With Halloween in the air and me comfortably ensconced in the third season of Buffy, I thought a quick flit through vampire mythology would be apt. As it turns out, ideas around blood sucking demons of one kind or another are widespread across nearly all cultures. And the how and why of people coming back from the dead were so varied it’s a miracle anybody stayed in the ground at all.
Stones, spikes and decapitation
You may have come across a news story recently where the skeleton of a child buried with a stone in its mouth was dug up in the disturbingly named Cemetery of the Babies in central Italy.
The researchers who found the skeleton say it was a ten-year-old who probably died during a malaria outbreak that swept through the Umbria area in the mid-5th century. The stone in the mouth, they guess, was a way of containing the disease within the body and stopping the child from rising from the grave and spreading it further.
In previous digs at the cemetery, items such as raven talons, toad bones, bronze cauldrons filled with ash and the remains of sacrificed puppies (!) were found alongside bones. One skeleton of a three-year-old girl had stones weighing down her hands and feet to keep her in her grave.
‘We know that the Romans were very much concerned with this and would even go to the extent of employing witchcraft to keep the evil — whatever is contaminating the body — from coming out,’ says David Soren, a professor from the University of Arizona, who is involved in the dig. However, regarding the stone in the boy’s mouth, he said: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s extremely eerie and weird.’
Weird indeed, but not unprecedented. There have been cases of ‘vampire graves’, or more accurately, ‘deviant burials’, found all over the place.
Several years ago in Poland, road construction workers unearthed four skeletons that had been buried with their heads between their legs. Other remains elsewhere were found with iron sickles across their throats, bars placed on the grave, the tongue removed and replaced with a stone, or iron spikes hammered through the heart, shoulders, pelvis and ankles. There is even a ‘vampire graveyard’ in Celakovice, Czech Republic where over a dozen skeletons from the 11th century had not only been pierced with spikes, but decapitated and their heads turned face-down.
Back from the grave
To say that these are the remains of ‘vampires’ however is to put a more modern word on burials going back a thousand years.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘vampire’ is from the mid-18th century and could either be old French, or from the Hungarian word ‘vampir’, or from the Turkish word ‘uber’ meaning witch. (An interesting side fact is that in a theatre, a certain type of small spring trapdoor used for sudden disappearances from a stage is also called a vampire. Apparently, it was invented for James Planché’s 1820 adaption of Polidori’s The Vampyr as the two doors that spring back into place give the impression a figure is passing through solid matter.)
A ‘deviant’ burial is one that deviates from the norm, but isn’t necessarily the mark of a vampire epidemic. Deviant burials lack grave goods or the body itself is placed in an unusual way. This covers everything from mass burial pits to criminals being carelessly flung into a shallow grave outside of consecrated ground, so I’m going to focus more closely on clear attempts to stop the dead from digging their way back out. Grab a stake, we’re going in!
Superstition and fear
With Bram Stoker’s Dracula published in 1897, the idea of what vampires are has been cemented in popular culture. The flappy cloak, ability to shapeshift and a specific interest in English real estate is the distilled result of many European superstitions across different countries going back centuries. The belief that the dead may return was widespread and enduring and there could be a wide number of reasons why your loved one didn’t stay where they were put.
Ancient Greeks believed that dead bodies could rise as revenants; returning to exact punishment for a previous crime or that spirits of the dead could be compelled to appear through necromancy. Bodies were actually being pinned down with millstones as far back as 4500–3900/3800 BCE.
There were also vampires in Greek mythology. Famous for his wandering eye, Zeus fathered several children with the queen of Libya, called Lamia. Hera, his wife, obviously took exception to this and took the queen’s children away. Hera also cursed her with sleeplessness, but Zeus kindly gave her the ability to remove her own eyes. Lamia ended up wandering the world and drinking the blood of young children, her name eventually being given to the lamiae – female creatures with serpent-like bodies.
Later on in Romania, a strega (female) or stregone (male) was a vampiric witch, who would shapeshift or ride a flying goat to drink people’s blood. The Albanian variation of shtriga turned into a flying insect after feeding and resulted from a woman being infertile or her children being killed. The Polish version of strzyga meanwhile was believed to be the result of a person being born with two souls, so when one dies, the other still lives and has to drink blood and eat entrails to survive.
