The Origins of Vampires

Vampires of modern fiction have their roots in many forms of mythological beliefs and folklore, going as far back as prehistoric times. However, the vampire myths that have appeared throughout time seem to vary in many ways. For example the vampires that people are familiar with today are usually human corpses that have returned from the grave to harm the living; these vampires have Slavic origins only some hundred years old. But older, versions of the vampire were not thought to be human at all but instead supernatural, possibly demonic or spiritual, entities that did not take human form.

Looking back to the earliest mentions of beings that resemble vampires, cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demons and spirits that seem to fit the general description. These tales of supernatural beings that consumed living flesh or blood have existed for many centuries, but the term of vampire would not have existed in these times. Among The first civilizations to have tales of mythical blood-drinking demons were the Babylonians and Assyrians; their stories of the mythical female demons ‘Lilitu’ gave rise to the Demon from Hebrew mythology known as ‘Lilith’ and her daughters the ‘Lilu’. Lilith was believed to be a demon, and can be seen depicted drinking the blood of babies. Another form of vampire found in Hebrew mythology were ‘Estries’ which were female shape shifting, blood drinking demons said to prey on men particularly and would roam among people in the night.

Later, with the arrival of Christianity in Europe, Vampires began to take on more Christian characteristics. By the time of the Medieval period, the vampire became viewed as a dead person who retained some life, and could then leave their grave in the same way Jesus had risen after death. The Christian church also redefined vampires as minions serving Satan. The Christian interpretation of vampires still remains strongly to this day, most evident in the way a crucifix is able to ward off vampires. Another medieval example of an undead creature with similarities to this type of vampire can be found in Norse mythology with tales of the ‘Draugr’.

The large majority of the modern themes and characteristics surrounding vampires originate in folklore that come primarily from Eastern Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. During this time there was a vast amount of vampire sightings and stories, and frequent grave digging and the staking of bodies in order to prevent vampires from rising from the dead, these actions even being led by government officials in some cases. This time became a period of mass hysteria and panic surrounding local myths of vampires. The first cases of vampirism to be officially recorded came from Serbia. One case shows the full effects of spreading vampirism, with a man who was supposedly killed by a vampire, later returning and killing people in the area, their bodies found showing them dying from severe blood loss. These tales were heard in the west, and became popularized. The hysteria of this time became known as the “18th-Century Vampire Controversy” and was only ended when The Empress of Austria sent her personal physician to investigate the reported vampires, and then passed laws prohibiting grave digging and desecration of dead bodies. Despite this, the vampire legend continued in artistic representation, and later influenced famous stories, most notably Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel ‘Dracula’, which itself greatly influences the majority of vampire fiction to this day.

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