Nature’s Vampires

We all know about blood sucking bats, but did you know that of all the many types of bats, only three actually drink blood?  Technically this is know as haematology, the practice of feeding on blood.  And blood is actually a great food source – it’s rich in proteins and lipids, is very nutritious and, so long as you don’t over do it on one individual, you’ve got yourself an unlimited cow to milk as it were.

Mosquitoes are another well known vampire, with the females needing to drink blood in order to make eggs.  It’s also common knowledge that they are responsible for the spread of malaria but what you might not know is that they, or other blood sucking flies, have been spreading it for 100 million years.  Mosquitoes can also transmit sleeping sickness, typhus, river blindness and other diseases making them one of the deadliest animals in the world.  In 2015, malaria alone caused 438,000 deaths and cases of dengue have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.

 

As an aside, the mosquito is not therefore evil and nor should it be made extinct.  All animals fill niches in nature and have co-evolved to fulfil a purpose or role that isn’t always clear to us.  In this case, they provide food for birds, fish, frogs and so on and are also pollinators.

Also in the fly family, we find sand flies, bat flies, black flies and midges which all enjoy a drink of blood.  There are also fleas, bedbugs and ticks as well as so called “kissing bugs”, or Triatomine Bugs, which apparently get their name because they like to bite people’s faces…

We also have vampire moths who use their antenna to pierce the skin of their unlucky host and some types of butterflies are partial to a sip of blood.  They can’t inflict injuries themselves so it’s more a case of coming across some spilt blood and indulging.  Sticking with small critters, some worms and arthropods like blood, as do some nematodes, such as Ancylostomids which feed on blood from the gut.  And leeches are well known for their blood sucking behaviour and are utilised in medicine such as to prevent blood from clotting.

Living underwater doesn’t protect you from vampires… Torpedo snails like the blood of electric rays, making small cuts and then using their proboscis to draw blood from the wound.  If this doesn’t work, they will insert their proboscis into they ray’s mouth, gills or anus…

Another threat comes from the Lamprey; an eel like creature which seems perfectly designed for the blood sucking way of life…  They are basically a tube with teeth…  They don’t have a jaw, instead having a suction cup style mouth which contains circles of sinister teeth.  These teeth are stabbed into the fish and anti clotting chemicals are secreted.  This tends to result in the host dying, either from blood loss or infection, at which point the lamprey will detach and move on.

The Candiru is a parasitic cat fish that are best known for allegedly being able to travel up a stream of urine and into a man’s penis.  Regardless of whether that is true or not, these tiny fish do deserve a mighty reputation.  They enter the gills of larger fish to suck their blood and generally make their lives a misery.  Once full of blood, they leave and burrow into the river bed to digest their meal.

And finally birds… The Hood Mockingbird likes open wounds, such as those they may find on sea lions or researchers but don’t rely just on blood.  However, they do increase this behaviour during the dry season suggesting it may be motivated by the need for fluid or moisture.

Vampire finches are a bit more brutal, preferring to peck at other birds, specifically blue footed boobies, until they bleed.  The boobies don’t object as much as you might expect and it’s thought the finches might once have cleaned parasites from the birds and developed a taste for blood along the way.

Oxpeckers are another blood loving bird that eats ticks and insects as well as flesh and blood from wounds on large mammals.  Whether this is a mutually beneficial relationship or not seems to be a topic of debate.  The oxpeckers may be helping with tick removal and grooming of spots that the mammal may not be able to reach.  With regards to the blood consumption, it has been argued that it may help to keep wounds clean and prevent infection and infestation.

The practice of consuming blood has co-evolved in different species, suggesting there is an evolutionary advantage for some creatures to engage in it.  And when you stop to think about it, some humans also take part in haematology… Just think about black puddings…

Scapegoats: Werewolves and Vampires

As well as familiar animals, extinct or not, as scapegoats, we also find supernatural scapegoats.  I’m going to look primarily at werewolves but with a side of vampire and if you’re interested in finding out more about non-animal scapegoats, just take a look at the history of witches.

Whilst I’m focusing on werewolves, it’s important to note that different were animals exist all over the world, generally using the local apex predator as the beast in question.  So we find weretigers, werehyenas and werebears accordingly.  But the werewolf was the European version of this monster.

