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Although now heavily industrialized, Germany was once a land of mystery, swathed in thick forests and boasting bleak mountains and remote lakes. The folklore of the country reflected a sense of eeriness and awe. Indeed, many of our best-known fairytales come from this part of the world—Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumplestiltskin—and are allegedly dark old peasant tales that were adapted and sanitized by English Victorians. Originally, it is believed, many of these tales were practically horror stories—filled with werewolves, child-stealing goblins, and cannibal witches, all of whom were believed to dwell in the forest depths of mountain fastness. Here, too, were the hostile spirits that characterized the sullen landscape and who viewed mankind with mistrust and belligerence. These were the forces that shaped the brooding trends in early Germanic folklore.
Cannibalism and blood drinking appear in some of the stories from the German forests. The flesh-eating witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel and the malignant goblin in Rumpelstiltskin (where there are overtones of carrying away and devouring babies) are typical examples. The woodland depths were alive with all kinds of foul creatures who could threaten humankind.
The Wood Wives
Prevalent amongst these were the Wood Wives, who usually kept to the deeper parts of the forest but sometimes ventured close to houses, drawn by smells of cooking or the sounds of human laughter and conversation. They were invariably female, but not necessarily ghosts of the dead, rather elemental forces from the forests. The Wood Wives were ambivalent creatures—tall, elegant, and dressed in green, flowing robes but with deathly pale skin and terrible, rending claws. They could be benevolent, attending to those who had become lost or injured in the forest, but more likely as not, they could kill wandering travellers in order to drink their blood. Huntsmen and woodcutters were especially at risk from them for two reasons: first, they tended to venture deep into the woods and forests, and second, they interfered with the natural balance of nature by hunting animals or cutting down trees. Tales of hunters found dead with their throats torn out and drained of blood found beside woodland trails proliferated through the Germanic countryside in the 16th and 17th centuries. Skeptics might say that such deaths were due to the preponderance of wolves and wild creatures, which were said to dwell in the leafy depths, but for the medieval/early modern mind there could only be one explanation, and that was a supernatural one: the Wood Wives.
The creatures were not always necessarily vampires—some strands of Germanic folklore classify them as "fairies"—but from time to time they did display vampiric tendencies. Like many others of their kind, they were drawn to small infants or babies in cradles or to those who could offer little resistance to their advances. Their attacks drained off only small amounts of blood—never enough to kill, but enough to leave the victim tired and listless. When babies did not thrive or were miserable and bad-tempered, their condition was blamed on the Wood Wives. When riding through the forests, huntsmen saw the Wood Wives move away amongst the shadows of the trees, but all were scared to approach them.
Because the Wood Wives were bound to nature and with the forest, one of the ways to dispel them was to burn bits of wood in a fire. It was said, particularly in places such as Bavaria, that if this was done, one of the Wood Wives would die, hidden away in the forest glades. However, such measures were risky, for the action might inflame the Wood Wives' anger and cause them to attack.
Other beings also dwelt in the forest depths. Many of these were believed to be "little people" who went under the general classifications of goblins, elves, dwarves, or trolls. The most vicious of these were the tomtin, little men dressed in red (the color of blood) who were known to attack travellers on lonely forest roads. Sadistic creatures, the tomtin were associated, in Germanic folklore, with a number of ancient beings who were said to live even deeper in the forest, venturing out into the world of men only at certain times of the year. These entities were probably the embodiment of old, nearly forgotten forest or fertility gods that had been worshipped by the early German tribes and bore names such as NachtRuprecht (a bizarre and alarming figure, adorned in straw and antlers) and Schwartz Peeter (a grim, black, muscular figure, like a giant blacksmith). The tomtin were considered to be their servants, murdering travellers at their behest. Pulling travellers to the ground, the tomtin beat them with chains or with barbed sticks or poles until they were dead and then commenced to lap at their blood like dogs. They bore back the hearts and livers of those whom they killed as sustenance to their ancient masters amongst the trees.
Many of these entities chose to manifest themselves during the winter months. Nacht Ruprecht, for example, would come to the windows of the cottages and peer in, generally terrifying those within. Accompanied by his close servant, George Oaf, who was armed with a great whip or flail, and with the tomtin thronging after him, he travelled the snow-covered roads, beating and often killing those whom he met. To those who worshipped him, or kept old faiths alive, he offered rewards.
