Vampires of Antiquity

The vampire legend dates back to the earliest times of recorded human civilization: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and other peoples of the ancient Orient. The original vampire was not like the sophisticated, suave European aristocrat that we know of today. The vampire, at its origins, was a true appaling monster.

The bloodsucking Akhkharu is mentioned in the Sumerian mythology and later vampire-like spirits called the Lilu in Babylonian demonology. These female demons were said to roam during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. One of these demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted into Jewish demonology as Lilith.

In 2000 B.C., the early Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh clearly described vampires. The Ekimmu, or Departed Spirit was the soul of a dead person who for some reason could find no rest and wandered over the earth seeking to seize the living.

As in most later vampire tales, the Ekimmu and its victim had some mysterious psychic connection, which made the victim particularly vulnerable to attack. The Ekimmu could walk through, doors or walls to take up residence in house. It would then drain the life from the household, usually killing the owner and many of his relatives and servants. The epic tells us that among those likely to return as vampires were those who had died violent deaths; those whose corpses had remained unburied or uncared-for, and those who had left certain duties undone. Various magical texts and incantations list the possible connections between the Ekimmu and its victim.

Dr. R. Campbell-Thompson, in his book The Devil and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, quotes a prayer against evil spirits, which describes these vampires and their habits:

Spirits that minish the land, of giant strength
Ghosts that break through houses… Demons that have no shame
Knowing no mercy, they can rage against mankind.
They spill their blood like rain, devouring their flesh and sucking their veins.
They are the demons of full violence, ceaselessly devouring blood.

Ancient home of the Gypsies, India has many mythical vampire figures. The Bhuta is the soul of a man who died an untimely death. It wandered around animating dead bodies at night and attacked the living like a ghoul. In northern India could be found the brahmaparusha or Brahmarak Shasa, a vampire-like creature with a head encircled by intestines and a skull from which it drank blood.

The most famous Indian vampire is Kali who had fangs, wore a garland of corpses or skulls and had four arms. Her temples were near the cremation grounds. She and the goddess Durga battled the demon Raktabija who could reproduce himself from each drop of blood spilled. Kali drank all his blood so none was spilled, thereby winning the battle and killing Raktabija.

Tales of Vetalas and pisachas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses, are also found in old Sanskrit folklore. A prominent story tells of King Vikramaditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive Vetala. The stories of the Vetala have been compiled in the book Baital Pachisi. Today, the vetala is an undead who, like the bat associated with modern day vampire, is associated with hanging upside down on trees found in cremation grounds and cemeteries.l

The Ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in one myth became full of bloodlust after slaughtering humans and was only sated after drinking alcohol colored as blood.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the shades that Odysseus meets on his journey to the underworld are lured to the blood of freshly sacrificed rams, a fact that Odysseus uses to his advantage to summon the shade of Tiresias.

Empusa was the daughter of the goddess Hecate and was described as a demonic, bronze-footed creature. She feasted on blood by transforming into a young woman and seduced men as they slept before drinking their blood. The Lamia preyed on young children in their beds at night, sucking their blood, as did the gelloudes or Gello.

Like the Lamia, the striges feasted on children, but also preyed on young men. They were described as having the bodies of crows or birds in general, and were later incorporated into Roman mythology as strix, a kind of nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood. The Romanian word for vampires, strigoi, is derived from the word, and so is the name of the Albanian Shtriga, but the myths about those creatures show mainly Slavic influence.

Estries, female shape changing, blood drinking demons, were said to roam the night among the population, seeking victims. According to Sefer Hasidim, Estries were creatures created in the twilight hours before God rested. And injured Estrie could be healed by eating bread and salt given her by her attacker.

The hopping corpse is an equivalent of the vampire in Chinese tradition; however, it consumes the victim’s life essence (qì) rather than blood.