Werewolves

Were means man so werewolf just means man wolf.  But wolves themselves can be scapegoats.  We see them as devilish, as destructive and as causing chaos.  They are mysterious, unknown, uncontrollable and a threat to humans.  They have also come to be associated with sexual drive, sexual predators and as wild and untameable.  All traits which society doesn’t tend to like, today or in the past.

Monsters, including wereanimals, chart our history of fear.  They act as vessels to place all our worries and fears onto.  Like we saw with the badger, it is easier to have a physical, identifiable thing to use as a scapegoat than it is to live alongside an unknown, unseen monster.

We are terrified of not being at the top of the food chain and apex predators make this threat real and thus wolves and hence werewolves become our enemies.  Werewolves and other wereanimals in particular seem to pose a particular threat because they can move between the civilised society of humans and the wild world of the wolves.  This creates unpredictability, uncertainty and distrust at a time when fear of the unknown was already rife.  In addition to transcending the two halves of the world, werewolves had the addition image problem that the wolf part of them was untameable and hence the werewolf could not guarantee the containment of the beast inside them.  This all echoes a war between instinct and rational, blurring the lines between man and nature at a time when a strict hierarchy was in place.

Aside: because men were higher up that hierarchy, it was seen as more of a tragedy that they were werewolves than for women.  We see female werewolves portrayed as embracing their wolfness whereas male werewolves struggle against it, seeing themselves as victims of fate.  This means female werewolves are less angsty and more comfortable in their wolf skins.  The colonial European discourse also placed non white werewolves as a more natural concept than white male werewolves…  Even in wolf fur you can’t escape racism and sexism…

The earliest known account of werewolves is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, 4000 years ago.  In 8AD, Ovid’s Metamorphoses included a story where a king, Lycaon, was punished by a god and turned into a werewolf:

Lycaon himself ran in terror, and reaching the silent fields howled aloud, frustrated of speech.  Foaming at the mouth, and greedy as ever for killing, he turned against the sheep, still delighting in blood.  His clothes became bristling hair, his arms became legs.  He was a wolf, but kept some vestige of his former shape.  There were the same grey hairs, the same violent face, the same glittering eyes, the same savage image.

Then in around 10th century France we see the tale of little red riding hood which casts the wolf as evil, and in some tellings the wolf is actually a werewolf.  A little later, in 1180s, there is an account from Gerald of Wales about werewolves in Ireland, which included the first known record of a female werewolf.  And also in the 12th century, we have a tale from Marie de France about a werewolf.  However it seems to be around the 14th and 15th century that belief in werewolves took hold in Europe and with it, the idea of the bloodthirsty, ruthless killer who murders for pleasure not for food.  Following this, in the 16th century, we find evidence of werewolf trials.

These were blatant persecutions of the “other”.  Monsters often live at the edge of society, close enough to pose a threat but not so close that people see them as human. This meant that a certain type of person was more at risk of werewolf accusations.  People who were a drain on the village or town were also vulnerable, especially during times of famine and economic difficulties. Old people and disabled people were at risk, as were outsiders who had no emotional connection to the locals.  If you don’t have enough food for your own family, you don’t want any going to the stranger who just rocked up and wanted his share.

As well as a way of scapegoating outsiders, werewolves acted as projections of the inner beast*, projecting your fears about yourself onto someone or something else.  The behaviour of werewolves was considered to be animalistic and this unhuman behaviour in itself was to be feared and not tolerated.  Remember this was a time when humans were trying to control everything around them – we had the witch trials, animals hanged for murder and pests taken to court for eating crops.  In addition to the fear of the uncivilised wolf, the werewolf has the added danger of being part human.  They inhabit a liminal space between man and beast and act as a reminder of how close we all are to animals.  Being neither man nor beast, yet belonging to both, the werewolf traverses boundaries without any consequence and hence traverses the law.