The veneration of these ancient deities alarmed the Church so much that they decided to supplant the idea of a supernatural pagan being travelling around dispensing gifts and rewards with a Christian counterpart. And the person whom the Church chose was St. Nicholas. Ironically, the bloodthirsty, blood-drinking tomtin were now attached to this Christian saint. They did not, however, initially lose any of their brutish and depraved ways. In parts of Germany, St. Nicholas was known as "Buller Claus" (Belled Nicholas) because of the chains and bells that he carried. When he approached a house, the tomtin went ahead to rouse sleeping children, drag them from their beds, and ask them questions on the Christian catechism. If they could not answer or answered incorrectly, the tomtin beat them with sharp sticks whilst St. Nicholas pelted them with hard coal until they bled and the tomtin licked the blood from their wounds. If they were able to answer correctly, they were (grudgingly) rewarded with an apple or sweetmeat. Later, the image of the tomtin softened, and in a move of supreme irony, they became "Santa's little helpers" or "Christmas elves."
The idea of cannibalistic, blood-drinking little men, however, continued to permeate both German and Austrian folklore. Ghoulish dwarves, the precursors to Rumpelstiltskin, were said to live in the remote mountains and continued to attack travellers on lonely trails. Gradually, such stories became intermingled with other tales and beliefs—stories of the dead and of werewolves, for example. The notion of returning dead had always been prevalent in Germanic folklore. The dead were hostile toward the living, and they might attack and devour their victims if they so chose—the classic motif for the vampire or werewolf. In some instances, it was believed that the dead tore at their own funeral shrouds and dug into other graves to attack other bodies, which they then devoured. This alleged desecration was of great concern to early-modern churchmen. In 1679, the German theologian Phillip Rohr published a treatise titled De Masticatione Mortnorum (On the Chewing Dead), which was a seminal contribution of vampire literature. In it, the learned churchman discussed beliefs concerning the dead who returned from the tomb to bite and chew (manduction) from a religious viewpoint. The text demonstrates how widespread and seriously held such beliefs were throughout the Germanic countryside.
Over the years, the motifs of the brutal, bloodthirsty dwarves; the restless, gnawing dead; and even dark witchcraft and sorcery drew together to create strange and malignant vampiric beings. Like many other of its kind, the German/Austrian vampire is a confusing and contradictory figure. Many of the strands of folklore from the dark woods and isolated mountains coalesced into an entity known as an alp. However, there is no consistency regarding this creature. In parts of Germany, for example, it was a living being—an elemental force such as a gnome or tomtin. In other areas and in Austria, it was the spirit of a dead person that is driven by some malignant impulse. In some areas, it was portrayed as a little old man (a kind of representation of the tomtin). In others, it was a powerful, shapeshifting wizard who went about the countryside in the shape of a cat or a bird. In some areas of Austria, the alp's attacks were of a sexual nature; they leapt upon women and young girls as they slept, like a predator. In this manner, the creature resembled the incubi of ancient Rome. The alp was invariably male and, if it was believed to be the spirit of a deceased person, its attacks were usually directed toward the family that it had left behind. In some instances, it was believed to go about in the guise of a monstrous and extremely lecherous black dog. In this case, it was said, the person had been a werewolf before death, and this linked the notion of the alp into many other folk legends. The connecting feature in all manifestations, however, was that the entity was said to wear some sort of headdress. Usually, this was an old wide-brimmed soft hat, but it could be a covering made of cloth, such as a veil, which obscured most of its face and was possibly used as a disguise.
In the case of a living person who became an alp (and was able to turn into another shape under the influence of the moon), the fault for this always lay with the mother. For example, she had committed some sin during pregnancy that remained unforgiven or she had eaten something (a berry from the bushes, for instance) that was unclean or that the dwarves had spat upon. If "inappropriate measures" had been taken during childbirth (although these were often not specified), the child might grow up to be an alp, or if the mother was frightened by a wild animal—especially a dog or a horse—it would yield the same result. A child born with a caul (a film of thin membrane) across its face might become one of the vampire kind. (Although in other parts of the world, such as Ireland, cauls were considered to be particularly lucky, and a child who was born with one would never be drowned.) Hair on the palm of the hand of an infant might also signal future vampirism; although this could also signal that the child might grow up to become a werewolf. The bodies of small infants were therefore scrupulously studied for some mark or blemish that would give a clue as to their future supernatural destiny.
The Powers of the Alp
In the Brocken and Herz Mountains of Germany, the alp was strongly associated with witchcraft. The mountain region had a dubious supernatural reputation in any case. It was believed that witches gathered amongst the higher peaks in large numbers to create storms and tempests all across the country, and so it seemed natural that they would be connected with the malignant dwarves. The alp, therefore, became the servants and companions of German and Austrian witches and were sent out in the guise of cats or voles in order to work evil in the mountain districts round about.
In Austria and in some parts of Germany, there was an addition to the vampire's powers: alp were able to manipulate the wills of individuals, but only when the people were asleep. The creature had the power to influence their dreams and to create night visions, which would terrify the sleeper beyond measure. The alp could create sleepwalking episodes, fits, and seizures during the night. This they did at the behest of witches and, as such, were associated with the German Mara, a horselike entity that has given us our word nightmare. Indeed, one of its many guises was that of a great white stallion that travelled all through the night-bound countryside, seeking out victims.
