Something about the crackle of autumn's dying leaves, the hoarfrost, and the rising of the crimson Hunter's Moon lends a certain credence to the supernatural. This is the time of year when trows emerge from their underground burrows, ghostly White Ladies haunt crossroads and lonely byways, the fearsome rusalki return their rivers, and vampires appear in dark urban alleyways. These ladies of the shadows are beings that straddle the realm between fairy and the undead of Hollywood movies. Often pictured as ghostly pale, richly dressed, and beautiful, these perilous ladies offer forbidden pleasures, madness, and death. They are untamed and wild, where their male counterparts are mesmeric and debonair. Where did this image emerge into popular culture? Did Bram Stoker's demonic ladies in white who haunted his protagonist Jonathan Harker so fiercely beget the modern vampire woman? In this short essay, some literary, cultural and historical sources are explored as I try to trace the image of these haunting ladies who people our nightmares.
Some Literary Sources
The seminal Gothic novel featuring a woman vampire is Carmilla: A Vampyre, written in 1872 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It is an acknowledged influence upon both Stoker's Dracula and that other, more recent, sojourner in faery, W. B.Yeats, in his widely published "Oil and Blood" from The Winding Stair:
In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli
Bodies of holy men and women exude
Miraculous oil, odour of violet.
But under heavy loads of trampled clay
Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood;
Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet. (1933)
Arguably, while Stoker's Dracula is the literary prototype of modern male vampires, Le Fanu's Carmilla: A Vampyre remains the archetype for women vampires. Like Dracula, Carmilla is a gothic fantasy with darkly erotic overtones. In his novel, Le Fanu's protagonist Laura is corrupted by the ancient and mysterious Carmilla. For Le Fanu, Carmilla is the contrast of pure innocence—Laura, the archetypal "good woman"—with an exquisitely sexual but wholly depraved being, Carmilla. His classic novel provides the basis not only for a good vampire tale, but also for social criticism of a very high order.
In Stoker's novel Dracula, the "white ladies" who torment Jonathan Harker with forbidden pleasures are also cannibals who devour the flesh of babies. Female vampires and their close relations bring sexual freedoms and depravity; they reverse the natural order by giving death where living women give life. Even the most casual encounter will result in hag-ridden nightmares and madness.
In the recent film Van Helsing, released by Universal Pictures and directed by Stephen Sommers, the image of the female vampiric creatures called "harpies" is one of the most memorable moments in this Hollywood retelling of Dracula (albeit one that Bram Stoker certainly would not have recognized). Stoker's novel has been the genesis of a good many films featuring vampires both male and female, wicked and tragic, over the past half-century since the classic Kinski silent film Nosferatu. While the case can be made for Stoker's Dracula as the prototype of all modern male vampires, the earlier figure created by John Polidori in The Vampyre has precedence in presenting the aristocratic, mesmerizing, and ultimately tragic figure of the Hollywood vampire. Polidori's vampire was a literary revenge upon the romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who later said, "I have a personal dislike to Vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets." (1)
But what of the ladies? Did the ghostly trows or the wicked Cailleac Bhuer practice their mischief on our ancestors? There is a certain untamed quality about the female vampire and her close cousins that suggests such a connection, one that can be found by examining some of our ancestors' stories and folk beliefs.
In Our Folkloric Past: Red Moons, Hags, and Corpses Riding the Night Sky
The end of October and beginning of November was once a time when the culling of the cattle took place. Because this coincides with the annual rut in elk and deer, it was also a time when hunters entered the forest for wild game to supplement the winter larder with preserved meat. The custom of mincemeat pie (2) during the holidays is a holdover from the preservation of wild game in the days before grocery stores.
