I thought I’d take the Wednesdays leading up to Halloween to talk about various vampire-like creatures in world mythology. “Vampire” is a slippery term in the modern world, however. Strictly speaking, vampires come from eastern Europe. Period.
But there are, however, creatures from around the world that might be considered “vampire-like”—if only because popular culture has made “vampire” a point of reference that most people understand.
When I say “vampire-like,” I’m describing a creature that possesses certain points of affinity with the classic eastern European vampire. Some are drinkers of blood—though others are cannibals or else consumers of human life force, breath, or qi. Some are undead—but others are still among the living, and some are eldritch horrors in human form. None of them live up to every vampire trope, but all of them live up to a few of them, enough that we might reach for the language of vampirism to describe their basic nature.
We’ll begin today with the edimmu. These creatures barely conform to most people’s understanding of the term “vampire,” though some consider them among the earliest examples of a vampire-like monster.
In ancient Mesopotamia, these creatures were classified as utukku or rabisu, words that refer to a class of spirits that have escaped the underworld, either demons or ghosts. More specifically, they were members of a subset of utukku comprised of the ghosts of those who died without proper funerary rites. Though first documented 4,000 or more years ago, they continued to be evoked in Syriac and Palestinian magical spells under the name of the sebitti or “seven maskim [ensnarers, evil spirits]” into the Christian era. These seven were apparently of a superior nature from rank and file edimmu, said to be the brothers of the fearsome goddess Lamashtu.
Edimmu are barely corporeal beings of living shadow. Their natural form is a moving shadow or an invisible, rushing wind. They can, however, fashion for themselves an ectoplasmic body, which often appears as a walking corpse or a winged demon. They are also sometimes able to take possession of a living host.
A fair number of scholarly articles identify the edimmu with a class of spirits known as “watchers,” “vigilant ones,” or “wakeful ones” (Aramaic iyrin; Greek egregoroi; Slavonic grigori), known mainly from Jewish apocalyptic writings. By late antiquity, the watchers were described in several Jewish sources. In 1 Enoch, for example, one learns that their great appetites, including for human flesh, makes them violent.
Some edimmu feed on the life energy of humans, but others are overtly blood-drinkers. This penchant for blood is attested from the oldest Akkadian records down to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not content to harass human beings, these horrific creatures also seek to destroy the works of human civilization, scorching the land and killing animals as well as people. At the same time, they sometimes entice the devotion of humans by divulging to them arcane knowledge. There are a few stories in which they seduce human women.