He Wasn’t Always Purple: Examining Vampires in Myth

I remember my first encounter with vampiric mythology the way I recall most childhood memories: extremely vaguely and in superficial terms. Because of this I can tell you that the Count, Sesame Street’s dapper, friendly interpretation of Dracula, was a mathematician. I can tell you he wore a dark cloak, had a long, triangular noise, and was whole-bodily purple. But while modern variations of the legend have dressed vampires up in a whole host of different outfits and styles – looking at you, Twilight – I would attest that the most important feature to any vampiric legend is the consumption of blood. And the Count just didn’t do that. So what makes a vampire?

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Illustration by Maybelle Leung

You’ll have to look further back than the Count to determine that. Circa the Twilight franchise, Nosferatu, and Dracula, there was the original folklore of the vampire. Most likely given rise by ancient beliefs — wherein the term “vampire” didn’t exist yet, and blood-sucking was attributed to demons, spirits, and ghouls — the European version is responsible for separating vampires into a category of their own. The earliest accounts are mainly Slavic, but there are a few similar ones that take place in northern Germany as well, where vampires were otherwise referred to as Nachzehrer (nach being ‘after’ and zehren coming from the term ‘consume, or to prey upon’).1 These are not the bloodsuckers recognizable today: for one, they’re all predominantly Slavic. Moreover, creatures of the 15th-17th century weren’t of prestigious ancestry; the various types of vampires in origin stories were dirty, dead, and bloated peasants.

For clarity’s sake, today’s vampires are divided into two groups based on their creation. The first are referred to as “revenants,” or the undead; the second group is comprised of those who become infected through vampirism (those who have been bitten or have come in contact with the vampire, or have digested meat from an animal that’s been bitten). One of the most popular early accounts is of the former, and it is the tale of Peter Plogojowitz. Peter’s case comes from the beginning of the 17th century in the village of Kisilova, in the Rham District. Ten weeks following his death and burial, Peter’s village was put under siege by a plague, resulting in the illness and death of nine people of various ages within a week. What is interesting, though, are the accounts of those who before they died stated that Peter had come to them in their sleep, to either suck their blood or suffocate them. So in this case, a vampire does not rise from the earth, as many of the modern incarnations do. Eventually in the account, priests are called into the situation and Peter’s body is exhumed and “rekilled” in an assortment of ways (methods which included a stake, dismemberment, and burning). It is only after the destruction of the physical body that the epidemic ends.2

But Peter’s is not the only story where a vampire is equated with a plague. In fact, the majority of of pre-18th century works denote a correlation between a vampire’s death and a swift-following, lethal sickness (which, ergo, must have been caused by the vampire). Take for example the story of Arnold Paole, a Serbian hajdck of the 17th century, rumored to have been a vampire after his death. It is recorded that a vampiric epidemic followed in his wake; translations of medical reports state that four died directly at Peter’s hand, three died after a three day illness, two after a three month illness, and numerous others as a result of eating cattle Peter had bitten.3 To this end, authorities believed they were forced to dug up and analyze all the bodies.

The excavation of bodies for vampiric tracking only legally ended a couple decides after. Eventually, the controversy surrounding the existence of vampires forced the hand of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who sent her personal physician (a man by the name of Gerhard van Swieten) to Moravia to give a final verdict. Swieten was bias to begin with, famously quoted for believing the myth as a “barbarism of ignorance,”4 so it was no surprise when he concluded the legends were false. On his word laws were passed banning people from opening graves, and a punishment enacted for desecrating bodies. Finally, the traditional vampire crisis was put to a close.

Mostly. It is self-evident by this point that the legend lived on, even if the medium has changed. Somehow, time evolved a violent, terrifying mythological creature into an iconic cereal box face. Or a twenty-dollar Halloween suit.

Or, as some might say, a pleasant, purple mathematician.

But what a vampire has become now isn’t of significance, what is important is that its rich history lives on. So next time you consider dressing up as a vampire for Halloween, just remember Arnold Paole. Tapping into the mythology of creepy creatures almost guarantees you a scary costume.

(Looking for more creepy mythologies? Try the wendigo, encantado, and manticore.)

1,2,3 Barber, Paul. Vampires, burial, and death: folklore and reality. [New ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. Print.

4 Hamberger, Klaus: Mortuus non mordet. Dokumente zum Vampirismus 1689–1791. Wien 1992

– Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

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