Vampires from the deep

Are there vampires who dwell beneath the waters of the world, and if so, what myth, legends, and folk tales surround them? Are they normal vampires who just prefer water to the land? Are they blood-drinking mermaids? Are there any such vampires in fictional books or movies? To fully answer such questions, a whole book would be required. But let me give some telling examples.


In myths, legends, and folk beliefs, I've found four categories vampiric or neo-vampiric beings who dwell in water or come out of the water.

  1. Revenants (i.e., undead humans) who dwell in or return from the sea, lakes, or streams.
  2. Mermaids or neo-mermaids who were not born human but can be classified as vampires or neo-vampires.
  3. Those who were born human but became vampiric, or neo-vampiric, mermaids or neo-mermaids after they died.
  4. Other vampiric or neo-vampiric, supernatural creatures who dwell under water.


For category (1), the best examples I've found are the "draugs" as described in Norwegian folk tales recorded in the 19'th and 20'th centuries. In these tales, the draug is most typically the undead, animated body of a person who had drowned at sea and come out of the water at night to attack the living. It isn't clear that they had a special appetite for blood. But the same can be said for many of the Eastern European revenants which are the basis of our fictional, literary vampires.

It seems worth mentioning that in a historic case where, on the Croatian Island of Lastova in the Adriatic Sea vampires were suspected to be the cause of an epidemic of disease. The vampire hunters' first suspect was a man who had drowned at sea. They were disappointed that they could not find the man's grave to unearth the corpse and impale it with stakes. When the vampire hunters were brought to trial by Church authorities for desecrating graves and corpses, one of them testified that it was a long held belief that those who drowned at sea became vampires. (A transcript of the trial testimony is contained in _The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism_ by Jan L. Perkowski. c. 1989)

For category (2), there are examples from myths and folklore.

Among my favorites is a legend which has lamias swimming the sea in like mermaids. They grasp the bow of a boat with their hands and ask the crew if Alexander the Great is dead. If the crew replies that he is still alive, the lamias, rejoicing at the tiding, gladly conduct the ship to its destination. If the crew replies that he is dead, they conjure up a storm which sinks the ship. The crew then drown. Since the lamia has a vampiric reputation going back to pagan Greek times, it doesn't seem to be a long stretch to suppose that the fate of the doomed crews involved more than merely drowning. And of course the most popular image of a lamia is the one in which she has the upper body of a woman and the lower body of serpent. I don't know if in this tale the lower body had the tail of a fish or not. Anyway, both fish and serpents have scales.

I find the malicious side of mermaid lore well expressed by Gwen Benwell and Arthur Waugh in their book, _Sea Enchantress_ (c. 1961), p. 13:

"....the mermaid is the femme fatale of the sea; she lures man to his destruction, and usually he goes unresisting to his doom."


In many Scottish tales, mermaids were gentle creatures. But this is not always the case. In the story of "The Laird of Lorntie", a lord was returning to his castle with a servant when he heard the cries for help from a beautiful woman in a nearby loch. She appeared to be drowning and the lord rushed off to save her. But the servant recognized the reality of the situation and rescued his master from his folly in the nick of time. After the servant explained his forceful rescue, the mermaid then admitted:

"Lorntie, Lorntie,
Were it na your man,
I had gart your heart's blood
Skirl in my pan."


There are also tales in which mermaids caused shipwreck by luring sailors into dangerous waters with their charm and beauty and devoured them as they drowned.

Good examples of this are among the folk tales of the Channel Islands in the English Channel, near the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. Here the mermaids play the role of sirens - they would sing from rocks and their enchanting song would lure sailors to come dangerously close to these rocks. Then suddenly a terrible storm would arise and force the ships to crash into the rocks. The mermaids would then carry the sailors down into the depths of the sea and devour them.

The Channel Islanders called these mermaids 'seirenes'. But at least according to the testimony of one islander, a school teacher who saw six of them on a beach, they had the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a fish.

On the west coast of France there are also many places that have tales of siren-mermaids. It seems often the case here that the siren-mermaid led her victims to death for the sake of fiendish fun rather than to satisfy her appetite. But in one old song sung in Poitou, a diver searching for the golden keys of a princess is lured to his death by such a siren. The princess later tells the siren that she has reason enough to sing - she has the sea to drink and the princess's lover to eat.

There are also tales where a mermaid lures a man into the sea and then marries him, and they then live together beneath the sea and have children. In the legend of Matthew Trewella told in Cornwall, a beautiful mermaid came up a stream from the sea and heard Matthew singing as a church chorister. She lured him down into the sea. He was never heard again, but he could be heard singing in Pendour Cove to his mermaid bride. In another version, the mermaid took the complete form of a woman and attended the services of the church at Zennor for many generations before being enthralled with Matthew's singing. The congregation was already wondering about her since she had never aged through the years. And there is a sequel tale in which the skipper of a ship dropped anchor off Pendover Cove. The mermaid rose from the sea and complained to the skipper that his anchor was laying across the door to underwater home where she, Matthew, and their children lived. The skipper obligingly raises his anchor. When he returned to Zennor, he informed the people about the fate of Matthew Trewella.

For category (3), revenants who resemble mermaids, a good example of this is the 'rusalka'.

