Witchcraft and Vampires

Witchcraft and Vampires

(pop culture)

In Europe, witchcraft and vampirism have had an intertwining history since ancient times. Many vampires first appeared among the demonic beings of pagan polytheistic religions. They would include such entities as the Greek lamiai and seven evil spirits of the mythology of Babylonia andAssyria. As Christianity arose, it tended to push the pagan religions aside and denounce any claims made by pagan believers. As a whole, Christianity assumed that the pagan deities were unreal, that they did not exist. Typical of the church’s stance was the account of Paul’s encounter with the Greek philosophers on the Areopagus, recounted in the biblical Book of Acts 17:16–34, in which Paul contrasted the one true God with the many gods represented in the statutes.

The pagan religious functionaries went under a variety of names, commonly terms that meant witch and/or sorcerer. As pagan religion was swept aside, so the witches and sorcerers were to some extent pushed from the emerging urban areas into the countryside. The church saw them as worshippers of imaginary deities.

Magic was crucial to the developing attitude concerning the pagan religions. The ability to cause changes by calling upon supernatural entities and using supernatural powers was almost universally accepted as real. People, including church leaders, believed that wondrous feats were possible either by the power of the Holy Spirit or by reference to illegitimate supernatural powers. Witches, the pagan practitioners, had the ability to do magical feats the average person could not do. Among these were many things that were considered evil even in pagan days. It must be remembered that many of the pagan entities existed as an explanation for the intrusion of evil and injustice in a person’s life.

With the marginalization of the witches and the destruction of pagan systems, the evil functions of the old entities tended to be transferred to the witches. Thus emerged the strega in ancient Rome. The strega, or witch, was first known as the strix, a night-flying demon that attacked infants and killed them by sucking their blood. Over a period of time the strix was identified as an individual who had the power of transformation into the forms of various animals, including owls and crows, and who in that guise attacked infants. The strix then became the strega of medieval Italy and the strigoi of Romania.

Through the first millennium C.E. the church retained its notion that paganism and witchcraft were imaginary. Illustrative of this belief was a tenth-century document, the Canon Episcopi. The Canon attributed pagan belief to the devil, but emphasized that the devil’s work was to present the imaginary world of paganism to the followers of the goddess Diana. Jeffrey Burton Russell wrote that witchcraft was considered an illusion; therefore, he reiterates the quote that whoever:

… believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or to worse or be transformed into another species or similitude, except by the creator himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond doubt an infidel.

The church had a similar attitude toward vampires. It had discovered a belief in vampires from earlier cultures and also had assumed that they were not real. This perspective was illustrated in two legal documents, one from the East and one from the West. The first was a nomocanon or authoritative ordinance that was in effect in the East through the Middle Ages. As quoted by Montague Summers, it said:

It is impossible that a dead man should become a vrykolakas (vampire) unless it be by the power of the Devil who, wishing to mock and delude some that they may incur the wrath of Heaven, causes these dark wonders, and so very often at night he casts a glamour whereby men imagine that the dead man whom they knew formerly, appears and holds converse with them, and in their dreams too they see strange visions. At other times they may behold him in the road, yea, even in the highway walking to and fro or standing still, and what is more than this he is even said to have strangled men and to have slain them.

Immediately there is sad trouble, and the whole village is in a riot and a racket, so that they hasten to the grave and they unbury the body of a man … and the dead man—one who has long been dead and buried—appears to them to have flesh and blood … so they can collect together a mighty pile of dry wood and set fire to this and lay the body upon it so that they burn it and destroy it altogether.

In like measure, by the middle of the eighth century, a Saxon law decried the belief in strix (vampire witches). Later in the century it was strengthened by a law decreeing the death penalty for any who perpetuated the belief in the strix and any who, because of that belief, attacked an individual believed to be a strix and harmed (attacked, burned, and/or cannibalized) that individual. A legal debate erupted in the eleventh century in Hungary when King Stephen I (997–1038) passed a law against strigae who rode out at night and fornicated. One of his successors, King Colomen (1077–95), struck the law from the books based on the notion that no such thing as strigae existed.

The Demonization of Witches: By the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had built a large organization, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, better known as the Inquisition, to handle the problem of heretics and, to a lesser extent, apostasy. Heresy was a belief system that deviated significantly from that of the orthodox theology of the church. An apostate was a person who had been a church member and who had renounced the faith. The new beliefs the person espoused constituted apostasy.

The Inquisition was limited to action against heresy and apostasy. It could not turn its attention to members of other faiths who had never been Christian.

