This week Scottish television personality and sometime Ancient Aliens talking head Ashley Cowie attempted to explore the origins of vampires for Ancient Origins. It did not go particularly well, not least because Cowie frames his discussion around Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula without, apparently, having read the book and without understanding much about its origins. Probably everything you need to know can be summed up in the fact that he traces vampires in popular entertainment to Stoker and then focuses exclusively on movie and TV vampires, despite the fact that Stoker drew on decades of Gothic vampire fiction (Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre” most prominently), and vampire entertainments go back in European folklore at least to the stories told for titillation and sensation about the great vampire outbreak of the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Cowie opens his article by comparing Dracula to a group of bloodsucking Scottish fairies called the baobahn sith, but as becomes clear, his version of “Dracula” isn’t the vampire from Stoker’s novel but a stereotype from middle twentieth century B-movies.
Both the baobhan sith and Dracula hunted in the darkness and rested in coffins during the day but where the Transylvanian count had to feed every evening, baobhan sith only fed once a year. Dracula seduced, then sank two fangs into the necks of his pray, but baobban sith danced with their victims, charming the young men until they were under their spell… […] Where Bram Stoker’s vampire shape-shifted into a bat, baobhan sith took the form of wolves, hooded crows, and ravens. They were often said to lose much of their power while in animal form because they couldn’t use their beauty to seduce victims. Both Dracula and baobhan sith were able speak any language using forms of telepathy, and where killing Dracula required a wooden stake through the heart, the only way to repel or kill a baobhan sith was with iron, or by trapping them in their coffin with a stone cairn.
In Stoker’s novel, Dracula did not have to feed every evening; indeed, he could go long periods without feeding, growing older in appearance until blood restored his youthful visage. The question of Dracula as seducer is a difficult one, for Stoker’s novel implies a sexual angle, but it is never explicit. His Dracula is not a lover and is never cast in a romantic light; that was a development from Hollywood, with Bela Lugosi bringing a frisson of sexuality to the vampire role, and later actors making the sexual subtext explicit, culminating in the modern Hollywood myth that Dracula has some sort of mystical sexual bond with Mina Harker, described in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) as the reincarnation of Dracula’s medieval wife. This is entirely a Hollywood creation, however.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the vampire, not the movie) was not limited to transforming into a bat. He could take on the shape of a wolf and other animals. Dracula could not speak any language by telepathy. Dracula, in the novel, had to spend years developing a good but imperfect command of English just to speak to Jonathan Harker when he arrives in Transylvania, which would be a waste of time if he could simply have picked up the tongue by reading his mind.
The stake through the heart is only one way of killing a vampire. Abraham Van Helsing, the great vampire hunter, describes many precautions that need to be taken to kill a vampire. “I shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body,” he says in planning to end Lucy Westenra’s vampiric existence. Later, he gives his plan for killing Dracula: “find this great Un-Dead, and cut off his head and burn his heart or drive a stake through it, so that the world may rest from him.” Still later, the list of possible ways to destroy the vampire grows: “The branch of wild rose on his coffin keep him that he move not from it; a sacred bullet fired into the coffin kill him so that he be true dead; and as for the stake through him, we know already of its peace; or the cut-off head that giveth rest. We have seen it with our eyes.” (The bad grammar is the way Stoker represented the Dutch accent of Van Helsing.) The operative theory is not the magic power of a stake but rather the destruction of the heart by some means, and the separation of the head from the body. Either one works by itself, but both together ensure the true death.
Cowie is clearly unfamiliar with the novel he purports to discuss, but this is in keeping with the veneer of erudition that he tends to use to mask the rather basic research behind his articles. A section of his article is devoted to Freud’s and Jung’s views of vampires, and he presents their theories as though Freudian and Jungian ideas were still the accepted standard views of psychology. No matter where you stand on the essential truth of these ideas—and I don’t see scientific evidence to support them—it is nevertheless impossible to deny that these early twentieth century views have long since been superseded by newer and more empirically validated theories of psychology.
The final part of Cowie’s article is devoted to an attempt to trace vampires back to Sumer. Cowie argues that the “ekimmu” (more correctly “edimmu”) were the first vampires. The edimmu were disembodied spirits of the unburied or incorrectly buried dead, believed to cause disease and to suck the life force from the young. “Whose corpse thou hast seen thrown down in the plain, I see – his edimmu in the earth reposeth not,” reads the last lines of the Gilgamesh epic (trans. Theophilus Pinches—the word “edimmu” is often hidden in English translation; cf. “‘Didst thou see the man whose corpse remains unburied upon the field?’ ‘I saw him. His spirit does not find rest in Hades.’”). To that end, they are no different than any of the other revenants of world mythology, and this same belief could be found all over the world, as late as the nineteenth century. They are also not dissimilar to the belief of the ancients, particularly the Greeks, that the souls of the dead—any dead—were thirsty and needed the blood of sacrificed animals, the blood of humans, or wine (seen as symbolic blood) in order to maintain a semblance of consciousness. The Odyssey’s famous nekia (visit to Hades) includes the detail of Odysseus using blood to make the mindless spirits regain their intellects.
Cowie’s superficial knowledge of this seems to derive from Wikipedia, whose text he reproduces almost verbatim. Wikipedia writes that the edimmu were “similar in nature to the preta of the Hindu religions or the jiangshi of Chinese mythology. They were envisioned as the ghosts of those who were not buried properly.” Cowie echoes this closely: “Similar in nature to the preta of the Hindu religions or the jiangshi of Chinese mythology, ekimmu were all thought of as spirits of deceased who had not been buried properly…”
This origin point, however, is problematic because the life-sucking revenant isn’t quite the same as the modern vampire. Revenants were the spirits of the dead, but they were incorporeal, and their attacks were usually psychic rather than sanguine, though sometimes the ghosts drank blood, as though to give substance to their ethereal form. Closer to the modern vampire is the Arabian ghul, which was a human possessed by a demonic spirit. These ghouls (in modern spelling), “wander about the country making their lairs in deserted buildings and springing out upon unwary travellers whose flesh they eat” (Arabian Nights, Night 31). The ghoul also has a likely Mesopotamian origin, the gallu, a type of demon. In the Ottoman-controlled Balkan Peninsula in the late 1600s and early 1700s, the flesh-eating ghoul and the ghostly revenant merged with a belief that improperly buried corpses would rise angry from their graves and murder those who failed to give them proper burial rites, a belief that goes back to Classical Antiquity, at least.
But all of this pales in comparison to the improbable conclusion he offers, one that makes no sense given his own earlier claims or the actual facts of folklore and mythology:
From its Sumerian origins, through Christian theology, as well the vampire resurrected as the baobhan sith all hold the same moral: men who “stray off the path” and have affairs with beautiful women will, in the long run, have their life blood sucked out of them and their whole worlds will collapse, beginning with their families.
Oh, really? Dracula was a dude. He drained women. Carmilla was a woman. She drained women, too. Lord Ruthven and Varney were both guys. The edimmu had no sexuality, and the ghouls could possess corpses of any gender. European reports of vampire corpses in the 1600s and 1700s were of both men and women, and their victims were typically family members, not the adulterous.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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