Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Vampire Lore

When I set out to write my first Immortyl Revolution novel, I read a lot of books on vampire legends and the classic stories. Although I decided to go with a more science fiction take on vampirism, I do play around a little with the myths in my books. 
In my reading, I found that almost every culture has some sort of vampire myth.  Most of the legends with which we are familiar come from the Slavic tradition of Eastern Europe.  These along with the legend of the real life Vlad Dracul inspired Bram Stoker to write the most famous vampire tale of all time, Dracula. 
I find the real-life Dracula far more scary than any literary vampire.  Vlad Dracul (son of the dragon) or Vlad the Impaler was a 15th century Wallachian prince.  As a boy of eleven, the Ottoman Turks took him hostage along with his brother, Radu the Handsome.  It is probable that during this time that Vlad suffered sexual abuse at the Ottoman court.  His brother, however, converted to Islam and went on to serve the Sultan.  These factors may well have contributed to Vlad’s intense hatred of the Turks and inspired him to invent a particularly ghoulish way of dealing with his enemies.  Vlad’s victims were impaled with a large wooden stake that went through the anal cavity and up through the internal organs, ending out of the mouth.  The impaled prisoners were then set up around Vlad’s castle to terrorize their comrades.  Legend has it that these unfortunates often suffered for two days before dying.  Recently scientists have explored the story with computer models, concluding that it is indeed possible to impale a body this way to prolong suffering.
The folkloric traditions of Eastern Europe have inspired much of the popular vampire lore.  In Slavic culture, belief in spirits both good and evil abounded.  Demons in either human or animal form were said to feed on the blood of livestock and human beings.  Vampires were the resurrected dead, pale of complexion with long fingernails and elongated teeth.  Sometimes they had only one nostril.  They were bloated, mindless creatures that preyed on their own families and haunted their villages
Differing stories surrounded the creation of vampires.  Some said that if one was illegitimate or the seventh son of a seventh son one was destined for vampirism.  Death in childbirth or a cat or dog jumping over a corpse could result in a vampire. 
Slavic vampires didn’t exactly sparkle in the sunlight, but in some Malaysian stories they do.  Chinese vampires hopped.  In Russia they were said to be witches who rebelled against the church.  Yet many of the popular conceptions of vampires came from books and films not folklore.  For example, the idea of vampires catching fire when hit with sunlight is most likely from the German film, Nosferatu.  Vampires did hunt at night in legend, but this is most likely because it’s the best time to catch people in a vulnerable state like sleep and not get caught.  A stake through the heart is traditional but not as the killing weapon.  The stake only held the vampire pinned to one spot for beheading, the only way to truly kill one. 
Although most of the pop culture vampire myths were spawned in Eastern Europe, a lot of evidence points to the legends arising out of India.  The Immortyl culture of my series arose from ancient India.  
Indian mythology gives us many examples of vampire-like spirits and deities.  In the various regions are found a plethora of demons that inhabit cremation and burial grounds that bear a striking resemblance to the vamps of Eastern Europe.  Many of these are said to be the spirits of those who died an unnatural death, or a woman who died in childbirth.  Others are succubus-like creatures that drain men of energy yet leave him with a feeling of euphoria.  It is likely that traders along the Great Silk Road and gypsies carried these stories west.  
In Greece, the tales gave inspiration to the Lamiae, or female vampire-like spirits.
One deity often associated with vampirism is Kali, a fierce form of the mother goddess and consort of Shiva.  Like her husband she both creates and destroys.  She’s often shown standing on the body of Shiva, symbolizing that in the scheme of the cosmos the male principle is subordinate to that of the female.  
Kali is usually depicted with dark blue or black skin and three eyes.  She wears body parts as jewelry and has a tongue that sticks out in defiance.  Her favorite places are battlefields where she becomes intoxicated on the blood of victims.  
Yet she is often misunderstood in the West.  Kali is the goddess of time, not death.  She only slays evil demons.  Symbolically, she annihilates the selfish impulses and ego that bind us to our material bodies.  Her aspect is fearsome, but she is called Kali Maa (Mother Kali) and is revered in many parts of India.  Kolkata (Calcutta) is sacred to her and named for the goddess.

