When I decided to tackle the myth of the vampire in the subject matter of my new historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, which comes out on November 19th, I knew it was going to be a bit of a gamble. The popular image of the fanged figure of horror was not at all what I had in mind, even then, and a voice in my head warned beware – here be monsters. That said, I have always liked to think I am the kind of person who sees through monsters. Besides, the vampire of popular culture seemed a rather contradictory monster. It was old but eternally young, violent but sensual – both victim of evil and perpetrator of evil. And sure enough, when you dig down to the root of the vampire myth, these contradictions become even more significant.
They are essential, in fact, to the origins of the myth of vampire, which as far as a writer is concerned, is great news because we are all walking, breathing, living contradictions. We yearn to satisfy our deepest desires but at the same time we inhibit them. We are equally capable of demonstrating against an injustice when it suits us as we are of turning a blind eye to a homeless person on a street corner when it doesn’t.
In my last post I talked about The Immortal Goths, whose presence in the Black Sea regions, the heartland of the myth of the vampire, is well documented. I said that the beliefs of the pagan Goths were similar in many ways to those of the Manicheans, whose influence in the Black Sea regions preceded Christianity. The Manicheans believed that the world was a dual of light and dark, good and evil, and that this duality had begun in the first days of human creation and had gathered momentum ever since, finding its ultimate expression in the myth of the vampire, or the twice born, as the Manicheans would have said.
The folklore of the Black Sea regions, where the Goths once lived, was deeply connected to this whole concept of the twice born. The word vampire was not widely used (vampyr is a word of Cyrillic origin). The local name for vampire was strigoi, which was a trapped, sick soul, caught between the realms of darkness and light. The Church could not save it. On the contrary, when the Catholic Church tried to make in-roads into converting the people of the Black Sea regions, it had a job on its hands. The Black God of the Black Sea regions was powerful, and his place in ancient scripture, with which the Manicheans were so familiar, was unshakable.
As I was researching the history of the region, I came across letters written by the clergy to the hierarchy of the church complaining about the recalcitrant burial habits of the local people, and how hard it was to clear their minds of the dread of the strigoi, which was as much a part of their culture as leprechauns to the Irish or magic to the Ancient Celts.
But, interestingly, local people did not see the strigoi as the incarnation of evil: the fanged monster. It was, in some respects, a victim of its past, or its first life, since the strigoi had a second. Suffering in the first life was said to bring on the state of strigoism, which is in many ways understandable since evil begets evil. Was there then no way out of this spiral for the afflicted individual?
The people of the region clearly did not think so, or did not like to take the chance. A person suspected of being a strigoi was dealt with according to the custom. Once dead, their arms and legs were bound, their eyes covered and their ears filled with millet. Every precaution was taken to ensure that the dead would not hear the call to rise. Sometimes even more extreme measures were resorted to, in order to place the individual well and truly beyond the reach of danger both to themselves and to their immediate family, who were considered most at risk.
If victory over evil could ever be achieved, then, it had to happen by a process of individual enlightenment. At least this was the Manichean conclusion. The Manicheans were in a way religious renegades, because they did not believe that the institution of the church was able to lead people to salvation. For the Manicheans, salvation involved overcoming the odds of the eternal battle between light and dark, good and evil, as an individual.
I realise that this is not altogether helpful to most of us, still less to the afflicted strigoi. But the whole thing about the process of enlightenment is that it is unique to every individual, just as each life is unique. So how are we to view all this? In a previous post, Love, Death and the Vampire, I talked about the psychological angle of the vampire myth, and I find myself returning to it time and time again because it strikes such a note of truth.
The psychological concept behind the vampire myth is that the vampire represents the ultimate struggle: humankind over itself. Like the vampire, we first have to travel through the darkness before we can finally emerge into the light. And that, it seems to me, is everybody’s story.