photo: Robert Pattinson as a vampire in "Twilight." credit: Summit Entertainment
It seems that vampires are everywhere, from "Harry Potter" to "True Blood," "Twilight" to the new "Fright Night" movie.
Everybody knows more or less what vampires are like: Handsome, brooding, tortured humans who crave blood and have a variety of strange abilities (such as turning into bats or not casting reflections) and weaknesses (such as being killed by sunlight or stakes to the heart).
Of course there are many variation of the vampire story; it's been retold and repackaged thousands of times since Bram Stoker's 1897 classic "Dracula."
But that's only part of the story — and arguably not even the most interesting part.
In the West, when most people think of vampires, either historical (such as, supposedly, Romanian prince Vlad Tepes) or literary (creations by Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Stephenie Meyer, etc.), the vampire they are familiar with has Slavic origins.
Yet this is a very narrow, Eurocentric point of view; as a cultural entity vampires are an ancient, worldwide phenomenon.
The ancient Greeks wrote of vampires (or vrykolakas), malevolent undead creatures that stalked the living, bringing death and disease. Humans could become vrykolakas in several ways, for example if the person led a sinful life, was buried in unconsecrated ground, or was excommunicated.
The vampires most people are familiar with are revenants — a folkloric term meaning human corpses that are said to return from the grave to harm the living. But other, older, versions of the vampire (from Greece, India, Egypt, and Norse mythology) were not thought to be human at all but instead supernatural — possibly demonic — entities that did not take human form when they stalked their prey.
As Matthew Beresford notes in his book "From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth," (2008, Reakton Books) "early demons and revenants are precursors of the (modern) vampire."
There are also vampire stories from South America, including a creature called the likichiri, said to seek victims in the highlands of the Andes mountains, particularly in Peru and Bolivia. This vampire has an interesting twist: it steals not blood, but fat.
The likichiri attacks people as they sleep, using a knife to cut long, thin slits in the victims' sides to drain their fat. This extraction is painless, and the wound promptly heals without the victim knowing he or she was attacked by a vampire. However unless a special remedy is given to the victim, he or she will die soon.
In fact, stories of vampiric creatures in South America date back as early as the 16th century. Spanish historian Cristobal de Molina reported in 1571 that rumors circulated among Indians of the central Andes that the Spanish had arrived in Peru seeking not gold but human fat. The fat, they believed, was exported to Europe and used to cure specific diseases.
There are also Asian vampires, such as the Chinese jianshi, evil spirits that attack people and drain their life energy; the blood-drinking Wrathful Deities that appear in the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," and many others.
Of course many of these are pure evil, unsympathetic, nonhuman vampires that won't be played by Tom Cruise or Robert Pattinson any time soon.