Full of Blood: an Essay on
In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli Bodies of holy men and women exude Miraculous oil, odor of violet. But under heavy loads of trampled clay Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood; Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet. -- W.B. Yeats, "Oil and Blood" Of all the nasty creatures conjured and maintained by mythology, folklore, film and literature, the vampire is inarguably the most popular. He's perhaps best characterized by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, and Bela Lugosi's 1931 film portrayal of the same. Bela Lugosi remains the quintessential image of the modern vampire: thick East European accent, oiled black hair, pale complexion, prominent fangs, and long fingernails. Note my use of the word "modern." The vampire of myth and folklore was another chap altogether. If you were to welcome a vampire of Slavic folklore into your home, he wouldn't look much like Stoker's renowned villain. Stoker's Dracula was not Slavic. He lived in Transylvania and was loosely based on Vlad Tepes, a figure in Rumanian history who was a prince, not a count, ruled in Walachia, not Transylvania, and was never viewed by the local populace as a vampire. The real Dracula was born Vlad, son of Vlad, around 1431 in Sighisoara, Transylvania. Shortly thereafter, Vlad the father was given the Order of the Dragon by Emperor Sigismund of Nuremberg. The emblem of the order was a dragon (dracul) with spread wings, hanging on a cross. Because of his connection with this symbol, Vlad the father was later nicknamed Dracul. The nickname Dracula, son of Dracul, was given to his son. The real story of Dracula is an interesting one, ending in 1476 when he was killed in battle by the Turks, but it never occurred to anyone that he was a vampire until the Irishman Bram Stoker came along. The vampire of folklore is a particular type of Slavic revenant. Far from elegant, the folkloric vampire appears plump and ruddy, his hair awry, his eyes vacant and lost; in short, a disheveled Slavic peasant. He's apt to be wrapped in a linen shroud, clotted with dirt, and accompanied by an awful stench. Where the fictional vampire sucks blood from the neck of his victim, the folkloric vampire attacks primarily the chest or the extremities. He spends his days not in a noble castle, but in the graveyard wherein he was buried. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word vampire entered the English language in 1734, at a time when Europeans showed a great deal of interest in the subject. Unremarkably, the word comes from that part of the world most famous in history and literature as the home of the vampire: Transylvania. The Hungarian word is Vampyr, but there are many variations: Russian, upyr; Turkish, obour; Greek, vrykolakas; and so on. The first known use of the word is in a travel book published in London in 1734, The Travels of Three English Gentlemen. The authors state that vampyrs are the "bodies of deceased persons, animated by evil spirits, which come out of the grave in the night-time, suck the blood of many of the living and thereby destroy them." Following publication of the book, use of the word spread, but the concept, if not the word, was already centuries old in England, as it was everywhere. One reason for all the excitement at the time was the Peace of Passarowitz (1718), by which parts of Serbia and Walachia were turned over to Austria. Thereupon, the occupying forces began to notice and file reports on a peculiar local practice: that of exhuming bodies and "killing" them. The vampire may have originated in the Indus River Valley (which includes portions of India, Nepal, and Tibet) where wall paintings and carved figures depicting vampire-type gods date back to 3000 B.C. These pictures show creatures with green faces, pale blue bodies, and prominent fangs. The partaking of blood is featured in at least one of these: the Nepalese Lord of Death holds a skull cup filled with blood and stands on a hill of skeletons in a sea of blood. Delhousie University professor Devendra P. Varma, a recognized vampire expert, in her book The Vampire in Legend, Lore, and Literature, has gone so far as to state, "The origins of the vampire myth lie in the mystery cults of oriental civilizations . . . the Nepalese Lord of Death, the Tibetan Devil, and the Mongolian God of Time." Indian vampires include the ancient rakshasas (literally, "destroyers"), documented in the Vedas in 1500 B.C., and the langsuir, a beautiful woman who sucks the blood of babies. Malaysians believe in the penanggalen, an intestine trailing, bodiless head that feeds on children. West European vampire traditions can be traced back to the Greek and Roman lamia, Strigoi, or vrykolakas. The Arabs had their ghoul, a female demon who fed upon dead bodies and wandered in cemeteries at night to suck dry the dead in their graves. The ancient Greeks had their empusa, a vampire demonic spirit that could enter the body. The Chinese vampire was the xiang shi, a deceased who keeps from decaying by preying on other corpses or the living. There are similar vampiric creatures in nearly every culture. The Catholic Church officially recognized the existence of vampires in 1215 during the Fourth Lateran Council of Catholic Church Leaders in Rome. Typical of the time period and the Church's political motivations, the Church established itself as the only authority strong enough to eliminate vampires. The church saw vampirism as a means of extending its power, and thus let the beliefs bloom so that priests could exorcise the demons and save the people. In 1489, Catholic priests James Sprenger and Henry Kramer wrote Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for use in the Inquisition witch trials (another ploy to ensure church control over the populace). Some of the activities in Malleus Maleficarum relate to vampirism. This endorsement kept the church incredibly busy in the middle of the fourteenth century. From 1347 to 1350 approximately 25 million people died of bubonic plague. Lacking modern medicine's understanding of germs and bacteria, supernatural causes were blamed. Vampires, in particular, were thought to be a major culprit during the Black Death. Plague victims who wasted away were thought to have been visited by a dead relative. The relative would be disinterred and staked, beheaded, or burned. It wasn't until the invention of the microscope around 1600 that germs and bacteria were discovered. Until that time, vampires were thought to take revenge on the living by inflicting diseases. The church's involvement had at least one positive side to it: numerous vampire cases were explicitly documented. Of those records which still exist, most notable are the writings of William of Newburgh and Dom Augustin Calmet. By studying these and other accounts, it's possible to identify the classic characteristics of vampire encounters:
