14 May 2006

Of vampires and baitals

Deathless shape shifters have come in many forms and with varying habits, powers, and vulnerabilities such as eisoptrophobia (fear of mirrors) and alliumphobia (fear of garlic). Bloody-eyed creatures with coloured hair were written about in China and vampires and vixens are often associated with guileful women in Japan (no doubt some misogyny there). Shape shifters feature in Old Norse Þáttr and sagas, in the Old Testament, and in African stories. The ancient Greeks had their own composite Lamia, the Babylonians their Ekimmu, Romans their Stryx, and there was even a myth with a horrific beast from Penang. One Indian scholar believes that all vampire stories sprang from the worship of Kali, the goddess of creation and destruction, often depicted adorned with skulls, intestines or severed arms, thousands of years back in the valley of Kashmir. Regardless of their origins, one wonders how many of these colourful tales "travellers" such as Mandeville borrowed from this kind of lore; some certainly found their way into Othello's travel narrative and into European literature!

The oldest revenant myths seem to have originated in Asia and may have been carried from Asia (India, China, Tibet, Japan) by traders and travellers to Europe where they were gradually assimilated into pagan (pre-christian) traditions with some local variations. In some eastern European versions, the Roma peoples who went from India and spread through Europe by 1000 AD were often associated with vampire myths. Bram Stoker's Dracula is guarded by Szgany Romas which may have reflected their own beliefs of a dead soul passing into a deathless world.

Sir Richard F. Burton translated eleven of Bhavabhuti's "Baital Pacchisi" (Twenty Five Tales of Baital) from Sanskrit as "Vikram and the Vampire" in 1870. There may have been a fuller version. A suspicious mind may infer Isabel Burton's hand in bowdlerising the other tales from her comments in the 1893 preface to the memorial edition later re-issued by Dover (1969). In his introduction, Burton describes the influence of Indian vampire and other tales on the likes of Apuleius, Boccaccio and the author(s) of the Arabic 1000 Nights and 1 Night (which Burton also Englished) disseminated by traders and travellers of many nationalities passing through the Greek trading port of Miletus (now Turkey).

So what exactly is a baital? Burton's text has the demon, a ropy, muscular, all-brown figure condemned by a necromancer to hang upside down from the branch of a siras (mimosa) tree like a flying fox (a large bat) in the smashana ("cremation ground"). In her preface to Vikram, Isabel Burton describes the baital (demon or evil spirit) as a large bat vampire but in C.H. Tawney's translation of Vikram aur Vetala, the demon is a plain "ghost," as it is in Bannerjee's English version. Vikram's "vampire" is a playful, elusive figure but the word "baital" is the modern form of the Sanskrit "vetala," a demon that haunts burial grounds and revives corpses but the ghoulish practice of drinking blood that’s associated with vampires is not always specified. (However, other myths also tell of female demons who feasted on the blood of elephants.) "Vetala siddhi," said to be a tantric practice, refers to a form of "sorcery" for obtaining power over the living by "black magic, incantations, and ceremonies performed over a dead human body, during which process the corpse is desecrated." The incantatory properties of these tales are said by some to be linked to their use during the ashwamedha ceremony (horse sacrifice).

It's quite ironic that the concept of blood-drinking bats in older cultures may antedate the scientific discovery of actual vampire bats. In any case, by Burton's time, there was also a certain taste for the macabre that was emerging in England which linked vampires and bats. It may have had its origins in a wave of attack of vampire bats on eastern European peasants in the 1700s which is when the Magyar word "vampir" (blood-sucking bat) entered the English language (1732). The first modern equation of the blood-drinking undead with vampire bats in an English story is, we believe, James Malcolm Rhymer's "Varney, The Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood" (1845). It may have helped Burton's strengthen his identification of baitals with vampire bats. Varney certainly influenced Stoker who also owed debts to Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" and J. Polidori's "The Vampyre," similar texts that were published earlier. A “vampire” in Burton's time was common usage for a blood-drinking fiend able to transform his or her human form into a chiropteric shape. Who knows if the similarities in sound between the English "bat" and Sanskrit "baital" further helped Burton's associate baitals with vampire bats although, according to Skeat, the English word "bat" has obscure Scandinavian origins.

Tom Holland's Slave of My Thirst (1997) links the Indian vampire legend with the London Whitechapel murders. We don't know about the Vikram TV show from the 1980s having left India before that and we wouldn't be surprised if there is a bollywood version too. However, we suspect the connection between vampires and hallowe'en dates to the Lon Chaney Sr. days of hollywood horrors. Chambers’ Books of Days (1865) says hallowe’en is “the night set apart for a universal walking abroad of spirits" but does not mention vampires specifically. In his book on death traditions, David J. Skal, the American scholar of the gothic, notes a Hallowe’en postcard from 1909 with a bat as the centrepiece but that's hardly conclusive. Incidentally, Lee Siegel, a professor at the University of Hawaii (and a magician!) and an authority on the forms of the Indian macabre, is worth reading.

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