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Vampires of the Ancient World

Updated: Jul 2

Vampiric Origins

Today, vampires tend to be depicted as preternaturally beautiful creatures. In pop culture, vampires live in grand mansions, drive posh vehicles, and attend private schools for creatures of the night. But modern visions of vampires are based upon the vampire tales of the nineteenth century; specifically, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, legends of vampires have existed for millennia. Various cultures throughout the ancient world had tales of unworldly spirits and blood-sucking entities considered precursors to modern vampires. Legends of the undead drinking the blood or eating the flesh of living beings are found in almost every culture around the world. Such stories have existed for many centuries.

The Goddess Sekhmet (1500 BCE Egypt)

The oldest vampire of the ancient world is Sekhmet. Sekhmet was a warrior goddess in ancient Egypt. At the time, the term vampire did not exist, however, the description is synonymous. Sekhmet was described as a feline hybrid monster and historians often consider her tale to be the first story of an ancient vampire. In addition to being a warrior goddess, Sekhmet was also a goddess of death and healing. This combination of eternal death and eternal life simultaneously creates a sense of connection with vampire folklore. The sun god, Ra, was Sekhmet’s father and he sent her to punish humankind. He saw man as unfaithful and disobedient. Therefore, Sekhmet was sent to slaughter humankind as punishment for their wicked ways. Sekhmet drank human blood as she killed people giving herself power. To taper her bloodlust, Ra devised a trick. He dyed a massive amount of beer blood red and convinced Sekhmet drank it, thereby quelling her craving for blood. Despite her bloodlust being extinguished, her title in ancient Egyptian is translated to “Lady of Slaughter” as well as “One Before Whom Evil Trembles.”

Empusa- Minion of Hecate (c 400 BCE Greece)

The Second oldest vampire in antiquity is Empusa. Empusa was the daughter of the goddess Hecate. Ancient documents describe her as a demonic, bronze-footed creature. Empusa would transform into a beautiful young woman and seduce men as they slept. She would then attack and drink their blood. Scholars claim that Empusa operated at the command of her mother Hecate. However, Hecate’s precise nature is unclear. In modern times, Hecate is viewed as being a queen of witches. By late Antiquity, Empusa was regarded as a category of beings as opposed to a singular entity. Further, at that time, Empusa was no longer considered a daughter of Hecate, but rather a group of evil spirits controlled by her. The earliest references to Empusa comes from the plays by Aristophanes. Empusa is traditionally viewed in conjunction with Lamia, Mormo, and Strix or Striges, all of which are flesh eating female demons in Greek folklore. Strix gave rise to the Transylvanian legend of the Strigoi, or vampire.

Lilith- Adam’s First Wife (40 BCE, Israel)

According to ancient texts such as the Alphabet of Sirach (800 AD) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (40 BCE), Lilith was the first wife of biblical Adam, before Eve. She was created at the same time with him, from the same mortal clay, while Eve was created later from Adam’s rib. Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam and therefore left him leading to the creation of Eve. In Jewish Folklore dating back 2,000 years ago or more, Lilith is a fascinating figure. The Hebrew term “lilit” translates to “Night creature” or “night monster.” In Jewish folklore she is a vampirelike child-killer and the symbol of carnal lust. While Lilith has long been believed a hag or witch, she is now also a feminist icon. Further, Lilith has been depicted as the First Vampire in the True Blood television series. Additionally, the Jewish-American magazine titled Lilith regard her as an ancient and feisty, yet misunderstood woman. Her name derives from ancient Babylonian. It is a name for female demons and spirits. The ancient Babylonians believed that she recalled being human so creeped into houses and killed wives and took their place.

Manananggal Demon of the Philippines

The manananggal is described as frightening, hideous, female monster. She is capable of severing her upper torso and sprouting huge bat-like wings to fly into the night in search of victims. The word manananggal has its roots in the Tagalog word tanggal, which means "to remove" or "to separate". Additionally, the name also originates from an idiom used for a severed torso. However, there remain varying accounts of the features of a manananggal. Similar to vampires, manananggals are also said to dislike garlic, salt and holy water. Legend claims that the manananggal favors preying on sleeping, pregnant women. She uses an elongated antenna-like tongue to suck the hearts of fetuses, or the blood of a sleeping person. It also haunts newlyweds or couples in love. Legend states that the manananggal was left at the altar, therefore, grooms-to-be are one of its primary targets.

Proposed Afflictions Mistaken for Vampirism

Modern scientists has proposed a number of theories as to the medical background of supposed vampirism. UCLA historian Paul Barber wrote in the Journal of Folklore Research, that vampire stories are not simple horror stories but are clever folk-hypothesis that attempts to explain puzzling occurrences linked to death and decomposition. Conversely, Dr. Gomez-Alonso remarks that in some cases, rabies may appear similar to vampirism. He goes on to say that a rabid patient may rush at those who approach him, biting them like he were a wild beast. In both cases, the method of transmission is identical caused through bites or blood to blood contact. Today, dogs are the most commonly associated with rabies. However, rural villagers historically had much more interaction with wolves which were a considerable threat both to themselves and their livestock.

Another theory is Porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT). PCT is a type of blood disorder which affects the skin. It is one of the most common types of porphyria and has been referred to as vampire disease. People with this condition experience symptoms after exposure to sunlight. According to biochemist David Dolphin people with PCT also feel a desire to drink human blood to relieve their symptoms as the disease affect the hemoglobin in red blood cells.

Do you Believe?

While modern myths of vampires can be traced back to the nineteenth century, the folklore can be traced much further back in history. Legends of the undead drinking the blood or eating the flesh of living beings are found in most cultures around the world. Such stories have existed for many centuries. Interestingly, vampires of antiquity were traditionally female. Perhaps this is because of the connection with goddesses in ancient religions. Further, mythology defines women by their sexuality, and what is more attractive and fearsome than a female bloodsucking demon? Through the centuries vampires have been many things from undead ghouls to beautiful preternatural creatures both male and female. Yet, the question of their existence remains. Historically, cultures across the world with seemingly no contact with one another each have similar fabled creatures. Considering this, is reasonable to assume that within the vampire lore rests a seed of truth.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please check out my book Trails of Blood: Legends of the Vampire!


McNally, Raymond T.; Florescu, Radu. (1994). In Search of Dracula. Houghton Mifflin. p. 117. ISBN 0-395-65783-0.

Graves, Robert (1990) [1955]. "The Empusae". The Greek Myths. London: Penguin. pp. 189–90. ISBN 0-14-001026-2.

Scholios to Aristophanes, Frogs 393: Rutherford, Willam G., ed. (1896), Scholia Aristophanica, vol. 1, London: Macmillan, pp. 312–313

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Paraiso, Salvador; Jose Juan Paraiso (2003). The Balete Book: A Collection of Demons, Monsters and Dwarfs from the Philippine Lower Mythology. Philippines: Giraffe Books. ISBN 978-971-8832-79-0.

Juan Gomez-Alonso. Rabies, A possible explanation for the vampire legend.

Neurology Sep 1998, 51 (3) 856-859; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.51.3.856

Johnson, L. (2022, May 06). 8 oldest vampires to ever exist in history. Retrieved July 13, 2022, from

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