Exhuming the Vampire
By Liam Rogers
(Originally published Samhain 1997)
The vampire has long been a source of morbid fascination, particularly for authors of gothic fiction. Although The Vampyre - Polidori's uninspired pilfering of an unfinished tale by Lord Byron in 1819 - sparked a hugely popular revival in vampire literature that eventually led, in 1897, to Bram Stoker's Dracula (and its subsequent exhaustive film adaptation), vampire fiction can be traced back as far as classical Greece.
Many attempts to explain the vampire myth have been cursed by the difficulty in separating the genuine folklore from the lurid fiction it inspired; Stoker, for example, seems to have added several qualities to the vampire which were subsequently adopted into the literature as genuine - such as the idea that a vampire has no reflection. Some researchers have plumped for psychological interpretations of the vampire, others have suggested rare blood diseases (such as Dr Dolphin's porphyria hypothesis), but all are flawed and inspired more by the fictional vampire than his folkloric archetype.
The 'vampires' exhumed and dispatched throughout eastern and central Europe during the middle ages are not really the subject of this discussion. Paul Barber (1) studies these cases in some detail, and shows how corpses can be expected to appear in the 'vampiric' condition - bloated, with blood at the mouth. Such outbreaks are undoubtedly largely brought about by the plague, which was also a factor behind the witch hunts.
His hypothesis, although admirable, is somewhat strained when he tries to explain the many and varied apotropaic measures, and unconvincing in explaining why such a complex mythology developed originally. I believe that behind the old folklore is a core phenomenon. The vampire, and the apotropaic measures dictated by lore, is clearly essentially pre-Christian. In this article we will explore ancient worldviews and archaic magico-religious practices to gain an astonishing insight into the genesis of the vampire. The key to decoding the vampire, I suggest, is shamanism.
Shamanism is the earliest known form of religion, whose roots can be traced back to the Palaeolithic era, and is the root of all modern magic. The shaman would be held responsible for the fertility of his tribe's land, the welfare of his people and their luck in hunting. He would fall into a trance-like state and travel into the spirit worlds to consult with the powers of nature, seek out healing and divination. He might attain this altered state by the use of drumming, breathing techniques or the ingestion of psychoactive plants.
Such shamanic activities can be found entwined in mythology in which heroes travel to the land of the Gods or to the underworld. The shaman would visit the realm of the dead to consult with the spirits of the ancestors, and it is easy to see how such an out-of-body journey could be confused with a physical visit to the underworld. The shaman, like the vampire, has been to the abode of the deceased and returned.
The acquisition of shamanic abilities was often the result of serious illness, sensory deprivation, near-death experiences and the like. Shamanic initiation rituals typically involved the theme of suffering, death and rebirth. The initiate would often undergo a symbolic death; Frazer (2) cites several examples in which the potential shaman is taken away from the community and left in "the wilderness", the villagers being sometimes shown a dummy and told that it is his body - then, some time later, he returns reborn as a shaman.
During the time away from the village, the initiate searches for inspiration or a vision brought about by fasting or sensory deprivation. Eliade (3) explains that he might experience visions in which he is dismembered by spirits or is fed on blood. Initiatory visions may also involve a journey to the land of the dead, or meeting with dead ancestors. We might say, then, that the shaman has 'experienced' death and symbolically risen from his grave.
Study of the vampire tradition yields clues to the shamanic nature of the vampire; for example, Murgoci wrote that: "People destined to become vampires after death may be able in life to send out their souls, and even their bodies, to wander at cross-roads with reanimated corpses ... it merges into the ordinary witch or wizard, who can meet with other witches or wizards either in the body or as a spirit". (4)
We see here the link between vampires and the out-of-body flight of the shaman. Murgoci also comments on the vagueness of many vampire terms which can vary in meaning from place to place, sometimes only denoting a witch who can project their 'soul'. The occult art of astral projection is still practised today, and is possibly a direct descendent of the ancient shaman's technique that still lingers on amongst the aboriginals of the Americas, Africa and Australasia.
