Christianity and Vampires

Christianity and Vampires

(pop culture)

The belief in vampires preceded the introduction of Christianity into southern and eastern Europe. It seems to have originated independently as a response to unexplained phenomena common to most cultures. Ancient Greek writings tell of the lamiai, the mormolykiai, and other vampirelike creatures. Independent accounts of vampires emerged and spread among the Slavic people and were passed to their non-Slavic neighbors. Possibly the Gypsies brought some belief in vampires from India that contributed to the development of the myth. As Christianity spread through the lands of the Mediterranean Basin and then northward across Europe, it encountered these vampire beliefs that had already arisen among the many Pagan peoples. However, vampirism was never high on the Christian agenda and was thus rarely mentioned. Its continued presence was indicated by occasional documents such as an eleventh-century law promulgated by Charlemagne as emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire. The law condemned anyone who promoted the belief in the witch/vampire (specifically in its form as a strix), and who on account of that belief caused a person thought to be a vampire to be attacked and killed.

By the end of the first Christian millennium, the Christian Church was still organizationally united and in agreement upon the basic Christian affirmation (as contained in the Nicene Creed) but had already begun to differentiate itself into its primarily Greek (Eastern Orthodox) and Latin (Roman Catholic) branches. The church formally broke in the year 1054 with each side excommunicating the other.

During the second Christian millennium, the two churches completed their conquests through the remaining parts of Europe, especially eastern Europe. Meanwhile, quite apart from the major doctrinal issues that had separated them in the eleventh century, the theology in the two churches began to develop numerous lesser differences. These would become important especially in those areas where the boundaries of the two churches met and wars brought people of one church under the control of political leaders of the other. Such a situation arose, for example, in the twelfth century when the predominantly Roman Catholic Hungarians conquered Transylvania, then populated by Romanians, the majority of whom were Eastern Orthodox. Slavic but Roman Catholic Poland was bounded on the east by Orthodox Russian states. In the Balkans, Roman Catholic Croatia existed beside predominantly Orthodox Serbia.

One divergence between the two churches frequently noted in the vampire literature was their different understanding of the incorruptibility of dead bodies. In the East, if the soft tissue of a body did not decay quickly once placed in the ground, it was generally considered a sign of evil. That the body refused to disintegrate meant that the earth would, for some reason, not receive it. An incorrupt body became a candidate for vampirism. In the West, quite the opposite was true. The body of a dead saint often did not experience corruption like that of an ordinary body. Not only did it not decay, but it frequently emitted a pleasant odor. It did not stink of putrefaction. These differing understandings of incorruptibility explain in large part the demise of belief in vampires in the Catholic West, and the parallel survival of belief in Orthodox lands, even though the Greek Church officially tried to suppress the belief.

Vampires and Satan: Admittedly, vampires were not a priority issue on the agenda of Christian theologians and thinkers of either church. However, by 1645 when Leo Allatius (1586–1669) wrote the first book to treat the subject of vampires systematically, it was obvious that much thought, especially at the parish level, had been devoted to the subject. The vampire had been part of the efforts of the church to eliminate Paganism by treating it as a false religion. The deities of the Pagans were considered unreal, nonexistent. In like measure, the demons of Pagan lore were unreal.

Through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as the Inquisition became a force in the Roman Catholic Church, a noticeable change took place in theological perspectives. A shift occurred in viewing Paganism (or witchcraft). It was no longer considered merely a product of the unenlightened imagination, it was the work of Satan. Witchcraft was transformed in the popular mind into Satanism. The change of opinion on Satanism also provided an opening for a reconsideration of, for example, the in-cubus/succubus and the vampire as also somehow the work of the devil. By the time Allatius wrote his treatise on the vampire, this changing climate had overtaken the church. Allatius was Greek, but he was also a Roman Catholic rather than an Orthodox believer. He possessed a broad knowledge of both churches. In his De Graecorum hodie quorundam opinationibus, the vampire toward which he primarily turned his attention was the vrykolakas, the Greek vampire.

Allatius noted that among the Eastern Orthodox Greeks a noncanon, that is, an ordinance of uncertain authorship and date, was operative in the sixteenth century. It defined a vrykolakas as a dead man who remained whole and incorrupt, who did not follow the normal pattern of disintegration which usually occurred very quickly in a time before embalming. Occasionally, such a vrykolakas was found, and it was believed to be the work of the devil. When a person discovered a vrykolakas, the local priest was to be summoned. The priest chanted an invocation to the Mother of God and again repeated the services of the dead. The earlier noncanon, however, originated in the period when the church was attacking the belief in vampires as superstition and was designed to reverse some centuries-old beliefs about vampires. It ascribed incidents involving vrykolakas to someone seeing a dead person, usually at night, frequently in dreams. Such dreams were the work of the devil. The devil had not caused the dead to rise and attack its victims, but deluded the individual with a false dream.