The nature of werewolves has changed over time but in the middle ages they were considered to be shapeshifters who took on the literal form of the wolf and remained responsible for their actions.  We have evidence of a number of werewolf trials and know that on the whole, they took place in isolated communities where there were actual wolves living.  They were often overseen by the church at a time when Christianity was looking for scapegoats…

Werewolves of Poligny, 1521: The account of this was recorded 70 years later so isn’t great from an evidence point of view.  During this trial, 3 people were accused and tortured.  It was said they had magic salve from Satan which turned them into wolves.  Sympathetic wounding, where the wound on a werewolf matched that of the man, was used as evidence.

Giles Garnier, Burgundy, 1573: Something was kiling sheep and children and permission was given to citizens to kill the beast.  Garnier was an outsider, he was disliked, had an unpleasant manner and was poor.  Essentially he ticked all the boxes for a scapegoat.  Claims were made that the wolf looked like Garnier and he later (presumably under torture) confessed.  He claimed that a spectre appeared and offered him a cream which would transform him into a wolf and make it easier for him to hunt.  As Garnier was struggling to provide for his new wife he took the cream and went on to murder at least four children.  The first alleged victim was a 10 year old girl that he strangled.  He then removed her clothes, ate some of her flesh and took some more home to his wife.  The next attack was interrupted by a passerby but the girl in question had already been injured and went on to die several days later.  There were also attacks on boys and Garnier was found guilty of crimes of lycanthropy (werewolfism) and was burned at the stake.  More than 50 witnesses claimed to have seen him carrying out his heinous crimes.

Over time, the idea of a werewolf became one more like a psychological illness.  There was this idea of having fur on the inside so that whilst someone could appear human, they were really living by wolf instincts.  This, from a scapegoat point of view, meant anyone could find themselves labelled as a werewolf.  In particular, outsiders, people who didn’t fit it and people who might be a bit odd could find themselves in trouble.

Today, werewolves are portrayed slightly differently.  The link with the full moon is apparently a recent, cinematic addition as is the contagious bite.  Werewolves are still shown as the underdog, often as subservient or less to the vampires.  Although it is said that only a werewolf can kill a vampire…

Vampires

A lot of the motivations and concepts behind vampires are the same as those for werewolves and other monsters.  They are blamed for misfortune and for terrorising people however they have undergone more transformation over the years than the werewolf.

In the early days of vampires, they weren’t blood suckers, that came in the 19th century, and the main fear was due to their immortality.  They inhabited the borderland between life and death and that terrified people.  They weren;t the handsome and charming creatuers of Bram Stoker’s novel, they were filled with disease and pestilence and thus posed a seemingly real threat to people.  These vampires were said to kill people by spreading illness.

Again, we see trials surrounding alleged vampires with various forms of evidence.  Some was around a lack of expected decay in the corpse and another form of evidence was that an unnatural amount of people got sick shortly after the vampire had died.  Obviously there had to be reasons to suspect a vampire before you dug up a corpse.

Accusations tended to follow when there had been an unusual amount of death.  This made people nervous and they needed something to blame it on so that then it could be controlled.  The corpses became the scapegoats.  This also meant that vampires became associated with the plague, and hence with rats and pests.

Within these trials are a number of other themes; the dead person often died young and unexpectedly in a violent way, they were disliked in life, a high number of ghost sightings after their death, growth of hair and nails, blood at the mouth of the corpse and “wild signs” (an erection).  Bodies were dug up to check for evidence and if a vampire was suspected, a stake was put through them to pin them to the ground or the corpse was burnt.

Then, with the publication of Dracula in 1897 we saw a very different kind of vampire popularised.  This vampire was an outsider at a time when people were starting to move around a bit more and Stoker probably used this to prey on people’s fears and unsettled feelings.  He was also hard to spot, being a well dressed man who was a successful seducer, not at all what you would expect from a vampire if you were familiar with the older versions.  This contributed to the popular image of the vampire as intelligent, clean and well turned out.  Apparently it was also Dracula which solidified the association between vampires and bats although it had been around as an idea previously, Stoker just made it more popular.

The modern vampire appears deceptively human and yet they are without a soul, who knows what they will get up to.. They are still repeatedly cast as other, such as foreigners or sexually deviant creatures but are now more likely to brood than disgust.


*This way of projecting the dark parts of ourselves onto others is something that Jung calls the shadow self and is an interesting topic of its own.