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Monday, February 11, 2013

Lured by Vampires

On a late Tennessee afternoon, after riding an ophidian road that slithered for a hundred miles and reeked with the smothery heat of August, I leaned my motorcycle on its kickstand and walked toward a fountain. I was in a pleasant little town, whose name had long been erased off the blackboard of my memory, and whose main square was flanked on four sides by an array of retail and souvenir shops. The gurgling of the water, mixed with the chirping of house sparrows lazing in the shade, reverberated against the spire and the walls of an olden church. I soaked my bandanna then wrung it above my head twice or thrice, drenching myself, and abating my body heat below torment. Finally, when the leaves above quivered with a light breeze, I wrapped the bandanna around my neck and went for a walk.

Small bookstores and petite women allure me, offering me no means to escape. I could spend a lifetime in or with them, so it was ineluctable that I got drawn toward a senescent storefront, where behind a pane of glass, inscribed with the name Lilith, a tiny silhouette arranging books upon the shelves briefly appeared like a fleeting chimera. The door creaked before a chime betrayed my ingression. “I would be with you in a minute,” her drawl came in sweet and soothing, making me long for nightfall so that the whole world would fall silent and only the echo of her voice remained.

She was short and sweet, in the way dreams are. “Can I help you find something?” She smiled, and my knees went weak. I couldn't tell if it were mere fatigue or the blue of her eyes that made me walk toward a wooden chair and sit down without meaning to. She didn't seem to mind and her smile didn't waver. I told her what a beautiful place she got, looking around me and admiring the crowded rows of used paperbacks and leatherbound books. She busied herself with a huge pile on a cart while I kept my gaze fixed on her every move. My lower vantage point offered an even more dazzling look of her subtle curves. I didn't want to be anywhere else.

I had coffee with Lilith and an engaging conversation that day, and left at sunset with a gargantuan book from her bookstore. It was the one she had read last. When you're haunted by words and you keep turning pages long past bedtime, think of Lilith. That's what I have of her, a dedication on a blank page that I follow with my fingertips whenever I bring a new addition to my collection and place it not too far from Lilith's book, The Historian. Every time I read a horror novel or watch a scary movie, and whenever I hear of vampires or get myself entangled in a television series about a covenant of the nocturnal blood sucking creatures, I think of her. I remember Lilith with sweet affection, although her true legacy was to entrap me in the genre of the macabre forever.

Then a week ago, another enchanting petite, according to her own description of herself, surprised me with an out of the ordinary request. My dear friend and one of the most elegant bloggers ever, Isobel of Suffonsifisms, sought my opinion. “I'm writing a post on my blog about vampires and was wondering if the legend had any Levantine roots.” She too had read The Historian, by American author Elizabeth Kostova, and is a self-confessed vampirical buff. We agreed that we shall both post concurrently on the subject while leaving each other to his or her own devices. Since I believe that everything after humanity started in or near the Levant, I had no doubt in my mind that I would find evidence in the distant past of our land being infested with thirsty blood sucking fiends and monsters, or at least one. I was right.



Lilitu, the grandmother of all vampires, was a Sumerian demon who made her first appearance around 2,000BC. Her name was found on a clay tablet in Ur of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). It came from the Akkadian words lil and itu. Lil (Leil) still has the same meaning in Arabic: night, while itu translates into female entity in the Akkadian language. Lilitu, the female being of the night, lived in the trunk of the Goddess Inanna's sacred tree of life in the city of Uruk on the Tigris river. A dragon dwelled in the roots, while a horrific Zu bird nested in its upper branches. Inanna was saddened because her hope of making a throne and a bed for herself from the tree couldn’t be fulfilled. King Gilgamesh came to her rescue and uprooted the willow tree, killing the dragon with his sword. The bird flew off to the mountains while Lilitu, the spirit of the tree, as she was also known, barely escaped after destroying her own home. She made it to the wilderness where she fed on the blood of newborn babies and pregnant women.

The old testament, the first plagiarized work of fiction, picked Lilitu's story and changed her name to Lilith. I was dumbfounded when I read the name. Lilith came from the Babylonian Talmud, where according to Jewish mythology, she was a demon who fed on the blood of children. She made her maiden biblical appearance in Isaiah 34:14 among a list of animals. Later on, between the 8th and 10th century BC, Jewish folklore spiced up the story with the usual religious misogyny. Lilith was Adam's first wife, created with him, at the same time and of the same earth, by God. The legend sank deeper into infamy in the 13th century in the tradition of Judaic mysticism. Lilith left Adam after she refused to become his subservient. Instead of returning to the Garden of Eden as ordered by God, she mated with archangel Samael. Fed up with her defiance, God, and upon the incessant pleading of Adam, made a second wife for him. This time, however, he created Eve from Adam's ribs so she would forever be his subordinate. The animosity toward women in monotheist religions is as bewildering as it is disgusting, but Lilith, daughter of Lilitu and the free spirited woman who refused to play second fiddle to a psychotically insecure Adam, is the mother of vampires. More incredible still is the fact that some biblical scholars dispute the Sumerian origin of Lilith. They have fallen victims to their own perjury. They would, if they could, erase any mention of Lilitu and try to rewrite history into one that is void of the splendor that preceded monotheist hegemony.



