Vampiric Creatures of Ancient Myth and Legend
by Richard H. Fay
Ever since mankind first imagined mythic threats alongside the mundane, creatures that feasted on the blood or life-force of humans haunted the long, dark night. Blood-sucking monsters, life-draining fiends, and the revenant dead featured in the myths and legends of many diverse cultures across the globe and throughout history. Even though the concept of the vampire as an animated corpse feeding on the blood of the living became most fully developed in medieval Eastern Europe (Curran, 2005, p. 33; Richardson, n.d.), the idea of strange and supernatural creatures sustaining themselves on human vitality goes back centuries.
The great-great grandmother of vampiric creatures in Western lore may have been the winged female entity known as Lilith. This spiteful demoness entered early Hebrew tradition through Mesopotamian mythology about beings such as Lilitu, a wind and storm spirit (Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 366). Lilith was either Adam's first wife or became his lover after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Jealous of the fruits of marital unions and angry over God's destruction of hundreds of her own demonic offspring, Lilith became the vampiric bane of women in childbirth and newborn babes (Guiley, 2005, p. 181; Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 367.) She also sought sexual intercourse with lonely and vulnerable men, leaving her male victims exhausted or even dead after their night of sinful passion (Curran, 2006, p. 23). In an interesting parallel to vampire lore regarding the crucifix as a potent protection against the predatory undead, magic amulets and holy talismans could thwart Lilith's unholy advances and infanticidal attacks (Guiley, 2005, p. 181; Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 366).
According to the apocryphal text Testament of Solomon, King Solomon encountered and eventually controlled a vampiric, shape-shifting demon named Ornias. During the construction of Solomon's Temple of Jerusalem, Ornias appeared every day at sunset to steal a portion of the wages, food, and very soul of the head workman's boy. The lad wasted away as the demon drained his life by sucking on his thumb. Given a magical ring by the archangel Michael, Solomon subdued the demon and ordered him to cut stone for the temple. Terrified to touch iron tools, Ornias begged to be freed. Solomon then sought the aid of the archangel Uriel, who commanded the demon to obey. Once his work was completed, Ornias was delivered to Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons (Guiley, 2005, p. 223; Peterson, 1997).
Babylonian and Assyrian storytellers told tales of the revenant ekimmus. Individuals that died violent deaths or suffered improper burials would be denied entry into the underworld. Doomed to walk the Earth, ekimmus troubled mankind by wreaking misfortune and destruction upon the living. These restless souls could also possess mortal bodies and proved to be very difficult to exorcise (Guiley, 2005, p. 117).
Ancient Greek mythology spoke of several blood-thirsty beasts and beings. Empusae, ghostly daughters of the goddess Hecate, frightened travellers to death and lured young men to bed to drain their life energies (Atsma, 2000, Empusa & Lamiae; Guiley, 2005, p. 117). Dark, grim-eyed keres, female death-spirits, hovered over battlefields to drink the blood of the wounded and dying. Some of the keres also personified plague and pestilence (Atsma, 2000).
The half-serpentine monster Lamia was yet another mythic beast that stalked the Grecian night. Once a mistress of the god Zeus, Lamia suffered a fell transformation at the hands of his jealous wife Hera. The goddess also destroyed all of Lamia's children that arose from her illicit union with the lord of Olympus. Angered by her terrible fate, Lamia swore to kill the children of others. The lamiae became a class of female demons who stole newborns and seduced young men to feed on tender flesh and pure blood (Curran, 2006, p. 19; Guiley, 2005, p. 175; Matthews & Matthews, 2005, p. 361).
The Greek dead did not always remain in their graves. Dead men were known to shout abuses, torment passers-by, attack descendants and former neighbours, and even seek sexual intercourse with their grieving spouses. The Greeks that crossed between the worlds of the dead and the living appeared not as wispy phantoms, but rather as corporeal revenants, fully capable of maiming or even killing those around them (Curran, 2006, p. 17).
The Romans adopted many of the same terrifying beings found in Greek mythology, but they also added a few nightmares of their own. Along with the erotic night terrors known as incubi and succubae, Romans feared encountering horrible striges, female avian monstrosities that drank blood and spread disease (Curran, 2006, p. 20). Possibly born through the metamorphosis of hags into dreadful birds of prey, striges possessed misshapen heads and plundering claws. Poisonous milk filled their ungainly breasts. According to certain accounts, striges would peck at infants to feed on their blood and bowels or cause illness by offering children their poisoned milk (Curran, 2006, p. 20; Guiley, 2005, p. 268; Simboli, 1921, p. 33). Carna, the goddess of door hinges, could chase them away with magical incantations and rituals involving an arbutus branch, "drugged" water, and a white thorn twig (Simboli, 1921, p. 33).
Ancient cultures created a host of foul entities that exhibited many of the characteristics found in more recent vampire lore. Lilith, Ornias, empusae, keres, Lamia, and striges all dined on the blood, flesh, or life force of hapless humans. Striges and keres were also associated with disease, a trait shared with later vampire traditions. Ekimmus and Greek revenants returned from the dead to wreak havoc upon the living. Furthermore, some of the devices effective against many of these marauding beings, such as holy symbols and charms, were similar to what might be found in a vampire hunter's array of armaments. Although certain aspects involving their creation and appearance differed from those found in later vampire beliefs, ancient vampiric creatures were thought to be as much a threat to humanity as their more recent cousins.
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(Article originally published in Hungur, Issue 6, Walpurgisnacht, 2008.)
Article copyright © 2008 Richard H. Fay