Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Discerning the Vampire


French vampirological and biblical scholar, Dom Augustin Calmet, who entered the Benedictine Order in 1688, becoming ordained into the priesthood in 1696, is remembered for his 1746 work on vampires: Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges des Démons et des Espits, et sur les revenants, et Vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, et de Silésie. Calmet’s attempt to establish the veracity of such predatory demonic entities lacked first-hand evidence and he seemed to concentrate on the collecting of vampire reports, which he certainly did not dismiss out of hand, and then offered his personal reflections on them.

Calmet defined the phenomena as corpses that returned from their graves to disturb the living by sucking their blood and even causing death. The only remedy was to exhume the afflicted body, sever its head, and drive a stake through the heart. Cremation was another effective alternative. Using that definition, he gathered all the accounts he could find, and it is these reports of collected data that take up the majority of space in his volume.

He justifiably condemned the hysteria which accompanied several of the reported vampire incidents, and also considered all the natural explanations that were offered for the phenomenon. His findings were inconclusive. However, Calmet did not state that the reports could be explained away by natural causes, but he shrank from proposing an alternative answer. In other words, he left the entire matter unresolved. He nevertheless seemed to favour the existence of vampires by noting “that it seems impossible not to subscribe to the belief which prevails in these countries that these apparitions do actually come forth from the graves and that they are able to produce terrible effects which are so widely and so positively attributed to them.”

Calmet had posed five possibilities for all the accounts he had considered. Three of these he dismissed. The remaining two consisted of the possibility that vampires are the result of the Devil’s interference, or just superstition. No firm conclusion was apparent until the third and last edition, published in 1751, where in his bestselling work he makes clear that he could conclude naught save that such creatures as vampires really did return from the grave.

In the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) the Church gives official recognition to the existence of the undead. Pope Innocent III sanctioned the publication of a treatise on the discovery and elimination of vampires. Protestant Reformers likewise made belief in the existence of vampires official. John Calvin explained the phenomenon of vampirism as being a consequence of sorcery. King James I, in his treatise Demonologie (1597), claimed that vampiric spectres were not the souls of the dead, but rather demons masquerading as the deceased. Even Martin Luther entertained vampires when they were related to him by a priest called George Rohrer. Written in 1679 by the theologian Philip Rohr (not to be confused with George Rohrer), De Masticatione Mortuorum translates as "On the Chewing Dead." Rohr was based in the Holy Roman Empire, and his text discussed the common folklore that some corpses returned to life, eating both their funeral shrouds and nearby bodies - a process known as manduction. The chewing dead were part of a larger body of vampire mythology, which Rohr's text contributed to significantly.

De Masticatione Mortuorum (or to use its full title Dissertatio Historico-Philosophica de Masticatione Mortuorum) is referred to on page 14 of The Vampire Hunter's Handbook (1997). Rohr, like many others before and since, attributed the vampire phenomenon to demonic possession.

The Eastern Orthdox Churches tend not to doubt the existence of vampires. It is not a top priority for them, but it is an aspect of the realm of demonaltry which all Christians, according to the New Testament (Mark 16: 17), are obliged to oppose and indeed exorcise.

We will now proceed to inquire into those physical traits by which a vampire may be discerned.

A vampire is generally described as being exceedingly gaunt and lean with a hideous countenance and eyes wherein are glinting the red fire of perdition. When, however, he has satiated his lust for warm human blood his body becomes horribly puffed and bloated, as though he were some great leech gorged and replete to bursting. Cold as ice, or it may be fevered and burning as a hot coal, the skin is deathly pale, but the lips are very full and rich, blub and red; the teeth white and gleaming, and the canine teeth wherewith he bites deep into the neck of his prey to suck thence the vital streams which re-animate his body and invigorate all his forces appear notably sharp and pointed. Often his mouth curls back in a vulpine snarl which bares these fangs, "a gaping mouth and gleaming teeth," says Leone Allacci, and so in many districts the hare-lipped are avoided as being certainly vampires. In Bulgaria, it is thought that the vampire who returns from the tomb has only one nostril; and in certain districts of Poland he is supposed to have a sharp point at the end of his tongue, like the sting of a bee. It is said that the palms of a vampire's hands are downy with hair, and the nails are always curved and crooked, often well-nigh the length of a great bird's claw, the quicks dirty and foul with clots and gouts of black blood. His breath is unbearably fetid and rank with corruption, the stench of the charnel. Dr Henry More in his An Antidote against Atheism, III, ix, tells us that when Johannes Cuntius, an alderman of Pentsch in Silesia and a witch returned as a vampire he much tormented the Parson of the Parish. One evening, "when this Theologer was sitting with his wife and Children about him, exercising himself in Musick, according to his usual manner, a most grievous stink arose suddenly, which by degrees spread itself to every corner of the room. Here upon he commends himself and his family to God by Prayer. The smell nevertheless encreased, and became above all measure pestilently noisom, insomuch that he was forced to go up to his chamber. He and his Wife had not been in bed a quarter of an hour, but they find the same stink in the bedchamber; of which, while they are complaining one to another out steps the Spectre from the Wall, and creeping to his bedside, breathes upon him an exceeding cold breath, of so intolerable stinking and malignant a scent, as is beyond all imagination and expression. Here upon the Theologer, good soul, grew very ill, and was fain to keep his bed, his face, belly, and guts swelling as if he had been poysoned; whence he was also troubled with a difficulty of breathing, and with a putrid inflamation of his eyes, so that he could not well use them of a long time after."