Germanic and Scandinavian peoples considered November a "time of the dead," possibly because of harsh winter conditions that resulted in more deaths among the very young, old, and infirm before the age of modern medicine. Tales are told of the "death" of the year at the start of winter, such as the Pagan "Oak King" who dies at Midsummer, or Lugh the Irish sun hero who is cut with the grain, and the venerable John Barleycorn. As the snow begins to fly over most of the Northern Hemisphere other figures appear: the Russian Father Frost who brings death to winter travelers, the Nordic Frost Giants or even the enchanting Snegoorotchka, the "Little Snowmaiden" from the Ukraine all inform our dark ladies. One tale worth consideration here is that of the Wild Hunt. A modern survival of this myth is the wild ride from cowboy folklore, immortalized in the standard written by Stan Jones in Ghost Riders in the Sky.
In some places, such as the midlands of England, a specific night is the official date of the Hunter's Moon (in 2004, it was October 24). Although any full moon on a clear night is a "hunter's moon," creating a brightly lit night with excellent conditions for hunting wild game, the Hunter's Moon is the night when the full moon rises crimson on the horizon, and especially when the moon takes on the famous deep red of a full lunar eclipse. The blood-red Hunters Moon is still revered and a time for great caution in parts of the word. This is the night when ordinary folk stay indoors with the windows tightly bolted because Wild Hunter or the Horned King and his Furious Horde go abroad. Sometimes the Wild Hunter is considered to be a Pagan deity, as in Scandinavia, where he is Odin, the Wild Huntsman, who rides the night sky with his Wild Hunt. In other places, such as Scotland and the Northern Isles, the participants of the Wild Hunt are denizens of fairy in the persons of the Unseelie Court or "unholy" court and the Wild Hunt is referred to as the "Fairy Raed." The Hornéd Man and the Queen of Air and Darkness preside over the Fairy Raed, and woe it is to he or she who meets them on the night of the Hunter's Moon! Made up of ghosts, corpses and dark fairy creatures, the Raed may also host the vampire-like Cailleac Bhuer, called equally the Blue Hag, White Anna, or Black Annis. As described in Robert Graves' poetical allegory The White Goddess, she is a vampiric, bone-white creature who stole British children in medieval times and ate them. She rides with the dead, and in Paris in 1092 was seen and recorded with the Faery Raed:
The first full description of a procession of ghosts was written in Paris about a night in January of 1092 (Ordericus Vitalis). The priest Wachlin, coming back from visiting a sick person, saw a swarm led by an enormous warrior swinging a mighty club in his hand. The shapes that followed wept and moaned over their sins; then came a horde of corpse-bearers with coffins on their shoulders; the priest counted some 50 coffins. Then women on horseback, seated on saddles with glowing nails stuck into them; then a host of ecclesiasticals on horseback. The priest knew many of these people who had died recently. He concluded at last that he had seen the "familia Herlechini," of whom many had told him, but in whom he had never believed: Now he had truly seen the dead. (Gundarsson, 1992)
At other times, Black Annis lives in hillsides in the Scottish Highlands and has the appearance of a hideous hag dressed in rags and bones of her victims.
There is a chill wind blowing. Bolt your windows and bar the door, for Black Annis is about. This highly dangerous faery hag grabs children through open windows and takes them back to her lair to devour them. When horrid Black Annis is hungry, her howls can be heard for miles. (Froud, 1998)
There is a British hag, Annis, who lives in a cave in Leicestershire called Black Annis' Bower in the Dane Hills. This area has been recently built over, but stories still circulate amongst the residents of Black Annis and her victims, whose screams, it is said, can be heard on stormy winter nights for miles around. This fearsome creature came to the New World in tales of cannibalistic hags and haints that haunt the lonely byways of Southern Appalachia, including that of the wicked boo-hag who combined elements of both African and British culture. On the Night of the Hunter's Moon, she rides abroad with the Wild Hunt, a fearsome sight indeed!
In England it is Wotan, Herne, or the ancient Welsh deity, Gwynn ap Nudd, who heads the Wild Horde. In Ireland, it is the Aes Sidhe, the hosts of the Sidhe, who ride "abride" on Samhain night (October 31), on one of the four fire festivals of the Celts that has become—along with other influences—our modern Halloween.
