Friday, September 28, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

In the early modern age, what we would now term vampires were virtually unknown. The pale, handsome, aristocrat with a hunger for human blood that exploded onto the archetypal playing field when Bram Stoker's Dracula made it big would have been completely foreign to those born prior to the Victorian era. Mention of that sparkly guy in that other book would probably have encouraged the same people to commit you.

What our ancestors may, or may not, have called vampires were far more akin to what we would now call ghouls or even zombies.They were usually envisioned as disheveled denizens of the churchyard who rose at night, hair flowing, breath foul and long, broken fingernails caked with mud. Unlike our later-day bloodsuckers, these original vampires usually had it in for their own families as well. Eschewing lovely, languid young women, they went for their mothers, wives, brothers and children. They weren't above disemboweling the family livestock, either.

An excellent example of this proto-vampire - the type that still roams the forests of the occasional rustic locale - can be found in this excerpt from Puritan Henry More's pamphlet An Antidote Against Atheism. Published in London in 1653, the pamphlet tells a series of grizzly, and allegedly true, tales of the supernatural that are quite literally meant to frighten the unbelieving back to church. Here, the story of a German man named Johannes Contius:

Immediately after the burial of this Contius, a citizen and alderman in Silesia near Poland, stories began to circulate of the appearance of a phantom which spoke to people in the voice of the man. Remarkable tales were told of the consumption of milk from jugs and bowls, of milk being turned to blood, of old men being strangled, children taken out of cradles, altar cloths being soiled with blood and poultry killed and eaten. 

Eventually it was decided to disinter the body of the alderman. It was found that all the bodies buried near that of Contius had become putrefied and rotten, but his skin was tender and florid, his joints by no means stiff and when a staff was put between his fingers, they closed around it and held it fast in their grip. He could open and shut his eyes, and when a vein in his leg was punctured the blood sprang out. This happened after the body had been in the grave for some six months.

Great difficulty was experienced when the body was cut up and dismembered by order of the authorities. But when the task was completed and the remains consigned to the flames, the specter ceased to molest the family or interfere with their slumbers or health.

Not only was this grandfather of the Dracula archetype more loathsome, but it took a good deal more effort to kill him as well. Vendredi heureux ~

Header: Death on a Pale Horse by Albert Pinkham Ryder via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

Fear has always been the weapon of choice of religion from the dawn of time, Pauline.

That is a cool story, though...

And I like the painting too. It reminds me of a band I like:

Pauline said...

The painting has kind of an interesting story, too. Evidently Ryder lived at the Albert Hotel in New York in the early 20th century (his brother managed the place). He heard that one of the waiters in the dining room had bet all his savings on a horse. When the horse lost, the waiter hanged himself. That incident was Ryder's inspiration for the painting.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Pale Horse/Pale Ryder (pun intended)... For some reason, I had an image of Piers Anthony, not Clint Eastwood. Intriguing painting and story.

Vampires.... fascinating! I enjoyed this posting, Pauline. Thank you. Got me thinking about Varney the Vampire and old "penny dreadfuls" :-)