The first of these characteristics we've already attributed to medical ignorance. Until the seventeenth century there was no understanding of how diseases were spread. Lacking scientific explanations for epidemics, the populace turned to supernatural ones. To find scientific rationale for the other characteristics, it's necessary that we draw some corollaries between what happens to a body after death and the aforementioned vampire motifs. The faint of heart and weak of stomach are hereby forewarned, decomposition is not for sissies:
Already, we can see how several of the vampire motifs are directly related to the normal process of decomposition. The vampire is believed to drink blood because the corpse has blood in its mouth, is bloated, bleeds when cut, and its shroud is often bloody. All these conditions are attributable to the normal putrefactive process. Bloating occurs because the microorganisms of decomposition produce gas, mostly methane, and this gas, lacking an escape route, collects both in the tissues and in the body cavities. In some cases, the gas causes the body to expand to three times its normal size. (Incidentally, it's virtually impossible to dispose of a corpse in water unless it's first thoroughly gutted. The expansion of gases within the corpse will lift several times the weight of the corpse to the surface.) This bloating gives the vampire his plump appearance. Decomposition produces heat, hence the warm feel of the vampire's skin. Bloating of the penis and scrotum may be mistaken for an erection. Such misconceptions probably gave rise (no pun intended) to the eroticism in vampire lore. Many accounts describe sounds from the grave. These sounds are most likely the bursting of the abdominal wall distended by gas. Likewise, when the abdomen explodes, the corpse's shroud is bloodied. What one sees in the mouth is not fresh blood, but frothy, liquified tissue and decomposing blood forced out by the expanding pressures inside the body. Also, any disease that causes disintegration of the lung tissue can cause blood to appear at the lips. Both pneumonic plague and tuberculosis are known to do this. As for the presence of "fresh" blood in the corpse, blood does coagulate after death, but then, depending on how death occurred, it may liquify again. Blood tends to reliquify when death has been sudden, as from concussion, suffocation, electrocution, or following an attack of angina pectoris. The determinant is the sudden removal of oxygen, characteristic of death by smothering or a sudden end to the functions of either the heart or central nervous system. In addition, uncoagulated blood is normally present in the limb vessels and heart of any healthy person who died from almost any cause. It should be expected that a corpse would bleed when staked through the heart. The liquification of the blood of persons who died suddenly ties succinctly with the folkloric belief that vampires were typically murder victims, suicides, and those struck by lightning. Also, note the correlation to the superstitious belief that a corpse will bleed in the presence of its murderer. Hypostasis (the gravitating of blood into the dependent parts of the body) gives the corpse its ruddy color. And the vampire's limbs are supple because we now know that rigor mortis is a temporary condition. The rate at which it arrives and departs is subject to variation, but typically it passes within 36 hours (except under certain conditions like extreme cold). What seems to be a continued growth of hair or nails -- or, in some cases, teeth -- is really just the natural shrinking back of skin and gums which causes the teeth, hair, and nails to appear longer than they actually are. This sloughing away of the outer layer of skin is known as "skin slippage." What is revealed underneath looks like new skin, but isn't. The same is true of the nails. (Egyptian embalmers were aware of this and either tied the nails on or placed metal thimbles over the tip of each finger and toe.) Even the vampire's shriek can be explained. This is the noise made when the pent-up gases inside the corpse are forced out past the vocal cords. The other common arguments used to explain the vampire phenomenon are premature burial and porphyria. Comas and catalepsy are the reasons typically cited for premature burials. Statistics from as late as the early half of this century record as many as fifty known cases of premature burial each year. It's conceivable that someone buried alive might be heard, exhumed, and killed out of fear. Just imagine the poor wretch's appearance after having spent some time buried alive. Unfortunately, this explanation doesn't fit most of the well- documented vampire cases where the vampire was known to have been accompanied by a great stench and had spent weeks -- in some cases, months -- in the grave. Porphyria has been offered as a medical explanation for both vampires and werewolves. Porphyria is a rare hereditary blood disease characterized by the inability of the body to produce heme, a compound of hemoglobin, which is a major component in new blood. Today there are effective treatments for porphyria. Without treatment, however, the porphyria sufferer must endure conditions such as extreme sensitivity to sunlight, excessive hairiness, skin sores, and disfigurement. In severe cases the fingers and nose sometimes fall off. The skin of the gums and lips might tighten and stretch, causing the teeth to appear very prominent and fang-like. Oddly enough, garlic, which stimulates heme production in healthy people, contains a chemical that worsens the painful symptoms of porphyria. While porphyria holds some merit as an explanation for vampirism (it is conceivable that a porphyria sufferer might attempt to obtain the heme his body needed by drinking the blood of others), it fails to explain the werewolf, where the theory was, in fact, first applied. Just as the fictional vampire hardly resembles his historical counterpart, the folkloric werewolf cannot be judged by such fictional portrayals as that of Lon Chaney. In folklore the werewolf usually looks like a real wolf and not a porphyria victim at all. Folk tales are like the game children play wherein something is whispered from one child to the next until what is being said no longer resembles the original statement. Start with an innocuous event, the unearthing of a body, and the story quickly takes shape. We know that corpses bloat and bleed from the mouth as a result of natural decomposition, but an uneducated man, shaped by the superstitions of his time, might think the corpse had sucked the blood from the living. In all likelihood, from such a beginning sprang the vampire. That modern man has become so enamored with the vampire is not so surprising. Margaret Carter, in her forward to the classic novel Varney the Vampire (1847), put it best when she said, "The vampire is the night-prowling symbol of man's hunger for -- and fear of -- everlasting life . . . The mixture of attraction and repulsion . . . is the essence of the vampire concept."
Copyright © 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-30 19:50, www.bahwolf.com