In addition to the manipulating thoughts and visions, the alp had a liking for both the blood and sometimes the semen of its victims. In some areas of Austria, however, it had a greater liking for the milk of sleeping women and would suck at their breasts until they were sore. There were also variations of the creature in differing regions of the country. For example, in some parts of Austria and in the German mountains, the alp was sometimes known as the habergeiss, a creature that reputedly boasted three legs and that, consequently, could move very fast indeed. As soon as darkness had fallen, the habergeiss attacked and drank the blood of cattle grazing in the fields. Normally, it didn't bother with humans unless it was disturbed in its nightly feast, in which case it would attack those who approached it with some ferocity.
In other parts of the Alp Mountains, the name schrattl applied. This referred to a particularly vicious and violent type of vampire, which attacked both humans and animals. This type of vampire had immense mental powers and could render those who it attacked or which it sought influence over, insane. These creatures were not considered to be living things but were considered to be "shroudeaters"—corpses that had come into some form of foul life whilst in the grave and had devoured their way out their winding sheets. In their first instances, both the habergeiss and the schrattl usually attacked members of or property belonging to their own former families, only later broadening their activities to the wider community. Many of these alp are also credited with spreading disease through a region—a common belief concerning vampires everywhere.
Protection Against the Alp
There is no real protection against the alp. In parts of Austria, it was said that the sight of a crucifix or some holy relic would drive them away. Some people therefore tended to wear scapulars or holy medals to ward of their advances, but in the more Protestant regions of Germany this was viewed as superstitious and far too Catholic in tone. In any case, it was countered, these beings were older than Christianity and had been the servants of the very ancient gods that had once dwelt in the deep forests or on the mountainsides. The symbols of the Christian church would therefore have no effect on them. However, salt sprinkled across the doorstep of a house would keep an alp or their kind from entering.
If a community was subject to attacks from the alp, and it was believed that the creature was the spirit of a dead person, then the body had to be rooted out and publicly burned, because this was the only way that it might be destroyed. If the alp was adjudged to be a living person, then that person had to be found and some of their own blood drawn from them, from an area just above the right eye, which would take away their evil powers. Similarly, the "blooding" of a witch who "controlled" the alp would also destroy it and whatever powers it possessed.
Between 1725 and 1732, some areas of Austria seemed to be gripped by a vampire frenzy. Churchyards were violated as anxious townspeople and villagers sought out the shroudeaters that seemed to be attacking them. Historians seem to suggest that this was the result of some epidemic, such as tuberculosis, but the hysteria was widespread and many bodies were dragged from their coffins and burned. This practice had not abated by 1755 when the town of Olmutz began to desecrate its cemeteries in the hunt for vampires, which were unsettling the populace. In the German town of Cologne in 1790, an alp in the form of a massive and lascivious dog with red eyes and sparks dropping from the corners of its mouth terrified the population and only disappeared when a certain body was dug up and burned at the municipal cemetery. Even as late as the early 1800s, alps were supposedly drinking blood from the nipples of sleeping men in the Brocken mountain region of Germany, perhaps at the behest of local witches. Cattle and sheep were also attacked but, as far as can be ascertained, no graves were dug up and no bodies burned. Maybe the alp were thought to have been living persons and some other type of communal justice or protection was employed.
Excerpted from Vampires by Bob Curran, Kristen Parks, Ian Daniels. Copyright © 2005 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 29, 2010
Receipiant was very pleased with the book, but due to 2 week delay in shipping, it was received well after the birthday celebrations were done. I am much more hesitant to shop at B&N online now because of the uncertainty in arrival of items purchased.
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Posted November 1, 2007
This book is very informative about different varieties of vampires throughout the world and it also fun to read. It includes some illustrations as well.
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Posted August 26, 2012
I Also Recommend:
Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night By Bob
Curran Published by Open Road Press I'd like to make it clear that I'm
biased--zombies are my first love. If the creature doesn't lust for
brains and has all its parts intact, it's not going to be my cup of
tea---or entrails, or whatever. That said, I really enjoyed Bob Curran's
Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures that Stalk the Night. Folklore
and mythology are two of my loves, and this illustrated guide satisfies
my lust for both. Curran compiles vampire lore from all over the world
into this concise guide, complete with popular legends from each region.
While the sophisticated vampire fan out there might find a lot of this
information obvious, this is a terrific first book for the new vampire
lover. **This review is based on an uncorrected proof furnished by the
publisher via NetGalley. I did not receive any compensation for this review.**
Posted September 11, 2009
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Posted November 9, 2008
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Posted March 4, 2015
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Posted July 16, 2009
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Posted August 27, 2009
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Posted February 12, 2009
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