By the time the Wild Hunt tradition became rooted in Britain it developed into an altogether more elaborate affair. Its leader became Gwynn ap Nudd, followed by his red-eared white hounds (the appearance of these "Gabriel Hounds" became known as portents of doom). The tradition that the hunt was led by Herne the Hunter (another Wild Huntsman; hence the possible connection?) is common in Southern England where as I have mentioned it also became said to be led by Arthur. (Towrie, 2004)
The "hounds" mentioned by Towrie above are not dogs or even wolves, but something far more sinister to the folk imagination:
The northern name Gabriel Hounds or Gabble Retchets (dogs) had nothing to do with the Angel Gabriel but contained an old word for 'corpse', explained by the traditions concerning them. Sometimes it is the Devil who leads them, hunting lost souls, while in Devon the hounds were themselves thought to be the souls of unbaptized children. According to Henderson, in the neighbourhood of Leeds the Gabble Retchets were likewise thought to be the souls of infants who had died before baptism, doomed forever to flit round their parents' homes. These packs of spectral hounds with their huntsmen are manifestations of the Wild Hunt, which in Germany, too, included the souls of unbaptised babies in the train of ‘Frau Bertha', who sometimes accompanied the Wild Huntsman, and which in the Franche Comte was believed to be King Herod pursuing the Holy Innocents. The Wild Huntsman everywhere was a demonic figure, who would throw unsuspecting peasants their share of ‘game' with horrific consequences. This savage and tricky being is generally thought to be an aspect of Woden, a god who was characterised by his duplicity, as in parts of Germany and Scandinavia the Wild Hunt was known as ‘Woden's Hunt'. (Boxell, 1985)
Today, we know that the red moon of the late autumn is caused by atmospheric conditions, such as smoke from forest fires, but the sight of the brilliant red moon rising over the dark horizon, as the smoke from burning fires rose on the autumn wind, would have awed our ancestors.
The Furious Horde also contained other ladies of the shadows: the trows of the Orkney Isles. As the winter began, death was "in the air." Who could refuse a good scary story as night fell? It was believed, as reported by Shetland folklorist Jessie Saxby, that the seven days before Yule, another fire festival occurring on the winter solstice (the longest night of the year), were nights when the dead returned. This was also when the trow—Orkland elves—were free to leave their underground homes and harass anyone who left a window or shutter open. Counting backwards seven nights from winter solstice was Tulya's E'en, a particularly dangerous night for encountering trows. Trows are said to be able to pass for human, although some tales state that they are stunted and ugly. A trow could never venture into daylight, and the Orkney Isles are rife with precautions against their mischief. This "mischief" consisted of shape-changing, and luring fiddlers away into their mounds to play music for their endless athletic dancing. Trow magic causes madness, sickness (the "wasting disease," tuberculosis, long associated with vampirism), and death in both cattle and humans. Trows also steal newborns and indulge in the troll-like practice of eating humans.
An Irish sidhe who has entered our modern seasonal folklore is Jack Frost. The descendent of Jukel Frosti, a Viking elf, his kiss will either cause death or cause one to "live forever." (3)
Yule's strong association with mischievous spirits stems from its origins as a feast for the dead. Much like the Celtic Samhain, Yule was a festival for honouring the ancestors who were thought to be vital for luck as well as the well-being of the livestock and family. Over time the memories of these powerful ancestral spirits, who were permitted out of their gravemounds into the land of the living at Yule, degenerated into the creatures we know as trows today. (Towrie, 2004)
This is a very different picture of Yule feasts than the decking of the hall with holly and ivy, Yule logs, feasting, dancing and storytelling. Yet, as we peer closer, we find the medieval tradition of telling "ghost stories" on December 24 just before Christmas.
