Yet unquestionably, the local river did rise from time to time, and people searched for an explanation. For thousands of years, anthropomorphism was the answer. Anthropomorphism, in this sense, is a way of ascribing human motivations to natural events. In other words, our ancestors often gave the river a personality of its own; if the plains flooded, it was because the river wanted to rise. Over time, simple anthropomorphism became more complex with the advent of religion. Instead of limiting motivations to inanimate objects like rivers, people began to believe that it was their gods who made the river behave a certain way. Now, when the river flooded, it was no longer because the river possessed autonomy, but rather because the gods were using the river as an instrument of punishment for some offense.
Insofar as the vampire is concerned, we need to look at how our ancestors applied this belief system to two specific natural processes: human decomposition and disease transmission.
Before the advent of modern medicine, people truly lived in the midst of death. Poverty, infant mortality and a lack of understanding of basic principles of health and hygiene guaranteed that few people had not experienced death at first hand by the time they reached adulthood. Yet, in spite of this familiarity with death, contemporary sources indicate that most pre-industrial societies were not nearly as knowledgeable about what happened to bodies after death.
They were familiar with decomposition purely from observing it but they had no idea why or how it happened, only that it did. Moreover, from the art and literature of the time, it becomes clear that, in their efforts to describe post mortem decay, they focused on three distinct stages of what the body looked like while the process was underway.
Most commonly, ancient art and literature portray the recently deceased as sleeping or, in some cases, waiting–usually for a divine judgement of some kind. The dead person appears much as they did in life. Even when the body was grievously damaged in battle, ancient customs dictated that the body be washed and “arranged” to create a semblance of peaceful slumber. Many funereal preparations, including modern embalming, were designed to foster this notion that death, physically at least, looked almost exactly like sleep.
At the other end of the spectrum, our ancestors were certainly familiar with the fleshless skeleton. Mediaeval artists, in fact, rarely portrayed death in any other way. Early societies were also acquainted with how the body looked between these two extremes, a post mortem stage which was often described as “moldering” or “putrefying.” But a human body’s journey into decay does not always progress in linear conformity. Today, we know that decomposition is dependent on many factors which pre-industrial societies would have dismissed as pure fancy. To them, it was inconceivable that something as seemingly commonplace as the depth at which the body was buried, or the nearby presence of certain kinds of vegetation, could affect its decay.
They saw decomposition as proceeding in strictly delineated stages. When it did not, they were baffled and sought anthropomorphic explanations. Because they lacked the scientific knowledge to understand how a body moved from sleeping to moldering to its ultimate skeletal form, they failed to understand that putrefaction was a process, rather than a defined series of steps.
They concluded, therefore, that like the overflowing river, the body did not act as expected because it refused to do so.
They assumed that bodies which remained “asleep” rather than succumbing to decay, must do so purely by strength of will. And what was sleeping, they reasoned, could be awakened under certain conditions. These specially revived corpses were often assumed to have an unwholesome or demonic reason for waking up and, though modern vampire may wear an opera cape and drink blood from fine crystal, early vampire accounts describe the creatures as being hostile and bestial in nature.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the more cantankerous habits of dead bodies, the regularity with which revived corpses show up throughout history is astonishing. Prior to the modern age, the best way of determining whether or not someone was deceased was through visual observation or feeling for a pulse. Yet there are many conditions that mimic death and which can produce a miraculous resurrection–hopefully before the unfortunate victim is buried or locked into the crypt! Post mortem muscle spasms, or the involuntary expulsion of gasses, complicated the situation and led to accounts of people “leaping” from their coffins or “shouting” from beyond the grave. In retrospect, it seems only natural that people who witnessed these terrifying events believed they were caused by some kind of “undeath.”
The idea that vampires return from the grave was buttressed by fact that bodies often do not stay where they’re put. In areas with high water tables, even minor flooding can bring coffins floating to the surface. Where the rockiness of the ground makes for difficult burials, the bloating caused by postmortem production of gasses may be enough to displace the thin layer of earth covering the body and to create the appearance that the corpse is trying to escape the grave. Shallow graves also present veritable smorgasbords for scavengers who can easily partly exhume a body to make a meal of it.
