Sunday, October 7, 2012


A century and more ago, when European archaeologists began excavating the earliest civilizations in the Near East, they saw in the bas-reliefs, the shattered cuneiform tablets, the broken pottery, the scattered amulets and wristbands and rings, evidence of what must have been vast pantheons of gods and demons.

According to Montague Summers, one such find—a prehistoric bowl discovered by a French archaeological mission in Persia at the turn of the 20th century—is the earliest known representation of a vampire. It depicts a supernatural warning in the form of a man copulating with a headless corpse (the threat of decapitation being enough to scare off a succubus, or demon in female form said to have sexual intercourse with men while they sleep). Dr. Reginald Campbell Thompson, author of Semitic Magic, is quoted as suggesting “quite probably the man may have drunk from this bowl as helping the magic (although this is a doubtful point).”

It might be a doubtful point; it is certainly an enigmatic object. So is the Assyrian cylinder seal, dating to around 2000 B.C., that depicts a naked female straddling a prostrate male while another man, wielding what looks like a stake but could be a dagger, advances threateningly upon the woman. This seal might have been the amulet of a man “troubled by nightly emissions,” in Campbell Thompson’s decorous phrase. It, too, would ward off a succubus by depicting the fate that lay in store for her.

The surviving bits of literature recovered so far are full of such warnings, spells, and exorcisms. The deserts bounding the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Assyria were fearsome enough places without doubling as the abodes of demons and the dead. These included the mysterious Seven Spirits, suckers of blood and eaters of flesh, and the dreaded ekimmu or elimmu, ghosts of men whose bodies lay abandoned in desert or marsh. Deprived of the proper burial rituals, they wander between worlds, hungry and thirsty, preying on passersby. They seem to be of ancient provenance; in Sumerian demonology, Professor Samuel Hooke noted, “the dead who had not had funeral rites performed for them were greatly feared.”

And then there was Lilith, who clawed her way up the demonological ladder until, by the Middle Ages, she was Queen of the Succubi, if not the consort of the devil himself. Lilith began inauspiciously enough, though, possibly as the Sumerian wind spirit (from lil, “wind”), one of the legions that arose in the solitary wastes of the desert. She got an early boost in status when she married Adam—this was before Eve, at least according to Hebrew folklore—but was eventually exiled back to the desert. There she took up residence, said the Prophet Isaiah, with jackals and ostriches and vultures. Once her name became confused with the Hebrew layal (“night”), Lilith became a hairy, night-flying monster—the very epitome of the female sexual predator. Solomon thought the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs betrayed her as Lilith in disguise, and indeed, in this hirsute role, she has wormed her way through poetry, drama, and fiction.

But if Lilith morphed into a literary archetype, another demonic Hebrew child killer, the estrie, managed to retain her original vampiric attributes. At the burial of a woman believed liable to become an estrie after death, the body was examined to see if its mouth was open. That, as we have seen, was an infallibly ominous sign—and if the mouth was in fact open, it was promptly stuffed with dirt.

Deeper in the deserts of Arabia, a demon in the shape of a beautiful enchantress was said to open graves to feed on fresh corpses. She was called the algul— origin, understandably, of the English word ghoul. Islam may have banished such monsters to the farthest liminal margins, but it could not eradicate the fear of them. An isolated grave found in an Ottoman cemetery on the Greek island of Mytilene, and dating to the late 18th or early 19th century, contained a skeleton with nails driven through its neck, pelvis, and ankles. Muslim custom calls for the imam to remain at the tomb when a funeral is over, to coach the dead man in the replies he should make to the Questioners—the angels Mounkir and Nekir—who have entered the grave to interrogate him about his faith. Even in Islam, the soul after death retains some mysterious connection with its body, and is thought to linger with it until after its burial.

No place in the ancient world, however, was more obsessed with death than Egypt. Possessing the most elaborate funerary complex of them all, as the pyramids have reminded countless generations of visitors, the Egyptians so purified, embalmed, mummified, memorialized, and mythologized their dead that surely they must have told tales of their occasional return. Yet, despite Egypt’s reputation as the wellspring of all magic, all mystery, all black arts; despite its subsequent role in the literature of mystery and romance; and despite claims to the contrary, no trace of vampires has been found in the country’s extensive archaeological records.

The reason: The Egyptians performed their mortuary labors too well. Many of the earliest mummies were decapitated, eviscerated, hacked into pieces, and then reassembled and wrapped in linen, rendering the body uninhabitable. Furthermore, they built for the ages. All those necropolises in the desert, all that “care that the Egyptians took to bury their dead in tombs deep in the ground and in the sides of mountains,” as pioneering Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge wrote in 1883, may have been the equivalent of constructing containment domes around some very dangerous force: “The massive stone and wooden sarcophagi, the bandages of the mummy, the double and triple coffins, the walled-up doors of the tomb, the long shaft filled with earth and stones, etc., all were devised with the idea of making it impossible for the dead to reappear upon the earth.”

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