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chinesevampire_330_6492For her blog post, Jeannette has an important question to explore… one which I have touched upon in other blogs (in News from the Spirit World especially).

How Universal Are Vampires?

 It is a staple of the genre that vampires are ubiquitous in myth and folklore across the globe. That there is one ur-creature that inspired all these stories with a uniting theme of the importance of blood, predation and corpses. Our fictional vampires stride across history, witnessing the building of pyramids, sailing on Viking longboats and writing plays for the Elizabethan stage. They’ll often also have fought in the American civil war and so forth.

20170124-DSC_0945Even Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT has a passage where its protagonist reads through a website about vampires: “The rest of the site was an alphabtized listing of all the different myths of vampires held throughout the world. The first I clicked on, the Danag, was a Filipino vampire supposedly responsible for planting taro on the islands long ago.”

And these are all fun tropes, the dark progenitor and ancient curses, but rather obscures the fact that many of the myths grouped into “vampire” lore have little in common with the early 18th Century Transylvanian revenant. The word has gained a secondary meaning that encompasses any and all death-associated blood-monsters.

Except even then, not all so-called vampires are blood-drinkers, as hopping “Chinese Vampires”[1] do not traditionally drink blood. The jiangshi (殭屍) inhales and thus depletes the “life force” of their victims. In Chinese, the western vampire is translated as “blood-drinking jiangshi” to distinguish it from its less sexy, rigor mortis-suffering analogue.

I sometimes fear that in straining for these parallels, we impose a universality that obscures what is interesting and unique about these old stories. These overquoted lines spoken by Ishtar in the EPIC OF GILGAMESH serve as an excellent example:

“If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,

I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,

and will let the dead go up to eat the living!

And the dead will outnumber the living!”

EPIC OF GILGAMESH, Tablet 6, translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs


These lines have cited in many stories about the undead, ranging from the more elegant vampires to the more mindless zombie, but the effect is the same. They are understood in the context of the modern tradition and not the ancient one. Reading further into GILGAMESH would show how the Mesopotamian dead are not corporeal in nature but ghosts in the shape of dust and clay-eating birds.

The imposition of one culture’s monsters onto another and erasing their original form is merely a move towards homogeneity when writing of ancient cultures but is far more problematic when it comes to modern, still living ones. The impulse remains to understand the foreign through familiar lens, to reframe it as merely versions of what we already know, brushing aside differences and elevating the western version as the progenitor and original. Much of the study of comparative mythology is about drawing connections and seeing patterns across cultures but we must not allow our language and eagreness for conclusions to erase actual differences. These stories that we borrow from culture to culture are born of their cultures.

So perhaps this is something of a downer conclusion, noting how the vampire devoured so very many other blood-drinking demons and animated corpses. Even within Slavic folkore, vampires are not universal. The Ukranian tradition features blood-drinkers who are not actually dead at all. The word itself is Serbian (in fact, the only Serbian loanword in English).

And yet, there is an undeniable simplicity and universality to using the shorthand of “vampire” when talking about these loosely themed array of night terrors. Despite her reluctance to do so Silvia Moreno-Garcia ultimately terms her creations CERTAIN DARK THINGS [link: https://theillustratedpage.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/review-of-certain-dark-things-by-silvia-moreno-garcia/ ] vampires. And there remains a mystique to the term and much like any other genre word, the baggage is heavy and hard to shed.

[1] They rather iconically appear in the classic MR VAMPIRE (1986) and THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974). Despite having vampires elsewhere be based on the same blood-drinking template, WORLD OF DARKNESS has the supplement the KINDRED OF THE EAST that allow the reader to play chi-inhaling jiangshi.