History for the fantasy buff: werewolves and vampires

werewolfThere are some interesting ideas about monsters in history in Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters, by Matt Kaplan.

Monsters from the ancient and medieval eras were primarily large pedators. Think the Nemean Lion or the Calydonian Boar, both extra-large, extra-powerful versions of frightening wild beasts. Or the Minotaur, half man, half beast. Or the fire-breathing dragon of the Middle Ages.

But as we enter the Renaissance, stories about large predators begin to take a back seat to stories about human-like monsters infected with a deadly contagion. Think the vampire, the werewolf, the zombie. As the wild areas of Europe began to be conquered and predators driven extinct, human populations grew more dense and there was a lot more danger from contagious disease than from lions or boars.

The author makes an interesting case that stories of vampirism or lycanthropy may have originated from the disease rabies. Today, rabies is controlled, but in the 1700’s, there was a rabies epidemic among wolves and dogs. The rabies virus, in humans, causes patients to wander restlessly. They drool bloody saliva, retract their lips, and cough and gasp. They can be highly aggressive, and the disease is spread by being bitten. The animals most likely to spread rabies to people are, notably, the dog, the wolf, and the bat.

Tuberculosis was also epidemic during the same time period and may have influenced myths as well. It had a long incubation period and caused people to waste away.

Nowadays, vampires and werewolves are more likely to appear as the protagonists in romance novels than the villains in horror stories. This may suggest that contagion-based monsters have largely run their course. Rabies and tuberculosis are well controlled in the western world, and the concept of contagion is well understood. So now we have sparkly vampires.

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12 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: werewolves and vampires

  1. David Richards says:

    I’m going to get Medusa’s Gaze, wouldn’t have thought of thought of this. Thanks for the concise review!

  2. Jessi Gage says:

    Eek. How scarry to come face to face with a blood-drooling aggressive human! Yeah, I can see this sparking some werewolf or vampire myths. Creepy and cool, Amy.

  3. Wow, this piece is so timely. I’m currently writing a novel involving shapeshifters, primarily humans-to-wolves… I guess you could call them werewolves, but I’m trying not to make them that way in the traditional sense.

    Anyway, in my research, I’ve been reading about wolves in Japan and the rabies epidemics that took place over there. That, combined with an increase in the number of ranches, which the wolves threatened, lead to their deliberate eradication.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Oh, interesting! Most of the history books I read focus on Western Europe. It would be really interesting to find out if the rabies epidemic in Japan led to any similar myths in Japanese culture.

  4. I’ve always liked the idea that these “curses” were really diseases. That’s how I’m treating it Worlds Apart.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Cool! I think it’s fun to try to tie supernatural beliefs from the past to real-life events that the people of the time did not understand and couldn’t explain. So much fascinating storytelling stems from people attempting to explain the unexplainable.

  5. I think the genesis of all these stories can be traced to the fears of the primate.

    We’ve never gotten rid of them. I doubt we ever will.

    • Amy Raby says:

      The author makes the case that our fear of snakes (which is not universal among humans; I don’t possess it and keep snakes at pets) has its roots in ancient, pre-homo-sapiens history.

  6. Disease as an inspiration for myths involving werewolves and vampires is interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if they at least influenced them.

    Have you seen any references to werewolves in Roman literature. Petronius mentions them in his Satyricon, and I believe there are others as well? It’s honestly impressive how far back such myths go in some form or another. I don’t know what the earliest references we know to vampires are though.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Re: vampires, the author of the book says there’s a scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus visits the land of the dead and has to spill an animal’s blood and let the ghosts feed on it so they can speak to him. So there’s one early reference to the undead feeding on the blood of the living. He says that stories about vampires more like what we see in modern fiction didn’t show up until the late 1100’s.

      Werewolves are another story. You’re quite right about the Satyricon; it includes a story of a man turning into a wolf during a full moon. It could have the same explanation, too; there are hints that the man is ill, and rabies was a problem during the Roman Empire.

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