The fear of the undead and ancient superstitions regarding the seemingly magical property of blood can be found in most cultures around the world. Early misconceptions over human body decomposition gave birth to the modern-day vampire, a creature often portrayed as an alluring “Other,” a rebel who embodies repressed sexual urges and who pushes back against conformity. In ancient cultures, vampires were nothing like their sexier modern-day counterparts. These vampires were akin to ghouls and demons, practitioners of dark magic who led sinful lives and returned as walking corpses as punishment for their misdeeds. One of the earliest indications of humanity’s fear of the undead can be traced to a burial site in Jordan, where villagers dismembered the dead to prevent them from rising again.
The first creatures who seem to fit the modern description of vampires appear in ancient writings from Assyria and the Babylonian empires, as well as in documents of the earliest known Mesopotamian civilization, Sumeria. In the early 19th century, researchers discovered and translated writings from Mesopotamia, the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys, now modern-day Iraq. The writings indicated elaborate mythology involving a legion of deities divided into greater and lesser rank. Among these deities includes the closest equivalent of the true vampire in ancient Mesopotamia, seven evil spirits who feasted on human blood. The seven spirits would torment a helpless victim until a religious figure performed a ritual to force the spirits away.
R. Campbell Thompson, a British translator, and archeologist, wrote a poem describing the seven spirits:
Spirits that minish the heaven and earth,
That minish the land
Spirits that minish the land,
Of giant strength,
Of giant strength and giant tread,
Demons (like raging bulls, great ghosts),
Ghosts that break through all houses,
Demons that have no shame,
Seven are they!
Knowing no care, they grind the land like corn;
Knowing no mercy, they rage against mankind,
They spill their blood like rain,
Devouring their flesh (and) sucking their veins.
They are demons full of violence, ceaselessly devouring blood.
Along with the seven deadly spirits, the Sumerians believed in several different forms of demons with vampire-like tendencies: the utukku and the ekimmu. An utukku was the long-forgotten spirit of a deceased individual buried by a family who no longer visited the gravesite or honored their ancestors. As a result, the utukku would rise from the grave and haunt the family, sometimes drinking blood to sustain itself or draining the family of their life forces. The ekimmu was the angry spirit of an unburied individual, who’d prowl the earth until they were put to rest under the ground.
According to Aramco World, a manuscript recording the dynasties of Sumer, dating from around 2400 BCE, asserts the father of the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh was a Lillu-demon. The Lillu belongs to a class of vampires that includes similar entities: Lilitu (also known in Hebrew as Lillith), a feminine vampire demon who’s partial to the blood of children and young men, and Irdu Lilli, the male counterpart to the Lilitu who preyed on women.
Vampires have a long and fascinating history, both in popular culture and ancient real-world beliefs. Many of the older superstitions surrounding the decomposition of human bodies and the magical properties of blood have informed our modern-day interpretations of vampires. Whether you love their prominence in popular culture or not, there’s no denying the impact vampires have played since the dawn of human civilization.
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