European Vampires and the Early History of the Strigoi

European Vampires and the Early History of the Strigoi
© Photograph by Hamoon Mahmoodi

The fear of returning from the dead dates back to prehistory, and if there was ever a geographical centre for that fear, it was Europe. In an Iron Age site in Bavaria, a violently killed woman was buried beneath a large stone, presumably to keep her from rising from her grave.

Ancient Greece was an early home of the vampire legend. Empusa was the demonic daughter of the goddess Hecate, herself often associated with witchcraft, magic and crossroads. Empusa drank the blood of men she seduced as a beautiful young woman.

Another goddess, Lamia, drained young children in revenge for the killing of her own infants by Zeus’ wife, Hera, after the latter discovered Lamia’s affair with her husband.

Despite their apparently unnatural origins, the first vampires were still limited by specific laws of nature.

As a “top predator,” their numbers remained small and slow reproductive rates limited them, whether via actually breeding or by the “turning” of victims. Even so, around the Carpathians and the eastern Alps, vampires became an increasing hazard for the local population.

It was in the first few centuries AD, and largely through the Christianization of the region, that the first countermeasures were developed against these first “true” vampires, now known as the Strigoi. Hunters used to dealing with wolves and bears refined methods to kill vampires that were initially fairly straightforward: beheading, burning and staking, often all three.

However, with the region’s population becoming more firmly Christian in the following centuries, it seems the first amuletic defences started to become common. Studies indicate that this use of religious symbols to ward off vampires may have arisen as a result of local Christians being turned into vampires.

It was also during the 5th and 6th centuries that the first warrior priests appeared. They were trained in local monasteries, but as boys were already well versed in the art of hunting wolves and bears, and with a deep-rooted familiarity with the surrounding landscape.

As such, they knew the likely hideouts of vampires, be it a cave system or an abandoned farmstead, and how to track them to their lair. For the first time since prehistory, humanity was taking the fight to the vampires that they had named the Strigoi.

Despite this, the warrior priests were few and far between. It was also a difficult region in which to hunt, a wilderness of high mountains and deep forests, with a multitude of hiding places from which the Strigoi could strike. Because of this, in their Eastern European homelands, the vampires went largely unchallenged throughout their early history.

It was not until the time of the First Crusade that any organized defense against the Strigoi and their kin first appeared.

Following the call of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in France in November 1095, the First Crusade gathered largely under the auspices of saving the Byzantine Empire from the apparent threat of a Muslim invasion. While the armies of Europe gathered their forces, a rather less disciplined and rag-tag Crusade took up Urban’s call and set off for the Holy Land. With few knights amongst its ranks, the army was largely composed of poor and illiterate peasants, many hoping for a new life and wealth in the east.

In August 1096, the “People’s Crusade” as it was known, swept through Eastern Europe like a locust plague. Poorly equipped and hungry, these “crusaders” sacked any town that could not resist them, be it Christian or not, even doing battle with Hungarian forces when they began to starve.

The People’s Crusade was an unexpected boon for the Strigoi. The poorly armed, disorganised, ignorant peasants provided rich picking for the vampires as they passed through the region. Lost and hungry groups of travellers blundered into the Carpathians and were quickly annihilated, swelling the number of Strigoi and making them confident enough to leave their usual hunting grounds to haunt the peasant crusaders, picking off stragglers and the weak.

The People’s Crusade reached Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in late August and immediately caused enough trouble that the city closed its gates to the peasants. They were, however, quickly offered boats across the Bosporus into the Levant, where they were very soon massacred by local Muslim forces.