The Evolution of Vampires: The Oldest Tales

By Valerie Willis

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The Evolution of Vampires_ The Oldest Tales by Valerie Willis

Vampires. We see them on television, in books, featured in artwork, and during Halloween, we love to dress up as one. Where does it all come from? What defines the vampire we see today versus the one our ancestors whispered about during those dark nights by the fire? There may not be any clear answer to this, no straight path to point to, but you will find many examples all over the world, including Hindu, Romanian, Greek, Japanese, and even Native American Lore. It dives deeper than Bram Stoker’s Dracula and older than Vlad the Impaler. Let’s take it back, to those first inklings and work our way to the familiar veins, shall we? Much of this research is part of a ten plus yearlong development for my Dark Fantasy Paranormal Romance, The Cedric Series, so let’s take a swim together. This is a multi-part series, be sure to check back for future installments…

What Defines A Vampire

Before we go down the black hole of historical links and accounts, let’s take a moment to discuss what makes a thing a vampire? In today’s world, it falls back to drinking blood and unable to be in the sunlight, but as we crawl further back, this becomes less apparent. Instead, many of the early versions of “vampires” or similar creatures begin to straddle both as the walking dead or a witch featuring abilities of all kinds. Shapeshifting, flying, melting into shadows, possession and other elements have been included long before the more practical blood drinkers. Many of these early editions served as people eaters and life suckers rather than the common blood eating sort we know and love. In honor of the early formats:

We will consider anything which feeds on humans by blood or soul as a vampire.

Demons and creatures who eat people is a whole different ball game, which includes the common reference to Lilith or Lilitu of Jewish and Assyrian Mythology as well as the Babylonian demi-goddess Lamashtu or Lamassu. That’s right, I just said they don’t count as vampires, so hold on to your hats folks, you’re in for a long ride. Granted, some of the historical accounts are cannibalistic entities, but they play a huge part in vampire evolution in the path in which modern fiction has transcended.

The Meaning Behind the Word Vampire

Though I may be using vampire as a generic umbrella term, you should be aware this is a rather new word or label for our blood and soul sucking favorites. This version of the word, vampire, was first widely noted in a 1734 French tome about burial practices which soon after took hold. Belief of vampires and the art of digging them up to stake or burn their hearts became a wildfire belief spanning for a long period of time throughout the 1700 to 1800’s. This may be in part to the diseases and conditions which brought people to a deathlike sleep, and with no medical science to safely know the difference, being buried alive was common (Check out more on this topic via the podcast Lore, episode 72 ‘A Grave Mistake’).

Parts of the word are speculated to come from various places including upyr a Slavic word for witch to even Russian words such as upir (witch) or netopyr meaning bat. It was first used in its former version, upir, in a 11th century tome and by the 1400’s it had become vampir during the Renaissance and Vlad the Impaler’s reputation set it in motion. Occasionally, the word would be misspelled and thus, gave birth to a 1700-1800’s variant of vampyre. Looking to the Ancient Greek word vapi one must wonder if it joined, distorted, and mingled in the blending of cultures to the North and West for the final edition of vampir or vampire. Broken apart, and applied to Greek and Latin, vapi means ‘will drink’ or ‘to drink’ with upir or pir meaning witch; The drinking witch or perhaps, the Witch who will drink? The oldest written version of any of these is from 1036 CE in a story about “Upir Lichyj” or “wicked vampire” which refers to a Slavic Priest.

Before this, we had other terms and labels which have been used well before the creation of the current one. The Romanian term strigoi was common among traveling merchants which meant hag or evil spirit. It derives a root of the Romanian verb striga, to scream. This later gave birth to a variant called strix, meaning screech owl, and in Greek Mythology was a bird of ill omen which fed on human flesh and blood. Later, this also was used to describe a type of witch. In some places, the witch, the werewolf, and the vampire were one and the same. Many tales of the varga mor tell of a soul-sucking, or man-eating, witch who could turn into a wolf.

The word moroi closely follows strigoi in the old Romanian folklores. It is derived from the Romanian word mora meaning nightmare. Another connection is the Russian term kikimora, but much of their lore wasn’t written down. In general, they were connected to being offspring of a werewolf or vampire, and like the strigoi, variants of dead and alive versions are scattered between the verbally passed on tales versus those written down during the Middle Ages. I would like to note, tales of werewolves date well-before vampire lore and have far more names and accounts noted. Hence, in The Cedric Series why book two, Romansanta: Father of Werewolves unfolds in the manner it does and implies werewolves created vampires.

Oldest Written Accounts of a Vampire

Not every culture and religion focused on recording or writing down their tales, mythology, beliefs and lifestyles. A great example of this would be the Celtic people who believed in having Druids to pass along their stories and religion via oral tradition, or verbal storytelling. Think of a Druid as some kind of bard, since they would sing songs and tell legends of old. Regardless, my aim is to start this journey on what had factual dates, or round about starting points. Let’s start on familiar ground, then we will make our way to a time before.

The Bible & New Testament

I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.

