The History of Vampires to 1900
Yet again America finds itself in the middle of a vampire craze. These lords of the night are everywhere – and not just because Halloween is near. Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight series seems to have initiated this latest round, but that would not be accurate. Vampire legends have existed since the beginning of civilization, beginning in Assyria and migrating like humankind throughout the world. The current vampire legends have been popular since the 1800s.
Vampires of Mesopotamia, Persia, Babylon and Ancient Israel
The first recorded vampire legend dates back to between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C., where the residents of Mesopotamia believed a person who was improperly buried would become angry and transform into a demon known as the edimmu or ekimmu. This creature, which was described as being a muscular and solid being who could transform into an evil wind, a shadow or smoke, would attach themselves to a victim and suck away the victim’s energy force until only a husk was left.
Another vampire story that came from that region, it is debated whether it is from Persia, Babylon, or of Hebrew or Jewish origin, is that of Lilith. Her story has been noted in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The different traditions state that she was the first wife of Adam, created at the same time and of the same material. She left him to become a demon leader when he demanded her subservience. She lived on the blood of newborns, young children who did not sleep at night and their mothers.
Vampires of Greece
This story worked its way to Greece and was echoed in the legends of Lamia. Lamia was a mortal queen who fell in love with Zeus. Hera found out and cursed her to become half serpent. In revenge, Lamia travelled around the country drinking the blood of children. Lamia is noteworthy since she was the first vampire-type creature who was originally human.
Throughout medieval times, the incubus took hold as the premier vampire myth throughout Europe. The incubus, a decidedly male incarnation, would force himself sexually on women as they slept and feed off the energy they have created. The female version of this demon was known as a succubus.
Vampires from the 12th to 18th Centuries
The fascination with vampires was robust from the 12th century to the 18th century. It was during this period that the legend of the Strigoi Morti or “dead witches” came into existence in Romania. These creatures made a pact with the devil to be able to leave their graves at night in order to drink the blood of the living. They would take on the appearance of handsome or attractive people in order to lure their victims. They hated garlic and could only be defeated by staking or beheading.
Adding to the myths was the belief that spread throughout Europe that vampires were real. This idea was enforced because unexplained sudden illnesses that led to the unexpected deaths of normal and healthy individuals was attributed to a vampire attack. Additionally, well planned grave robbings of these same individuals, gave credence to the idea that they had been transformed. This idea was taken so seriously that Empress Marie Therese of Austria sent her own physician to investigate these claims.
Birth of the Modern Vampire
Although vampires appeared in literature before 1800, they became popular to read about when John Polidori’s The Vampyre was published in 1819. It was widely circulated that Polidori had based his title character, Lord Ruthven, after the life and habits of Lord Byron. It was the most influential vampire novel of the 19th century, eclipsing James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire because it established the vampire to be not only charismatic and sophisticated, but capable of passing as a member of the nobility as well.
However it was in 1897, that Bram Stoker’s Dracula debuted and became the standard against which all other vampires were judged. It combined the medieval myths with sex, blood and death in a way that fascinated all of Britain and still fascinates us today. Stoker created not only the archetypal vampire but also introduced the concept of heroes who were willing to fight the undead. Although many stories and books were written after Dracula’s publication, none managed to achieve its interest or success until 1954.
- Curran, Bob. Vampires A Field Guide To The Creatures That Stalk The Night, (US: Career Press, 2005)
- Hoyt, Olga. Lust for Blood: The Consuming Story of Vampires, (Scarborough House; Lanham, MD. 1984)