Werewolves and vampires have existed in popular imagination since ancient times. Born from a mixture of superstition and fears of the unknown, the creatures have become synonymous with Halloween and all things spooky. Even more, the seductive qualities of vampires have been heightened by popular films such as Twilight, and werewolves have become a mainstay of smut Wattpad fiction (I see you). But how did each come to be? Follow me, and you shall see.
It’s believed that the concept of lycanthropy began with Proto-Indo-European Mythology, where it was used as an initiation ritual for the kóryos warrior class, which may have included a cult focused on identifying young, unmarried warriors with dogs and wolves. Werewolves also existed in Greek mythology with the Legend of Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus for killing, cooking, and delivering his son as a sacrifice to see if God could recognize human flesh. Similarly, Herodotus, in his Histories (430 BC), wrote that the Neuri, a tribe in Scythia, would turn into wolves once a year for several days.
In Ancient Mesopotamia, The Epic of Gilgamesh (2100-1200 B.C.) makes a similar mention of people turning into wolves when a jilted lover of Gilgamesh turns her previous lover into a wolf. Vampires can also trace their origins to ancient Mesopotamia; however, the term “vampire” was never used. Instead, they were referred to as demons, with Lilith (of Judaic mythology) and the Babylonian Goddesses Lamashtu and Gallu being referred to as bloodsucking creatures. Unlike their furry counterparts, vampires would have to wait several thousand years to find themselves in literature.
During the 12th century, historians such as Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of vampire-like creatures called revenants, which were animated corpses that came to haunt the living. Records from England, however, saw a decline in reports of vampires after this period. But during the Black Death (1346-1353), vampires seem to have made a small resurgence. Symptoms from the disease, such as the bleeding lesions in the mouth, were a sure sign that vampirism had infected the population.
Similarly, werewolves continued to maintain a separate hold on the population. King Cnut’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances from 11th century England claimed to ensure that werewolves didn’t harm the people. However, it’s likely that “werewolf” was meant to be “outlaw” in this context. Similarly, werewolves appeared in the works of several churchmen, such as Gerald of Wales’s Topographica Hibernica, in which he describes the Kings of Ossory in medieval Ireland, who he claims were descended from werewolves. During the same century, theological attacks began to be made against those who believed in the possibility of werewolves. Conrad of Hirasau, a benedictine monk, forbade people from reading stories that showed an altering of a person’s ability to reason (knowing right from wrong, etc.) after such a transformation.
Following on the heels of the Witch Trials in America and Britain, during the 1500s, France undertook a series of “Werewolf Trials” with the belief that witches could turn into wolves with their “satanic powers.” In 1521, two Frenchmen, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, claimed to have sworn allegiance to the devil and had an ointment that turned them into wolves. After confessing to having killed several children, they were burned at the stake. A similar story surrounds Giles Garnier, the “Werewolf of Dole,” who also claimed to have a wolf ointment. As a wolf, he was believed to have killed and eaten children. He, too, was burned at the stake.
A more famous case is that of Patrick Stumpp (or Stubbe, sources differ), also known as the “Werewolf of Bedburg,” who was accused of murdering and eating children and adults in the late 1500s. He was convicted of being a werewolf, in addition to a plethora of other crimes, before being tortured and executed via the wheel on Halloween in 1589. A drawing of his execution can be seen in the image below.
Vampires continued to haunt the imagination as well. Interestingly, it was during the Renaissance that vampire bats were discovered, who received their name because of vampires rather than the other way around. However, it’s unclear exactly what thoughts were towards vampires, as research hasn’t turned up anything substantial. However, as the Age of Enlightenment overtook thought, belief in vampires increased.
In 1721, reports of attacks appeared in East Prussia. Two famous cases arose from these attacks, which codified the definition of a vampire. The first was Petar Blagojevich, who is reported to have returned from the grave to beg his son for food. When the son refused, he was supposedly attacked and killed his son as well as his neighbors. The second was Arnold Paole, who was supposedly attacked by a vampire years before. After he died, reports that he was returning to feed on neighbors emerged.
