Vampires in the Early Christian Era

Dorothy I. Wotherspoon
Dorothy I. Wotherspoon

It is accurate to describe the clergy as disseminators of morality. After all, one of the primary functions of any religion is to legislate morality to both the elites and the commoners. However, the Catholic Church was not fortunate enough to be working with a tabula rasa.

Prior to 1100 when Christianity was strongly established in Europe, the inhabitants had obviously held to various other belief systems.

In order for the Church to establish a new religion, their first concern was securing the support of the monarch.

In Western Europe, there was an established feudal system. Most people were poverty-stricken serfs who worked for the lords and barons who supported the monarch.

Since the Church relied on the rich for support, her obvious alliance was with the ruling class. Seemingly, these pre-Christian institutions appear to have disappeared rather thoroughly throughout England by the middle of the tenth-century, at least with the ruling class, but the ideas left behind by them and their companioned folklore continued to affect peasant life subtly for many centuries.

The poor, who had no hope of improving their lot in life, were not satisfied with promises of an afterlife when they could not feed their families.

Naturally, they would turn to pre-Christian beliefs that gave them some hope for a better life on earth. Additionally, the Church, in trying to make the conversion to the new religion smoother, built churches on old non-Christian sites and incorporated many of the non-Christian holidays and symbols.

Reverend John Christopher Atkinson, a countryman on the Moors of Danby in Cleveland, describes the process from a commoner’s point of view in his book ‘Forty Years in a Moorland Parish’, “Christianity turned the nature deities into devils, spells into magic, and spaewives into witches but could not banish the ideas from the imagination of men. So adopted stones and wells turned spells into exorcism and benedictions and charms into prayers.”

Although this is not how the Church would describe her development, it is in fact, how she combined the non-Christian elements with the Christian elements.

The willingness of the early Church to compromise was a great asset to the promotion of Christianity. One of these compromises was to superimpose Christian celebrations over the non-Christian festivities.

A specific example of compromise is Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birthday; during the first three hundred years, the Church in Rome discouraged such a celebration, concerned that it would appear to be more like a Pagan ritual than a Christian holiday.

As Church officials attempted to convert Romans to Christianity, many of the people continued to celebrate “Saturnalia” which commemorated the birth of the unconquerable sun. This celebration lasted a week and culminated on December 25th, the time of the winter solstice.

The theme for this celebration was the welcoming of the sun and the rebirth of the world. Since Christians believed that Jesus Christ was born to save the world, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as the birth of Christ.

These two traditions fit nicely together since one is celebrating the return of the light to the world, and the other is celebrating the birth of the “Light of the World.”

Another example of superimposing Christian holidays over non-Christian celebrations is Lent. The Church did not observe Lent until 519 AD.

The period of Lent for Christians is a forty-day period of fasting, prayer, and reflection that culminates in Easter, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

Many Pagan religions have a similar time of reflection that leads up to the celebration of the renewal of life in spring. For instance, in the Andes and in Mexico, followers practised a forty-day period of fasting in order to honour the sun.

This is why Lent and Easter are celebrated in the spring; Christ was reborn after his death, which runs parallel to the rebirth of the sun and the land after the winter.

The origin of the name “Easter” is unknown.

Venerable Bede suggests that it comes from Eastre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, who had the month of April dedicated to her.

Eastre’s festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox, and the rabbit, a symbol of fertility, was her symbol. The brightly coloured eggs, also a fertility symbol, were representative of the bright colours of spring. Hence, Lent and Easter are further illustrations of how the Church simply integrated non-Christian holidays with Christian beliefs. So what did the Church do with the vampire myth?

The great irony of this period is that as the Church moved to fuse the non-Christian mythologies, it would be her own decree that would lend historical validity to the vampire.

The absurdity is that instead of ignoring this myth, or replacing it, the Church condemned it as a work of the devil. The foremost among all the Church fathers, Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a philosopher and theologian, uses Platonic reasoning in The City of God to explain how a demon can use a body for evil purposes.

Augustine writes, “Just as [the demon] can from the air form a body of any form and shape, and assume it so as to appear in it visibly: so, in the same way he can clothe any corporeal thing with any corporeal form, so as to appear therein.”

So Augustine ultimately amalgamates the vampire myth into Christianity by making it the antithesis of good. Although Augustine does not directly fuse the myth, he opens the door for scholars to see vampires as demons and therefore real. Further, the authoritative teaching of the Church decreed in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council under Pope Innocent III “the Devil and other demons were created by God good in nature but they by themselves have made themselves evil.”

Since vampires were corpses reanimated by Satan’s devils, then they are evil, and vampirism was divine punishment for sins.

A couple of hundred years after Augustine, philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) supports Augustine’s claims using Aristotelian logic. Aquinas responds directly to Augustine, “According to Catholic Faith, it must be held firmly both that the will of the good angels is confirmed in good, and that the will of the demons is obstinate in evil.”

So, Aquinas further supports the possibility of the vampire myth as demonic evil. Why would a theologian give credence to such a myth? The answer lies in the similarities between the basic beliefs of Christianity and the vampire.

The vital feature in the foundation of both is blood. There could be no human existence without blood; it is the essence of life.

British novelist Anthony Masters explains a brief history of blood in his non-fiction work, ‘The Natural History of the Vampire’: “Some believed that the soul lived within the blood; others, more simply, that it was the source of life. Warriors drank the blood of their slain enemies to gain their strength. Blood was essentially sacred and played a prominent part in ritual worship and sacrifice–throughout the ages the gods have demanded it and in order to propitiate them man has obediently complied.”