Folk, Historic, and Even Medical Precursors
Let us begin with the flying vampiric creatures in Sommer's Van Helsing: Harpies. While not vampires, Harpies display vampiric behaviors; they are connected with the dead and the underworld, are known to eat the flesh of the living, and they fly. Half-bird and half-woman, the Harpies are folk memories of ancient deities who dispensed justice in Greece. Known as the "kindly ones," they are also called the Furies, Erinyes, or Eumenides. Three sisters, Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, were born from the blood of Uranus when he was castrated. They live in the anterooms of Tartarus, the Underworld, as the invited guests of Hades, its king. The Erinyes are charged with inflicting a conscience upon mortals and to punish crimes outside the reach of ordinary men. They are particularly interested in matricide. Aeschylus' play Erinyes or Eumenides is the final piece of a group of tragedies concerning the House of Atreus and the sins of Agamemnon and his family. In the play, the Erinyes intervene in the case of Orestes, who kills his mother, Clytaemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. The pair had, in an earlier tragedy, killed Agamemnon in his bath as revenge for the death of Iphegenia, Clytaemnestra's daughter and Orestes' sister. This all started with a curse on Atreus for feeding his children to the gods at an opulent feast; just the sort of inter-generational misbehavior the Erinyes would be interested in.
Vampires, the sort that Sommers was attempting to portray, began during a "scare" in Eastern Europe in East Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1721 and 1734. During this scare, people reported seeing their dead relations and being attacked by "cannibalistic undead." Two famous cases of vampire attacks were documented at the time, those of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole:
Plogojowitz died at the age of 62, but came back a couple of times after his death asking his son for food. When the son refused, he was found dead the next day. Soon Plogojowitz returned and attacked some neighbours who died from loss of blood. In the other famous case, Arnold Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who had been attacked by a vampire years before, died while haying. After death people began to die and it was believed by everyone that Paole had returned to prey on the neighbours. These two incidents were extremely well documented. Government officials examined the cases and the bodies, wrote them up in reports, and books were published afterwards of the Paole case and distributed around Europe. The controversy raged for a generation. The problem was exacerbated by rural people having an epidemic of vampire attacks and digging up bodies all over the place. Many scholars said vampires didn't exist; they attributed reports to premature burial, or rabies which causes thirst. (Richardson, no date)
After some investigation, the Empress Marie Theresa decreed that vampires did not exist and that graves of the dead were to be left undisturbed. This effectively ended the scare.
Another precursor of the female vampire can be found in medieval clerical lore of the succubus: a demon said to come to a man, especially those men living under a vow of chastity, and give him dreams that would ensure "night emissions." The succubus would take these "night emissions" and with them, the life and health of the man. Succubi have no corporeal form, and are minions of "the evil one" sent to tempt priests in holy orders. The cure was to flagellate and to pray. The equivalent male demon was called an incubus. Milton equated succubi and incubi with ancient deities in Paradise Lost:
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth, those male,
These feminine; for spirits, when they please,
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but, in what shape they chose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their aery purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfill.
One kind of female vampire in Romany lore is called mullo (one who is dead); they return to wreak mischief in the lives of their relatives. They may also return from the dead and lead normal lives to marry and keep house, but they exhaust their husbands, stealing some life each night in succubus-like sexual pleasures. This could be a folk memory of the Hindu goddess Kali, who has been connected to Gypsy-lore through the beliefs of Black Kali, called Black Ana or Sara, or Sara-la-Kali or Sara the Black, the saint of the Romanies revered throughout Europe. Although she is a saint of obscure legend, her chapel and crypt are in the church of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in southern France. From a travelogue by writer China Galland upon meeting the caretaker of the chapel:
In the language of the Gypsies, the word Kali means both "gypsy woman" and "the black one," he explains. It is Sara-Kali, Queen of the Gypsies, who resides in the crypt of this ancient church by the sea. Each year in late May, Gypsies from all over Europe gather here to venerate St. Sara....In a grand procession culminating in days of praying and feasting, they dress the statue in layers of clothes and jewels and take her down to the sea. (Galland, 2004)
Another female vampire of note is the mara from Slovenia. She is said to be an unbaptized girl who died of unnatural causes: murder or suicide. She visits her victims at night and crushes them with a terrible weight. This idea of a night visitor has a modern sequel in Canada among the Kashube and the rural population of Newfoundland. Several cases of night visitations by what is called "the night hag" or "Mara" were documented in a somewhat controversial article called The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations by Owen Davies (2003).