Early Modern History
Reports of vampire sightings increased in the 1800’s, with folkloric tales of vampires emerging from Transylvania and Southeastern Europe and traveling to Germany and and England.
Vampires also saw their first incorporation into literature, thanks to Lord Byron and Mount Tambora. In 1816, as Byron, Percy, Mary Shelley, and John Polidori hunkered into a cottage in Geneva to escape the Volcanic winter, they challenged each other to a writing competition. As Mary Shelley drafted Frankenstein, Byron and Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which brought together the disparate characteristics of vampirism.
During the Industrial Revolution, large waves of immigrants and their folkloric tales began to mingle with the death-obsessed culture of Victorian England. The most famous of Victorian fiction was Bram Stoker’s Dracula which took inspiration from the legend of Vlad the Impaler for his brutal executions. However, scholars argue that Stoker was playing on the fear of foreign colonizers coming to Britain (and hence playing off fears that the Jack the Ripper murders brought just a year before its release). It’s unclear if Britain was fully convinced of the existence of vampires.
19th-century New England, however, had quite a different view of vampires. During this century, a massive outbreak of Tuberculosis killed thousands of people. Victims of TB would lose weight, turn pale, cough of blood (aka have blood in their mouth), and essentially look as though something was sucking the life out of them. Due to little understanding of how diseases spread and because symptoms in others could develop weeks after family members died, people believed that it meant their dead family was rising again and infecting their living relatives.
Attempts to stop the risings typically involved exhuming the deceased vampire and removing organs, forming bones into a skull and crossbones pattern, or decapitation. Similarly, as many of the corpses were still fresh and rigor mortis had worn off, many still looked alive. One famous case is that of Mercy Brown from Rhode Island in 1892. After her brother became sick with TB, Mercy was exhumed and, after finding blood in her mouth and lungs, had her heart removed and burnt. It was then mixed into a solution for her brother to drink in an effort to cure him, which failed.
In modern times, science has generally rejected notions of the existence of vampires and werewolves. Now, it’s believed that many of the reports were generated by a combination of a lack of medical understanding and prejudice.
Simplistic explanations of reports of werewolves include food poisoning (and a nasty case at that) and Hypertrichosis, which causes an excessive amount of hair to grow on the body. One alleged werewolf, Peter the Wild Boy from 1725, was found naked in the forest, walking on all fours. He ate with his hands, couldn’t talk, and sadly lived out his life as a pet to King George I and King George II in England. Scientists now believe he suffered from a disease called Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, which is characterized by developmental delays, epilepsy, distinctive facial features, possible hyperventilation, and apnea.
Explanations for vampires are drastically different from their hairy counterparts. It was believed that Porphyria, a blood disease, was the cause of vampirism. However, it has been ruled out due to the disease not being present enough to account for the thousands of reports of vampires. Tuberculosis outbreaks in the 18th century were another attributed cause as reports ramped up after 1851.
In 1998, Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso made the connection between vampirism and tuberculosis to another disease outbreak: rabies. Occurring in Hungary from 1721-1728, a rabies outbreak then led to a Vampire epidemic. It’s this second disease that lends the most towards the characteristics of vampires: transmitted through bites, sensitivity to light, and strong smells (like garlic) and can even increase a person’s libido, which lends to the sexualization of vampires.
The origins of vampires and werewolves emerged from superstitious beliefs. These creatures were meant to be feared and ward people off from taking certain actions. But after they were broken down into medical misunderstandings, both lost their scare factors. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight introduced Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, which played off the sexualization of both. More recently, Baldur’s Gate 3 (video game) introduced players to Asterion, which all but confirms that vampires are indeed sexy. Werewolves seemed to have faded from literature, instead being used in Wattpad fiction that writes them off as campy. Even so, the idea of vampires and werewolves has continued to mark the Halloween season and excite spooky lovers everywhere.
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