (1892), by John Collier. (Public Domain)
However, it seems that the homeland of vampires is located near the Nile River. Some specialists in ancient Egyptian mythology believe that the first vampires were the gods Osiris and his brother Set. They were abandoned by their parents, but legends say that they were raised by a family which was into the dark arts.
When Osiris grew up, he had knowledge and skills which allowed him to have powers much like those attributed to a vampire. The offerings to this god were also mostly related to blood and flesh. Inscriptions suggest that corpses were offered to Osiris too. However, Ancient Egyptian rituals are still full of secrets, so it is uncertain how much of this is true.
Osiris with an Atef-crown made of bronze in the Naturhistorisches Museum (Vienna) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Persian folklore also speaks of some spirits who consumed blood. The most famous of these was Estries. She was a demon - specifically a shapeshifter. Usually she was believed to have appeared as a beautiful woman who looked for men to drink their blood. If she was injured, she could only be healed if her attacker offered her salt and bread. She was also well-known in Jewish legends.
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A Goddess of Magic and her Daughters
Hecate is one of the most mysterious goddesses. She was related to ancient magic, necromancy, sorcery and everything connected to ghosts. According to some scholars, the temples of Hecate could be locations for blood consumption.
This practice was forbidden in ancient Greece, but many temples had secret rituals. According to Greek law, human autopsies were also frowned upon, but it seems that Hecate’s ancient followers saw something magnetic in the idea of drinking blood. If anybody in Greece tried to drink blood it apparently had to come from an animal.
It is believed that Hecate used to drink blood during her feasts. Also, her daughter Empusa was described as a demon who consumed men’s blood. Hecate's servant Mormo drank blood too. (He is well known from Aristophanes’ works.)
Other known ancient Greek vampires were Vrykolatios, who lived on Satorini Island, and Lamia, a queen from Lybia. She was seen as a demonic woman who drank children’s blood. Greek rituals may have been the inspiration for future stories of vampires in Romania and Bulgaria.
Wild Rituals in Asia
The religions of some tribes in the southern part of Asia were also related to blood rituals. However, the mentality connected with the cult of ritual sacrifices was very different than in Europe. In India, which was dominated by Persians for many centuries, the most important deity connected with blood rituals was Kali, who represents change, time, destruction, and preservation.
The most famous legend about Kali talks about consuming the flesh of the demon Raktabija. The demon and Devi Druga (and her assistants) had a fight. The woman was losing, so Druga asked for help from the goddess Kali. According to the descriptions from a Devi Mahatmyam:
''Out of the surface of her (Durga's) forehead, fierce with frown, issued suddenly Kali of terrible countenance, armed with a sword and noose. Bearing the strange khatvanga (skull-topped staff), decorated with a garland of skulls, clad in a tiger's skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep reddish eyes, filling the regions of the sky with her roars, falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hordes of the foes of the devas.''
The goddess Ambika leading the eight Matrikas in battle against the demon Raktabija, folio from a Devi Mahatmya. (top row, from the left) the Matrikas: Narasimhi, Vaishnavi, Kumari, Maheshvari, Brahmi; (bottom row, from left) Varahi, Aindri, Chamunda or Kali (drinking the demon's blood). (Public Domain)
Kali consumed Raktabija. Blood rituals were very popular in her cult. The mysterious rituals of her temples are still full of secrets. The priests who continue traditional rituals in her name try to protect the details of the ceremonies.
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There were also rituals for consuming blood in the past of Pre-Columbian tribes (a topic too large for this article) as well as the legends of the Norse. People who lived in the territory of current Azerbaijan believed in the troubled spirit Hortdan. For centuries, Azeri people thought that it was a bad ghost which drank human blood. It was supposedly able to transform into other beings as well - usually animals.
The Forbidden History of Vampires
In the Christian religion, all of the aforementioned deities and demons became synonymous with the Devil. Over time, legends about vampires also appeared. These stories gave a bad reputation to many of the ancient goddesses.
It is forbidden for Christians to drink blood - at least officially. However, one ritual relates to the symbolic drinking of Jesus’ blood. This suggests that blood rituals were considered as very important in pre-Christian cults, so the Christians decided to add a similar aspect to their ceremonies as well.
The New Testament Trinity with a mystical source of life-giving blood of Christ, St. Catherine (left), St. Barbara (right). (Public Domain)
Nowadays, the image of vampires is seen as something unnatural, but it seems that people knew of or practiced blood drinking rituals for at least 5000 years. Every region of the world has its own examples of deities who drank blood, or priests who worshiped deities by doing it.
Top image: The Triple Hecate, 1795 William Blake. (Public Domain)
Zygmunt Kubiak, Mitologia Greków i Rzymian, 1997.
Gavin Flood, Hinduizm. Wprowadzenie, 2008
Leo Ruickbie, Witchcraft Out of the Shadows: A Complete History, 2004.
Claude Lecouteux, Tajemnicza Historia Wampirów, 2007.
Ernest Abel, Przewodnik po świecie duchów i demonów, 2011-2013.
Devi Mahatmyam, translated by Swami Jagadiswarananda, 1953.
Hecate, available at: http://www.granta.demon.co.uk/arsm/jg/hekate.html
Vampires: Fact, Fiction and Folklore by Benjamin Radford, available at: http://www.livescience.com/24374-vampires-real-history.html
Is Egypt the Birthplace of Vampires? Available at: http://www.vampires.com/is-egypt-the-birthplace-of-vampires/