The Vampire Myth in Storytelling

[Written by Morrigan Books in-house editor and writer of speculative fiction, Amanda Pillar]

The vampire myth in storytelling has become popular once again, but for me, it was never unpopular. Vampires are my favourite fictional subject. This post, however, delves into the origin of the vampire myth itself.

Many of us are familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in the late nineteenth century, but it was not the first example of vampire fiction, with The Vampyre, by John Polidori, having been published several decades earlier.

The vampire myth predates these publications by a considerable amount of time. In fact, the word ‘vampire’ did not find origin in the English language until the eighteenth century, and it was borrowed from German or French.

So what do we know about the vampire legend?

As far back as Mesopotamia we find mentions of blood-drinking demons, such as the Lamashtu (Mesopotamian demons could be either good or bad, never wholly evil). In Ancient Greece, we find mentions of the lamia; she supposedly drank the blood of children and there was also the demi-goddess Empusa, daughter of Hecate. The Indian goddess Kali also consumed blood, and was incidentally a deity of human sacrifice. There were many such ancient creatures, prone to disease, ill fortune and the need for a warm, blood beverage. Men and children were often the victims of choice.

Lilith - A Mesopotamian bloodsucker!

The vampire myth as we know it found its origin in the eighteenth century CE, yet there were some notable historical figures that added zest to this legend. The fifteenth century CE, Vlad Tepes, or Vlad III the Impaler, is perhaps the most well-known of these historical figures. Whether or not he drank the blood of his victims has never been confirmed, although he supposedly killed up to 100,000 people in very imaginative ways.

Countess Elizabeth Bathory is known to modern history as one of the most prolific serial killers of all time and lived during the sixteenth century CE. She was called the “Blood Countess” and was rumoured to bathe in the blood of her victims. Whether the latter is true is debatable. Her guilt has been questioned as well, although her diaries have been kept, but are in ancient form of Slovakian and their content is apparently difficult to read.

During the reign of the Austrian empire, archaeological evidence alleges that bodies have been found that show the signs of staking and decapitation.  In the seventeenth century CE, the remains of an Austrian Princess, Eleonora of Lobkowicz, were found buried in an obscure chapel under solid concrete and ‘sacred earth’, amidst rumours of vampirism.

Whether these…colourful…historical figures impacted on Stoker’s portrayal of Dracula is without question. What remains interesting is that he chose a male (with homosexual undertones) as his vampire and the female as his prey, a sign of his cultural bias, perhaps, rather than historical context?

[Tomorrow sees a very different cultural approach to the vampire from Reece Notley]

About Mark S. Deniz

English teacher, writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and blogger. Founder of publishing company, Morrigan Books and imprint, Gilgamesh Press and editor-in-chief for review site, Beyond Fiction. Also cycles, plays floorball, listens to lots and lots of music, reads a ton of books and tries to fit in some TV, film and writing too. View all posts by Mark S. Deniz

9 responses to “The Vampire Myth in Storytelling

  • simonmarshalljones

    Hello Amanda!!

    Nicely informative article… just one minor confusion here, You use the BCE acronym to denote dates, but I have to point out that BCE stands for Before Common Era, which equates with BC (Before Christ) whereas what you mean is CE (Comon Era) which equates with AD (Anno Domini)… the way you’ve written it here makes both Vlad Tepes and Countess Elizabeth Bathory creatures of the ancient world, and not people of the (fairly) recent past…. nit-picking I know, but it may be confusing to some…

    Simon…

    • Mark Deniz

      And Amanda actually sent me a mail this morning about this but I have only just now found a computer (long day in Stockholm and a certain football match)…

      I’ll hopefully be tidying this up tomorrow.

    • Amanda Pillar

      Hi Simon,

      I asked Mark to change it to CE as soon as I saw it go live. All my research work is done in BCE and it was natural for me to use it, rather than CE.

      All fixed now.

      Was a tad embarrassing…

      Amanda

  • Erika

    Informative reading! The whole “victim must be a maiden”-thing must be a thing of the victorian era. Anything “dirty” is twice as dirty if it is inflicted on a pure woman.
    The sad part is though that it seems to have set the norm for what vampires are. Even if we see feemale vampires in contemporary series and films it is the male ones and their human female victim that is the focus.

    • Amanda Pillar

      Very true. It really got me thinking, re-visiting the old legends. It’s interesting how Stoker picked a Count (Countess Bathory?), but decided to have a male vampire with homosexual undertones – perhaps trying to show that men were still unsafe from the sexual pull of the decadent?

      From memory, Stoker’s work was during the period of degeneration, where society feared they would degress into moral disorder and anarchy. I really do think that this novel was partly used to personify the nobility’s concerns and fears about the ‘lower classes’ and the inevitable downfall of humanity, while being set within a framework that reflected their ideas on gender and repressive sexuality.

      To travel further back in time while looking at society’s ideas…the reason for the Greeks having picked a woman for the lamia could have arisen from their views of women being passionate and unruly. Men were considered calm and logical. It’s apparent in their plays, like Medea, who was the villian in their eyes, not Jason (I do have a soft spot for Medea).

      Very interesting.

      • Katey

        I’ve always agreed with scholars who say that Stoker’s choices, as you describe them here and in the article, do reflect very strongly on his society’s fears, desires, and tendencies toward repression. It might be going too far to suggest, as some do, that Stoker was reflecting his own unanswered wants and needs therein (though I’ve read some convincing arguments), but I think any author is a product of their times, right?

        I always think of Polidori in Ken Russell’s Gothic. Ha! Rather skews my perception. Not very scholarly of me, but all that aside, you gotta think anyone who hung around Byron for that long was certainly conflating the issue with sex.

        The example of the lamia is a good one, and I could go on for ages about Kali, but I think the bottom line you’ve managed to lay out is that the concept of a being that devours human essence always seems to have been a powerful metaphor to humanity in general. We simply reinterpret it to meet the needs of our own society and time. Nice!

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    • Amanda Pillar

      Ahh, Kali. Yes, I find her a fascinating goddess — I studied her for my Hons Thesis on human sacrifice. We should skype about her🙂 It is funny how in ancient mythology, women seem to be be the hunters of men and children (not always, but often).

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