Vampyres (1855)

VAMPYRES
published in
Harper's New Monthly Magazine
Volume 10, Issue 59, April 1855
Pages 681-685


Of all the creations of superstition, a Vampyre is, perhaps, the most horrible. You are lying in your bed at night, thinking of nothing but sleep, when you see, by the faint light that is in your bed-chamber, a shape entering at the door, and gliding toward you with a long sigh, as of the wind across the open fields when darkness has fallen upon them. The thing moves along the air as if by the mere act of volition; and it has a human visage and figure. The eyes stare wildly from the head; the hair is bristling; the flesh is livid; the mouth is bloody.

You lie still-like one under the influence of the nightmare-and the thing floats slowly over you. Presently you fall into a dead sleep or swoon, returning, up to the latest moment of consciousness, the fixed and glassy stare of the phantom. When you awake in the morning, you think it is all a dream, until you perceive a small, blue, deadly-looking spot on your chest near the heart; and the truth flashes on you. You say nothing of the matter to your friends; but you know you are a doomed man-and you know rightly. For every night comes the terrible Shape to yoor bedside, with a face that seems horrified at itself, and sucks your life-blood in your sleep. You feel it is useless to endeavor to avoid the visitation, by changing your room or your locality: you are under a sort of cloud of fate.

Day after day you grow paler and more languid: your face becomes livid, your eyes leaden, your cheeks hollow. Your friends advise you to seek medical aid-to take change of air-to amuse your mind; but you are too well aware that it is all in vain. You therefore keep your fearful secret to yourself; and pine, and droop, and languish, till you die. When you are dead (if you will be so kind as to suppose yourself in that predicament), the most horrible part of the business commences. You are then yourself forced to become a Vampyre, and to create fresh victims; who, as they die, add to the phantom stock.

The belief in Vampyres appears to have been most prevalent in. the southeast of Europe, and to have had its origin there. Modern Greece was its cradle; and among the Hungarians, Poles, Wallachians, and other Sclavonic races bordering on Greece, have been its chief manifestations. The early Christians of the Greek Church believed that the bodies of all the Latin Christians buried in Greece were unable to decay, because of their excommunication from that fold of which the Emperor of Russia now claims to be the sovereign Pope and supreme Shepherd. The Latins, of course, in their turn, regarded these peculiar mummies as nothing less than saints; hut the orthodox Greeks conceived that the dead body was animated by a demon who caused it to rise from its grave every night, and conduct itself after the fashion of a huge mosquito. These dreadful beings were called Brucolacs; and, according to some accounts, were not merely manufactured from the dead bodies of heretics, but from those of all wicked people who have died impenitent. They would appear in divers places in their natural forms; would run a muck indiscriminately at whomsoever they met, like a wild Malay; would injure some, and kill others outright; would occasionally, for a change, do some one a good service; but would, for the most part, so conduct themselves that nothing could possibly be more aggravating or unpleasant. Father Richard, a French Jesuit of the seventeenth century, who went as a missionary to the Archipelago, and who has left us an account of the Island of Santerini, or Saint Irene, the Thera of the ancients, discourses largely on the subject of Brucolacs. He says, that when the persecutions of the Vampyres become intolerable, the graves of the offending parties are opened, when the bodies are found entire and uncorrupted; that they are then cut up into little bits, particularly the heart; and that, after this, the apparations are seen no more, and the body decays.

The word Brucolac, we are told, is derived from two modern Greek words, signifying, respectively, "mud," and "a ditch," because the graves of the Vampyres were generally found full of mud. Voltaire, in the article on "Vampyres in his Philosophical Dictionary," gives a similar account of these spectres. He observes, in his exquisite, bantering style: "These dead Greeks enter houses, and suck the blood of little children; eating the suppers of the fathers and mothers, drinking their wine, and breaking all the furniture. They can be brought to reason only by being burnt-when they are caught; but the precaution must be taken not to resort to this measure until the heart has been torn out, as that must be consumed apart from the body." What a weight of meaning and implied satire is there in that phrase, "They can be brought to reason only by being burnt!" It is a comment upon universal history.

