A program shown on PBS tells of corpses found in Anglo-Saxon villages in England of about a thousand years ago which had been mutilated. Not many of them, but a few, had had their heads removed after death, and placed between their legs. Why? Apparently because they were suspected of vampirism.

The idea of vampires is a pretty old one, and seems to have been common to much of Europe. It died out in England, but not in other places, especially in eastern Europe. The documentary speaks to a peasant in Rumania who had helped unearth a recent corpse which had red around its mouth and a swollen belly, which he and the others had taken as evidence that the person was a vampire. They had opened the grave because a young woman said her uncle, who had recently died, had visited her and sucked her blood. The peasant said he had removed the corpse’s heart and burned it at the village crossroads, after which the young woman got better.

The idea of vampires is identified with Rumania, partly because of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which is partly set in Transylvania; and partly because a fifteenth century monarch of Rumania, Vlad Tepes, was called Dracula, and is thought to have been a (or the) model for the literary character. Vlad Tepes was certainly not a pleasant man, having been notable for impaling people he didn’t like. That is, seating them on a wooden stake, pushing it up through their rectums into their bodies, then letting gravity slowly kill them. Probably rulers in that time, and maybe particularly in that place, had to be severe in order to survive, but Tepes seems to have been extreme even there and then.

The documentary says that Stoker based his novel on actual folk beliefs about vampires (it was unclear to me whether he added some powers to his character that weren’t part of common beliefs or not), but changed the image of the vampire from a problem found in rural Europe to a well-dressed cosmopolitan aristocrat. That’s the image that got popularized in plays and movies over the last hundred years. The question is, was there ever anything to the vampire myth, or was it simply misunderstanding?

Scientists and historians interviewed in the documentary argue that the idea of the vampire came from ignorance. Red around a corpse’s mouth and a swollen belly are the work of bacteria after death. The interviewees believe that the concept of vampires was used to explain illnesses the peasants were vulnerable to.

One historian notes that in the country away from the fireside the world is absolutely dark at night, except for a candle or torch that could be carried. It would be different in larger towns and cities, but villagers had to fear warriors sneaking up on them as well as storms and illnesses.

Some of the illnesses were pretty fearsome too, like leprosy, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague. We have to remember that nobody at that time had much idea where disease came from, and peasants would be more ignorant than most. If people began having horrible symptoms and dying, there was almost nothing anyone could do. How could they defend themselves against something they utterly failed to understand? In that situation, blaming illness on the dead was as reasonable as anything else. As one historian points out, the suspects usually were people most hadn’t liked when they were alive. The idea seems to have been common in much of the world, too. People living in the Himalayas seem occasionally to have been concerned about vampires as well. In Bulgaria and Italy too.

The hypothesis seems pretty plausible, but I wonder if there may anyway have been something to the old view. Vampires seem to resonate with a lot of people. Whether or not they literally drank blood, it doesn’t seem too strange to think of people who might drain in some manner people of vital energies, perhaps by doing something as simple as constantly demanding attention.

While vampirism as explanation for illness is probable enough, the documentarians didn’t look into the illness of the young woman in Rumania. Was it bacterial or viral? Or psychosomatic? Knowing that would go some distance toward deciding if the traditional idea of vampirism is totally invalid. It may seem totally stupid, but some of our ancient ancestors knew things we no longer know, as shown by some of the monuments we have no idea how to build. It’s not impossible that they knew more than we do in cases like this too.



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