Book Review: Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend

Then, when we had got down to the sea shore we drew our ship into the water and got her mast and sails into her; we also put the sheep on board and took our places, weeping and in great distress of mind. Circe, that great and cunning goddess, sent us a fair wind that blew dead aft and stayed steadily with us keeping our sails all the time well filled; so we did whatever wanted doing to the ship’s gear and let her go as the wind and helmsman headed her. All day long her sails were full as she held her course over the sea, but when the sun went down and darkness was over all the earth, we got into the deep waters of the river Oceanus, where lie the land and city of the Cimmerians who live enshrouded in mist and darkness which the rays of the sun never pierce neither at his rising nor as he goes down again out of the heavens, but the poor wretches live in one long melancholy night. When we got there we beached the ship, took the sheep out of her, and went along by the waters of Oceanus till we came to the place of which Circe had told us.

“Here Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims, while I drew my sword and dug the trench a cubit each way. I made a drink-offering to all the dead, first with honey and milk, then with wine, and thirdly with water, and I sprinkled white barley meal over the whole, praying earnestly to the poor feckless ghosts, and promising them that when I got back to Ithaca I would sacrifice a barren heifer for them, the best I had, and would load the pyre with good things. I also particularly promised that Teiresias should have a black sheep to himself, the best in all my flocks. When I had prayed sufficiently to the dead, I cut the throats of the two sheep and let the blood run into the trench, whereon the ghosts came trooping up from Erebus- brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil, maids who had been crossed in love, and brave men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood; they came from every quarter and flitted round the trench with a strange kind of screaming sound that made me turn pale with fear. When I saw them coming I told the men to be quick and flay the carcasses of the two dead sheep and make burnt offerings of them, and at the same time to repeat prayers to Hades and to Proserpine; but I sat where I was with my sword drawn and would not let the poor feckless ghosts come near the blood till Teiresias should have answered my questions.

The Odyssey Book XI

As the above quote shows, the idea of the dead returning and drinking blood extends back in time quite far. Where does the idea of vampirism come from? Is there one legend that can be pointed to, or is the vampire the result of the mixing of a wide variety of myths and legends? Following on that, is the vampire a uniquely European phenomena? Or can we find that legends about the vampire, like humans, have spread throughout the world?

These are some of the questions that Mark Jenkins seeks to answer in his new book Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend. The covers some of the known (Bram Stoker, Vlad Tepes, Elizabeth Bathory) and unknown pieces of vampire lore. Since I am a fan of horror movies and have quite a library on the subject most of the material in this book was familiar to me.
There are a few exceptions, one in particular stood out:

This volume described the Nachzehrer — German for “after-devourer” — a kind of mindless, vampirelike corpse that chews its shroud in the grave before consuming its own fingers. As it nibbles away, by some occult process, it also slowly kills the surviving members of its family. It may then begin gobbling corpses in neighboring graves.

As if all that were not grisly enough, the Nachzehrer’s appalling dietary habits can be heard aboveground, where they come through loud and clear as a grunting, smacking sound like that of a pig snarfing garbage (dignified in Latin as sonus porcinus).

Born somewhere on the north German and Polish plains, this horrible figure made his appearance all over central Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. In “De Masticatione Mortuorum,” Rohr culled examples from several even more obscure German dissertations, emphasizing that the grunting noise in particular was heard mostly, if not exclusively, during eruptions of the plague. One of his sources, in fact, had concluded that “corpses eat only during the time of plague.” Rohr went on to cite a certain Adam Rother, who claimed that, as pestilence ravaged the German university town of Marburg in 1581, the dead in their graves could be heard uttering ominous noises from all over the town and surrounding countryside.

The same thing happened in Schisselbein, according to another little-known chronicler named Ignatius Hanielus. “Although both the corpses of men and of women are known to have grunted, gibbered, and squeaked,” Rohr reported, for some inexplicable reason “it is more often the bodies weaker sex who have thus uttered curious voices.”

They should make a movie with this type of vampire. At any rate, this is one of the few areas of the book where physical anthropology enters the picture. The description occurs in a section discussing the work of Matteo Borrini in Venetian plague cemeteries. One of the skeletons uncovered by Borrini was that of an individual with a brick in it’s mouth. The find turns out to be that of a woman somewhere between 60-70 years old. The skull has since been reconstructed.

We also meet up with the hopping vampires of China in a worldwide tour of myths and legends concerning the evil the dead inflict on the living. This section reads like a “Golden Bough” of vampires and has a distinctly Frazerian feel. As mentioned above there is very little physical anthropology and I would have liked to have seen more – especially from a book with forensics in the title, but this is a book written by a historian and so we get a lot of interesting history. I am going to have to try to track down some of the books on the Internet Archive.

The book is written in an engaging style that makes the book a quick read. I enjoyed it, once I got past the fact that bioarchaeology was rarely mentioned, and found it to be a fun read. I would recommend it on a dark and stormy night with a Christopher Lee movie for accompaniment.

Lest I forget, after speaking to Teiresias Odysseus talks about his mother:

“‘This,’ I answered, ‘must be as it may please heaven, but tell me and tell me and tell me true, I see my poor mother’s ghost close by us; she is sitting by the blood without saying a word, and though I am her own son she does not remember me and speak to me; tell me, Sir, how I can make her know me.’

“‘That,’ said he, ‘I can soon do Any ghost that you let taste of the blood will talk with you like a reasonable being, but if you do not let them have any blood they will go away again.’

“On this the ghost of Teiresias went back to the house of Hades, for his prophecyings had now been spoken, but I sat still where I was until my mother came up and tasted the blood. Then she knew me at once and spoke fondly to me, saying, ‘My son, how did you come down to this abode of darkness while you are still alive? It is a hard thing for the living to see these places, for between us and them there are great and terrible waters, and there is Oceanus, which no man can cross on foot, but he must have a good ship to take him. Are you all this time trying to find your way home from Troy, and have you never yet got back to Ithaca nor seen your wife in your own house?’

This is followed by some profound and interesting advice, from Odysseus’ mom – the dead don’t always terrorize the living…

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