In the Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, Qn. 1., Ch. 11, the following is related: "In the territory of the Black Forest, a witch was being lifted by a gaoler on to the pile of wood prepared for her burning and said: 'I will pay you,' and blew into his face. And he was at once afflicted with a horrible leprosy all over his body and did not survive many days."

Boguet, Discours des Sorciers, gives as his rubric to Chapter XXV, Si les Sorciers tuent de leur souffle & haleine. He tells us: "Les Sorciers tuent & endommagent de lour souffle & haleine: en quoy Clauda Gaillard dicte la Fribolette nous seruita de tesmoignage; car ayant soufflé contre Clauda Perrier, qu'elle r'encontra en l'Eglise d'Ebouchoux, tout aussi test ceste femme tomba malade, & fut rendue impotente, & en fin mourut apres auoir trainé par l'espace d'vn an en toute pauurieté, & langueur: de mesme aussi comme Marie Perrier luy eut vne fois refusé l'aumosne, elle luy souffla fort rudement contre, de façon quo Marie tomba par terre, & s'estant releuée ause peine elle demeura malade par quelques iours, & iusques à tant que Pierre Perrier son neueu out menacé la Sorciere."

Sinistrari in his Demoniality says that if we ask how it is possible that the demon, who has no body, yet can perform actual coitus with man or woman, most authorities answer that the demon assumes or animates the corpse of another human being, male or female, as the case may be, and Delrio (Disquisitiones Magicae, Liber II, Q. xxviii, sec. 1). comments: "Denique multae falsae resurrectiones gentilium huc sunt referendae; & constat cum sagis ut plurimum induto cadauere diabolum sine incubum, sine succubum, rem habere; unde & in hoc genere hominum, cadauerosus quidam faetor graueolentiae, cernitur."

Some remoter country districts, indeed, are apt to regard any poor wretch who is sadly deformed as a vampire, especially if the distortion be altogether unsightly, prominent, or grotesque. It has even been known that a peasant whose face was deeply marked with wine-coloured pigment, owing it was thought to some accident which befell his mother during her late pregnancy, was shunned and suspected of being a malignant vrykolakas. Chorea, they say, is a certain sign of vampirism, and it may be remarked that in Shoa this disorder is regarded as the result of demoniacal possession, or due to the magic spell of an enemy's shadow having fallen upon the sufferer. An epileptic there is also often considered as being in the power of some devil, and unless proper precautions are taken he will assuredly not rest in his grave. The vampire is endowed with strength and agility more than human, and he can run with excessive speed, outstripping the wind.

The vampire is one who has led a life of more than ordinary immorality and unbridled wickedness; a man of foul, gross and selfish passions, of evil ambitions, delighting in cruelty and blood. Arthur Machen has very shrewdly pointed out that "Sorcery and sanctity are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life." The spiritual world cannot be confined to the supremely good, "but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their portion in it. The ordinary man can no more be a great sinner than he can be a great saint. Most of us are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of things, and, consequently our wickedness and our goodness are alike second-rate unimportant . . . the saint endeavours to recover a gift which he has lost; the sinner tries to obtain something which was never his. In brief, he repeats the Fall . . . it is not the mere liar who is excluded by those words[1]; it is, above all, the "sorcerers" who use the material life, who use the failings incidental to material life as instruments to obtain their infinitely wicked ends. And let me tell you this; our higher senses are so blunted, we are so drenched with materialism, that we should probably fail to recognize real wickedness if we encountered it.)"

It has been said that a saint is a person who always chooses the better of the two courses open to him at every step. And so the man who is truly wicked is he who deliberately always chooses the worse of the two courses. Even when he does things which would be considered right he always does them for some bad reason. To identify oneself in this way with any given course requires intense concentration and an iron strength of will, and it is such persons who become vampires.

The vampire is believed to be one who has devoted himself during his life to the practice of Black Magic, and it is hardly to be supposed that such persons would rest undisturbed, while it is easy to believe that their malevolence had set in action forces which might prove powerful for terror and destruction even when they were in their graves. It was sometimes said, but the belief is rare, that the vampire was the offspring of a witch and the Devil.


Seán Manchester

Stray Ghosts (2003)

The Vampire Hunter's Handbook (1997)

Montague Summers

The Vampire: His Kith & Kin (1928)

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