Bram Stoker's Dracula, a Gothic horror novel written in 1897, maimed the original beautiful legend of a night creature, who was branded as a demon by the Sumerians and as a slut by the Jews simply because she defended her right to an alternative lifestyle. This is how I actually feel about many historical and almost all theological villains. The mediocre work of the Irishman didn't even manage to stir the imagination of Victorian England. It was discovered, however, some years later by Hollywood, and we all know what happens when American producers get their hands on a potentially sensational blockbuster. Fact and fiction were thrown together into an otiose oven and  Vlad III (1431-1476), of the House Draculesti, Prince of Wallachia and a national hero of his native Romania, was posthumously transmuted into a vampire. Lilith, my Lilith, suggested that I might be tempted to investigate the Turkish/Muslim connection in The Historian, a more refined and elaborate piece of writing on the prince who was the inspiration behind the character Count Dracula. She was fascinated by Vlad the Impaler, as he was known to foe and friend, and by the region of Transylvania, where the alleged story unfolded. Isobel asked me if there were any trace of the legend in Turkey and the Middle East. She thought that the book must have stirred my curiosity. They were both right of course. The Historian intrigued me and haunted my nights, although I have deeply conflicting feelings about it.

As a thriller, the book is brilliantly written. As a historical novel, it is drivel. As much as I enjoyed the plot itself, the fact that it hijacked the pasts of real people and circumstances and turned them into lies offended me. I am an avid fan of Historical Fantasy, where the author chooses an undisclosed location in Europe in the Middle Ages for instance, and creates his own parallel universe. But to select actual historical figures, such as Romanian Prince Vlad III and Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II and twist authentic events and battles, and counterfeit the course of history in the hope of making a box office hit movie is too unctuous to digest. It is as slimy as the historical plagiarism committed by religion twenty centuries earlier. In the words of Paul Barber, a research associate at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in California, “Vlad Drakul was a figure in Romanian history whose only association with the vampire lore is that Bram Stoker named the character Dracula after him..., and by being associated with vampires — even if only via fiction — Vlad Drakul has become the only figure in Romanian history that Americans have ever heard about. If the Romanians began to make movies portraying George Washington as a ghoul, we would know what they feel like."

The legend of the Ghoul, well established in the Arab World, was documented in One thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folk tales, and traces back to the Abbasid's golden period of Islam between the 8th and 13th century. The Ghoul is mentioned in several compilations of oral folklore in the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant during the Jahiliyyah, which immediately preceded the birth of Islam. The monster was credited with drinking blood and cannibalism, it belonged to the Jinn and was commanded by Iblis (Satan). The Ghoul is a significant historical vampire, although it came with different attributes according to local variations. There are male and female versions of the Ghoul that manifested itself as a hyena, a giant, a humanoid, an ogre, and even a dragon. However, the legends I am aware of, and despite of their diversity in details, lack a clear sexual context, perhaps as a result of Islamic prohibition. I didn't find any account of Turkish vampire lore originating in the 15th century to lend any credibility to the pop-cultural Dracula simply because it doesn't exist. Vlad III was a formidable enemy. He had slaughtered tens of thousands of Ottoman troops over the course of several campaigns. To them, he was a ruthless killer, thus when he was finally captured, Mehmed II had his head cut off and brought to Constantinople both as proof and a trophy. No garlic to ward him off, no splashing with holy water to make him cringe in disgust, no wooden stake through the heart to kill the undead. A fine edged scimitar severed his head and killed him instantly. The Ottomans were relieved. The Romanians had their national hero. Centuries later, Hollywood had a ball.

The tremendous popularity of the recent Twilight Saga, originally a novel written by Stephenie Meyer in 2005, both as a television series and as a movie trilogy, attests to the genre's attractiveness, especially to younger people. It also signifies a divergence from the shallowness of Dracula lore. Vampirism possesses a primitive erotic quality and these newer depictions addressed this aspect in a more lucid form than the false modesty of Victorian literature. In a moment of passionate abandonment, biting a sexual partner's neck and drawing blood may be a manifestation of the natural. I am aware of the mating rituals of various mammals, cousins of ours, and in particular of felines. The biting of the neck is an integral part of courting, foreplay and consummation. I can faintly see a taut hair separating love from possessiveness, desire from craving, longing from thirst, and I embrace the carnal appeal of a lustful bite and the lascivious hint behind a twin drops of red blood. Vampires spoke to our sexual repressions from the very beginning. Lilitu was the holy whore of the Sumerians. She brought erotic dreams to men while they slept and appropriated their semen. Gilgamesh chased her into a nocturnal life of exile in honor of a more "righteous" woman, Inanna. Lilith was a tramp, who disobeyed her husband and didn’t let him take her in the missionary position, which apparently was the only one that suited his ego. God punished her by sending three of his angels, hitmen really, to kill one hundred of her offspring a day. The fall of these women was instigated by sick male chauvinism, the hallmark of Religion, which demonized sex and continues to until this day. But they were beautiful and independent women, grandmother and mother, and no man, dead or alive, could ever change that or take it away from them. Vampires, like witches, were daring women who said no to repressed men with uncouth beards.