There are reports of people suffering from the hostile attentions of magicians in out-of-body form in the annals of western occultism, as well as amongst the beliefs collected from 'primitive' cultures by western anthropologists. Psychic, magician and founder of the Society of the Inner Light, Dion Fortune, describes how such attacks can feel as though a great weight is upon the victim's chest whilst he lies in his bed, unable to move. She describes one of her own experiences thus: "That night I was afflicted with the most violent nightmares I have ever had in my life, waking from sleep with the most terrible sense of oppression in my chest, as if someone were holding me down, or lying upon me. I saw distinctly the head of Miss L, reducing to the size of an orange, floating in the air at the foot of my bed, and snapping its teeth at me. It was the most malignant thing I have ever seen." (5)
Speaking of vampires, Fortune gives it as her opinion that true vampirism is impossible "unless there is power to project the etheric double". We must remember that in folklore the vampire rarely physically leaves his grave, preferring instead to ply his trade in incorporeal form. Visum et repertum, the report written in 1732 regarding the epidemic of vampirism started by the infamous Arnod Paole, describes a woman's attack by a vampire as follows (translated by Paul Barber): "In addition, the haiduk Jowiza reports that his stepdaughter, by the name of Stanacka, lay down to sleep fifteen days ago, fresh and healthy, but at midnight she started up out of her sleep with a terrible cry, feared and trembling, and complained that she had been throttled by the son of a haiduk by the name of Milloe, who had died nine weeks earlier, whereupon she had experienced a great pain in her chest and become worse hour by hour until finally she died on the third day." (6)
This is a typical account in many ways, as the vampires make their presence felt in dreams, not dissimilar to medieval incubi and succubi.
The varcolac or vrykolakasis is a type of vampire found in Romania and Greece that is thought to cause eclipses. The following quotation from Murgoci clearly demonstrates that what we are seeing is a shaman in action. "They are recognised by their pale faces and dry skin, and by the deep sleep into which they fall when they go to the moon and eat it. When the spirit of the varcolac wants to eat the moon, the man to which the spirit belongs begins to nod, falls into a deep sleep as if he had not slept for weeks, and remains as if dead. If he is roused or moved the sleep becomes eternal, for, when the spirit returns from its journey it cannot find the mouth out of which it came and so cannot go in." (7)
Often vampires are buried with a coin, a bulb of garlic, or some other object in their mouths in order to either stop their spirit returning to the body or to prevent it leaving to afflict the community. Sometimes a vampire's spirit is thought to take the form of a butterfly (the Greek word "psyche" means both "soul" and "butterfly"); also, in Serbia, the word for "hawthorn stake", "glogovac", also denotes a type of butterfly.
The choice of woods from which to fashion the impaling stake is informative. Ash is a popular choice, and here we should note that the shaman-God Odin hung upon the world tree Yggdrasil, which was usually thought of as being an ash tree. Hawthorn is the other most common wood with which to transfix a vampire. Now, when the hawthorn flowers is traditionally the signal to begin the Celtic festival of Beltane (May Day), and thus forms the maypole - another representation of the world tree or Cosmic Axis. Paul Devereux describes this important shamanic concept as follows: "The fundamental cosmology of shamanism consisted of three worlds, the 'middle Earth' of human reality, the upper world of spiritual beings, and the underworld of the shades .... Access to these Otherworlds was by means of a conceptual axis that linked them - a World Tree, a Cosmic Mountain, or actual features that symbolised such an axis, such as a tent pole, smoke rising through a tent's smoke hole, a beam of sunlight, a rope or ladder. By symbolically travelling in trance states along this axis, the Shaman could ascend to heaven or enter deeply into the body of the Earth, the Underworld." (8)
So here we find the connection between souls, butterflies and stakes: the shaman's exteriorised soul ascends and descends along the Cosmic Axis - the stake (whose role, therefore, is to allow the spirit or soul to leave the body, whereupon the vampire's mouth is filled or his head struck off to deny the soul a body to return to).
Another symbol of the Cosmic Axis, the vehicle by which the shaman travels in spirit, is the thread. In Romania it is thought not to be wise to spin by moonlight lest a varcolac should use the thread to ascend to the heavens to eat the moon (varcolaci also eat the sun, and we will return to this point later). Similarly, in India, the vampires known as vetala enter the homes of their victims via a "magic thread".
Just as straight threads facilitate spirit movement, so tangles of threads hinder spirits. A shaman could use knotted threat to trap a man's soul as it wandered during his sleep, and witches would tie up the winds in string to sell to sailors - who would release the winds when needed by untying the knots. Related to the use of tangled threads and nets to trap spirits is the practice of holding vampires in the grave by giving them a fishing net or stocking to unravel, or sprinkling poppy seeds on the grave for them to count. Thorns, poppy seeds and hawthorn flowers were sometimes strewn along the road leading from the cemetery to the town to slow the vampire's progress.
