Apparently, there’s a new Vampire show on Netflix and I saw people discussing the history of vampires online. This led me to search for the origin of the myth, to discover:
Who was the First Vampire?
First of all, I’d like to specify that vampires are creatures from folklore. This is what we are talking about here. I know some people think they are vampires themselves, but I’m gonna stick with the world of fiction today.
There are multiple characterizations of vampires. One that is fairly consistent is the blood-sucking part of the myth. They are deadly creatures of the night who hunt to survive. Sometimes, they turn their victims into new vampires. Other times, they just kill them, using their fangs (or any other way) to drain the life out of them. Modern vampires also have the capacity to sire a human.
The sunlight is not necessarily deadly to them, but it weakens them. Some vampires may have the ability to morph into bats or other creatures. Most hate garlic (less so nowadays), crucifixes, rosary, or holy water. Some can’t walk on the consecrated ground or enter a house unless invited by the owner. A wooden stake in the heart is the common way to kill a vampire.
And so on, you probably know a lot of variables on the myths and reinterpretation. All of this is pretty basic knowledge for anyone who watched TV or reads books. The question is: where did all of this come from?
The Oldest Vampires
Back in ancient Egypt, the word vampire was not used, but the warrior goddess Sekhmet could have been one anyway. She drank blood and love that so much that her bloodlust was nearly responsible for the annihilation of humanity.
Others follow as bloodsucking creatures appeared in many different cultures through the centuries—the Old Norse had the draugr, we found the striges in the Roman mythology, the vrykolakas in the Balkans, and the mythical Lilith led to stories about blood-drinking demons.
The basis of the vampire legend came from Eastern Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries with tales of panic. One, in particular, was inspired by Jure Grando who died in 1656. This villager from the region of Istria (known today as Croatia) came back from the dead during the night—for 16 years after his death! He was the first person to be called a vampire (or “štrigon” as the locals say). To get rid of him, the villagers finally drove a stake through his heart then, for good measure, his corpse was also beheaded.
The belief in vampires was already present in the region before that, but that case became the first to be really documented.
Tales of hunting and staking vampires became more frequent after that. In Serbia, farmer Miloš Čečar was apparently killed by a vampire and became one himself. Soon after, people in the neighboring area started to die. Local superstitions led to a state of panic that persisted for many years. In most cases, the vampires were probably people buried prematurely because of a lack of knowledge. They were not dead yet when they came back to haunt their friends and families. The belief in vampires was already ingrained and never went away.
The English Vampire
Of course, if we are talking about vampires today, it is because of the work of John William Polidori. Written in 1819 as part of the same contest which led Mary Shelley to write her famous “Frankenstein,” The Vampyre is an 84-page novella that became an instant hit (mostly because most people thought it was written by Lord Byron himself, not by his friend and physician).
The story focuses on a wealthy young gentleman named Aubrey who meets the mysterious Lord Ruthven and goes on traveling around Europe with him. In Greece, he hears about the legends of the vampire without realizing that his traveling companion is one of them.
Polidori’s tale introduced the vampire into English fiction. Quickly, the vampire craze was launched and has never subsided. One of the still famous vampire tales of the 19th century is Carmilla, an 1872 Gothic novella by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu that introduced in an ambiguous way the archetype of the lesbian vampire.
Of course, the one who established definitively the vampire in our culture is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Not the first, but it would be hard to know as its influence is constantly felt when the blood-sucking creatures are talked about.