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Vampire Vednesdays: Classic Vampires
The quintessential undead bloodsucker is associated with central and eastern Europe. It is known by numerous names: strigoi or strigoi mort in Romanian, izcacus in Hungarian, and a vampir (by various spellings) in Slavic languages.
Not to be confused with Hollywood depictions of Dracula and his ilk, the classic vampire’s main weapon is shapeshifting, of which it is a true adept. It is not necessarily stronger or faster than an ordinary human, but it is nevertheless a formidable foe. These creatures like to socialize with their own kind, though never in groups larger than twelve, but they are not generally inclined to cooperate with each other.
When vampires first rise in undeath, they are disoriented and unaware of their powers. Many of the expected weaknesses we associate with the undead operate in force for these “young” bloodsuckers. They must return to their coffins during the day and are especially prone to obsessive counting. At this stage, peasants can generally make short work of them. They are averse to holy objects (crosses, consecrated Host, etc.). They can be immobilized by a hawthorn stake through the heart. They are repelled by garlic, wild rose, hawthorn, and wolf’s bane. After about a hundred days, however, young vampires shake off their initial disorientation and become much more dangerous. They freely roam without being bound to their coffins, though if their burial shroud is ever lost or destroyed, they lose their powers.
Classic vampires eventually ranged far from their original homeland. The earliest European vampire legend, for example, involved a certain Conde Estuch, a creature of this type who originated in central Europe but operated in Catalonia.
There are several kinds of monster from surrounding regions that mostly conform to the “classic vampire” model, though with notable variations. Here are a few of them:
Blutsauger: This is a vampire from Bavaria and other parts of southern Germany. It is in nearly every respect identical to its Slavic counterpart.
Estrie: First attested in the 1460s, this Jewish female vampire may be a later development from the ancient lilit. They are not impeded by holy objects or places, and their preferred shapeshifting forms are birds (especially screech owls) and cats.
Mullo: This vampire of Roma folklore dresses all in white and has long, white hair that reaches to its ankles.
Obur: This rare Turkic vampire is especially attested in the Caucasus region. In life, it was a powerful wizard that gained its powers from consuming human blood. (Therefore, some oburs would better be classified as “living vampires.”) In death, it continues to prey on the living.
Strega: This Italian term can mean both witch and vampire. It commonly shapeshifts into an owl.
Strigoi Mort: This Romanian vampire, also called a moroi in rural areas, sometimes drains life energy rather than blood. It has poltergeist-like telekinetic powers.
Upir: This vampire from Poland and Russia has a barbed tongue instead of fangs.
Ustrel: On rare occasions, children become vampires. According to Bulgarian legend, this can happen when a child born on Saturday dies before being baptized. Ustrels (or istrals) lack the social skills to conceal their true nature. They are generally too weak to prey on humans, but will feed on livestock and other animals. These creatures are also known in parts of Poland.
Vrykolakas: Vrykolakas (both singular and plural) are native to Greece. They are similar to strigas, but most often drain life energy rather than blood.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-García
I’m not sure what put me on a vampire kick, but here we are. Silvia Moreno-García’s Certain Dark Things presents an interesting take on the vampire mythos. The premise of the story is that the mundane world learned that vampires were real some fifty years ago. At that point, the various nations took steps to either contain the monsters or expel them outright. For various reasons, many of these banished bloodsuckers ended up in Mexico, where the anti-vampire laws were more lenient than most places, and European-style vampires are now running Mexico’s drug cartels in competition with the tlahuelpocmimi, the indigenous vampires of Aztec culture.
The story begins as Atl, the last surviving member of a powerful family of tlahuelpocmimi, is on the run after a deadly altercation with the Necros, vampires of the clan that had recently massacred her family. She flees to Mexico City, the lone ostensibly vampire-free stronghold in the country, where she meets a street kid named Domingo. The novel plays out as Atl and Domingo evade hostile forces both human and superhuman in a quest to find a place of refuge. As might be expected, the two grow in affection for each other, though there remains the nagging sense that their relationship might bring complications to Atl—and prove deadly for Domingo. You see, Moreno-García humanizes her vampires, but they’re still ultimately monsters. At one point, an ancient vampire warns Domingo, “We are our hunger.” Indeed.
The novel is well written, the characters believable, the near-future world fascinating. I especially appreciate how Moreno-García played with varying vampire legends from around the globe. There are ten known vampire species in this world: European, African, Indian, Chinese, and of course Mexican. Three of them are most involved in the plot, although about half of them at least get a mention at some point. (She describes all ten in an appendix, but I found this a bit of a letdown. If you’re not going to put them in the story and you don’t have plans for a sequel, why the info dump?)
Moreno-García takes some liberties with vampire mythology—they’re all living members of a distinct human species, and as much as possible their special powers and weaknesses are described in scientific terms—but she does this creatively, not haphazardly. She has obviously done her research, and it shows.
