Like an unfinished painting, the significance of history and those who affect it, cannot fully be seen all at once. Time is needed to fully understand context, and placement among similarities singles out importance and clarity. Van Gogh was not appreciated in his own time, it took his death and the maturity of the form of art he created to make others realize his genius. The same is true with moments in time. The gravity of the “Shot heard ‘round the world” could not be felt until after the dust of the American Revolution settled. And yet another case in point is the evolution of a legend, more specifically the maturation of the Vampire.
Macabre in nature, the Vampire is an enduring icon of a lost time. A past where the un-explainable was rationalized by the creation of specters, ghouls and ghosts. It was no accident that the fear of dying, in essence, losing one’s life force, became instantly connected to a mythological creature that could not survive itself, unless it consumed human blood. The origin of the Vampire is unknown, although it’s believed to date as far back as the beginning of recorded history, with every major culture in between having some sort of representation of it. To us, however, the Vampire we most associate with is in its modern form, very much a European invention, born from Bram Stoker’s writing and Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the creature on both stage and screen. But the lore surrounding the Vampire may have begun as an account presented as something very real.
The simplest way to trace the mystery and the lineage of the Vampire legend, we look no further than literature. While the most famous Vampire story, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is the standard to which all other undead characters are held, the creation of the title character is simply an amalgamation of creative license taken with Transylvanian born Vlad Tepes and Countess Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary. The rest of the representation being filled in by various cultural lore and earlier texts on the subject of the supernatural. Picking bits and pieces that would fit nicely together in the Christian based society of the late 1800’s. But the groundwork for Stoker and other authors had been laid nearly six centuries prior in an obscure poem discovered during the fourth Crusade in Constantinople. The text, written in Latin and known simply as Suus Fabula (which translates to Her Story), is a prose written from the perspective of a woman by the name of Elisávet who claimed to be the first Vampyr. The narrative is an interesting blueprint of what would become the most enduring symbol of supernatural terror.
“Neither demon nor ghost,
A Creature of another kind, a Vampry, the first.
Keep to the shadows, on the hunt for thy prey,
A smile, a gesture to inherit trust of thee and death.
Strength and cunning thou seek out blood.
We began as three, Ezath, Urab and Rah;
Journey from the south to part ways.
Under the name Elisávet,
First unto Greece and then Rome.
I witnessed Alaric and his men sack the city,
Delivered him the fat and bloated aristocracy
And delighted in the sight of their slaughter.
Travelled north to the land of the heathen Norse.
The blood spilled among the people suited thee.
Havth brought horror and fear;
Exposed thee to superstition as weapons were raised.
Fled once more underneath cover of night,
I shalt continue on till peril behind.
Hide in the morn through valley deep and dark.
Thou wilst see thee again underneath the guise of nobility.
With thine anger and revenge and death to follow.”
The text was translated and incorporated in several other works including the famous French book Histoires des Morts, remaining relevant proof of the existence of Vampires through the Middle Ages. But as the early modern era gave way to Renaissance philosophy and the Age of Enlightenment, the meaning behind the verse became regarded more as a fable. By the early 19th century, the work had faded into obscurity, but would soon reignite the Vampire myth and provide the blueprint for the modern interpretation. John William Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre”, published in 1819, borrowed heavily from Suus Fabula, from the main character being a Vampire, appearing as an aristocrat, to the creature’s nomadic and violent lifestyle. Polidori’s story became instantly popular and ushered in the genre of Gothic Horror. Fast-forward seventy-eight years and the publishing of Dracula and the foundation for the Vampire, as we know it, was complete. While Stoker and his Vampire creation may have been influenced by many works, it’s widely believed that his discovery of the Suus Fabula may have served as the first inspiration of his monumental horror novel.
Interesting notes on Suus fabula:
- The name Elisávet used in the verse, is the Greek form of Elizabeth. Elizabeth Báthory, for whom the fictional Count Dracula is partially based, was thought to be a real Vampire.
- Rah, a name mentioned in the story, is also an alternative spelling for a village in Romania – which could be another link to the Vampire’s Translyvanian/Vald Tepes roots.
- When Alaric I sacked Rome in 410 AD, it was rumored that he had help from a Roman citizen, who betrayed high ranking members of society to ensure their own freedom.
- In Norse mythology, there is an elegy about a female Draugr (their version of a vampire) that lived among the people till she was exposed. A battle ensued and many lost their lives before the Draugr fled.
- Printed copies of the Histoires des Morts, which translates to Stories of the Dead, included a skeleton with bat wings imprinted on the cover, which could be the associative link between Vampires and bats.