Rome, Vampires in

Rome, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Ancient Rome did not have as developed a mythology of vampirism as did Greece, though the idea was by no means absent. It was not an attribute of the returning dead but of living witches. The idea of a vampirelike entity apparently came from the need to account for the unexpected deaths of infants, a need that had produced the lamiai of ancient Greece. The Romans spoke of the strix, a night demon that attacked infants and drained their blood. The strix was identified with the screech owl. The term survived in Greece as striges in Romania as strigoi and in Italy as strega. First-century C.E. Roman poet Ovid described a witch in the fourth book of his work, Fasti:

They fly by night and look for children without nurses, snatch them from their cradles and defile their bodies. They are said to lacerate the entrails of infants with their beaks, and they have their throats full of the blood they have drunk. They are called striges.

He also recounted a ritual performed as an invocation to the ancient deity Carna, the goddess of flesh, to protect an infant boy from the strix:

Immediately she (Carna) touches the door-posts three times in succession with a spray of arbutus (a plant); three times she marks the threshold with arbutus spray. She sprinkles the entrance with water (and the water contained a drug). She holds the bloody entrails of a pig, two months old, and thus speaks: “Birds of the night, spare the entrails of the boy. For a small boy a small victim falls. Take heart for heart, I pray, entrails for entrails. This life we give you in place of a better one.”

The functionary completed the ritual by placing a white thorn branch in the window of the house. The child would then be safe. From the strix developed the concept of the strega, a witch, usually a woman, who was believed to have the power to change her form and fly around at night in the form of a bird. She also sucked human blood and possessed a poisonous breath. Petronius in his Satyricon left one story of an encounter with the stregas. The host of a dinner party told his guests that while he was at the home of a friend, comforting her on the loss of her son, several witches gathered outside the house and created a disturbance. In the home at the time was a muscular young man who volunteered to quiet the witches. He went outside, sword in hand. A few moments later the man returned and fell on the bed. He was black and blue all over and the witches had disappeared.

The rest of the group returned to their task of consoling the mother. However, when she went in to view her son, all she found was a clump of straw. The witches had carried off the boy, and the young man who battled them never recovered. The strega continued as part of the popular culture and spread through the old Roman Empire. As late as the ninth century, Charlemagne, who established the new Holy Roman Empire, decreed capital punishment for anyone who believed that another person was a strix, and because of that belief attacked, burned, and/or cannibalized that person. It appears that such was the manner of disposing of people believed to be witches.

By the end of the fifteenth century, the witch had been demonized and turned into a Satanist by the Inquisition. People believed to be stregas were arrested, tried, and executed in Italy during the centuries of the witch-hunts. In the interrogations of the suspected witches, the inquisitors had them confess to practices commonly associated with the stregas, including the vampirizing of babies. Between 1460 and 1525 some ten books were published on witchcraft by Italians. Among these was a brief volume, Strix, written by Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola and published in Bologna in 1523.

The book grew out of concern over recent accusations of witchcraft that had occurred at Brecia in 1518 and at Sondrio in 1523, though the picture of the stregas presented by Mirandola was more complete (he was drawing on common beliefs about witches) than any of the confessions at the recent trials. The accused at Brecia and Sondrio, for example, did not confess to incidents of attacking babies and sucking their blood, though Mirandola was concerned with stregas committing such crimes. The beliefs articulated by Mirandola were common in the Renaissance and would remain a dominant opinion of the religious and intellectual leaders for the next several centuries. By the eighteenth century, Italians had joined the rest of Europe in doubting the existence of such supernatural evil as was supposedly perpetrated by witches and vampires. Remnants of the belief in strega seem to have continued to the present day. Surviving fragments of belief and practice reportedly were rediscovered by C. G. Leland in the nineteenth century and through him have passed into the modern Wiccan revival.

Note: On the modern literary and cinematic vampire, see the entry “Italy, Vampires in.”

Sources:

Burke, Peter. “Witchcraft and Magic in Renaissance Italy: Gianfrancesco Pico and His Strix.” In Sydney Anglo, ed. The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977: 32–52.
Burriss, Eli Edward. Taboo, Magic, Spirits: A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion. New York: Macmillan Company, 1931. 250 pp.
Frenschkowski, Marco. “Vampire in Mythologie und Folklore.” In: Thomas Le Blanc, Clemens Ruthner, and Bettina Twsrsnick, eds. Draculas Wiederkehr. Tagungsband 1997, Wetzlar: Phantastische Bibliothek, 2003: 28–58.
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.
———. The Vampire in Europe. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1929. 329 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961. 329 pp.