If you like vampire stories at all, you owe it to yourself to give Certain Dark Things a look.
Of Beans and Vampires
Today I learned that apparently you can use beans to trick vampires. By some sort of leguminous magic, vampires are prone to mistaking beans for pregnant women (and possibly other kinds of humans). Who knew?
This tidbit may or may not be related to my previous post about commodity items as media of exchange. Time will tell.
Also, leguminous is an adjective meaning “relating to or denoting plants of the pea family” (including beans).
The Physics of Vampires
As it turns out, vampires need to finish feeding in under seven minutes. Some physics students at the University of Leicester did the math:
A bite to the neck and a clean getaway—that’s what a vampire needs. A group of physics students from the University of Leicester calculated exactly how long a vampire would need to accomplish those two things: about 6.4 minutes. They published their findings in the university’s Journal of Physics Special Topics.
The human body can’t function during major blood loss. After 15 percent of the blood leaves the body, the heart rate changes, and blood drinking, even from the carotid artery, becomes a process of diminishing returns. The Leicester students set out to calculate how long it would take for 15 percent of the body’s blood to make it out through a couple of holes in the neck.
The Mathematics of Vampires
Yes, apparently there is such a thing.
A surprisingly large number of academic studies—as in, more than one—have applied mathematical modeling to the concept of human-vampire co-existence. Using the depiction of bloodsuckers in various forms of media, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to True Blood, these papers look at whether Earth’s vampire population would inevitably annihilate humanity, and, if so, how long it would take.
Five Vampires from Around the World
I grew up on Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For the longest time, that was what a vampire was—and it was the only thing a vampire could be! Vampires were suave, aristocratic, and spoke with an Eastern European accent. They turned into bats, drank the blood of their victims, slept in a coffin, and were destroyed by sunlight.
Needless to say, it was an eye-opener when I learned there were other kinds of vampires out there. When I first read Dracula, I was amazed at how new and fresh Stoker’s original Count Dracula was compared to Lugosi and all of his many imitators. (Dracula can walk around in the daytime? Why didn’t I know this??)
In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write a little about some of the unusual vampires or vampire-like creatures found in world mythology. These are not necessarily my “favorites,” but they perhaps show a little bit of the diversity of vampire lore.
The estrie is a type of female vampire found in Jewish folklore. It is said to prey mainly on Jewish men, but it also has a taste for the blood of children. Estries are sometimes seen as comparable to succubi, seductive female demons. They are also shapeshifters, able to turn into birds or cats at will.
The earliest estrie legends describe them as demonic entities. Later stories depict them living among mortals as part of the community, possibly victims of some sort of demonic possession.
Unlike other demons or creatures of the night, estries are undeterred by holy symbols or holy places.
This Gaelic word signifies “the walking dead.” One famous example of a neamh-mairbh was the evil magician Abhartach, whose story is told in Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1875). He says of Abhartach,
This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.
In some versions of the tale, Abhartach rises from the grave to drink the blood of his former subjects. He is sometimes tauted as the (or an) inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
A vetala (also vetaal or baital) is a type of evil spirit from Indian folklore. They take possession of human or animal corpses to use as vehicles in which to hunt for blood to drink—although they are also able to move about without the aid of a material “host.” They can also possess living victims.
The vetala is not simply an aspect or residue of person it inhabits. It doesn’t possess that person’s memories. They are malicious creatures in every way. In addition to their blood-drinking, cannibalistic tendencies, they are also known to kill children, cause miscarriages, and drive people insane.
In at least one instance, however, these creatures are presented in a more positive light. In the story of Baital Pachisi, the vetala is a heroic character who saves the life of the king, the protagonist of the story.
Vetalas can be repelled by chanting and released from their undead condition by performing the proper funeral rituals on their behalf.
Unlike many conventional understandings of vampires, the ekimmu (or edimmu) of ancient Mesopotamia (Assyria) do not drink the blood of their victims. Rather, they are phantom, demon-like creatures that draw sustenance from the “breath” of others, often babies or young children. (Other sources say the ekimmu drained both blood and life-force.)
Ekimmu were the spirits of deceased humans who could not find peace in death. It was possible to become an ekimmu in a variety of ways including dying violently from murder, dying young, being improperly buried, etc.
An ekimmu’s victims generally die after a few days. These creatures could also inflict disease or inspire criminal behavior.
The leannán sídhe (Scottish leannan sith, Manx lhiannan shee) or “faery lover” is another “psychic vampire” like the ekimmu. Rather than being an undead monster, however, this is a faery being. Specifically, it is a beautiful female faery that compels a mortal man to fall in love with her. In return for her love, she imparts great artistic or creative abilities. The price of this inspiration, however, is often insanity or a premature death. According to W. B. Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888),
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.
Although Yeats focused on the parasitic aspects of the leannán sídhe, others highlight her positive role as a muse.