Pierre Daniel Huet, a French writer of Ana, who died in seventeen hundred and twenty-one, Bays, that it is certain that the idea of Vampyres, whether true or false, is very ancient, and that the classical authors are full of it. He remarks, that when the ancients had murdered any one in a treacherous manner, they cut off his feet, hands, nose, and cars, and hung them round his neck or under his arm-pits; conceiving that by these means they deprived their victim of the power of taking vengeance. Huet adds, that proof of this may be found in the Greek Scholia of Sophocles; and that it was after this fashion that Menelaus treated Deiphobiis, the husband of Helen-the victim having been discovered by Æneas in the infernal regions in the above state. He also mentions the story of Hermotimus of Clazomene, whose soul had a power of detaching itself from its body, for the sake of wandering through distant countries, and looking into the secrets of futurity. During one of these spiritual journeys, his enemies persuaded his wife to have the body burned; and his soul, upon the next return, finding its habitation not forthcoming, withdrew forever after. According to Suetonius, the body of Caligula, who had been violently murdered, was but partially burned and superficially buried. In consequence of this, the house in which he had been slain, and the garden in which the imperfect cremation had taken place, were every night haunted with ghosts, which continued to appear until the house was burned down, and the funeral rites properly performed by the sisters of the deceased emperor. It is asserted by ancient writers that the souls of the dead are unable to repose until after the body has been entirely consumed; and Huet informs us that the corpses of those excommunicated by the modern Greek Church are called Toupi, a word signifying "a drum," because the said bodies are popularly supposed to swell like a drum, and to sound like the same, if struck or rolled on the ground. Some writers have supposed that the ancient idea of Harpies gave rise to the modern idea of Vampyres.

Traces of the Vampyre belief may be found in the extreme north-even in remote Iceland. In that curious piece of old Icelandic history, called The Eyrbyggja-Saga, of which Sir Walter Scott has given an abstract, we find two narrations which, though not identical with the modern Greek conception of Brucolacs, have certainly considerable affinity with it. The first of these stories is to the following effect:- Thorolf Bægifot, or the Crookfooted, was an old Icelandic chieftain of the tenth century, unenviably notorious for his savage and treacherous disposition, which involved him in continual broils, not only with his neighbors, but even with his own son, who was noted for justice and generosity. Having been frustrated in one of his knavish designs, and seeing no farther chance open to him, Thorolf returned home one evening, mad with rage and vexation, and, refusing to partake of any supper, sat down at the head of the table like a stone statue, and so remained without stirring or speaking a word. The servants retired to rest; but yet Thorolf did not move. In the morning, every one was horrified to find him still sitting in the same place and attitude; and it was whispered that the old man had died after a manner peculiarly dreadful to the Icelanders-though what may be the precise nature of this death is very doubtful. It was feared that the spirit of Thorolf would not rest in its grave unless some extraordinary precautions were taken; and accordingly his son Arnkill, upon being sent for, approached the body in such a manner as to avoid looking upon the face, and at the same time enjoined the domestics to observe the like caution. The corpse was then removed from the chair (in doing which, great force was found necessary), the face was concealed by a vail, and the usual religious rites were performed. A breach was next made in the wall behind the chair in which the corpse hud been found; and the body, being carried through it with immense labor, was laid in a strongly-built tomb. All in vain. The spirit of the malignant old chief haunted the neighborhood both night and day; killing men and cattle, and keeping every one in continual terror. The pest at length became unendurable; and Arnkill resolved to remove his father's body to some other place.

