Vampires in world myth is an interesting subject for me. With the debut of the twilight movie, I find it is curiously relevant.
Types of Vampires in Folklore from Around the World
The idea of vampirism is a common one in the myths and folklore of the world’s cultures. Western Europeans know vampires best from Bram Stoker and the modern horror movie. He is an elegant man who can be overwhelmingly seductive. He likes to feed on the blood of his prey, killing them in his lust. The vampire cannot be exposed to sunlight and can only be killed by a stake through the heart.
Many varied myths carry on this stereotypical vision of the vampire, but with some bizarre and horrifying twists. One thing if for certain after a cursory comparative study of world vampire mythology: people have always been fascinated and terrified by death, corpses, and things that seduce in the night.
Western European Myths
Vampire myths have been around for centuries – even finding a niche in the world of ancient Greeks and Romans. The Lamias had a female torso and a scaled, snake-like lower body. They appeared to be a large serpent with wings and preyed at night on the young. She is based on a typical Greek myth, making her the lover of Zeus and drawing the Ire of his lover Hera. Hera made the woman go insane and eat her own children. When she recovered, she became a monster who only fed upon the young. She was a monster because of this and feared antiquity.
Another vampire myth that has survived the centuries involves the Succubi and Incubi. The Succubi are gorgeous female vampires that feed on the energy generated by sex. They exhaust their prey, thereby giving the vampires the opportunity to do what they will with the victim. They can appear as any person they wish and often disguise themselves as dreams. Incubi are the male equivalent. The Scandinavian Mara is related to this, but the Succubus often returns to the same victim for endless torment.
Christianity eventually borrowed from this myth and the Hebrew myth of Lilith to create the Army of hell. Lilith was proclaimed the Queen of the Night and led her legion of Succubi and Incubi in a war for the souls of men. It has been claimed that many nuns became pregnant due to these very sexual demons.
Women were often vilified in European myth. The Spanish Bruga, Italian Strega, and Portuguese Bruxa are all presented as an old witch who preys on children. She is a shapeshifter. For the Romans, she preyed on travelers and would then disappear in the form of a large bird. This version was called the Strix which is the root word for the modern Italian Strega.
There are many other vampire myths of the European mindset. In Germany, the Alp is said to suck the blood from the nipples of both men and women. That culture also believed in the Neuntoter that smelled like excrement and spread disease. The Scots had Baobhan Sith that were female demons who danced with men until exhaustion set in. Then they would feed at their leisure. The Druids believed in the Dearg-Dues in Ireland. To prevent these vampires, the Irish built cairns on top of the body. It kept them from roaming the earth and has provided a wealth of historical knowledge for modern archeologists. The Empusai were ancient Greek vampires who seduced and ate shepherds. The Crete citizens believed in the similar Kathakano and thought the only way to kill the demon was by chopping off the head and boiling it in vinegar.
Eastern European Myths
Romania is the hotbed of vampire myths, but there are actually several distinct types of vampire in Romanian mythology. The first is the Murony who can change into any mammal or even insects. They were distinguished by long fangs and birdlike talons; however, they do not leave fang marks on their victims. Like other vampire myths, blood on a corpse near the mouth and ears is a definitive sign.
The term Nosferatu has specific meaning in our culture now, but it had its own meaning to the Wallachians – the historical Romanians. They were originally called Morroii and were illegitimate children whose parents were also illegitimate. Morroii was the term for those still living but were called Strigoii when they died and continued to torment. This is another sexual predator who participated in orgies and impregnated mortals. The children of this union would be covered in hair and destined to the life of a Moroii.
Bulgaria and Russia also have a wealth of vampire folklore. The Kropijac are identified by their one nostril and pointed tongue. Killing one consists of trapping the spirit into a bottle and burning it. Similar to this creature is the Ubor. Their tongue has a sting at the end to feed on its prey. It generally pulls pranks, but has been known to choke people, eat manure, and suck blood when no other food is available. The Upiercy (Viesczy) of Russian and Poland also has the pointed tongue, but is a day hunter. It can be killed by burning, but care must be taken to destroy the small, ugly animals that will escape the body. If they are not caught, they will inhabit another human and seek revenge.
In Serbia, the Vlokoslak or Mulos dress in all white and can hunt either day or night. They attack horses and sheep, eating the flesh and drinking the blood. The monster can be killed by cutting off its toes and stabbing a nail through its neck.
Asian, Middle, and Far East Myths
Legends of the eastern parts of the world also contain strikingly similar vampire-like creatures. The Lamastu or Lamashtu of the Mesopotamian region was known as “She Who Erases”. She is considered the daughter of Anu the sky god. Disease, sterility, and nightmares are her domain. She also feeds on the very young, suddenly killing infants either in the womb or the cradle. She had wings, talons, and a lions head.
The Lilitu was well known in Babylon and eventually became the Hebrew figure of Lilith. Lilitu was the first wife of Adam who was expelled from Eden for disobedience to her husband. She is also blamed for erotic and wet dreams.
Ekiminus (Ekkimu) were popular in Assyria. It was not exclusively a vampire, but had ghost like characteristics as well. They would occur after an improper burial and could take possession of a human. They could be killed by all wooden weapons and exorcism.
A Ch’Iang Shih is created when a cat is permitted to jump over a dead body. In China, the inferior part of the soul was called the P’o. This monster represents that side of the personality. It has a poisonous breath, can reanimate a decayed body, and has a moldy, hairy appearance. Known as a flesh eater, it also has red eyes and talons. Curiously, whenever the Ch’Inag Shih comes across a pile of rice it cannot continue on its journey until it has counted all of the grains.
There are many more creatures of the night circulating through world mythology. This is merely a sampling of the most known. Other countries such as Malaysia, India, and Brazil have rich vampire stories that match many of the details of other cultures. An exhaustive appreciation of this phenomenon would likely take several books to adequately explore. The question that this study leaves, though, is why the myth is so prevalent. How can such vastly separated cultures derive such similar “bogey men” for their cultures? Is it merely an explanation for death or is it an acknowledgement of some lurking evil that surrounds us? It seems that vampires, as their on screen counterparts, will remain a seductive mystery.