Tantric cults often focus on Kali.  Tantrism is an older religious tradition than Hinduism, dating back before the Aryan tribes migrated into India.  These groups center on Shakti worship and sometimes use sex and even blood in their rituals.  The idea behind this is to gain control over the body to capture divine energy and gain blessings.  The adepts of the ancient arts in my novels practice a form of tantrism. 
Only one group associated with Kali was violent and that was the Thugees.  These devotees would waylay travelers and use them as blood sacrifices to the goddess.  The Thugees were the inspiration behind the Kali worshipers in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
No discussion of vampire myth would be complete without Lillith.  In Hebrew tradition, Lillith is the first wife of Adam.  She refuses to accept male dominance and leaves for her home by the Red sea.  She couples with demons, giving birth to one hundred offspring a day.  God sends three angels, Sanvi, Sansavani and Semagelaf to bring her back to Adam and slay her demon children.  Lillith takes revenge by preying upon the children of Adam and Eve.  
The three angels force Lillith to swear she will leave anyone alone who wears an amulet bearing their image or names.  Up until the nineteenth century such amulets were given to newborn children and child-bearing women to ward off Lillith.  There may even be a connection between Lillith and the mythology of India.  Some say that the name Lillith means “Lily” or “Lotus”.  This flower symbolizes female genitalia, or yoni and the gateway to the underworld.
In my research, I found it curious that while so many vampire myths of the east seem to be centered on a fear of female power, the vampire stories of the west often focus on the male vampire.  The zombie-like revenants of Slavic culture somehow arose into the suave and sophisticated “gentleman vampire” of Gothic literature. 
The evolution is attributed to the novel, The Vampyre, written by John Polidori.  It’s commonly believed that the 19th century English poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron, inspired the depiction of the vampire in this book.  Polidori, a recent medical school graduate, accepted a position as Byron’s personal physician and traveled with him to the continent.  Byron was a kind of rock star in his day, known for his scandalous love affairs with both sexes.  He created what is known as the “Byronic hero”, a deeply flawed man given to bouts of melancholy.  Lord Byron, his mistress Claire, the poet Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Polidori participated in a contest to write a ghost story.  
The most famous of these, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, spawned the genre of science fiction.  Polodori’s tale was most likely begun by Byron and abandoned.  In any case, Polidori finished and published it.  While not as well known as Frankenstein’s monster, the compelling vampire, Lord Ruthven set the stage for Count Dracula, Anne Rice’s Louis and even Twilight’s Edward Cullen.
Vampires have been a staple of popular culture since the nineteenth century.  The popular “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire was a serialized tale that was eventually published in book form.  Comic books gave us Vampirella, an alien vampire of the planet Draculon.  Everyone is familiar with the friendly Count of Sesame Street.  I sometimes wonder if it was intentional that he shares the vampire’s legendary, obsessive compulsive need to count things like spilled grains of rice. 
The twentieth century took a more sympathetic view of the vampire.  In the nineteen fifties, we saw the rise of the science fiction vampire, with the publication of Richard Matheson’s classic, I Am legend.   In this story, vampirism is caused by a virus, to which the hero, Robert Neville is immune.  Night after night he kills off the vampires, eventually coming to the conclusion that he is the monster.  The novel has inspired three films. 
The sixties gothic soap opera Dark Shadows starred Jonathan Frid as the reluctant vampire, Barnabas Collins.  The show became a pop culture phenomenon, long before Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight.  Later, Chelsea Quinn Yarborough’s Saint Germain novels, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and the long running TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also presented vampires in a more positive light.  Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot and films like From Dusk Till Dawn featured the horrific vampire, proving that the genre has many viable facets.
In the twenty-first century the vampire became a romantic hero, the love interest to the human heroine of paranormal romance, as in Twilight.  Authors like Charlaine Harris combined mystery with paranormal elements, creating a new type of urban fantasy novel.  Justin Cronin’s bestseller, The Passage and others like my Immortyl Revolution series hearken back to the sci fi vampire of the fifties.  Horror novels may not be as popular as in years past, but the horror vampire is alive and well in films like Thirty Days of Night.
There’s a lot of talk out there as to whether vampires are a fad that will die out eventually.  I say no.  Vampires have established themselves in literature and entertainment as a genre with many sub-genres, catering to all tastes.  Of all the monsters, they are the most human in aspect, the dark reflection of humanity and a powerful archetype that will continue to evolve as we do. 

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