By the 1480s, the Inquisition had largely done its work. At limited times and places the Inquisition had considered sorcery and malevolent magic, but in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued his bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, which had the effect of redefining witchcraft. It was no longer the imaginary belief system of ancient paganism. It had become Satanism (the worship of the Christian devil) and hence apostasy. In the wake of the bull, two Dominican fathers, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, authored Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), which initially appeared 1486 in Speyer and which became the manual for the inquisitors to discover and treat witchcraft practitioners. The papal bull was used as an introductory document for the book.

(Recently, the case has been made that Heinrich Kramer was the sole author of The Hammer of Witches. Kramer had a bitter relationship with Sprenger, who used his position to make Kramer’s work difficult whenever possible. Kramer forged a recommendation for the book from Cologne University’s theology faculty (which would include Sprenger, who was a theologian and dean of Cologne University) and then added Sprenger’s name as co-author to increase the book’s prestige and further its acceptance. It also seems to have been an act of personal revenge.) Only in the middle of the next century was the problem of vampirism raised for the Roman Church. It emerged among Roman Catholics in Greece who had encountered the vrykolakas. The reconsideration was carried out by Fr. Leo Allatius, a Greek who had converted to Roman Catholicism, and French Jesuit priest Fr. François Richard, who worked on the Greek island of Santorini. Allatius’ De Graecorum hodie quorundam opinationibus was published in 1645. Richard’s Relation de CE qui s’est passe a Sant-Erini Isle de l’Archipel appeared twelve years later.

The effect of Allatius and Richard’s writing was to link vampirism to witchcraft and to argue that vampirism was also the work of Satan.

Vampirism was real, and the devil was assigned the power not only of creating fantastic illusions but also of actually reanimating corpses. Richard, especially, related vampirism to the observations on witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum. Kramer and Sprenger had suggested that three things had to be present for witchcraft to operate—the devil, witches, and the permission of God. In like measure, for vampirism to occur, three elements had to be present—the devil, a dead body, and the permission of God. Richard argued that the devil energized the bodies and that vampires were far more than mere ghosts.

Allatius and Richard caused several others to consider the subject, which was still not high on the church’s agenda. The most important treatise was Philip Rohr’s De Masticatione Mortuorum, published at Leipzig in 1679. The three books provided the context for the reaction of the Roman Catholic Austrian government in its encounter with the epidemics of vampirism that emerged in the late seventeenth century in Austrian-controlled territories.

There was a predisposition to believe that vampires were real in spite of the initial reaction to the mutilation of bodies of deceased members of the families of the realm. It took many decades for a skeptical view of vampirism to emerge, and only in the 1750s did the central government outlaw the disinterment of bodies for treatment as vampires.

The medieval identification of vampires with witches, and of both with Satan, also redefined vampirism as a real evil that could be opposed by the weapons of the church. Thus vampires were the opposite of the sacred and could be affected by such blessed objects as the crucifix, the eucharistic wafer, and holy water.

One can see a parallel process of demonization of the vampire in the Eastern Orthodoxy of Russia. Here witches and vampires also were identified with each other and the vampire designated a heretic, eretik being the Russian term. Witches, after their death, became vampires. The process of so labeling the vampire seems to have occurred over a period of time. The term eretik was broadened from its strict definition as a doctrinal deviant to include all who did not believe in the true God and who associated with evil, especially evil magic. The period coincided with the church’s efforts to suppress sectarian (heretical) groups that were growing in various communities.

The convergence of heresy and witchcraft and vampirism served to stigmatize the sectarians and to brand them as more evil than they were. Eretik became a general term of derision. It largely replaced upir or upyr in some sections of the country.

Modern Secularization: The Austrian laws passed in the middle of the eighteenth century, which outlawed the practice of staking and burning bodies of suspected vampires, marked the beginning of the end of widespread belief in vampires in the urban West. By the end of the century it would be almost impossible to make a case for the existence of physical vampires; though in the nineteenth century, spiritualists and theosophists would begin to argue for the existence of the phenomenon of psychic vampirism. Vampires would become an object of the inner psyche to be explored by romantic poets and novelists, political forces that sapped the strength of the working class, and negative psychological impulses.

By the twentieth century belief in the vampire as a real, evil entity had, like witchcraft, been largely banished from the public arena. Interestingly, both began to attract a following in the late twentieth century. That interest grew surrounded by a culture that did not believe in the power of magic or in the existence of real vampires. That very disbelief has allowed a new Wiccan religion to take its place on the religious scene, and vampirism to arise again as a tool for the social expression of some important personal visions of the universe.


Oinas, Felix J. “Heretics as Vampires and Demons in Russia.” Slavic and Eastern European Journal 22, 4 (Winter 1978): 433–441.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1959. 571 pp.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984. 414 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. 1928. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960.
———. The Vampire in Europe. 1929. Rept. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 2005. 256 pp.