Of course, no discussion of vampirism can neglect the subject of blood. Blood was believed by tribal cultures to contain the soul. The blood of a brave enemy or admired animal was drunk to bestow upon the drinker the positive attributes of the vanquished man or creature. The magical significance of blood is considerable, but I will raise only a few points here in the interests of space. For example the blood of a sacrificed animal was often drunk in order to produce inspirational effects, or a communion with the gods. Frazer (10) records that lamb's blood was drunk at the temple of Apollo at Argos, the priestess of the Earth drank bull's blood at Aegira in Achaia, and the Goddess Kali descended upon the priest who drank the blood of a sacrificial goat in India. Every Sunday, the blood of Christ is drunk in churches around the world (in the guise of wine).
Eliade (11) tells us that, amongst the Achomawi in America, the shamans would drink the blood of the sick. The sickness was said to be contained within the blood, and the shaman claims his helping spirits (damogomi) are thirsty so he swallows the blood in return for their guidance.
So we see that the drinking of blood is an integral part of the shaman's activities as well as those of the vampire. It should, I hope, be clear by now how the vampire can be viewed as the result of a misunderstanding of shamanic activity (particularly the malefic actions of the shamans of neighbouring, unfriendly tribes or villages). For a more detailed discussion of the shamanic aspect in vampire lore see an earlier article of mine (12).
The Vampire and the Land
The remarkable story of the vampire, however, does not end there, for his myths hide even deeper meanings. Folklore attributes to the vampire the ability to cause disease in people and livestock and to bring storms and bad weather. This clue will help to delve deep in the vampire's black heart.
The concept of kingship appears to have developed from earlier priesthoods that, in turn, were derived from the figure of the shaman. This evolution meant that kings and chiefs were often thought to have direct contact with the spirits of nature and the gods, and were even held to be divine. Frazer (13) gives many examples of how kings were thus expected to be responsible for the fertility of the land and even the weather.
In the Arthurian myths, the Holy Grail is housed in a castle in the Wasteland. The Fisher King, who rules this barren land, is described as being "wounded through the thighs", ie impotent. Lewis Spence observed that: "If we look a little more closely into the story of the Lame Fisher King and his brother we find plenty of evidence that they are the people of the Underworld well defined in myth. In the first place, the ruler of Hades is frequently lame, and Vulcan, Wayland Smith and even the medieval Satan show this deformity."(14)
We may add, also, that the vampire is invariably viewed as being impotent and so, like the Fisher King, he provides none of the fecundating influence over the land expected of kings. Instead he brings sickness and epidemics, storms, rain and hail; he casts spells on cows and their milk and curses the crops.
The vampire seems to be associated with winter and the deprivations it brings. In Romania, vampires were thought to wander between the feasts of St Andrew at the end of November and St George at the end of April. Nigel Jackson has demonstrated the habit of vampires and werewolves to roam throughout the Twelve Nights of Christmas, taking part in a "ritual contest between the forces of order and chaos at the liminal 'crack in time'" for the fertility of the coming year (15), and indeed we can trace the vestiges of the welcoming in of spring, and the expulsion of winter.
At the winter solstice, or at spring festivals such as Beltane, rituals would be carried out with the purpose of ensuring the victory of summer over winter. The winter ceremonies were designed to free the young spring sun from the winter Underworld, and May Day festivities saw the final victory as summer was welcomed in and winter cast out.
May Day celebrations often involved bringing a boy or girl decked out in greenery into the village, boys sometimes were called "Green George" (presumably named after the saint who defeated the dragon) and the girls symbolised the "May Queen". Sometimes a personification of the winter spirit is cast out at the same time. According to Frazer, for example, in Bohemia a puppet representing Death was thrown into the water as another puppet of a young woman attached to a tree was brought into the community to signify the coming of summer (16). The personification of winter was often treated like a suspected vampire, being thrown into streams or rivers, burned or dismembered.
The Seasonal Significance of Blood
Vampire traditions appear to have flourished greatly in countries with Indo-European heritage from Russia, Slavonia, the Balkans and Greece, to India in the east and much of central and western Europe. The tag 'Indo-European' is given to a group of connected languages rather than to any particular ethnic group. The origins of the original Indo-Europeans have long been the subject of heated debate, but it would appear that they hailed from the steppes of Russia.
We can trace certain typical mythological themes that have been imprinted by the Indo-Europeans upon the cultures they met in the sweep across Europe, some of which will be discussed shortly, but now I would like to consider another Indo-European clue.
It seems that the Indo-Europeans recognised two distinct forms of blood. According to Uli Linke: The standard etymologies offer strong evidence for such an interpretation. While contained within the confines of the body, blood was called es-r - 'inside blood'. When the flow of blood penetrated those bodily boundaries to emerge as a visible substance, it became kreu - 'outside blood'." (17)
Kreu had the prevailing meaning of "blood from a wound", "gore" or "raw and bloody flesh", and the root in this sense survives in words such as the Latin 'cruor', Sanskrit 'kravyam', Welsh 'crau' and Cornish 'crow'. This association with bodily harm gives rise to other terms like the Breton 'kriz' (meaning "cruel"), Avestan 'kruma' ("cruel, gruesome, horrid") and the Old English 'hryre' ("decay, death").