On opening the tomb, the corpse of Thorolf was found with so ghastly an aspect, that he seemed more like a devil than a man; and other astonishing and fearful circumstances soon manifested themselves. Two strong oxen were yoked to the bier on which the body was placed; but they were very shortly exhausted by the weight of their burden. Fresh beasts were then attached; but, upon reaching the top of a steep hill, they were seized with a sudden and uncontrollable terror, and, dashing frantically away, rolled headlong into the valley, and were killed. At every mile, moreover, the body became of a still greater weight; and it was now found impossible to carry it any farther, though the contemplated place of burial was still distant. The attendants therefore consigned it to the earth on the ridge of the hill, an immense mound was piled over it, and the spirit of the old man remained for a time at rest. But "after the death of Arnkill," says Sir Walter Scott, " Bægifot became again troublesome, and walked forth from his tomb, to the great terror and damage of the neighborhood, slaying both herds and domestics, and driving the inhabitants from the canton. It was therefore resolved to consume his carcase with fire; for, like the Hungarian Vampyre, he, or some evil demon in his stead, made use of his mortal relics as a vehicle during the commission of these enormities. The body was found swollen to a huge size, equaling the corpulence of an ox. It was transported to the sea-shore with difficulty, and there burned to ashes." In this narrative, we miss the blood-sucking propensities of the genuine Vampyre; but in all other respects the resemblance is complete.

The other story from the same source has relation to a certain woman named Thorgunna. This excellent old lady having, a short time previous to her death, appointed one Thorodd her executor, and the wife of the said Thorodd having covetously induced her husband to preserve some bed-furniture which the deceased particularly desired to have burnt, a series of ghost-visits ensued. Thorgunna requested that her body might be conveyed to a distant place called Skalholt; and on the way thither her ghost appeared at a house where the funeral party put up. But the worst visitations occurred on the return of Thorodd to his own house. On the very night when he reached his domicile, a meteor resembling a half-moon glided round the walls of the apartment in a direction opposed to the apparent course of the sun (an ominous sign), and remained visible until the inmates went to bed. The spectral appearance continued throughout the week; and then one of the herdsmen went mad, evidently under the persecutions of evil spirits. At length he was found dead in his bed; and, shortly after, Thorer, one of the inmates of the house, going out in the evening, was seized by the ghost of the dead shepherd, and so injured by blows, that he died. His spirit then went into partnership with that of the herdsman, and together they played some very awkward and alarming pranks. A pestilence appeared, of which many of the neighbors died; and one evening something in the shape of a seal-fish lifted itself up through the flooring of Thorodd's house, and gazed around.

The terrified domestics having in vain struck at the apparition, which continued to rise through the floor, Kiartan, the son of Thorodd, smote it on the head with a hammer, and drove it gradually and reluctantly into the earth, like a stake. Subsequently, Thorodd and several of his servants were drowned; and now their ghosts were added to the spectral group. Every evening, when the fire was lighted in the great hall, Thorodd and his companions would enter, drenched and dripping, and seat themselves close to the blaze, from which they very selfishly excluded all the living inmates; while, from the other side of the apartment, the ghosts of those who had died of pestilence, and who appeared gray with dust, would bend their way toward the same comfortable nook, under the leadership of Thorer. This being a very awkward state of affairs in a climate like Iceland, Kiartan, who was now the master of the house, caused a separate fire to be kindled for the mortals in an out-house, leaving the great hall to the spectres; with which arrangement their ghostships seemed to be satisfied. The deaths from the pestilence continued to increase; and every death caused an addition to the phantom army.

Matters had now reached so serious a pitch, that it was found absolutely necessary to take some steps against the disturbers of the neighborhood. It was accordingly resolved to proceed against them by law; but, previously to commencing the legal forms, Kiartan caused the unfortunate bed-furniture, which had been at the bottom of all the mischief, to be burnt in sight of the spectres. A jury was then formed in the great hall; the ghosts were accused of being public nuisances within the meaning of the act in that case made and provided; evidence was heard, and finally a sentence of ejectment was pronounced. Upon this, the phantoms rose; and, protesting that they had only sat there while it was lawful for them to do so, sullenly and mutteringly withdrew, with many symptoms of unwillingness. A priest then damped the room with holy-water -- a solemn mass was performed, and the supernatural visitors were thenceforth non est inventus.