Allatius himself promoted the belief that was gaining dominance in the West through the sixteenth-century: Vampires were real and were themselves the work of the devil. Just as the Inquisition in the previous century had championed the idea that witchcraft was real and that witches actually communed with the devil, so vampires were actually walking around the towns and villages of Europe. They were not the dead returned, they were bodies reanimated by the devil and his minions. Allatius even quoted the witchfinder’s bible, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer), which noted the three conditions necessary for witchcraft to exist: the devil, a witch, and the permission of God. In like measure, Allatius asserted that for vampires to exist all that was needed was the devil, a dead body, and the permission of God.

The tying of vampirism to the devil by Allatius and his colleagues brought Satan into the vampire equation. Vampirism became another form of Satanism and the vampire the instrument of the devil. Also, his victims were tainted by evil. Like the demons, vampires were alienated from the things of God. They could not exist in the realms of the sacred and would flee from the effective symbols of the true God, such as the crucifix, or from holy things, such as holy water and the eucharistic wafer, which both Orthodox and Roman Catholics believed to be the very body of Christ. In like measure, the offices of the church through the priest were an effective means of stopping the vampire. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the people always invited the priest to participate in their anti-vampire efforts. In its attempt to counter the superstitious beliefs in vampires, the Orthodox church ordered its priests not to participate in such activities, even threatening excommunication.

The Eighteenth-century Vampire Debates: During the seventeenth century, reports, not just of vampires, but of vampire epidemics, began to filter out of eastern Europe, especially Prussia and Poland. These incidents involved cases in which bodies were exhumed and mutilated. The mutilation of the bodies of people buried as Christians and presumably awaiting the resurrection was of utmost and serious concern to Christian intellectuals and church leaders in western Europe. The majority of these reports came from Roman Catholic-dominated lands, the most important from that area of Serbia which had been taken over by Austria in the wake of a fading Ottoman Empire. The cases of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paul launched a heated debate in the German (both Lutheran and Catholic) universities. In the midst of this debate, Cardinal Schtrattembach, the Roman Catholic bishop of Olmütz, Germany, turned to Rome for some advice on how to handle the vampire reports. The pope, in turn, called upon the learned archbishop of Trani, Italy, Giuseppe Davanzati, who spent five years studying the problem before writing his Dissertazione sopra I Vampiri, finally published in 1744.

Davanzati was swayed by the more skeptical arguments that had emerged as the consensus in the German debates. He advised the pope that the vampire reports were originating in human fantasies. While these fantasies might possibly be of diabolical origin, pastoral attention should be directed to the person reporting the vampire. The bodies of the suspected vampires should be left undisturbed. The church followed Davanzati’s wisdom.

Meanwhile, as Davanzati was pursuing his research, so was Dom Augustin Calmet. Calmet, known throughout France as a Bible scholar, published his Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges des Démons et des Espits, et sur les revenants, et Vampires de Hingrie, de Boheme, de Moravie, et de Silésie two years after Davanzati. Calmet played devil’s advocate to his fellow churchman. He described in some detail the reports of the eastern European vampires and called upon theologians and his scholarly colleagues to give them some serious study. He explored various possibilities concerning the accounts and left open the medieval position that the bodies of suspected vampires were animated by the devil and/or evil spirits. His colleagues in the church did not receive his report favorably. Even members of the Benedictine order, of which he was a member, chided him for giving credence to what amounted to nothing more than children’s horror stories. In the third edition of his book, he finally did away with the devilish option and concluded that vampires did not exist. However, by this time his earlier editions had spread far and wide, and had become the basis for translations. Few noted the final position he had reached. Though his colleagues dismissed him, he found broad popular support, and his book went through several printings in France and was translated and published in Germany and England.

The sign of the future came in 1755 and 1756 when in two actions Empress Maria Theresa took the authority of handling the vampire cases out of the hands of parish priests and local authorities and placed it in the hands of Austrian government officials. The clear intent of the law was to stop the disturbance of the graves. During the decades following Maria Theresa’s action, the spokespersons of what would become known as the Enlightenment would take over the final stages of the debate and essentially end it with their consensus opinion that vampires were unreal. After a generation in which the likes of Diderot and Voltaire expressed their opinion of vampires, scholars have not found it necessary to refute a belief in the vampire. Calmet became an intellectual relic, though he provided a number of interesting stories from which a popular literary vampire could be created.

