LV Ancient

Vampires in Folklore


     Vampires have been mentioned in humankind's recorded history for over four thousand years.  It stands to reason vampires have been shadow companions to man from earlier still.  Quoting J. Gordon Melton from  'The Encyclopedia of the Undead':  "The vampire (or its structural equivalent) was a universal figure in human culture, which emerged in the natural course of life.  That is to say, the vampire probably emerged independently at many points in human culture.  There is little evidence to suggest that the vampire emerged at one time and place, and then diffused around the world from that primal source."

    "By a comparison of the beliefs in these many lands, in ancient Assyria, in old Mexico, in China, India and Melanesia, it will be seen that the superstition and tradition of the vampire prevail to an extraordinary extent, although details differ.  It is hard to believe that a phenomenon which has had so complete a hold over nations both young and old, in all parts of the world and at all times of history, has not some underlying and terrible truth, however rare this may be in its more remarkable manifestations."       Montague Summers - 'The Vampire's Kith and Kin'

Origins~Ancient Mesopotamia

     As with most legends, pinpointing dates, and sometimes places, of origin is nearly impossible.  References to vampires begin around the same time recorded history does in most cultures.
Assyrian clay tablet BC 1325; click for full-sized image       Montague Summers has stated in 'The Vampire's Kith and Kin':  "The earliest vampire known is that depicted upon a prehistoric bowl, where a man copulates with a vampire whose head has been severed from the body.  Here the threat of cutting off her head is supposed to frighten her away from the act represented."  Unfortunately no further details were included nor explanation of how it had been determined that the body was that of a vampire or that the bowl was a warning.  (it also brings on some irreverent speculation what someone found shagging a headless corpse might have to say)
     It has been established that versions of the vampire tale can be found in Assyrian writings on clay or stone tablets and among the ancient Chaldeans in Mesopotamia.  Some have been dated as early as 2000 B.C.  The homeland of the Chaldeans was also known as the "Ur of the Chaldeans," which was the original home of Abraham from the Bible.
Lilith by John Collier 1892; click for full-sized image

      The vampiric being known as Lilith  is very multilayered.  Her earliest roots are in Babylonian demonology, though it can be argued she originally was a dark demigoddess more akin to Hecate than to a demon.  Ancient Hebrew culture places her as the first wife of Adam, the primal woman created from earth alongside him.  According to Talmudic legend she refused to obey her husband and was cast aside to wander the earth as a demon.  She would often hunt in form of an owl and was particularly drawn towards newborn children and pregnant women, sucking the blood and life from them.  She was also blamed for inducing erotic dreams in men.  In time the church fathers cast Lilith as chief among the daemonic army of incubi and succubi who assume human form to seduce and feed upon unwilling victims.  Tragically, many nuns and other women of virtue became pregnant this way.

      Other female vampiric demons of Mesopotamian origin are the Lamashtu and Lilitu.   Both prey on children, infants and pregnant women in particular.  The Lamashtu is depicted with wings, birdlike talons and sometimes a lion's head and would also prey on adults and was a bringer of disease.

      The Ekimmu or Departed Spirit of Assyria had characteristics associated with both ghosts and demons.  It would pass through doors and walls and might gibber unintelligible mocking words or merely glide about as a silent phantom.  In any case its appearance was a very dire sign for the household.  It was seldom the householder and most of their family would not to die shortly thereafter.  The Ekimmu would drain the life out people, which is purely a vampirish quality, but apparently it wasn't always a physical operation, the actual sucking of blood.  Sometimes it chose to possess its victims rather than physically devouring them.  This creature was said to be created when death happened violently or the burial was not handled properly.  Author Konstantinos maintained that these creatures were intentional psychic vampyres.

      Ancient Mesopotamia had a rich demonology which also featured, among others, the Uruku, referred to as a "vampyre which attacks man" in a cuneiform inscription, and the Seven Demons mentioned in many texts and incantations of the Mesopotamian cultures.   One Sumerian banishing rite describes the latter as immortal blood drinkers.

Lamia bas relief-5th cent.BC

      Lamia:  The older version of this creature's origins has her as once having been a human woman whose lover was the god Zeus.  This did not please Hera, the god's wife, who took revenge by making Lamia insane and causing her to eat all of her own children.  Once she realised what she had done, her grief made her a monster who attacked the small children of others.  This female is a night roaming demon with the head and breasts of a woman and the scaly lower parts of a serpent.
      Stix:  Romans had their own version, calling her the strix, a nocturnal bird which feeds upon the blood and flesh of humans.  The Roman strix is the source of the Romanian Strigoi, also related to the Slavic vampire, and the Albanian Shtriga.  This was also a type of screech owl known in Roman times.  The plural in Latin is strigae which evolved over time into strega, or witch, in Italian.

      A lamiai tale told by both Greeks and Romans involves the famed philosopher Apollonius of Tyana.  One of his students, the young Menippus was in love with a wealthy and beautiful woman.  The woman had first appeared to Menippus in an appartion in which he was also given details where to find the lady.  Apollonias had been told of this and at their wedding he gazed at the bride, intensely scrutinising her for some time.  According to the story scribed by the scholar Philostratus in the 1st century A.D., he told Menippus;  "Realize the truth of what I say, this fine bride is one of the vampires (empusai), that is to say of those beings whom may regard as lamiai and hobgoblins (mormolykiai).  These beings fall in love, and they are devoted to the delights of Aphrodite, but especially in the flesh of human beings, and they decoy with such delights those whom they mean to devour in their feats."  He then confronted the lamiai.  As the elements of her disguise were unveiled one by one, it soon faded and the woman confessed to vampirism.  She admitted her motive for marrying Menippus was to have him on hand as a convenient source of fresh blood to drink and to her habit of feeding "upon young and beautiful bodies because their blood is pure and strong."

Many Names Across Time

     A great many vampire types are of ancient origin.  The Nepalese "Lord of Death" is found in wall paintings as old as 3000 B.C.  He is shown holding a blood-filled goblet in the form of a human skull standing in a pool of blood.  Rakshasas are depicted as vampires in Indian Vedas(scriptures) circa 1500 B.C.  The witch-like Ciuateteo of Mexico appear in ancient paintings far predating the conquistidors.  The Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet, " Lady of Transformations, Enrapturing One, Giver of Ecstasies, Mother of the Dead, Lady of the Bloodbath, Devouring One, & Terrible One", is another very old, blood drinking deity.  The Celts of Scotland had their Baobhan Sith.  Japan's Kitsune and Vampire Cats, Malaysia's Languisuir, Pennanggalan, Pelesit and Polong, Eastern Europe's various Upirs, Tibet's various blood drinking daemons and Herukas and others as well date back towards the beginning of their respective civilisations.

A table of vampire names and types can be found  here.