Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Vampires: Jewish Goth? Bloodsuckers in Judaism

Jewish vampires? Sure. The existence of blood lusting monsters is yet another folkloric belief that exists across cultures. Like zombies, Americans today have totally internalized the "vampire rules" of Bram Stoker/Hollywood - rules like: vampires are the undead; they have no reflection; they shapechange into bats; garlic and crosses repel them; and they can only be destroyed via sunlight or a stake through the heart.

Not surprisingly, Jewish vampire traditions do not adhere to these assumptions. Nor are Jewish vampires quite so romantic as the Twilight: New Moon / Vampire Dairies / True Blood heart throbs.

The earliest reference to a vampiric creature occurs in a text of Late Antiquity, the "Testament of Solomon" (this is also one of the paradigmatic texts for Jewish sorcerers, because it portrays Solomon as a kind of wizard).

Behold, when the Temple of the city of Jerusalem was being built, and the artificers were working thereat, Ornias the demon came among them toward sunset; and he took away half of the pay of the chief-deviser's little boy, as well as half his food. He also continued to suck the thumb of his right hand every day. And the child grew thin, although he was very much loved by the king. So King Solomon called the boy one day, and questioned him, saying: "Do I not love thee more than all the artisans who are working in the Temple of God? Do I not give thee double wages and a double supply of food? How is it that day by day and hour by hour thou growest thinner?"
4. But the child said to the king: "I pray thee, O king. Listen to what has befallen all that thy child hath. After we are all released from our work on the Temple of God, after sunset, when I lie down to rest, one of the evil demons comes and takes away from me one half of my pay and one half of my food. Then he also takes hold of my right hand and sucks my thumb. And lo, my soul is oppressed, and so my body waxes thinner every day."

Solomon responds to this threat by constructing a magic ring with which he enslaves this demon and, subsequently, higher orders of demons. In the end, the king uses these demon-slaves to help him construct the Temple!

Later, and very different, vampire traditions appear among the Jews of medieval Rhineland, not far from the areas where flourishing Christian beliefs in blood-sucking creatures would become the basis for Bram Stoker's story. But here again, Jews have their own ideas about the nature of vampires and how to combat them. These passages come from Sefer Hasidim ("The Book of the Pious"), a wide-ranging tract on Jewish piety that includes stories about ghosts, liliths, and other paranormal things that go bump in the night:

1465: There are women that are called estrie... They were created at sunset [before the first Sabbath before creation]. As a result of this, they are able to change form. There was one woman who was a estrie and she was very sick and there were two women with her at night; one was sleeping and one was awake. And the sick woman stood up and loosened her hair and she was about to fly and suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the woman who was awake screamed and woke her friend and they grabbed the sick estrie, and after this she slept. And moreover, if she had been able to grab the other woman, then she, the estrie, would have lived. Since she was not able to hurt the other woman, the estrie died, because she needs to drink the blood of living flesh. The same is true of the werewolf. And since....the estrie need to loosen their hair before they fly, one must adjure her to come with her hair bound so that she cannot go anywhere without permission. And if a estrie is injured or seen by someone, she cannot live unless she eats of the bread and salt of the one who struck her. Then her soul will return to the way it was before.

1466 There was a woman who was suspected of being a estrie, and she was injured when she appeared to a Jew as a cat and he hit her. The next day she asked him to give her some of his bread and salt, and he wanted to give it to her. An old man said to him (Ecc. 7:16) “Be not overly righteous.” When others have sinned one must not show kindness, for if she lives, she will harm people. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He created her for you [as a test]. This is similar to Amalek and Saul. Saul was punished for saving Amalek’s life. (see First Samuel 15).
As we can see, the nature of these vampires is strangely indeterminate. In the beginning of the passage, they seem to be regarded as demons, as in the Testament of Solomon. On the other hand, the end of the passage suggests that this is an ordinary woman (apparently, she has a soul) living within her community. There is a little of the "She's a witch!" quality to it. Other passages in Sefer Chasidim convey that same idea. Perhaps the resolution of this puzzle is that vampirism was understood to be a kind of demonic possession, though this is never said explicitly. A estrie wounded while in monstrous form would die unless she was able to to acquire bread and salt from the assailant while in human form. So...not the undead. Yet.

There is also one example of a judicial proceeding being conducted against a suspected estrie. Not surprisingly, conviction results in a death sentence. Apparently killing an estrie presents no particular challenge, but there is a potential post-mortem complication:

Toldot Adam v’Havah, 28

When a estrie that has eaten children is being buried one should observe whether her mouth is open, if it is, she will persist in her vampirish pursuits for another year unless it is stopped up with earth (cf. Sefer Hasidim 5)

This measure strikes me as stereotypically Jewish - The way to destroy a Christian vampire is through the heart; for a Jew, you just have to preventing him from talking and it kills him.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books

[Illustration: "The Sewing Machine" by E.M. Lilien]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, interesting stories!

1:45 PM  
Anonymous Sam said...

Thank you as well... Also, that last part had my sides splitting, just a little bit ;)

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Eliot Fintushel said...

Wow, exciting and informative: thanks for this article. I'm especially interested in it because I've just put up a Jewish-tradition-informed SUCCUBUS novel (an e-book)that draws a lot on Ansky's DIBBUK as well as on the medieval ALPHABET OF BEN SIRA, and so on. I have The Dibbuk in Yiddish, and, I confess, I've borrowed a phrase or two, like the chilling: "
Dein kol iz mir zis vie der geveint fun a fidl in a shtiller nacht!"

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great step for me to start researching Jewish tradition re vampires etc as I am not Jewish but am incredibly inspired to make attempts at basing my next novel on such a theme.

Thank you

7:30 PM  

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