The rusalka is identified in Ukrainian and Russian lore as the ghostly soul of a young woman who died by drowning or that of an infant who was stillborn or who otherwise died unbaptized. The rusalka most typically appears to people as a beautiful young woman. But she might also appear in the form of a bird or a beast, a mermaid or a young boy. A rusalka's haunt was a river, a pond, a lake, or a bay. The rusalka had a reputation for appearing to a man as a beautiful young woman, leading him with her seductive appeal into the water, and then drowning him. In some tales where a rusalka is like a mermaid, she leads the man down to her beautiful castle beneath the water and marries him. But even in these tales the rusalka has a dark side - the soul of the seduced man is doomed to end in hell.

In Brittany, there is also a legend in which a wicked princess became a siren-mermaid after the great sea-gate of her city, Ys, was opened during a severe storm at high tide and the city was totally deluged. She had been seduced and tricked by the devil, in the form of a handsome young man, into providing him the keys to the sea gate. The princess drowned with most of the other people in the city. But then she returned from the dead as a siren-mermaid.

For category (4), other vampiric or neo-vampiric, supernatural creatures who dwell under water, there is, for one example, the water-horse.

The Celtic water-horse is most well known today as the kelpie. Variations of the kelpie can be found in the lore of Ireland, the Shetland Islands, the Isle of Man, the Scottish Lowlands and the Scottish Highlands.

Considering both shape-shifting ability and voraciousness, the kelpie of the Scottish Highland and the Island of Man in the Irish Sea was the most fearsome.

One of its tricks was to take the form of a beautiful horse and lure children onto its back. It then headed for the loch. After jumping into the loch with its victims, it devoured all of the flesh and blood within their bodies except for internal organs such as livers, hearts, and lungs, which then came floating to shore.

In human form, the Highlands kelpie sometimes behaved like a a true vampire. In one story, a kelpie took the form of an old woman and begged some girls tending cattle to share their shelter with her. The girls consented. One of the girls woke up in the middle of the night and saw the old lady sucking blood from one of the other girls. The girl managed to escape and tell the tale.

The Highlands kelpie also sometimes took the form of a handsome man to take advantage of women. Typically, he had trouble maintaining human form. In one tale of a woman being courted by a kelpie, the masquerade is foiled when the woman notices that the 'man' has horse-hoofs. In another, the man's hair begins to turn to sea weed.

The folk beliefs found on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland include both the kelpie and the 'nucklelavee'. The nuckelavee somewhat resembles a centaur. The upper body is basically humanoid and the lower body is basically equine. But it had flippers instead of hooves, and it's head, like that of a cyclops, had only one eye. It had neither skin nor scales - the whole surface of its body displayed naked flesh with yellow veins through which blood pulsed like black tar. It would come to land to prey upon people and domestic animals. Also, its foul breath could blight the crops. It could not dwell in fresh water or cross over fresh water, and in the folk tales about it this often provided a way for a person to escape the creature's pursuit.

Also to be considered are the 'worms', the dragon-serpents of Anglo-Saxon, and Scottish lore. Some of these lived in the sea and can be considered to be sea serpents. But even the land versions often dwelled in wells and lochs. Both preyed upon humans and livestock, and their fowl breath could blight crops and cause epidemics of disease among humans.

So far I haven't found any clear-cut cases in myth, legend, or folktale where a mermaid or neo-mermaid was an outright blood-sucker. But it doesn't seem like too much of a leap to write a story about such a vamp. After all, if the 19'th century creators of the modern literary vampire such as Bram Stoker had got hung up in making their vampires exactly match those revenants in folklore which are their basis, they would not have succeeded in their efforts.

Bram Stoker indeed did write a story which involves both Medieval legends about the "worm" and the image of the lamia as a vampish snake-woman: _The Lair of the White Worm_. In this story, a gigantic, blood thirsty "Worm" dwells in a deep well on an estate in England whose history goes back to at least the time of the Roman occupation.

One of the story's protagonists, the uncle of the story's central hero, gives a neo-Darwinian explanation for the existence of such a creature and its presence in old legends and in their neighbor's well. In prehistoric times such enormous serpent-like creatures lived in the great swamps and marshes that surrounded the mouths of European rivers. As the climate changed, they adopted to dwelling in natural caverns and tunnels that extended from the bed of these wetlands, and as part of this they also developed the ability to tunnel through clay and other soils. At the same time, their mental powers evolved greatly.

The snake-woman in the story, Lady Arabella, is the widow who now owns the estate and its well. She was once a nice young girl but one day while out in the country side alone, she received a venomous bite. After she was found and brought home, she was at first severely ill. Then, suddenly, she suddenly had a remarkable recovery. But she was no longer a nice girl. The central hero's uncle deduces that she actually did die from the bite, and the White Worm took possession of her as soon as her own soul departed from her body.

The creature is still dependent on dwelling in the well in worm-form part of the time, but, in the form of Lady Arabella, it has taken full control of the estate.

There is one passage near the end of the story that is quite erotic in a vampish way:

"She [Lady Arabella] tore off her clothes with feverish fingers, and in full enjoyment of her natural freedom stretched her slim figure in animal delight. Then she lay down on the sofa - to await her victim! Edward Caswall's life blood would more than satisfy her for some time to come."

There is a movie spin-off of Stoker's story available on DVD that is well worth watching: "The Lair of the White Worm", produced in Great Britain in 1988, starring Ken Russell and Amanda Donahoe. There are many differences between this movie and the original story. It's really a whole new story. But it preserves and enhances the best elements of the original story. It's actually better than the original.


Source: written by Patrick Johnson

 

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