By Manfred Newstead
If you stopped an ordinary person on the street and asked him to name one and only one characteristic that defines someone as a vampire, chances are, the answer would be “Blood.” Roaming around at night, turning into bats, having problems with mirrors — these things are part of the popular image of the vampire as well, but the primary thing everyone knows about vampires is that they suck blood. Right?
Wrong. We all know that most of the other silly myths aren’t true. Vampires can and do cast reflections (I don’t think the majority of the vampire population would survive without their mirrors, they’re such image-conscious folk). Garlic doesn’t work, and no one’s turned into a bat that I’ve heard of yet. And not all vampires feed on blood. Not even in the folklore.
For example, in Rumanian myth as catalogued by folklorist Harry Senn, it is believed that some vampires can suck the life from the grain. These vampires take their sustenance directly from the land, often leaving it barren and wasted as a consequence. Others are believed to suck milk from cows and sheep, sucking blood only when the milk has been exhausted. And the vampires do not need to go up to the cattle and actually, physically suck the milk from their dugs; the vampire responsible for feeding in this way may be miles distant from the herd being attacked. Sometimes cattle attacked in this manner will never produce milk again.
Other vampires are believed to return to their spouses and sexual partners after death, exhausting them with night-long marathons of sex. When dawn comes, the vampire lover flits away, only to return later in the night. The poor victims of these amorous assaults waste away and die from sheer exhaustion in a matter of weeks or even days.
The vampires mentioned above do not necessarily feed upon physical blood. Many do not even require actual, physical contact in order to feed. Yet these diverse folkloric entities are classified as vampires nevertheless. Although their methods are different, they all share a common need. They require something to sustain them, and they must take it from vital things: living grain, mother’s milk, a sexual exchange. It is not the substance which is important, but what it represents: vitality and life-force. Blood occurs more widely in the folklore of the vampire simply because it is one of the most potent and universal symbols for these things.
In the Bible, in the Book of Leviticus, the Israelites are told that if they are going to eat of the flesh of an animal, they must first kill the animal and let its blood spill out upon the ground. It is very important that the Israelites do not eat the blood with the flesh, for the blood of the animal is equated with its life (ruach). The Hebrew word used here may also be translated as “breath” or “spirit”. Thus, the passage is saying that the Israelites cannot feed upon the spirit of an animal, only its flesh.
Most of our modern vampire traditions can be traced to Eastern Europe. At the time that the folkloric tradition was being developed, Eastern Europe was very devoutly Christian. Every time they attended Mass, the Christians gathered to drink the blood of Christ. This was a powerful and mysterious ritual to them, with many psychological ramifications. The Book of Leviticus clearly stated: The blood is the life. Thus, when these Eastern European villagers reported that vampires were stealing away blood from their victims, they meant much more than just physical blood. As they understood the word, blood-sucking vampires were also feeding upon a subtle substance intricately wound up with the vital, spiritual force of life itself.
Even in the folklore, it is not just about blood. There is a crucial exchange between vampire and victim, an intimate sharing of vitality and life-force that goes far beyond the physical realm. It is this subtle, elusive exchange that defines the vampire more than any other single thing. The blood is the life, but it is the life that sustains us. The passion for night-tide, the sun-sensitive eyes, the fangs — these things are just trappings when compared to that one thing. What makes a vampire? A vampire must feed. Blood, sex, life force, chi — that one distinction connects all the many breeds one may encounter today.
First published in Alternate Perceptions in 1998. Reprinted by Sanguinarius with permission from the author.