With so many bodies leaving their graves, it is no wonder that stories about people who had “come back” began to proliferate. Soon, it became universally accepted that certain events could stimulate the deceased’s desire to return to a semblance of life. To protect themselves, people began examining the departed, sometimes even going so far as to dig them up, to make sure their relatives and neighbors were in no danger of coming back.
Instead of alleviating their concerns, what they found often confirmed their superstitions. Not only did some bodies manifest physical signs that did not fit within the three rigid notions of what decomposition looked like, but some also exhibited evidence of shockingly lifelike behavior, much of it malevolent. Often the exhumed corpse is described as having blood-flecked lips, bloody spittle, or a rosy complexion. In retrospect, we find that these accounts coincide almost perfectly with outbreaks of the pneumonic form of plague. Today, we know that the blood which often accumulates within the victim’s damaged lungs may be forced out of the body via the mouth and nose due to the expanding gasses of decay. To our many times great grandparents, however, the reason was quite different; the deceased was obviously a vampire, sated from the blood of the innocent. Even the natural swelling which affects necrotic tissue as it decomposes was attributed to an undead creature being “bloated” from drinking stolen blood.
Additional evidence of undeath was there for anyone who knew what to look for. The reported fangs and claws of the vampire were likely nothing more than the commonplace action of the gums and the fleshy parts of the fingers shrinking away from the teeth and nails. The foul or charnel “breath” of the corpse was likely only an accumulation of the pungent, but naturally occurring, gaseous compounds produced by a decaying body.
Once observations like these firmly established the existence of the vampire in folklore, people began to obsess about the possible motives of the monster. Fairly early on, it became generally accepted that those who returned from the grave did so in order to lure the living into death with them.
This is an obvious conclusion, especially when we consider how little our predecessors knew about how disease was transmitted. Well into the 18th Century, most people believed that diseases were caused by a variety of external factors that caused an imbalance in one of the four “humors” of the body. They avoided foul smells, or “miasmas” as harbingers of illness. Doctors of the time resorted to bleeding with leeches, purgatives and other outrageous methods of restoring physiological “balance” to their patients. Bacterial and viral transmission of disease is largely a product of Twentieth Century knowledge.
When it came to vampires, our ancestors soon noticed an ominous pattern, especially during times of plague. In households where one person died, more often than not, the rest of the family soon followed. Lacking accurate notions of disease transmission, it is easy to understand how people concluded that the deceased had come back from the dead to claim the lives of his or her loved ones.
Naturally, people panicked and frantically sought ways to protect themselves. These charms, customs and rituals against death are called “apotropaics” by anthropologists. From them, many of the trappings of the modern vampire myth, as well as some of our modern burial customs, were developed.
Early gravestones, for example, were not designed to mark the location of a grave so much as they were intended to block the corpse from emerging. If heavy rocks weren’t enough to keep the deceased in place, some societies advocated pounding a sharpened piece of wood through the body, in essence “nailing” it into the coffin to keep it from escaping. The notion of destroying a vampire by driving a stake through its heart originates with this custom.
In some cultures, the survivors buried suspected vampires face down so that, when it attempted to dig out it would only bury itself even deeper. Others wound spiky branches around the corpse, or planted rose bushes above the grave. The theory was that when the vampire emerged, its burial shroud would become entangled in the thorns and, thereby, stop it from roaming. In time, villagers began fixing a piece of whitethorn, a branch of wild rose or some briar above their doors and windows to bar a vampire from entry.
Remember those bad smelling “miasmas” mentioned earlier? The idea of garlic as an apotropaic originates from the belief that sniffing a stronger smelling substance would overpower the foul, disease laden air. For hundreds of years, people carried nosegays, posies and ornate containers in which they kept roses, lavender and other pungent flowers, onions and, yes, garlic to fend off the horrid stenches that they believed would make them sick. If smelling garlic could protect against illness, they reasoned, it would be equally effective against vampire attacks which, not by coincidence, grew more prevalent in times of plague.