The incident of the seal in this narrative will remind the reader who has properly studied his Corsican Brothers-and (as it is customary to ask on these occasions) who has not?-of the appearance of the ghost of the duelist as he comes gliding through the floor to the tremulous music of the fiddles. The whole tale, in fact, falls in a great measure into the general class of ghost stories; but the circumstance of each person, as he died, adding to the array of the evil spirits, and thus spreading out the mischief in ever-widening circles, has an affinity to the distinguishing feature of the Brucolac superstition. Still, for the perfect specimen of the genus Vampyre, we must revert to the southeast of Europe.

Sir Walter Scott says that the above "is the only instance in which the ordinary administration of justice has been supposed to extend over the inhabitants of another world, and in which the business of exorcising spirits is transferred from the priest to the judge."

Voltaire, however, in treating of Vampyres, mentions a similar instance. "It is in my mind," says the French wit and philosopher, "a curious fact, that judicial proceedings were taken, in due form of law, concerning those dead who had left their tombs to suck the blood of the little boys and girls of the neighborhood. Calmet relates that in Hungary two officers appointed by the Emperor Charles the Sixth, assisted by the bailiff of the place, and the executioner, went to bring to trial a Vampyre who sucked all the neighborhood, and who had died six weeks before. He was found in his tomb, fresh, gay, with his eyes open, and asking for food. The bailiff pronounced his sentence, and the executioner tore out his heart and burnt it: after which the Vampyre ate no more."

Voltaire's levity has here carried him (inadvertently, of course) with a smiling face into a very appalling region. It is an historical fact that a sort of Vampyre fever or epidemic spread through the whole southeast of Europe, from about the year seventeen hundred and twenty-seven to seventeen hundred and thirty-five. This took place more especially in Servia and Hungary; with respect to its manifestations in which latter country, Calmet, the celebrated author of the "History of the Bible," has left an account in his "Dissertations on the Ghosts and Vampyres of Hungary." A terrible infection appeared to have seized upon the people, who died by hundreds under the belief that they were haunted by these dreadful phantoms.

Military commissions were issued for inquiring into the matter; and the graves of the alleged Vampyres being opened in the presence of medical men, some of the bodies were found undecomposed, with fresh skin and nails growing in the place of the old, with florid complexions, and with blood in the chest and abdomen. Of the truth of these allegations there can be no reasonable doubt, as they rest upon the evidence both of medical and military men; and the problem seems to admit of only one solution. Dr. Herbert Mayo, in his "Letters on the Truths" contained in Popular Superstitions, suggests that the superstitious belief in Vampyrism, acting upon persons of nervous temperaments, predisposed them to fall into the condition called death-trance; that in that state they were hastily buried; and that, upon the graves being opened, they were found still alive, though unable to speak. In confirmation of this ghastly suggestion, Dr. Mayo quotes the following most pathetic and frightful account of a Vampyre execution from an old German writer: "When they opened his grave, after he had been long buried, his face was found with a color, and his features made natural sorts of movements, as if the dead man smiled. He even opened his mouth as if he would inhale the fresh air. They held the crucifix before him, and called in a loud voice, 'See, this is Jesus Christ who redeemed your soul from hell, and died for you.' After the sound had acted on his organs of hearing, and he had connected perhaps some ideas with it, tears began to flow from the dead man's eyes. Finally, when, after a short prayer for his poor soul, they proceeded to back off bis head, the corpse uttered a screech, and turned and rolled just as if it had been alive-and the grave was full of blood." The wretched man most assuredly was alive; but Superstition has neither brain nor heart; and so it murdered him.

