Imagine a vampire. Picture one in your mind, and you will probably envisage a remarkably similar creature to everyone else. The usual image of a vampire is the pale, romantic gothic figure, attractive and magnetic: an image that has embedded itself in the popular culture for centuries, and has enjoyed a recent resurgence of interest. But had you asked the common man five hundred years ago to describe the vampire of his popular myth, and the image would have been vastly different, for vampires are a cultural archetype that changes to fit popular need and concerns.
There are several mythical archetypes which are found in cultures throughout the world: their form changes but the basic intent remains the same. Myths we know of from our own subconscious -- the Arthur myth or the myth of Robin Hood for example -- can also be found in various guises in many other cultures. The 'Arthur' myth involves a figure fighting against invaders, a uniting figure, ennobling those about it; the myth of 'Robin Hood' is that of a fighter against injustice, waging a guerilla war against oppressors (often of a different culture). There are many more ur-myths: faeries, the 'nature spirit', dragons... and the monster.
A creature who fed upon the blood of others is as old as mankind, and spans all cultures. From Lilith -- Adam's first wife of Judeo-Christian myth -- to the Lamia, man has believed in a horror that is so elemental and terrible. Blood is the base of human life, without it there is no life, and it is salty as the sea from which we originally came. But these early incarnations of the vampire myth, while deeply imprinted on the human subconscious, bore little relation to the later incarnations: they were more primal, less human, as befits a less-sophisticated age. The first modern pre-cursor to the vampire we think of today appears first in late-medieval europe.
The medieval vampire though was only a rough cousin of the myth we think of today. He was rather a shambling monster: a mindless, walking corpse, invariably a peasant, who rose from unconsecrated ground to prey upon, and kill, the weak or wicked, not only drinking their blood but eating their flesh. Barely recognisable as human, the decay of death had not stopped in these creatures and they were the bogeymen of the time: horrors to whisper of in the dark. The methods of creation had similarly not evolved. A vampire was not solely created by the bite of another vampire, but was the animated corpse of those wicked sinners who could not rest in their graves, so evil they were cursed to lust for blood even after death: murderers, heretics and fornicators included.
It was in these monsters -- for they were truly monsters, with no redeeming features and sunk so low they were more animal than human -- that we see the needs and beliefs of the populace reflecting in their myths. Medieval vampires are very much a product of their time. The Medieval age was one of darkness, cold -- it endured a mini-ice age -- and hunger. Disease ravaged the land, including the Black Death with killed millions, and death was a commonplace occurance. The people were generally illiterate (even much of the nobility and the church), unsophisticated by modern standards, and highly superstitious. It was a perfect scenario for the creation of such a myth.
The medieval vampire was an embodiment of the 'monster' myth, evolved for the age and created from the subconscious of those eastern european peasants. Afraid of the dark and of sudden and inexplicable death and disease, they gave substance to their fears. Instead of being afraid and helpless, they rationalised their fear, creating the vampire as a cause of their problems: they could then act together and perhaps control it .
Of particular note is the fact that an encounter with a vampire was inevitably fatal, that the cannibalistic vampire would eat their mortal body rather than merely drink their blood. This was particularly terrible during the time, as Christian mythology, still evolving and superstitious, gave that the mortal body would actually rise from the grave when Jesus returned. For the body to be destroyed -- eaten by evil incarnate -- was a nightmare in even these brutal times.
It is also noticable that, whereas the later myths usually involved aristocratic types, the vampires of this time were invariably of peasant origin themselves. For the peasants to be able to relate to, and truly fear, the vampires, they had to come from their own: in the middle ages there was a clear line drawn between the first and third estates, and even mythical archetypes obeyed these rules.
These myths started in what is now Hungary and other slavic countries of Eastern Europe and spread west slowly but surely. They then died out somewhat in those countries where the Renaissance really took hold -- Italy, France, England -- but remained in those remote eastern enclaves. And it was from there that they reemerged, ready to be adapted to popular needs in the 18th century. And what emerged from those adaptions was a very different vampire.
The Byronic Vampire and the Romantic Ideal
(c) 1998 Helen Steele. All rights reserved.