Dracula and the Church: Interestingly enough, the first vampire stories—from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s “The Bride of Corinth” to Sheridan Le Fanu‘s “Carmilla”—were largely secular works. Religious artifacts and religious characters were almost completely absent. At the end of “Carmilla,” as Laura’s father began his quest to locate and destroy Carmilla, he suggested to Laura that they call upon the local priest. The priest performed certain solemn, but unnamed, rituals which allowed the troubled Laura to sleep in peace. However, he did not accompany the men to finally kill Carmilla, though two medical men were present to oversee the act. It was left to Bram Stoker and his novel Dracula (1897) to reintroduce Christianity into the vampire’s life. In the very first chapter, as Jonathan Harker made his way to Castle Dracula, a woman took off a rosary, with an attached crucifix, and gave it to him. In spite of his anti-Roman Catholic background, Harker put the rosary around his neck and wore it. Later, an enraged Dracula lunged for Harker’s neck but quickly withdrew when he touched the rosary. Abraham Van Helsing, the pious vampire hunter from Holland, explained that the crucifix was one of several sacred objects whose presence deprived the vampire of its power.

Besides the crucifix, Van Helsing used the eucharistic wafer, the bread consecrated as the body of Christ in the church’s communion service (in this case the Roman Catholic mass). He placed the wafers around the openings of the tomb of Lucy Westenra and sanitized (destroyed the effectiveness of) the boxes of native soil Dracula had brought from his homeland. Most importantly, the wafer burned its imprint into the forehead of the tainted Mina Murray after her encounter with Dracula.

In subsequent productions of Dracula, the eucharistic wafer largely dropped from the picture. It was used on occasion to sanitize the earth, but only in Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the scene of Mina’s being branded by the wafer become a part of a dramatic presentation. Instead, it was the crucifix that became the religious symbol most frequently used to cause the vampire to lose its strength or to harm the vampire.

The Vampire and the Church Since Stoker: Through the twentieth century, the crucifix became a standard part of the vampire hunter’s kit. Frequently he would flash it just in time to save himself. On many occasions, heroines were saved from a vampire about to pounce upon them by a shining cross hanging around their neck. At the same time, especially since midcentury, the vampire novel began to show signs of secularization. Some vampires came from outer space or arose as victims of a disease. Such vampires, lacking any negative supernatural origins, were unaffected by the holy objects.

As the century progressed, vampire writers challenged the role of Christianity in the culture. Some expressed their doubts as to its claims to exclusive truth concerning God and the world. Writer Anne Rice, for example, very early in her life became a skeptic of Roman Catholicism, in which she was raised. Her vampires, reflecting her nonbelief, were unaffected by Christian symbols. They walked in churches with impunity and handled crucifixes with no negative reaction. In like measure, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro‘s hero, St. Germain, and other good guy vampires, were not Satanic; quite the opposite, they were moral agents. The vampires in Yarbro’s books had no negative reaction to Christian objects or places.

Vampires in science fiction were raised in an alien culture that had never heard of Christianity. They were among the first group of vampires that had no reaction to Christian sacred symbols. The vampires of The Hunger by Whitley Strieber and those in Elaine Bergstrom‘s novels, were unaffected by the cross because they were aliens. Bergstrom’s vampires, the Austra family, made their living working in cathedrals repairing stained glass. Other writers affected by the religiously pluralistic culture in the West questioned the value of Christian symbols for people raised in or adhering to another faith. For example, they asked if Jewish symbols served as protection from Jewish vampires. In Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me but Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967), one of the more humorous moments came from a Jewish vampire attacking a young girl who tried to protect herself with a cross.

The relation to the sacred in general and Christianity in particular will continue to be a problem for vampire novelists, especially those working in the Christian West. The vampire is a supernatural gothic entity whose popular myth dictated its aversion for the crucifix. The literary vampire derives its popularity from the participation of its readers in a world of fantasy and supernatural power. At the same time, an increasing number of novelists do not have a Christian heritage and thus possess no understanding or appreciation of any power derived from Christian symbols. For the foreseeable future, new vampire fiction will be written out of the pull and tug between these traditional and contemporary perspectives.


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Frenschkowski, Marco, ‘“Ich trinke niemalsö Wein.’ Das Blut in der Religionsgeschichte.” Kursiv: Eine Kunstzeitschrift aus Oberösterreich 4, 3 (1997): 7–13.
Hartnup, Karen. On the Beliefs of the Greeks: Leo Aliatios and Popular Orthodoxy. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 370 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1928. 356 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960. 356 pp.

Churel see: India, Vampires in