...[in] European societies people complained of being physically oppressed at night by witches and other supernatural beings, the victims of these nocturnal assaults describing a similar set of symptoms. Contemporary English authors termed the experience the "mare" or "nightmare." In the twentieth century, it has been identified as a manifestation of "sleep paralysis." Medical studies and surveys of the condition help us make better sense of the historical accounts, while an awareness of the historical evidence illuminates modern reports of sleep paralysis experiences. (p.1)
One of the most interesting vampiric creatures is the rusalka of the Carpathian Mountains. Made famous by Antonin Dvorak's opera The Rusalka, rusalki are water elves from Slavic folklore. A rusalka is said to be a young girl who has been murdered or who has committed suicide. She loses her soul to a Vodany, a dark creature who eats the flesh of drowned humans he lures into rivers, who keeps the rusalka's soul in a golden cage. Like the vampire, she is an odd combination of fairy and undead folklore. The tales concerning rusalki are often love stories with tragic endings: a soldier leaves and a girl is found dead. Later, she is seen haunting the village.
"Rus" means river in Russian. A rusalka lives in rivers and is tied to a yearly cycle that includes an annual festival, the Rusal'naia nedelia...during which people played music, danced and sang to celebrate new vegetation. It was during this week that the rusalka was believed to leave her watery home to wander in the forests and fields, and bring moisture to the crops. Peasants decorated their homes with fresh green birch branches (the rusalka's tree), and young girls often went to the woods and decorated actual trees with cloth, thread and garlands, and then danced the khorovod (circle dance) and swore vows of friendship and sisterhood. But the water creature was also feared at this time. To appease her, peasant women left offerings in the woods of scarves and linen. Others attempted to minimize the rusalka's harm by using the sign of the cross, magic circles, garlic, wormwood, incense, pokers and charms. (Rappoport, 1999)
Toward the end of Rusal'naia nedelia unmarried women once wove garlands of flowers and threw them into rivers, evoking the rusalki to find them husbands. In some places, they created an effigy of a rusalka and threw herinto a river during a khorovod designed to bring life-giving moisture to the fields.
Rusalki live in the rivers through the year, emerging only to dance on full moon nights in wheat or barley fields. Joining in the rusalki's dance is a cause of madness and will lead to death. Sometimes they are to be found in willow or birch trees along riverbanks where they scream at travelers, or lure them into "playing" in the river, a game that usually ends in the death of the unlucky victim. They are known, in some regions, to be cannibals who eat their victims, and to haunt their relations, begging for vodka and red eggs. A person can be safe from the rusalki by carrying wormwood in a coat pocket while traveling or by wearing a gold cross around his or her neck. Rusalki are beautiful pale young girls with wild red eyes and often have claws instead of fingernails.
The rusalka of traditional beliefs is a powerful and enticing figure. She is described as a pale, lithe, often beautiful female spirit who lives in the water, forests and fields. She sits with other water spirits on the shore, yelling and laughing, or dancing and singing in the moonlight of clear, summer nights. She is known to swing on tree branches, waiting to entice an unsuspecting male passer-by, whom she often attacks and (perhaps inadvertently) tickles to death. The rusalka's characteristic physical attributes are her long, light-brown, blond, or green, loose hair, her blazing eyes, and her magnificent breasts. She is noted for her beautiful voice and melodious laugh. On the rare occasions when the rusalka is dressed, she wears white. In addition, some sources report that if the rusalka, and especially her hair, ever dries out, she will perish. (Rappoport, 1999)
Fears of uncontrolled female sexual desires are evident in the stories of the rusalki. A well-documented psychological connection between the act of sex and death exists in the human psyche, connected by some cultural anthropologists with folklore concerning "untamed" or "wild" women whose sexual attributes will destroy as well as give pleasure. Vampire women and fairy creatures like the rusalki or mara embody the fierceness of untrammeled sexuality; a frightening prospect to our ancestors who believed that sex was only appropriate within sanctioned relationships such as marriage. A woman who chose her partners freely was bad and even dangerous in the folk imagination; these images became rusalki, mora, mullo, or vampires. When Stoker created his vampiric ladies in Dracula, he made them wholly corrupt by reversing the social norms of his age: destroyed by a male, Dracula, they fed upon the flesh of children. In Stoker's day, the weaker sex, women, were to be protected by men, children by their mothers: women. To behave in any other way was to act against the natural order of things, at least for bourgeois males of Stoker's class and education. He borrowed from the ancient folktales of Eastern Europe and the storytelling tradition of the Romantics of a generation earlier. Polidori's The Vampire and Byron's The Gaior would have informed his story of Dracula. It has also been documented that Stoker studied the symptoms and folklore surrounding the epidemic of tuberculosis occurring during his lifetime. The symptoms of vampiric attack and the "wasting disease" are too similar to be coincidental. Stoker himself had tuberculosis as a child and lost a lung to that disease.
