VAMPIRES, PART VI: Wolves and Witches

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PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

PART V: Buckets of Blood

Before the word “vampire” became more popular, the most common word in 19th century literature for a dead man who preyed upon the living to prolong his un-life was initially the Romanian word “strigoi.” Now, strigoi is a bit of a vague word. It can mean a vampire and a witch. It’s related to the Italian word “strega” which means a witch as well.

They all come from “Strix.” The Strix is actually a completely different mythical creature from Roman folklore, a vaguely described sort of anthropomorphic screech owl.  The Strix was alive and wasn’t human, but it drank the blood of babies and disemboweled people to eat their livers and other internal organs. This might explain why the Romanian strigoi also tends to eat the heart of its victim as well as drinking the blood. It also might explain why one of the animals vampires are supposed to frequently transform into is the owl, as opposed to the bat. There’s actually no Slavic tradition of vampires turning into bats. That was made up by Bram Stoker. In his time, the “vampire bat” had recently been discovered in South America, and so it seemed a natural addition for “Dracula.”

Stoker was correct to connect vampires and wolves, though. In folklore vampires themselves often turn into dogs, cats, rats, or, as mentioned before, owls. Sometimes they even turn into sheep, donkeys, and horses. Wolves are somewhere in the middle in terms of frequency. One term for vampires, varkolak, exists in different forms in several languages, and literally means “wolf hair” or “wolf pelt.” It’s also frequently used to refer exclusively to werewolves, and there’s a great deal of confusion surrounding its use.

One rather interesting variant is the idea that wolves destroy vampires. For example, in Albania, a vampire can be destroyed only once a wolf has bitten its legs off. Bulgarians believed in a type of undead baby vampire, called an ustrel. To destroy it, you had to leave it at the crossroads to be devoured by wolves. Yes, believe it or not the post 90s Goth fiction that often pitted vampires and werewolves against each other has some actual grounding.

The connection between werewolves and vampires is a strange one. Like strigoi, the words for vampire and witch are often confused. In traditional lore, most werewolves were not created by curses, but were in fact willing shapeshifters; magicians or witches who intentionally turned into wolves to attack the cattle of their neighbors, or to kill their neighbors themselves. This combined with the idea that vampires were often born from the corpses of evil people. You know, the sort of folks who might practice witchcraft, turn into wolves, and kill their neighbor’s sheep. In short, you could have a witch who was a werewolf who, after dying, could come back as a vampire.

These concepts are mostly just flavor for any given setting or story. The werewolf/witch/vampire dynamic is one that can be very handy for undermining a reader’s expectations about how this is all supposed to work, the owl is a nice alternative form for to the clichéd vampire bat, and the strix is a solid night creature to roll out when you get bored with the vampire in general. Next week we have the final (!) vampire article, and then it’s on to some new topic. I haven’t yet decided what it will be, so we’ll just see where the wind blows us.

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