Similarly in this semantic field, death was described in terms of the changing quality of the blood - "thickening, hardening" etc. Linke suggests that, in Proto-Indo-European culture, dying becomes semantically equivalent to a process of solidification - a metaphor for the passage of life. This idea of the dead stiffening and hardening in their graves may account for the custom of offering libations of blood, or substitutes made of substances like red ochre, to the dead.
This same language root is also associated with the season of winter: the Old High German 'hroso' means "ice", the Old Norse 'hrydja' indicates rain and snow, to name just two. The term for 'inside blood', es-r, gives rise to words implying the growth of life, and the warmth of spring.
So the season of winter can be shown to be connected semantically with the spilling of blood and the thirst of the dead for it.
Solar Myths of the Indo-Europeans
In the Baltic lands the cold of winter was thought to be caused by evil spirits or the moon (which is thought of as being the realm of the dead in some cultures), and at the winter solstice ceremonies were carried out to free the sun-Goddess Saule from a tower in which she is held prisoner by an evil king. In myth, she is freed by the twin Gods - a common motif in Indo-European solar mythologies.
The Slavs held that the Goddess of the spring sun, Kolyada, is lost on the winter solstice, and a traditional song tells of how the people would seek her out, eventually finding her in the Thunder God's palace. Throughout Indo-European lore, we find the sun having a fraught relationship with the Moon God or the God of rains or storms, often with violent or incestuous overtones.
In Hindu India, the spring Sun or daughter of the Sun is called Surya (since the main god is a God of the Sun called Surya, perhaps, as Janet McCrickard suggests, he was once feminine). Surya marries the moon Gods, the Asvins. In another version of the myth, the Asvins race against the moon to decide who will marry the Sun-maiden - the twins win. McCrickard comments that this "reiterates the theme of the European maze games, in which two men dance or run the maze to liberate the young sun-goddess from winter's grip". (18)
Both twins and horses play a role in vampire lore as well. A horse will hesitate before a vampire's grave if he is led through a graveyard with a young, innocent child riding, and Gottfried says that in Yugoslavia "there is a belief that a vampire can be seen by a twin brother and sister born on a Saturday, who were their drawers and shirts inside out" (19). The reversal of clothes is possibly part of a belief that in the underworld or spirit realm all things are reversed that may also account for burying possible candidates for becoming vampires upside down.
Vampires, Werewolves and the End of the World
Before progressing further, I should first clarify the relationship of the werewolf to the vampire. It is virtually impossible to separate the two, particularly in Slavonic languages where they share the same name. Montague Summers explained this group of terms: "This word Slovenian volkodlak, vukodlak ,vulkodlak, is a compound form of which the first half means "wolf" whilst the second half has been identified, although the actual relation is not quite demonstrable, with blaka, which in Old Slavonic, New Slavonic and serbian signifies the "hair" of a cow or a horse or a horse's mane." (20)
This is also etymologically identical to the Greek vrykolakas and the Romanian varcolac. Summers goes on to demonstrate the likenesses between the vampire and the werewolf, pointing out that a man who has been a werewolf in life is believed to become a vampire in death, and that in some areas those who eat the meat of a sheep killed by wolves also joins the ranks of the Undead when the die. Then the scholar advises us that: ".... it must be remembered that although the superstitions of the werewolf and the vampire in many respects agree, and in more than one point are indeed precisely similar, there is, especially in Slavonic traditions, a very great distinction, for the Slavonic Vampire is precisely defined and it is the incorrupt and re-animated dead body which returns from its grave, otherwise it cannot be said strictly to be a vampire."
Therefore, according to Summers, the difference is simply that the vampire is dead, whereas the werewolf is still living. However, as we have seen, the death of the vampire was probably merely the symbolic death of shamans and the wolf has associations with death and the underworld too.
