Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The History of Vampires Pre-Twilight

Humanity has always had a strange fascination with vampires. As long as the historical record has existed, there have been legends of creatures that have wandered amongst us to feast upon our essence or blood or both. In fact, it is quite probable that these legends were prominent in prehistoric society.

It should be noted that the term “vampire” did not exist until the 18th century, even if the recognizable concept did. Some of the first legends are those of the Arabian ghoul, a demon that lived among the dead and consumed human flesh. Another early legend is that of Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of pestilence, the desert, warfare, and destruction whose bloodlust was so great that the Nile flowed with blood once a year to appease her. Later on in India, the folklore mentions the vetalas, creatures most likely derived from the Arabian ghoul which inhabit the dead.

The ancient Greeks believed in the strix, an owl-like creature that would feast on the blood and flesh of women and children. They also believed in the demigoddess Empusa, who would seduce young men and feed on them while they slept. It should be noted that this kind of creature, who seduces men only to feast upon them, is commonly called a succubus.

In medieval times, the historical record gets murky, as do accounts of encounters with vampires. In the 12th century, there was an outbreak of revenants, or people who had been reborn after death. William of Newburgh (c1136-c1198) wrote that “were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome.” (Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24.) An incident happened around 1190 that was recalled by the Abbot of Burton. He claims that after the deaths of two runaway peasants, “the very same day in which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried.” (England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, pg. 613.)

Vlad III the Impaler
Still, the greatest real-life vampire story is arguably that of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia (1431–1476). Wallachia was a client state of Hungary bordering on the Ottoman Empire and as a result bred some of the toughest people in Europe. Vlad had a sick sense of how to treat his people. On one occasion, he invited all the poor in his kingdom to a feast in his castle and then set it on fire. He was also known as Vlad the Impaler because he would take his enemies, of whom there were many, and he would put them on a pointed wooden stake where gravity would force them to be gutted slowly. Most interestingly from a modern perspective, Vlad’s father was named Vlad II Dracul, because he wore the cape of the Order of the Dragon. This is why Vlad the Impaler was often called Vlad Dracula, son of the Dragon. Over the centuries, many criminals have since used the guise of the vampire in their modus operandi.

In the 18th century, there was an outbreak of reported revenants throughout Eastern Europe. Two of the more famous people who supposedly came back from the dead were Serbians Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole. Contemporary Enlightenment thinker Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary:
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. (Voltaire, 1764. Philosophical Dictionary.)
Corpses that supposedly came back to life were staked to prevent them from leaving the grave. If that did not quell their haunting, they were decapitated and burned. Many corpses exhumed during this period showed signs of life and fresh feasting on blood. As it turns out, science today can explain this is part of the regular decomposition process in which the hair and nails grow and blood escapes through the mouth.

Following this outbreak of alleged vampirism, vampire novels started showing up in Western Europe including John Polidori’s The Vampyre, James Rymer’s Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood (occasionally attributed to Thomas Prest), and of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was at this time that the term “vampire” was popularized. It was also at this time that many common elements of vampire mythology were solidified in public perception: blood drinking, awakening at night and sleeping during the day, associations with nocturnal creatures, pale skin, lack of reflection, sleeping in coffins, and a vulnerability to sunlight, stakes, and fire.

Bella Lugosi as Dracula
During the early 20th century, many movies were made about vampires, the most famous being Dracula with Bella Lugosi and its many spinoffs. Starting in the 1950s, vampires suddenly became sexy. Christopher Lee starred in 1958’s Dracula (known as Horror of Dracula in the USA) and most of its sequels over the years. The incredibly handsome Lee redefined the image of the vampire into something worthy of lust, and even envy. This movement reached its peak with the Anne Rice novels of the 1980s and 90s such as Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned, which have been turned into successful films.

And then one night, a Mormon housewife in Arizona named Stephenie Meyer dreamed that she was lying in a field next to an exquisite young man with skin of diamonds, the vampire Edward Cullen. For the first time ever, the concept of the vampire as horror was no longer in fashion.
Edward Cullen reveals his true nature to his mate and love of his life, Bella Swan

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