In the words of anthropologist Reay Tannahill, in her book entitled ‘Sex in History’, prehistoric man “knew that life was uncertain and sometimes short, that death was inevitable and sometimes abrupt. Every time he set out for the hunt he was aware that some day… the end would come with a slash and an outpouring of blood. It is not difficult to understand why… he should have come to the conclusion not merely that blood was essential to life, but that it was the essence of life itself.” Therefore, blood is life and should be preserved with care, and if blood is the soul, it must be accorded religious respect.

Accordingly, anthropologists such as Tannahill reason that prehistoric man saw blood as a vital force of life. In fact, it was the custom of many tribes to drink the blood of their enemy in order to gain their strength.

Roman gladiators drank blood for strength before going into battle.

According to British author and journalist Gabriel Ronay, for a long time in the Mediterranean basin, the blood of the innocent, mainly children and virgins, was used to cure leprosy. It was considered a royal medicine since it was difficult to obtain.

Pliny, in his ‘Historia Naturae’, also writes of Egyptian pharaohs taking baths in human blood to help cure leprosy. Ronay reports, “the drinking of human blood was believed to be the only effective medicine for dropsy [a form of edema] in Rome, and, according to Celsus, in the declining years of the Roman empire the still-warm blood of murdered gladiators was the standard medicine for epileptics.” Moreover, Roman patricians who felt run down used to descend into the arena to drink the blood of beaten gladiators.

Bloodletting was a long-standing technique physicians used to bleed out a disease and gain health.

In more recent history, in Germany before WWI, epileptics were given blood at dawn from executed criminals to cure their seizures, which of course did not work. So for man, blood contains both the vanishing of life and strength.

In the past, blood was also used as a way to strengthen the foundation for buildings. Ornella Volta, Italian author, editor and critic explains: “The temple of Shiva was consecrated with the blood of an adolescent and the first stone that was laid of the city of Jericho was baptized with the blood of the two sons of a King of Canaan. This custom was so widespread among Slavic peoples that the word ‘dietirets’ (meaning vigorous) is used to denote a fortress and also the victim that was sacrificed before it could be built.”

In the Middle Ages, bleeding was another way to bring a murderer to justice. This type of justice was called a bier right. It was a belief that a victim’s corpse would begin to bleed again in the presence of the murderer and thus was accepted as a judicial verdict. Additionally, from the thirteenth-century forward, witchcraft was associated with blood, for it was believed that witches used blood in evil potions.

Historically, blood sacrifice was considered a vital part of worshipping any deity. Homer’s use of blood to bring back the shades in the Odyssey is just one example of how important blood was to the ancient Greeks.

Interestingly, Leviticus mentions blood sacrifice and how to properly manage the blood rituals. Jesus’s followers picked up on this blood ritual and made it a major part of Christianity.

Initially the Church saw blood as a contaminant, “theologically justified by its association with bloodshed and sin,” but in the Middle Ages there was a growing popular devotion that focused on blood. This devotion included the blood of saints, martyrs, and Christ.

The belief was that holy blood worked miracles such as curing blindness, paralysis, and leprosy. Further, in the thirteenth-century there emerged miracle stories of the Eucharist (the consecrated communion wafer) bleeding, thus promoting another popular devotion to the Blood of the Eucharist.

Hence, blood has always been seen as the source of life. The drinking of blood of one’s enemy is an ancient way of ingesting the essence of that person. This is the way, according to the Bible, that Christ asks his followers to remember him, through the drinking of his blood in a reenactment at mass every day or week.

According to the Gospel of John, “Whoso eat my flesh, and drink my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eat my flesh, and drink my blood, dwell in me, and I in him.”

Christians drink the blood of Christ in order to be a part of him as a spiritual sustenance, and vampires drink the “blood” of others for physical sustenance.

Catholics, however, believe that the wine is not symbolic of Christ’s blood as Protestants do, but during the mass, the wine actually becomes the blood of Christ through transubstantiation.

By accepting Christ, people live forever as servants of God; when bitten by a vampire, people live forever as the undead. So, both offer eternal life in one form or another.

The similarities of blood between the vampire myth and Christianity would explain why the Church chose not to eliminate the vampire myth, but to use it as an example of the antithesis of good.

There are suggestions by several academics that the Church also used the vampire myth to explain the process of transubstantiation of the Holy Eucharist during mass.

Dr. James Twitchell, Professor of English and Advertising at the University of Florida, writes in his introduction to ‘The Living Dead that transubstantiation’: “Could be described in terms of the older vampire myth. For just as the devil drank the sinner’s blood and partook of his spirit, so now the righteous man might drink the wine and partake of Christ’s holiness. It was a simple and straightforward way to explain this complex sacrament, and, of course, it put the fear of the devil quite literally into the sinner, as it put the salvation of Christ into the righteous.”

Although this is a very intriguing idea of a liturgical use of the vampire myth, Twitchell offers no evidence to support that any Church cleric or Church doctrine illustrated transubstantiation in this manner. Although transubstantiation had been Church dogma since Aquinas took over Aristotle’s idea of substance versus accident, it was not made doctrine until the Council of Trent in 1563.

By combining the two ideas, however, Twitchell not only demonstrates how the Church attached Christian holidays to seasonal rituals and observances, but also how easily similar ideas can be joined together, growing and changing a myth.

Through the teaching of Augustine and Aquinas, the Church firmly merged and established in the dogma about demons that the vampire could be a creature of the devil, and hence a real presence.

As a religious institution, the Church is a place for members not only to seek communion with Christ, but also to find solace from evil and redemption from sin.

It is through this function that the medieval Church recognised in the vampire an opportunity to use the myth as a tool to further her own strength. Thus, fighting evil required the Church’s presence, and since the vampire was evil, one found it necessary to look to the Church for help and guidance.

How did the Church offer assistance and support in dealing with the vampire? Most of her support manifested in the late Middle Ages.

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