Vampires, while certainly unusual to the 21st century observer, were not a cultural anomaly during their heyday.
Vampires were, in fact, the last major addition to Eastern Europe's folk beliefs before the end of the middle ages.
Vampires can count among their predecessors spirits, demons/the Devil, witches, and werewolves. And because the campire
myth owes so much to this rich background, these pre-vampire "beasties" merit study of their own.
In many cultures around the world, it is believed that are evil spirits who do harm to people. There are a wide variety
of names for these spirits–too many to list here–and a wide variety of attacks. In Europe they are sometimes
referred to as mora, mare, mara or any host of other names, but the must widely recognized and universal name is
"incubus" for male spirits and "succubus" for female spirits (pl. incubi and succubi respectively). These spirits differ
from vampires in that they have no corporeal form, and thus are not dead and would seem to be impervious to a victim's
defenses. Evil spirits in general predate the vampire by millennia–they seem to have always been around in human
culture–but it is unclear whether the vampire or the incubus specifically came first. John Milton1 gives a good
description of the form of incubi/ succubi in Paradise Lost1:
With these came they, who, from the bordering flood
Of old Euphrates to the brook that parts
Egypt from Syrian ground, had general names
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth, those male,
These feminine; for spirits, when they please,
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but, in what shape they chose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their aery purposes,
And works of love or enmity fulfill.
In Milton's description, there is no difference between an incubus or a succubus, because the spirits can assume either
or both sexes at once (for convenience's sake, I shall refer Milton's androgynous spirits collectively as "incubi").
These incubi are able to achieve this because "...their essence [is] pure...," meaning that they are non-corporeal. In
this bodiless form they are able not only to be either sex but they may have any form as well--be it small or large,
obvious or hidden. In such a way they can do as they please "...[a]nd works of love or enmity fulfill." This conforms to
folkloric tradition which holds that incubi plague mankind by either draining their victims of energy through nocturnal
sex (love) or by sitting on their victim's chest and thus smothering the victim to death (enmity). In the setting of
Paradise Lost, these incubi are ranked as fallen angels, thus making them a type of demon.
Though incubi and demons are mentioned in separate contexts in the Middle Ages, leading one to believe them to be
separate entities, there is actually little to no difference in the characteristics between the two. Both spirit and
demon derive their power from Satan, although incubi attack people directly and demons, while able to do likewise, tend
to have someone do the leg work for them, such as witches. Demons are almost always depicted in art or described in
literature as being in one form or another (humanoid or animal), while incubi do most of their business as something
less tangible, such as mist or a ball of light. Demons are capable of doing anything, such as possessing people or
souring a cow's milk, while European incubi (note the specific kind; this is not a universal trait of malicious spirits)
are fairly consistent in their methods of attack, namely to people while they sleep. The last major difference is one of
gender: demons are usually, if not always, male (while their minions, witches, are almost exclusively female), while the
true sex-spirit is almost always female (there is more gender equality when it comes to the spirits who prefer to attack
While incubi are similar in form to any number of other demons and spirits around the world, there seems to be a fairly
good hypothesis on how the incubi came to be in Europe. J. Gordon Melton 2offers the following explanation:
The incubus seemed to have originated in the ancient practice of incubation, where a person went to the temple of a
deity and slept there overnight. During the course of the evening, the person would have contact with the deity. Often
that contact involved sexual intercourse, either in a dream of with one of the very human representatives of the deity.
Christianity, which equated the Pagan deities with devilish demons, viewed the practice of intercourse with the deity as
a form of demonic activity.
Although this is a good theory and probably has some basis in fact, it cannot be the whole basis of the incubi myth.
Namely, a Greco-Roman religion followed by Christianity didn't happen everywhere in the world, yet there are similar
incubi creatures found everywhere. The most probable reason for the creation of the incubi myth is the need to explain
sexually-oriented fantasies and wet dreams. Priests taught people that sex was to be used merely for procreation–not
for pleasure. The ideal Christian (e.g. priests and nuns) was not supposed to engage in sex at all. For people who tried
very hard during the day to be good Christians, uncontrollable dreams of a sexual nature at night were a horror. The
incubi myth may simply spring up anywhere there are people who have to suppress their sexuality. It is much easier to
live with yourself if you can blame your "bad" deeds/ thoughts on a demon. It's the classic "The Devil made me do it."