Claude Lecouteux lives in Paris and is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. He is the author of numerous books on medieval and pagan afterlife beliefs, including The Return of the Dead and Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies.
Several months ago I had a dream about Professor Lecouteux that continued throughout the night, with me awakening three times from the dream, where I was prompted to remember his name and to explore his work and help share it with others. Not one to ignore dreams like this, I reached out to Professor Lecouteux and his publisher and began a series of interviews about his vast research and books. This interview is one in the series, which explores his book – The Secret History of Vampires: Their Multiple Forms and Hidden Purposes. The other interviews with Claude Lecouteux can be read on Kala’s Bohemian Blog here and here.
The summary of The Secret History of Vampires says:
A look at the forgotten ancestors of the modern-day vampire, many of which have very different characteristics. Looks at the many ancestoral forms of the modern vampire, including shroud eaters, appesarts, and stafi and presents evidence for the reality of this phenomenon from pre-19th-century newspaper articles and judicial records. Of all forms taken by the undead, the vampire wields the most powerful pull on the modern imagination. But the countless movies and books inspired by this child of the night who has a predilection for human blood are based on incidents recorded as fact in newspapers and judicial archives in the centuries preceding the works of Bram Stoker and other writers.
Digging through these forgotten records, Claude Lecouteux unearths a very different figure of the vampire in the many accounts of individuals who reportedly would return from their graves to attack the living. These ancestors of the modern vampire were not all blood suckers; they included shroud eaters, appesarts, nightmares, and the curious figure of the stafia, whose origin is a result of masons secretly interring the shadow of a living human being in the wall of a building under construction. As Lecouteux shows, the belief in vampires predates ancient Roman times, which abounded with lamia, stirges, and ghouls. Discarding the tacked together explanations of modern science for these inexplicable phenomena, the author looks back to another folk belief that has come down through the centuries like that of the undead: the existence of multiple souls in every individual, not all of which are able to move on to the next world after death.
The following is my interview with Claude Lecouteux about his book, The Secret History of Vampires:
Kala: 1. Most people know vampire legends as having come from Transylvania and other parts of Eastern Europe. In your book, you mention vampire reports coming from places like Greece. How do the legends compare between Greece and Europe and does every continent have some form of vampire legend?
Claude: Vampires have only come from Transylvania since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The eighteenth century accounts show that the focal point for the spread of the belief was Serbia. The use of the word “vampire” is based on a mistaken translation of Slavic and Greek words meaning revenants, in fact. Since the time of Classical Antiquity, and undoubtedly before, there was a belief in the return of pernicious dead individuals, whose actions were condensed in the figure of the vampire. The Greek Vrykolakos (the French broucolaque) is nothing by a revenant!
Kala: 2. In Chapter Two, an account is shared from Siena, Italy, where a deceased woman’s body had remained intact 70 years after her death and that she continued to wander at night due to the fact that she had been excommunicated by the church. Once the excommunication had been lifted and she had been sprinkled with holy water, she turned to dust. Do you think these types of stories, connected with eternal damnation if one was excommunicated from the church, spread into the legend of vampires being burned by holy water?
Claude: Storied of monks killing revenants with blows from a spade existed as early as the Middle Ages. Exorcism and holy water are a later intervention of the Church which felt compelled to provide a plausible interpretation for the existence of the living dead. These dead individuals who were rejected by heaven, hell, and purgatory posed a major problem. The Church defined them as damned souls on borrowed time who were incapable of moving on into the beyond—whatever form it took. In older times these dead were not affected by the sign of the cross, exorcism, or holy water.
Kala: 3. Beyond the traditional method of being bitten and turned by a vampire, you share folk beliefs that say vampires can arise from …”brothers who came into the world during the same month, redheads, those who never ate garlic, and those buried at sunset”. How did these beliefs come into being?
Claude: Humans sought explanations and the ones you mention are in fact etiologies intended to offer reassurance: if the cause for the return of these wicked dead is known, then preventive and defensive measures can be taken.
Kala: 4. The Romanian word “strigoi” has two meanings, “witch”, for living women and “revenant”, for men who did not die because they possessed two souls, a good one that left at death and an evil one that remained behind. Can you explain how this word has two such diverse meanings and how the belief came to be about the two souls splitting in this manner?
Claude: The dual meaning of strigoi is not surprising when it is known that witches, described as evil individuals representing a danger to the community, are allegedly able to commit acts of revenge and violence after they die. Moreover, it was believed that these witches had mastery over their physical double (alter ego) that remained in the tomb but, animated by the feelings it had in life, could leave the grave to go and kill men and animals.
Kala: 5. It seems that the heyday of vampire reports spread from the Middle Ages into the 18th century and then while the stories and legends remain, true sightings and reports of vampire attacks have declined. Yet the interest in vampires in current times is at an all time high. What do you think this signifies for modern cultural beliefs today?
Claude: Interest in vampires has not weakened as shown by the movies and novels. This is completely normal as the vampire is an enigma: an undead, a living dead being that transgresses all natural laws. It raises questions: What is life? What is death? Is there life after death? And if yes, what form does it take? No amount of scientific progress up to the present day ahs been able to eradicate the majority of beliefs concerning death and the dead, and our contemporary mindsets continue to bear the trace of ancient beliefs. Ask those around you and people will confide in you with some singular stories, like those collected by Carl Gustav Jung during his investigation in Switzerland.
Kala: 6. Do you believe in the existence of vampires and if so, what evidence or personal experience has led you to this belief?
Claude: No I don’t! That’s because I have been exploring this domain for a long time and been able to observe the role played there by psychology, the mourning process, and the weight of family and social legacies, as well as the media—films and literature—that are ceaselessly updating the old beliefs.