August 14, 2011

Why Vampires Get Staked Through the Heart

We just finished watching season three of True Blood on DVD. Lots of vampires got staked through the heart, and burst into puddles of bloody, stringy pulp.

I don't expect any subtlety from True Blood, but I still think it's interesting how Hollywood portrays vampires being staked through the heart. Something that originated to prevent malevolent souls from wandering out of their graves has now become a messy way to kill a physical monster.

Vampire lore originated in Eastern Europe, and the original vampires weren't sexy monsters who sucked blood from their victim's necks with fangs. Vampires were the souls of the restless dead, often of criminals or others who had violated social norms, who fed on the life force (sometimes symbolized by blood) of the living members of their community. Vampires weren't strangers who came to town, but were people known to their victims.

One way to keep a vampire in its grave was to drive a stake through its heart. The point of this was not to kill a corporeal monster (a vampire's already dead, after all), but rather to nail the soul into its grave. The wandering soul was really the problem, not the mouldering body. To drive the symbolism home, in some places the stake was driven through the legs, or even through the corpse's clothing. Anything to keep that vampire in the grave!

Stakes were sometimes also put through the heart of witches, as in the case of Goody Cole of Hampton, New Hampshire.

Goody Cole lived in Hampton in the late 17th century, and was poor, sharp-tongued, and unpopular with her neighbors. Eventually she was found guilty of witchcraft: killing an infant with magic, causing a man to fall ill, harming various farm animals, and capsizing a boat to drown a carpenter who angered her. She spent many years jailed in Boston, and finally died in a small hut where she had been living as a ward of Hampton.

When the citizens of Hampton buried her, they put a stake through her heart. For good measure, they also attached an iron horseshoe to the stake. (In European folkore, iron has the power to stop malevolent magic.) They weren't killing a vampire, and Goody Cole's body didn't explode into a pile of bloody goop. The people of Hampton just wanted her soul to stay in the grave.

The Hampton library has a great webpage full of resources about Goody Cole with lots of interesting stuff. For example, after her death the well near her hut became known as Goody Cole's well. Sailors used to fill their casks with water from it because it never went brackish. Check it out if you get the chance!

1 comment:

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the pointed post, Peter! I read an old pulp story from the 1930s where the vampire was freed when the stake pinning him to his grave was removed.