Belief in vampires or some form of the dark bloodsucking creature existed long before written record. These creatures formed in each culture and each era as a result of religion and lack of scientific education. Additionally, many practices of long ago fascinate us today because of the gory and vampiric nature involved. Such practices include cannibalism, sacrifice, and how the dead were buried before modern advances. Hence, one can safely gather that vampirism or vampires are a direct result of culture and scientific misunderstanding.
Vampires are immortal creatures who feed off the blood of the living, and blood is the key factor in all origins of vampire folklore. Some argue that the soul lives within the blood or more simply put, it is the source of all life. Also, if one can die when one loses blood, one could logically think that drinking blood would bring about life. Due to such ideas, many ancient cultures implemented sacrifices, rituals, and sometimes entire lives around the substance (Masters 4).
When someone hears the word cannibalism, most societies see horrific images of individuals ripping at human flesh. What could be considered even more disturbing is the fact that people have been eating each other for centuries. After all, man is a carnivorous animal, and unless you are a sworn vegetarian, people hunger for meat (Masters 5). Ancient societies viewed other humans as foodstuffs, and the aversion to such a taboo today is no different than Semitic people thinking pig and dog are unclean to eat (6). However, the eating of flesh is comparatively irrelevant to vampirism except for one common theme. The transfer of a life source from the dead to the living was essential. Blood was licked from spears, and hands went unwashed just so the blood could be licked off later. Thus, one can see how cannibalism could have morphed into a blood fetish (7).
Sacrifice and ritual are common practices in most religions. Appeasing the spirits and gods are one reason such practices are performed. The completion of magical workings could be considered another. So, it is no surprise that ancient cultures used the same concepts in their daily lives. Those who were responsible for starting vampire folklore were those involving the sacrificing of a victim. This victim was a trade-off for a favor from a god or used to make peace with a deity. The victim could be an animal, or the devotee could quite literally offer a part of himself in the form of a severed finger or hair. Blood began to replace such measures, and only a couple of drops of blood from a worshipper would suffice. On the other hand, the sacrifice of others was more common. Individuals in high standing would permit criminals to be presented as offerings to the gods, or they would use sacrifice as a means of substituting someone else to take the place of their plights. One of the best examples of such sacrifice is when the Aztecs chose to pour the blood of their victims into their idols’ mouths (Masters 11). In all manners of sacrificial victims, then, life force was essential in completion of the task, and blood became the center of this life force.
Along with cultural influences, lack of scientific knowledge helped to form the vampire lore understood now. One of the greatest influences on this lore is how the dead were prepared for burial long before embalming became commonplace. When a body decays without any preservation or embalmment, the following will occur:
* The body will turn different colors depending upon the gases and infections involved. Blues, reds, and dark greens will be prevalent (Barber 105).
* The body will swell up to possible massive proportions and one of the most noticeable areas will be the abdomen. The swelling is a result of the gases expelled from the decaying process.
* Blood or blood stained fluid escape the mouth and nostrils (106).
* The body may decay at any rate depending upon the environment it is placed in at the time. Environmental factors include presence of air, moisture, microorganisms, temperatures, and insects (107).
* Hair will slip away from the scalp, and the skin will begin to slough away. These consequences of decay make the body appear to have grown new hair or new nails (109).
While there are other visual effects seen as a result of decay, one can quickly understand just how the listed characteristics alone could cause alarm to someone who would stumble upon such a body. Furthermore, it was not unusual for people to be buried alive because comas and other medical conditions were not understood (99). Scavengers, either animal or human, were also known to disturb gravesites, and any movement would appear suspicious to the uneducated and superstitious (125). Consequently, as a result of all this simple scientific misunderstanding, people were once quick to point to the presence of vampires.
Vampire folklore is a direct result of ancient and past cultures trying to survive according to their standards or due to their misunderstanding of scientific processes. Cannibalism and sacrifice exposed people to the concept of life force transfer from the dead to the living. The handling of a human body after death before modern techniques were established added to the vampire idea. Hence, because of ancient societies’ lack of scientific knowledge and sophistication, vampire folklore was fostered and began to grow into the cult phenomenon we know today.
Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Masters, Anthony. The Natural History of the Vampire. London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, 1972.