A Romantic Side?
Is there a romantic (small "r") side to this lady of the shadows? Perhaps. In every country there is a place where a White Lady haunts a deserted ruin, a dark grove or hollow, a well or waterfall, or a lonely crossroads. Sometimes a tragic story accompanies this haunt: a noble lady who died for love or heroism, or a murdered girl wandering the roadsides. In Slovakia, White Ladies are called wild women; they live in underground houses and are given to ecstatic dancing. Akin to Les Dames Vertes of Brittany and the Seligen Fräulein of Germany's Black Forest, the wild women have knowledge of the secret forces of nature and know weather magic. The most famous White Lady of all is the faery of Dosmary Pool in Cornwall: The Lady of the Lake, Nimue, Niniane or Vivianne, who guards Excalibur, the sword of Arthur. She presides over a fabulous realm at the bottom of the lake, and warns away travelers and can cause madness if challenged for her secrets to this day. It is said that it is Vivianne who holds Merlin in a crystal cave as her prisoner and her lover.
In Eastern European lore is another figure of fairy, the villa or vilishkis, who are beautiful, fiercely independent, and wild. She shares all the characteristics of the vampire, including her untamed sexual appetite and willingness to kill or cause madness in humans, especially men, who come upon her uninvited in her forest home. Puccini made use of this tale in his opera Le Villi. They are shape-shifters and can appear as wolves, horses, and even as a fall of light through a rainstorm. In parts of Bosnia, villages celebrate spring with dances to the villa. Donning red and white, the men of the villages once believed that a beautiful villa taught these dances to them to bring fertility to the earth and to women. Like the many other folkloric beings connected to the earth, it is tempting to tie the White Ladies, villi, and the rusalki, and even the mara, Black Annis and the mullo to ancient Pagan goddesses and this is an area of important research. It is also rife with speculation, in the words of Natalie Kononenko:
It is tempting to see the rusalka as a remnant of a pre-Christian deity, forced underground, or, more literally, underwater by a new religion. It is also tempting to see the rusalka's life as a reflection of an early social order where there was no marriage and women accepted men into their domain to father children. Speculation aside, folk belief articulates clearly that a woman who resists marriage, especially one who gets pregnant outside marriage is bad. A woman who does not submit to the symbolic death of the wedding must accept the literal death of the rusalka. A woman who does not become spiritual as a married woman should, must become a spirit and a bad one at that.
Speculation aside, the story of the haunting lady of the shadows is enduring, and one especially suited to the autumn of the year, with its darkening skies and promise of winter ahead. A member of the Wild Hunt, and the stalker of the shadowy realms of our psyches, she comes bringing wicked promise. Like all shape-shifting denizens of fairy, she is both fair and perilous.
1 In a letter to "Galignani’s Messenger," April 27, 1819. [back]
2 Author's aside: For a pretty good recipe: Aunt Jewel's Venison Mincemeat #42874 by Aroostook. (Use wild crab apples in place of tart apples, and it's very tasty; you can also make this vegetarian, just omit the venison and suet and add pears.) [back]