The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mors Mortis

Death is a poorly understood phenomenon, in spite of the sheer volume of philosophy and research dedicated to understanding it. One potent indicator of this is the prevalence of myths and legends about the undead.

These lores and legends talk about the consequences of an interrupted transition to the afterlife. The creatures that are born out of such consequences have been described differently across the ages, and much can be surmised about the original purpose behind describing them and the inspiration behind those descriptions.


I.            Incorporeals – Ghosts, Spirits, Poltergeists, Banshees, etc.

These are apparitions which arise spontaneously as a consequence of the deceased having unfulfilled desires. More often than not, the cause of death is foul play, but COD and post-mortem treatment are not a major criterion for their origin.

These beings are not attached to corpses, but are very location specific.

II.            Reanimated Corpses – Zombies, Mummies, Inferi, etc.

These creatures are generated by special post-mortem treatment and usually have limited sentience. In the rare occasions that they have a will of their own, such as in the case of Frankenstein, it is usually derived from the past experiences of the inhabitant of the corpse in question. Cause of death is deciding factor.

III.            Modified Corpses – Vampires, Lycanthropes, Dementors, etc.

The living body is sustained by food, breath and water, and has corresponding powers and limitations. When the body loses the capability to sustain itself and hence its life-force, death occurs. Theoretically, death can be ‘cheated’ by modifying the mode of sustenance. Naturally this gives rise to a whole new creature, with different powers and limitations. The term Undead is most usually applied to such creatures.

Lycanthropes, such as werewolves, and Mr. Hyde, are creatures that are capable of dual existence i.e. both in human and supernatural forms, the latter being parasitic on the former. Vampires, on the other hand, are immortals, requiring blood or some other form of life force – ichor, or chi, for example – for sustenance.


Vampire lore is one of the most enduring legends in the world. Its timeless appeal is attributable to both its foundations and its adaptability. I present here some of the key components of the lore.


Blood is one of the two liquid connective tissues, and along with breath, the very symbol of vitality. It is unsurprising, therefore, that it is held in reverence. But unlike breath, blood is also intimately linked to procreation, which makes it especially venerable; fit for a sacrifice to the gods, even.

World over, various rites and practices have been reported that are founded upon the sanctity of blood. These practices range from the Mayan human sacrifices, to the smearing of jurors’ lips with blood before they passed judgment, in Ancient China. Most notable among these is the Catholic tradition of Corpus Christi – the symbolic partaking of the blood and the body of Christ.

Thus, one of the original reasons for condemning vampires was that they partake of the essence of godliness, the divine offering – in effect denying and denouncing the divinity of the Deity.


What makes a vampire fundamentally different from a mosquito? A mosquito wreaks much more havoc, is zealously hunted, yet never condemned – merely accepted as a part of creation. Why then, are vampires not treated as a separate species and left at that?

More often than not, it seems, vampires are punished as humans are, because they have lost their humanity. But is the resemblance to a human adequate reason for judging a vampire on the human scales of good and evil?

Is it that like the humans, vampires are damned by an Original Sin of their own, because their progenitor was created out of an act of heresy or a curse?

These are only some of the questions that arise out of the possibility of such creatures. The fact remains that evil has been as misunderstood by humans as death has been. Perhaps the vampire legends are an indicator – a litmus test of sorts – for the concepts of good and evil popular during the creation of those legends. Dracula, for example, is described as being wholly evil. Modern tales like the Vampire Diaries and the Twilight Saga, however, ascribe to them a choice, an attempt at redemption.


The fact that senescence and death are essential to the renewal of life on this planet, give them a place of honour among the theistic laws of the universe – all those are born, must die. The vampire legends give them the powers of immortality, but not invincibility – they can still be destroyed.

Nevertheless, the vampires’ existence, if only in theory, tells of a way to flout this divine law. And it is for the transcendence of this law that vampires are also often condemned. But all legends concur on one thing – that eternal life itself is punishment for seeking it.

Life can be harsh, even for those who are seemingly well provided for. It requires courage to face the here and now, and live every moment. Much has been written about life being wasted on the living. Imagine how much harder it would be to try to live on for eternity, with nothing but a conscience (if any) for company.

This is most prominent in Anne Rice’s works, whose vampire protagonists fight the eternal battle between the loneliness of the damned and their lust for preternatural power.

Whatever they may be, sentient, or evilly so, or maybe just a glorified human, the concept of vampires is definitely unfamiliar to those who do not see death as an end or to those who’ve never believed in any evil force like The Adversary, and generally find both death and evil easier to accept.

The western mentality makes it hard to accept both Death and Evil. And hence the origin of the lore surrounding the Undead in the Occident. Creatures who have cheated death. Creatures who resemble humans yet prey upon them. Creatures who must do evil to sustain themselves.

These things, vampires and such, are powerful insights into occidental ideas of death and evil. The lore is ubiquitous and contemporary, because they deal with questions which are eternally on the western mind.

1 comment:

Amit Sondhi said...

Wow, superb piece. Your research is thorough, as always.