Examples of this association include the fact that Etruscan tomb paintings show Hades, Lord of the Netherworld, wearing a wolf's head and skin; also when the Egyptian sun God Ra descended into the Underworld, at the prow of his barque was the wolf-god Upuaut, the Opener of the Ways. Jackson also notes that: "Throughout the ancient North an outlaw, murderer or temple desecrator was termed a 'Vargr'' or wolf, cast out from the tribe or community into the wilderness, and they could be killed without penalty by anyone because they were already 'dead' in symbolic terms." (21)
The shaman's connection with wolves is due to the apparently liminal nature of the animal. Wolves haunt the boundaries of Man's world, slipping into villages from time to time then disappearing into the dark wildernesses, just as the vampire haunts 'the boundaries', and the shaman stands where the spirit worlds impinge upon Man's own world. As Nigel Jackson explains: ".... bands of shamanic warriors identified ecstatically with the wolf as part of their initiatory death mysteries. At one with the Furious Hosts of the Dead they lived and acted outside the normal order of things, characterised by lycanthropic transformations and sinister magical fury." (22)
In the Slavonic terminology we have just seen, we see the clue - it means "wolf-coat" or "wolf-skin", referring to the shaman's habit of donning animal skins to identify with the creature that he 'shape-shifts' into whilst entranced. We see the use of wolf-skins in this account by Baring-Gould: "The Serbs connect the vampire and the werewolf together, and call them by one name vlkoslak. These rage chiefly in the depths of winter: they hold their annual gatherings, and at them divest themselves of their wolf-skins, which they hang on the trees around them. If anyone succeeds in obtaining the skin and burning it, the vlkoslak is thenceforth disenchanted." (23)
So the werewolf is just as 'dead' as the vampire, and identical with regard to the shamanic associations.
Recalling the habit of some vampire-werewolves, such as varcolaci, of ascending to the heavens to eat the sun and moon, it is instructive to consider the solar mythology of Scandinavia and the Germanic lands in which the Sun Goddess Sunna flies across the skies in a chariot pulled by twin horse deities, Aarvak and Alsvidr. The Eddas explain that the Sun is pursued by a huge wolf named Skoll which sometimes catches up with her and tries to eat her (the moon is chased too, by another wolf), thus causing eclipses.
Sunna always manages to escape from the wolf in these cases, but at the end of the world the dark demon will finally devour her. McCrickard describes this cosmic apocalypse: "The rule of the gods is destined to end in the cataclysm called Ragnarok, a great cosmic purification .... Sunna will be overtaken and devoured, turning red first, then black, resulting in a terrible winter (Fimbulvetr) lasting three winters long .... Then wickedness will prevail; nothing will be honoured or respected, sacred things will be despised and humans will live only for violence and greed. Finally Sunna's darkened wheel will vanish and the stars will tumble from their places as the keystone of heaven's arch collapses, and everything vanishes into the abyss." (24)
However, this is just part of a greater cycle as the universe is to be born anew, and Sunna will be reborn as her own daughter to shine once more upon a regenerated Earth.
So we have seen that the myths of the vampire hold many secrets: of the shaman; the drama of the turning year and his role therein; the balance between the forces of darkness and light, chaos and order, death and rebirth on both a personal and universal level.
Death and destruction are not purely evils but a necessary part of the drama of life. Just as a forest fire leaves behind fertile soils for new life to grow when the previous ecosystem was becoming stagnant, so does all life need an occasional clearing of the land of the dead wood in order to continue to thrive. The vampire is part of this great cleansing process, and is thus not to be feared!
1.Paul Berber, Vampires, Burial and Death, Yale University Press, 1988
2.Sir J G Frazer, The Golden Bough (Abridged), Macmillan, 1922
3.Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964
4.Agnes Murgoci, The Vampire in Roumania, "Folklore", Vol 37, Part 4, 1926
5.Dion Fortune, Psychic Self-Defence, Rider, 1930
6.Johannes Fluchinger, Visum et Repertum, Belgrade, 1732 (Translated in Barber, op cit)
7.Murgoci, op cit
8.Paul Devereux, Symbolic Landscapes, Gothic Image, 1993
9.Ornella Volta, The Vampire, Tandem, 1965
10.Frazer, op cit
11.Eliade, op cit
12.Liam Rogers, The Vampire as Shaman, "The Ley Hunter", No 119, 1993
13.Frazer, op cit
14.Lewis Spence, The Mysteries of Britain, Senate, 1994 (original date unknown)
15.Nigel Jackson, Christmas as you never knew it, "The Ley Hunter", No 120, 1994
16.Frazer, op cit
17.Uli Linke, Blood as Metaphor in Proto-Indo-European, "Journal of Indo-European Studies", Vol 13, 1985
18.Janet McCrickard, Eclipse of the Sun, Gothic Image, 1990
19.Robert S Gottfried, The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, Free Press, 1983
20.Montague Summers, The Vampire: his Kith and Kin, Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1928
21.Nigel Jackson, Call of the Horned Piper, Capall Bann, 1994
23.Sabine Baring-Gould, The Book of Were-Wolves, Smith Elder, 1865
24.McCrickard, op cit.