Clarissa Johal: #FolkloreThursday - Vampires Around the World

Thursday, October 25, 2018

#FolkloreThursday - Vampires Around the World

Vampires. The mention of these creatures used strike fear and loathing, many years ago. After all, they were undead whose sole purpose was to kill. In the past fifty years, however, vampires have been simultaneously sexualized and emasculated. They share a new list of traits in films and literature. They no longer terrify but instead; their spit heals wounds, their fangs grow in response to sexual desire, they worry over moral choices, fall in love, sparkle and have babies. Oh boy.

But let's revisit the original definition:

Lithograph by Moraine (1864).
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vampires: mythological or folkloric creatures who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures, regardless of whether they are undead or a living person/being. Belief in such legends became so rife that in some cultures it caused mass hysteria and even public executions of people believed to be vampires.

Vampiric entities exist in many cultures and go back as far as prehistoric times. These blood-drinking, flesh-eating entities were associated with demons or evil spirits. The term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century.

Ancient Greek mythology contains several precursors to modern vampires. Empusa, the daughter of the goddess Hecate, was described as a demon with flaming hair, a serpentine tail and one leg of brass and the other of a donkey. She would transform into a beautiful woman and seduce men as they slept...before drinking their blood and eating their flesh.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
[CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Aztec mythology described tales of the cihuateteo; skeletal-faced spirits of women who died in childbirth. Childbirth was looked on as a battle in Aztec culture, and those who died in the process were honored as fallen warriors. The spirits of these women were said to haunt crossroads at night; stealing children, seducing men and causing sickness, seizures and madness.

Various regions of Africa share folkloric tales of beings with vampiric abilities. The Ashanti of southern Ghana tell of the sasabonsam, or forest vampires. They are said to be hairy and man-sized beings with short stubby arms, a wingspan of 20 feet, blood-shot eyes and teeth made of iron. They hang from trees utilizing hooks on their feet, which make it easy to swoop down on their prey and drain their blood.

Illustration by Ernest Griset
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vetàla are vampiric entities from Hindu mythology. Inhabiting the zone between life and afterlife, they are the hostile spirits of the dead whose children neglected to perform funerary rites in their memory. The vetàla can move from corpse to corpse, stopping decay and existing indefinitely. Victims reanimated by a vetàla would always have their hands and feet pointed backwards. They can haunt the living, kill children, cause miscarriages, and drive people insane.

In China, it is the jiāng shī, also known as a “hopping vampire” or reanimated corpse. The jiāng shī are said to have long, white hair, greenish-white skin, (due to rotting and mold) and a stiff gait. In the daytime they hide in dark places but at night they move, arms outstretched, by hopping. To kill living creatures, they must absorb their qi (life energy).

By Bin im Garten
CC BY-SA 3.0  from Wikimedia Commons
In European folklore, vampires were bloated with ruddy, purplish or dark skin. Their teeth, hair, and nails continued to grow, even after death. Blood would seep from their mouth and nose, and while their right eye was closed, their left eye would remain open. In general, fangs were not a feature. The origins of these physical attributes can be attributed to what we now know of forensic pathology: remaining bacteria in the body cause it to swell, which in turn, rupture blood vessels and cause blood to ooze from the mouth. Skin and gums shrivel and make the hair, nails and teeth look like they’ve grown.  It is the simple process of decomposition.

So why are we not getting down-and-dirty with these types of vampires? Sadly, romance with creatures leaking fluid or hopping about just isn't sexy. We save concepts of the aforementioned vampires for entertainment meant to scare. 
If you're interested in scary vampire movies for Halloween, my current watch list includes Cronos and Let the Right One In. I may even re-watch Nosferatu and What We Do in the Shadows (a not-to-miss comedy).
But if you like your vampires sexy, by all means, have at it. And don't forget your werewolves. They never get any love.

Photo courtesy of Harem Malik via Flickr