THE NATIONAL LIBRARY
of Finland Bulletin 2014
The National Library of Finland Bulletin 2014

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Björn Forsén
 

When the vampires arrived

The past five years have seen a vampire craze sweep the world. Vampires are more popular than ever, and in popular culture, vampire series such as True Blood and Twilight have drawn huge television and film audiences. The modern vampire, however, differs considerably from Bram Stoker's aristocratic Count Dracula, who preyed on women, and even more from the earliest vampires, often described as maggot-ridden, bloated living dead. When did accounts of vampires first spread into Europe?

One of the earliest descriptions of vampires appears in Joseph Pitton de Tournefort's Relation d'un voyage du Levant (1717), a copy of which can be found in the National Library's collections. De Tournefort was a well-known French botanist who from 1700 to 1702 travelled to the Aegean islands, Constantinople and the shores of the Black Sea. De Tournefort was also an excellent chronicler of everyday life, and his work contains several interesting accounts of local conditions, including a description of a vampire (vrykolakas) who caused "an outbreak of mass hysteria" among the island population of Mykonos.

When the vampires arrived

According to de Tournefort, a peasant who had died under unclear circumstances on Mykonos began to reappear at night after his burial. The priests then decided to hold a service over the body, during which the dead man's heart would be removed and burned. But this had no effect, and the dead man returned ever more frequently. During the nights that followed, he visited all the houses in the village save the house in which de Tournefort was staying. The revenant would break furniture and windows, extinguish lamps, frighten people and empty any bottles and pitchers he could lay his hands on ("A very thirsty dead man", was de Tournefort's dry commentary).

When the vampires arrived

The longer the dead peasant roamed, the more upset and fearful the inhabitants grew, driving entire families to pack their belongings with the intention of leaving Mykonos in order to settle elsewhere. Those who remained tried everything they could think of, including holding prayer vigils, marching processions past the open grave, and attempting to anchor the corpse in the grave by impaling it with swords — all to no avail. Finally, the corpse was exhumed and transported to a small, uninhabited island, where it was burned in an effort to exorcise the Devil. De Tournefort's account shows clearly that possession by the Devil after death was believed to apply only to members of the Greek Orthodox church, largely due to its interpretation of excommunication. The excommunicated dead could not rest peacefully in their graves because their souls were denied entry to Paradise. Consequently, they were trapped in a sort of limbo between death and life, and their bodies did not decay. The church was therefore compelled to open the graves and administer absolution to the deceased.

When the vampires arrived

During and after the Great Turkish War from 1683 to 1699, contact between the eastern and western parts of Europe greatly increased. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from all across Europe fought in the war in the Balkans and in Greece. As a result of this and subsequent wars, Greek Orthodox regions fell under Habsburg (Serbia and Transylvania) and Venetian (the Peloponnese and Dalmatia, among others) rule. This new exposure to followers of the Greek Orthodox faith spread tales of vampires like wildfire. In English, the word "vampire" appeared for the first time in 1688 and in French in 1693.

Although descriptions of vampires had been surfacing already earlier (Leo Allatius's De quorundam Graecorum Opinationibus in 1645 contained the first mention of vampires in the Greek world), not until the early eighteenth century did Catholic and Protestant Europe become inundated with accounts such as de Tournefort's. Although some travel accounts similar to de Tournefort's were translated and widely disseminated in large editions, a couple of much-publicised cases in Serbia had the greatest impact. The Habsburg authorities appointed official commissions to investigate these cases, and the reports were published, translated and frequently quoted in the European press.

When the vampires arrived

In the early eighteenth century, Western and Central Europe was only just emerging from its witch hysteria, a fact which perhaps explains the eager interest in vampires, who, like witches, were associated with the Devil. The reservoir of early vampire lore has hardly been exhaustively documented or studied, as evidenced by an unpublished, detailed account of a female vampire who wreaked havoc in Athens in 1687, an account which docent Björn Forsén and Lic.Phil. Mika Hakkarainen stumbled upon while researching the Swedish and Finnish mercenaries who volunteered to fight under Venice during the Great Turkish War. It seems the last word on the arrival of vampires in Europe has yet to be written.

The author, Dr. Björn Forsén, is docent in history at the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki.

 



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