Tales of supernatural beings consuming the blood or flesh of the living have been found in nearly every culture around the world for many centuries. Today, we would associate these entities with vampires, but in ancient times, the term vampire did not exist; blood drinking and similar activities were attributed to demons or spirits who would eat flesh and drink blood; even the Devil was considered synonymous with the vampire. Almost every nation has associated blood drinking with some kind of revenant or demon, or in some cases a deity. In India, for example, tales of vetālas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses, have been compiled in the Baitāl Pacīsī; a prominent story in the Kathāsaritsāgara tells of King Vikramāditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive one. Piśāca, the returned spirits of evil-doers or those who died insane, also bear vampiric attributes. The Persians were one of the first civilizations to have tales of blood-drinking demons: creatures attempting to drink blood from men were depicted on excavated pottery shards. Ancient Babylonia and Assyria had tales of the mythical Lilitu, synonymous with and giving rise to Lilith (Hebrew לילית) and her daughters the Lilu from Hebrew demonology. Lilitu was considered a demon and was often depicted as subsisting on the blood of babies. And Estries, female shape changing, blood drinking demons, were said to roam the night among the population, seeking victims. According to Sefer Hasidim, Estries were creatures created in the twilight hours before God rested. And injured Estrie could be healed by eating bread and salt given her by her attacker.
Ancient Greek and Roman mythology described the Empusae, the Lamia, and the striges. Over time the first two terms became general words to describe witches and demons respectively. Empusa was the daughter of the goddess Hecate and was described as a demonic, bronze-footed creature. She feasted on blood by transforming into a young woman and seduced men as they slept before drinking their blood. The Lamia preyed on young children in their beds at night, sucking their blood, as did the gelloudes or Gello. Like the Lamia, the striges feasted on children, but also preyed on young men. They were described as having the bodies of crows or birds in general, and were later incorporated into Roman mythology as strix, a kind of nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood.
Medieval and later European folklore
Many of the myths surrounding vampires originated during the medieval period. The 12th-century English historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of revenants, though records in English legends of vampiric beings after this date are scant. The Old Norse draugr is another medieval example of an undead creature with similarities to vampires.
Vampires proper originate in folklore widely reported from Eastern Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. These tales formed the basis of the vampire legend that later entered Germany and England, where they were subsequently embellished and popularized. One of the earliest recordings of vampire activity came from the region of Istria in modern Croatia, in 1672. Local reports cited the local vampire Giure Grando of the village Khring near Tinjan as the cause of panic among the villagers. A former peasant, Guire died in 1656; however, local villagers claimed he returned from the dead and began drinking blood from the people and sexually harassing his widow. The village leader ordered a stake to be driven through his heart, but when the method failed to kill him, he was subsequently beheaded with better results.
During the 18th century, there was a frenzy of vampire sightings in Eastern Europe, with frequent stakings and grave diggings to identify and kill the potential revenants; even government officials engaged in the hunting and staking of vampires. Despite being called the Age of Enlightenment, during which most folkloric legends were quelled, the belief in vampires increased dramatically, resulting in a mass hysteria throughout most of Europe. The panic began with an outbreak of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734, which spread to other localities. Two famous vampire cases, the first to be officially recorded, involved the corpses of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole from Serbia. Plogojowitz was reported to have died at the age of 62, but allegedly returned after his death asking his son for food. When the son refused, he was found dead the following day. Plogojowitz supposedly returned and attacked some neighbours who died from loss of blood. In the second case, Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who allegedly was attacked by a vampire years before, died while haying. After his death, people began to die in the surrounding area and it was widely believed that Paole had returned to prey on the neighbours. Another famous Serbian legend involving vampires concentrates around a certain Sava Savanović living in a watermill and killing and drinking blood from millers. The character was later used in a story written by Serbian writer Milovan Glišić and in the Serbian 1973 horror film Leptirica inspired by the story.
The two incidents were well-documented: government officials examined the bodies, wrote case reports, and published books throughout Europe. The hysteria, commonly referred to as the "18th-Century Vampire Controversy", raged for a generation. The problem was exacerbated by rural epidemics of so-claimed vampire attacks, undoubtedly caused by the higher amount of superstition that was present in village communities, with locals digging up bodies and in some cases, staking them. Although many scholars reported during this period that vampires did not exist, and attributed reports to premature burial or rabies, superstitious belief increased. Dom Augustine Calmet, a well-respected French theologian and scholar, put together a comprehensive treatise in 1746, which was ambiguous concerning the existence of vampires. Calmet amassed reports of vampire incidents; numerous readers, including both a critical Voltaire and supportive demonologists, interpreted the treatise as claiming that vampires existed. In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote:
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.
The controversy only ceased when Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sent her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, to investigate the claims of vampiric entities. He concluded that vampires did not exist and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies, sounding the end of the vampire epidemics. Despite this condemnation, the vampire lived on in artistic works and in local superstition.