A nosferatu however, which was the name of the first vampire on film, 1922’s Nosferatu, is actually a certain kind of Romanian vampire that is the illegitimate child of illegitimately born parents. Other variations include the Russian upyr or Polish upior, which unusually attack between noon and midnight, and the Mexican psychic vampire tlahuelpuchi that could transform and feed off psychic energy.
In Norse mythology, draugar are more zombie-like undead, rotting but supernaturally strong and jealous of their grave goods, which anybody who has played Skyrim will be acutely aware. One superstition was that a dead body had to be blindfolded and spun around three times to disorientate them so they could not find their way home from the burial mound.
Other myths include vampiric fairies in Gaelic mythology, demons, or in the case of the Aztec cihuateteo, the malevolent spirits of women who died in childbirth. Some vampires didn’t leave their graves, and instead moved around underground, eating other corpses. In 1679 a theologian called Philip Rorh actually wrote a 24-page treatise called Masticatione Mortuorum or ‘The Chewing of the Dead’, that discusses the tradition that developed of sewing coins into a corpse’s mouth so they would chew on those instead.
Other vampiric myths
If you think we have some scary vampires in Europe, they are nothing on what Asian folklore has in store.
In north India, a brahmarākshasa is a demonic evil spirit that either committed evil deeds in life or misused their knowledge for ill, and is usually depicted with their head enveloped in intestines. A bhoot meanwhile is a restless spirit that likes to immerse itself in milk, and you can spot one pretending to be a human as their feet face backwards.
In the Philippines, a mandurugo is a beautiful girl during the day, but at night grows wings and a long proboscis-like tongue that she uses to suck the foetuses out of pregnant women or drink from men’s necks. A manananggal or ‘self segmenter’ is an old woman who can detach the top of her winged body and also preys on sleeping pregnant women, consuming the foetus and drinking their blood. If you are unfortunate enough to have half a floating woman terrorising your local pregnant population, a way to stop her is by sprinkling salt or garlic on the unattended lower half, preventing the two bits from rejoining.
In Malaysia a similar variation is the penanggal, again a female demon that attacks pregnant women, but this one detaches its head and somehow flies through the air, dangling its entrails and stomach beneath it. Onion and garlic is said to ward off the demon, whilst some people tied thistle to the window frame or door so the penanggal’s intestines would get ensnared and trap them until morning. If you’re lacking for something to occupy your weekend, you could also find the body bit and pour broken glass in the neck, stopping the head from rejoining it.
In China, rather than a demon, a vampire known as chiang-shi was created when a person died in a violent way. Unable to rest, it would attack and tear apart their victim before flying away.
More famous due to later depictions in cartoons and films, the jiang-shi, also known as a Chinese ‘hopping’ vampire, actually translates as ‘stiff corpse’. They always wear the uniform of a Qing Dynasty official and are more of a jumping zombie than vampire, but are repelled by similar things to Western vampires such as mirrors and the call of a rooster, as well as the hooves of a black donkey, the blood of a black dog and the wood of the peach tree. The result of improper burial, magical rituals, suicide or possession, they supposedly originate from an alternative way for cash-poor relatives to return their loved ones home. Rather than pay for the body to be transported, they would instead pay a ‘corpse driver’ to magically bind the wrists, ankles and knees and then force the cadaver to hop home. In reality, the bodies were bound on bamboo poles and carried home, with the bouncing of the poles making it look as though the bodies were walking. Apparently, the way to stop a jiang-shi from chasing you is to throw a handful of rice on the ground and they will stop to count the grains.
Japan, a country with folklore including The Lady of the Snow, who appears during snowstorms and can cripple you with a glance before sucking your life out through your mouth, surprisingly doesn’t have a history of human blood drinkers. The only bloodsucking creature is the kappa, which lives in water, attacks animals and sometimes gets paraded before magical children.
Moving down to Australia, the Aboriginal yara-ma-yha-who is a short creature that lives in fig trees and jumps out to land on their victim and suck their blood out through suction pads on their fingers.
In African folklore, vampires tend to be bloodsucking witches, but they also have a creature that hides in trees, the asasabonsam, that has iron teeth.
