By Suzanne Carré
When we think of vampires, we immediately identify with the bad boys of the screen. But the vampire had a long history of not being so debonair. We have shaped the vampire into what their image is today, and we will continually reinvent the vampire as our needs change. We have a love affair with the vampire that is both tender and hateful. We detest the evil yet embrace the romance of a night stalker.
In this group of articles, is a short list of the things we have had vampires do—for more than just to keep us happy and tantalize our imaginations. This is the way we have created the vampire, to symbolize our fear of sex and our uncertainty over death. I’ll start with one of my favorite vampire traits–to be endangered by the sacred.
Fear of Religious Objects
The modern vampire hisses and slinks away from religious objects, particularly symbols of the Catholic Church. To keep vampires at bay, all you need is some garlic (that will keep most people away), a bottle of water fresh from your sink (it doesn’t need to be holy water anymore) and a crucifix (two twigs lashed together, it doesn’t need to be made of silver). Although some adaptations of the vampire theme rebuff some or all of these myths, they persist in popular culture. So where did they come from?
Once were gods
The origins of vampires are ancient. The first vampires were deities, usually goddesses to whom blood sacrifice was offered. All throughout the Mediterranean cultures, the Middle East and Asia, there was worship of powerful goddesses of sex who fed on blood. Vampires were holy and revered.
But religions come and go. In Europe and the Middle East the evolution of worship was dramatic and changed the vampire from being the feminine force of sexual power to being the female factor of other male gods. By the time the Greeks conquered the known world, the vampire almost disappears. But you can’t keep a good vampire down forever.
Vampires didn’t fade away completely, but merely changed from most powerful to trouble-maker. The Greeks and Romans had numerous sexy beasts who acted like gremlins of today, causing trouble mainly to men. The cure for such strife, not a religious object, but a phallus, and especially a winged phallus, to ward off the “bad luck.” The male attribute neutralized the female control of sex . To the Romans, women were safely fertile not sexy.
From Sprite to Demon
Vampires changed once again with the rise of Christianity. It is important to remember there were two forms of the religion, Roman Catholic in the West and Orthodox in the East. Only in the Catholic faith was the vampire to emerge from the plethora of pagan spirits, first to acquire magic from the witch, and later to become the Devil incarnate.
In the Middle Ages, fear of disease prompted the necessity to cleanse the population of non-believers. The persecutions start over converts but quickly embrace any follower of “natural religion.” Witch trials were not exclusively targeting women and the female essence of Mother Nature now creates a demon with a male body and female reproductive parts. The vampire also splits into two genders. The female succubus becomes separate from the male incubus. The erotic dream is now caused by the vampire.
During the height of the witch hunt mania, the most powerful witch becomes the warlock. Pure male in character, the warlock takes many forms and it here the vampire acquires some real magic powers. The evil of the vampire is associated with the many demonic entities but they are reputed to cause abortions, especially after sexual contact due to their toxic sperm. This property becomes the mark of the most powerful of demons, Satan. The Devil now has fangs and drinks blood.
Then the politics change. The Catholic Church splits into numerous factions as the Protestant Churches dominate Northern Europe. Significantly, the Church loses power, to control the new states being formed, and soon the fires of the witch hunts eventually stop burning. Notably, it is the vampire who emerges from the ashes of witchcraft to become less evil and more of a sexual entity. But not for long.
With the reshaping of Europe comes the Age of Enlightenment, marked by a century of crisis and war. The conflicts bring peoples from all over Europe in contact, not necessarily in mortal combat but because of alliances. Tales of the exotic East also filters through from travelers and traders, and enlivens the Western European imagination. Particularly stories of the dead, animating at night, stalking the living, and drinking blood certainly resonate with the mythology of witchcraft. And this entity had a name, the vampire.
Now the vampire changed into what we recognize as the modern myth. But it is not only due to folklore introduced from the Balkans. The mind of the European also changed and I think the transformation of the vampire into the vivified corpse is due to us more than tradition. Science dissected the body and eliminated much of the magic associated with the workings of our anatomy. Death was now the new frontier and the lack of information lead to much speculation. The timing was right for the undead to rise from their graves and haunt our imagination.
Every time we have needed the vampire, because of our fears and uncertainties, the vampire has willing taken on the mantle to supply that need with a manifestation of our darkest emotions. Just when the fear of witchcraft left our consciousness, the vampire took on the shape of a decaying corpse to remind us of our bind with religion. Where before the vampire was a symbol of blood and sex to give eternal life, now we also endowed the vampire with the power of eternal damnation, as a supernatural being, bringing death and sex.
The vampire would modify the undead characteristics even more in the late eighteenth century. To answer how the image changed, we need to look at another of the vampire traits. Next time is the habit of living in graves and sleeping in coffins.