A story similar to the foregoing has been preserved by Sergeant Mainard, a lawyer of the reign of Charles the First; and may be here repeated as a curious instance of the hold which the most puerile superstitions maintained in England at a comparatively recent period, and the influence which they were allowed to exercise even in so grave a matter as a trial for murder. In the year sixteen hundred and twenty-nine, somewhere in Hertfordshire, a married woman, named Joan Norcot, was found in bed with her throat cut; and, although the inquest which was held upon her body terminated in a verdict of felo-de-se, a rumor got about that the deceased had been murdered. The body was accordingly taken out of the grave thirty days after its death, in the presence of the jury and many other persons; and the jury then changed their verdict (which had not been drawn into form by the coroner), and accused certain parties of willful murder. These were tried at the Hertford Assizes and acquitted; "but," says the Sergeant, "so much against the evidence, that the Judge (Harvy) let fall his opinion that it were better an appeal were brought than so foul a murder should escape unpunished." In consequence of this, "they were tried on the appeal, which was brought by the young child against his father, grandfather, and aunt, and her husband, Okeman; and, because the evidence was so strange, I took exact and particular notice of it. It was as followeth, viz.: After the matters above mentioned and related, an ancient and grave person, minister of the parish where the fact was committed, being sworn to give evidence, according to the custom, deposed, that the body being taken out of the grave, thirty days after the party's death, and lying on the grass, and the four defendants present, they were required, each of them, to touch the dead body. Okeman's wife fell on her knees, and prayed God to show token of their innocency, or to some such purpose; but her very [i.e., precise] words I forgot. The appellers did touch the dead body; whereupon, the brow of the dead, which was of a livid or carrion color (that was the verbal expression in the terms of the witness), began to have a dew or gentle sweat, which ran down, in drops on the face, and the brow turned and changed to a lively and fresh color, and the dead opened one of her eyes, and shut it again; and this opening the eye was done three several times. She likewise thrust out the ring or marriage-finger three times, and pulled it in again; and the finger dropt blood from it on the grass." This being confirmed by the witness's brother, also a clergyman; and other evidence (of a more human character, but, as it appears to us, very insufficient) having been adduced, Okeman was acquitted, and the three other prisoners were found guilty: a result which there can be little question was mainly brought about by the monstrous story of the scene at the exhumation. That the details of that story were exaggerated, according to the superstitious habit of the times, seems obvious; but the query arises, whether the body of the woman might not really have been alive. It is true that thirty days had elapsed since her apparent death; but some of the alleged Vampyres supposed by Dr. Mayo to have been buried alive had been in their graves three months when their condition was inspected. Not being possessed of the requisite medical knowledge, we will forbear to pronounce whether or not life could be sustained, under such circumstances, for so great a supposition, in the last instance, is the fact of the woman having had her throat cut.

Vampyres have often been introduced into romance. There is an old Anglo-Saxon poem on the subject of a Vampyre of the Fens; and the Baron von Haxthausen, in his work on Transcaucasia, has told a story of one of these gentry, which may be here appended as a sort of pleasant burlesque after the foregoing tragedies: "There once dwelt in a cavern in Armenia a Vampyre, called Dakhanavar, who could not endure any one to penetrate into the mountains of Ulmish Altötem, or count their valleys. Every one who attempted this had, in the night, his blood sucked by the monster from the soles of his feet until he died. The Vampyre was, however, at last outwitted by two cunning fellows. They began to count the valleys, and when night came on they lay down to sleep-taking care to place themselves with the feet of the one under the head of the other." (How both could have managed to do this, we leave to the reader's ingenuity to explain.) "In the night the monster came, felt as usual, and found a head; then he felt at the other end, and found a head there also. 'Well,' cried he, 'I have gone through the whole three hundred and sixty-six valleys of these mountains, and have sucked the blood of people without end; but never yet did I find any one with two heads and no feet!' So saying, he ran away, and was never more seen in that country; but ever after the people have known that the mountain has three hundred and sixty-six valleys."

In South America a species of bat is found which sucks the blood of people while asleep (lulling them with the fanning of its wings during the operation), and which is called the Vampyre bat from that circumstance. If this creature belonged to Europe, we should be inclined to regard it as the origin of the Vampyre fable.

 

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From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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