Why people thought vampires existed
The reasons why a person would rise from their grave are as equally widespread. It could have been something to do with how they died, so dying young or before marriage, having a violent death, plague or committing suicide. Or, it could be the result of the person being difficult, unpopular, disfigured or otherwise cursed in life. For example, an old Romanian belief is that the seventh child will always become a revenant, whilst being born with a caul (membrane on the head), split lip or third nipple also indicates your unfortunate destiny to return once dead. Being left unburied or not being buried deep enough could also lead to the dead returning through neglect by the living.
Necromancy was also widely believed, originating from the Ancient Greek for dead or corpse and divination, but harking back to even earlier, with evidence from as far back as 7500BC of the dead being buried under houses and the skulls sometimes plastered and kept within the house, possibly as a way to connect the living and the dead. In Ancient Greece necromancy was used to contact or conjure up a dead person’s soul to question them or do the necromancer’s bidding. Odysseus for example does this in the Odyssey, questioning spirits to determine how to reach the Halls of Hades. Later, this idea of divining the future through the use of spirits was superseded with the idea of raising the physical corpse. As Christianity had become widespread in Europe by the Middle Ages, the raising of the dead was solely the domain of God, and necromancy was therefore ‘the Devil’s magic’, leading to well-known magicians such as the Elizabethan John Dee.
From a more scientific point of view, it is thought that the idea of vampirism in particular arose from the effects of disease, poor medical knowledge and isolated communities steeped in superstition.
In 1990 in Griswold, Connecticut a burial ground from the early 1800s revealed a stone coffin within which the skeleton had been rearranged so the decapitated head and crossed thigh bones sat on top of the ribs. Investigation of the grave revealed that five years after the body had been buried, it had been dug up again and rearranged, and the coffin smashed. Later, this desecration was linked to vampire panics in New Hampshire, which were linked to serious TB outbreaks. As people died, wasting away and coughing up blood, later deaths were thought to be the result of their vampirism, leading people to break open their coffins and staking them, turning the body face down or removing heads and other bones. In some cases hearts were removed, burned and the ashes fed to a living relative to try and protect them.
Cholera epidemics have also been suggested as a possible reason for other deviant burials. In the Polish burials where sickles were placed across the neck or stones on the throat coincide with widespread cholera epidemics. Natural decomposition could also be a reason, with fluids leaking from the body leading to blood on the lips and flushed cheeks, or escaping gas creating a ‘scream’ if the body is staked. Natural bacterial decomposition around the mouth can also lead to the appearance that the shroud has been eaten away.
The genetic disease porphyrias may also have contributed to the vampire myth. A collection of eight blood disorders that affect a person’s ability to create heme, a component of hemeoglobin in the blood, it leads to light sensitivity and painful blisters from sunlight.
Search and destroy
If there is a vampire on the loose, how do you find and protect yourself from it? In Romanian folklore, you need to dress a seven-year-old boy in white and put him on a white horse. At midday, lead them into a graveyard and wherever the horse stops indicated where the vampire is buried. In Kosovo, you would need a twin brother and sister born on a Saturday who wear their clothes inside out as only they can see it.
If you’re fresh out of twins or white horses, garlic is one of the most popular ways to repel a vampire, and could have come from how rabies sufferers react to the smell. The snarling and biting led to a link with vampirism, and the resulting heightened sense of smell from the disease makes the infected particularly sensitive to garlic. Rabies also leads to facial and vocal convulsions when triggered by visual stimuli, possibly leading to the belief that vampires hate mirrors as an infected person would recoil from their own reflection.
The use of wooden stakes to kill a vampire is widespread, though the mouth was targeted in Russia and northern Germany, and the stomach in north-eastern Serbia. This was supposed to drain the blood-bloated corpse to kill them. Other methods used include pouring boiling water on the grave, sticking a lemon in the corpse’s mouth, or, to absolutely make sure, just burn everything.
So, now you are fully prepared for any undead disturbances, grab yourself a vampire killing kit and a water pistol of holy water, maybe strap on some thistles, hang the hoof of a black goat around your neck and carry a lemon to be on the safe side, and go forth to check if great aunt Mildred is still where she should be…
If you enjoyed this article on deviant burials and vampire myths, check out another of my articles on how Halloween celebrations have evolved from pagan fear of fairies, through love divination via the medium of molten lead to megabucks spending spree!