Revelations 17:6

The Bible is smattered with messages which can be taken literal or in a symbolic manner. In some instances, it seems clear the message is powerful men taking from the poor or condemning the ill. Other times, you wonder if there is some link to the belief of vampires. In short, the Old Testament makes it very clear we are not to drink the blood of others for fear of becoming something different, something cursed. Revelations 17:6 has one chilling moment, and one must wonder what sort of vampress had her fill, or will be doing so, in the Apocalypse to come. Granted, in a more symbolic manner, this is about taking in one’s faith and letting it fill them to their core. Regardless, the Bible dates back about 2,700 years and isn’t the oldest written account.

The Torah and Old Testament

If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.

Leviticus 17:10

The Torah, or as some say, the Old Testament, predates the modern Bible, setting it about 3,300 years old. Leviticus pushes for man to be mindful of one fact, blood is life. Thus, the lesson is instilled one who does drink the blood of others will be cast out. Or perhaps, no longer is considered a man. It wasn’t until the Talmudic in 200 CE when the Jewish vampire began its roots as seducers known as strigas, succubi, and their lead seductress, Lilith. Teamed with the teachings from the Zohar and Kabbalah practices in the 2nd Century CE, blending demon, witch, vampires, and magic users became a widely known “fact” to those in the known world. Still, Leviticus holds true to our blood drinking mortals turned vampire.

The Sibylline Oracles

505 With supplications and unholy rites. Forsaking the Creator they were slaves To lewdness. Men possessing everything Bestow their gifts on things which cannot aid, As if they for my honors deemed these things

510 All useful, with the smell of sacrifice Filling the feast, as if for their own dead. For they flesh and bones full of marrow burn Offering on altars, and they pour out blood To demons, and they kindle lights to me

515 The giver of light, and as to a god That thirsts do mortals drunken pour out wine For nought to idols that can give no aid. I have no need of your burnt offerings, Nor your libations, nor polluted smoke,

520 Nor blood most hateful. For in memory Of kings and tyrants they will do these things Unto dead demons, as to heavenly beings, Performing service godless and destructive. And godless they their images call gods.

Sybilline BOOK VIII

Let’s not forget the Sibyls, or Oracles, had their fair share in recording the idea these blood drinkers existed (See my article on the Oracles for more about their historical roots). The Sibylline books were first written as far back as the 6th Century BC, making them roughly 5,000 years old. Between a fire in 83 BC and the Roman General Flavius Stilicho (365-408 CE), a large portion of the Sibylline texts were lost to the world. Still, what has survived contains remnants of the Bible and Torah, and a lot more to say about the drinking of blood. Again, echoes of Leviticus can be found along with some chilling ideas of vampire worshipping and the judgment which comes from an immortal God. In BOOK II, verse 115 of the Sibylline text, it is written: “When he to judgment comes. Disable not Thy mind with wine nor drink excessively. Eat not blood, and abstain from things Offered to idols.” It seems as if blood drinking is the same as making a pact with something, or meant for non-humans entirely, and here, she warns to stay sober less you fall prey.

Twenty-Five Tales of Baital

Madhusadan proceeded to make his incantations, despite terrible sights in the air, the cries of jackals, owls, crows, cats, asses, vultures, dogs, and lizards, and the wrath of innumerable invisible beings, such as messengers of Yama (Pluto), ghosts, devils, demons, imps, fiends, devas, succubi, and others. All the three lovers drawing blood from their own bodies, offered it to the goddess Chandi, repeating the following incantation, “Hail! supreme delusion! Hail! goddess of the universe! Hail! thou who fulfillest the desires of all. May I presume to offer thee the blood of my body; and wilt thou deign to accept it, and be propitious towards me!

Vikram and the Vampire by Sir Richard F. Burton

At the end of this list is a more obscure piece with an origin date unknown. Baital Pachisi, or “Twenty-five tales of Baital” was written in an ancient Hindu language known as Sanskrit (the language of the gods) which dates as far back at 600 BC. This is a vampire story nearly some 1,000 years older than the Sibyls’ own writings with a rewritten account in 1037 CE when the original scrolls were decaying. Later, an English adaptation, though loosely based on the original version, called “Vikram and the Vampire” would be written by Sir Richard F. Burton.  Baital was the name of a celestial spirit known as a Pishacha, or for our convenience, vampire. According to legends, the Pishacha fed on human energy or souls, hung upside down in trees, and much more.

Considering the snippets strewn across these ancient times, vampires were feared as soul suckers who humans enticed with their blood. We were also guilty of wanting their power, their immortality, and even their blessing and would take it upon ourselves to drink blood in order to become something more.

Check back next week for a look at the historical accounts  of vampires…


Valerie WillisValerie Willis

Valerie Willis is the author of The Cedric Series, a high-rated Paranormal Fantasy Romance Series featuring an anti-hero dragged away from the revenge he seeks on his maker by love and the onset of a larger threat. Valerie’s work is inspired by a melting pot of mythology, folklores, history, topped off with a healthy dose of foreshadowing.

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