Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Short Geography of Vampires

The modern vampire is a product of myths evolved through both space and time. There is no one single origin for bloodsucking beasts but one can see a progression from ancient Mesopotamia, to Judaism, to Eastern Christianity, to Protestantism, to the secular today. Each stage offered its own perspective on vampires for its own reasons.

The world changed immensely when ancient man settled in cities. For the first time the outside world was a hostile place rather than the more neutral state is was for nomads who experienced not only negatives but positives of the wild. For civilized man the animals of the night represented hostile beasts. One of these new threats was the owl. For those who settled in now day Iraq the owl was an evil creature.

The Ancient Israelites were one of many groups with repeated cultural contact with the Mesopotamians and it appears the owl legend merged with one of the Jews. The evil owl merged with Lilith. The story of Lilith is found in the occult stories of Judaism. It deals with Adam's "first wife" who instead of being submissive decides to have devil children. Lilith's hell spawn are killed by angels. This causes the "rhymes with witch" to go on an eternal blood sucking killing spree against the descendants of Adam and Eve. Lilith becomes so ingrained into ancient Judaism the Bible mentions her by name (or in other translations as an owl or "night monster") in Book of Isaiah 34:14 which deals with a nasty part of the end of the world.

Flash forward to the AD 400 and 500s. The myth of the vampire begins to take a shape which is easily recognized. Rome has fallen and the Eastern Roman Empire, which viewed itself as the last stand of civilization against a monstrous world, is under siege by pagan European/Asian barbarians, Muslims on Jihad, and disease. The northern, mountainous border is seen as a meeting point of light and darkness and it is here where the stories of damned dead arrive. Some bodies do not decay in the moist soul and disease spreads quickly. At this desperate time people saw the Devil at work. The people believed sinners were damned by God and the non-decaying bodies were infested by demons which spread sickness. Blood expelled by the dead body was believed to that of the victim. Only tools blessed by the Church could stop the undead.

For a while these stories of undead did not reach Western Europe (while werewolves, demons, and other monsters did). The primary reason is because if a body does not decay in Catholic tradition it is a sign of holiness. The incorruptibles are a morbid source of pride for Catholics. While there are a few stories in Ireland and Celtic Great Britain there are no major stories of non-decaying dead being vampires until the Protestant Reformation. The denial of Catholic tradition added to the spread of disease once again allowed a new religious belief to explain vampires to the West. The Protestant Vampire spread as far as 1890s Rhode Island.

The most famous vampire, Dracula, was the first truly modern vampire. Aristocratic foreigner who stormed the beaches of England to still British women. He was eventually defeated by Dr. Van Helsing. Dracula represented the fear of foreign influences counter-colonizing England and could only be defeated by combining science and the Church of England. It was the first time faith needed help from science. The use of women allowed Dracula to be neigh-pornographic while still fitting into Victorian norms.

The twentieth-century saw vampires moving into film. Nosferatu was the first time sunlight killed a vampire and changed the monster forever. But Christopher Lee made the biggest change. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s vampire was secular and a sex fiend. The sexual revolution changed everything.

Today the vampire is a global phenomenon. Chinese and Indian vampire movies are a globalized version made famous by Lee. The 2003 movie Underworld sums up the monster today: stylish, exotic foreigner (not a xenophobic nightmare) while dangerous is also appealing (though there is a counter-movement to have vampires as monstrous like those in 30 Days of Night).

The vampire has gone from a combination of many local legends to a globalized phenomenon. Happy Halloween!

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