I turned the first page of The Historian over and listened to the beguiling handwritten scrawl as it morphed into Lilith's sweet soothing drawl from years and miles yonder. There was something about Lilith's smile back then that I couldn't quite fathom, attractive but daunting. I closed my eyes shut and suddenly remembered how tight my bandanna felt around my neck and the tingling throbbing in my jugular vein when I had a glimpse of her sharp canines. I shook my head to clear the vision and tried to return to the here and now, but a chilling flashback bore through my bones and my skin tingled as if a legion of aunts crawled over every square inch of my flesh. Elena Gilbert's biological mother in the hit television series The Vampire Diaries was Isobel Flemming. She was turned into a vampire at her request by the evil Damon Salvatore. But there was something else, even more disturbing, lying just beneath the surface of my consciousness. This blogger Isobel has Scottish ancestry in her blood. I choked, almost swallowing my throat, at the thought of blood streaming over white skin. There was this... this witch, Isobel Gowdie was her name, who was tried in Scotland for witchcraft in 1662. Her confession, allegedly without torture, shed a grim light about the deeds of her coven and made her one of the most famous witches in Scottish history. Visibly shaken, I nervously clicked the About Me photo on Isobel's Suffonsifisms blog. A charming woman with short hair smiled back at me, seemingly innocent yet foxing. I stared hard at the woman's face, then at her teeth... Nah, it couldn't be! It's just a coincidence, I told myself, it’s only my imagination gone wild in the dead of night.


Note:
Lilitu, Lilith and the vampire lore have been extensively researched and studied over the centuries. Online, thousands of articles are available for the interested reader's perusal, and they vary from the mediocre to the excellent. The bibliography listed below is in no way all inclusive. These are some of the sources I used in writing this post but I must admit that I may have omitted years of sporadic reading on the subject. While I barely skimmed the surface of three thousands years of vampirology, my intention was to stir your imagination.



18 comments:

Isobel said...

Holy cow! Where do I start on this one? :) First of all, thank you for researching and writing this. I had a feeling I'd get the information I was looking for and then some. I really love the way you portrayed Lilitu and Lilith. Strong women are always demonized, even today - although less so...

I do have to disagree with you about The Historian. I still love it as a fictional novel. I guess I never expected any of the storyline to be based on reality so that's where we differ. I think taking a myth and twisting and expanding it is ingenious...although, the Romanians may disagree with me. :)

You really should have posted a spoiler alert about Vampire Diaries. I suppose your daughters are into all these shows. I didn't know about Isobel Flemming...urgh! This is me biting back...Lol! Although, I really don't have enlarged canines. You're probably safe...but watch your back just in case. ;)

Thanks, again, Abufares! This was fun!

Joseph said...

Thank you for yet another insightful read, Abufares. Well done.

Now let me see how many tries it's going to take me, to prove to Google that I'm not a robot; Very frustrating indeed! :-)

Joseph said...

Hurray! 2 tries only to post my first comment this evening... and 7 tries to post the second; They must think I'm a foreigner or something... lol

Gabriela said...

I think this is a book I MUST read. And the sooner the better.

abufares tartoussi said...

@Isobel
First I'd like to apologize to you, Gabriela and Joseph for being late in my reply. I was away on a one day trip that left me exhausted. I'm up and kicking again though :-)
I enjoyed putting this piece together so much I can hardly remember ever having so much fun researching and writing.
Although, we've discussed privately both my positive and negative criticism of The Historian, it's worth repeating here.

The Balkan/Ottoman animosity was, and still is in a way, a highly sensitive matter of religious and national tensions. I don't hold a grudge against the author for having her eyes on the millions behind making her novel into a movie rather than the Nobel Prize for Peace. However, she pursued her goal like a journalist who went out of her way, even at the risk of twisting the facts and stretching reality, to get her scoop. At best, if she's not aware of the implications of her novel, she's guilty of utter ignorance. Don't get me wrong about The Historian. It's one of the best thrillers I've ever read. The author had done a fantastic job researching her subject and skimmed so close to the truth, giving her work incredible authenticity. But because it played on deep ingrained suspicion, even hatred, between the peoples of the Balkans and the Turks I thought that the author went overboard. Consider this, Athens with a Muslim population of 300,000, is the only EU city which doesn't allow the building of a mosque. The situation is as grim if not more so in other Eastern European countries. The memory of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) and the atrocities committed is still too painful to ignore.

Because I am a man of two worlds, in a way, I totally understand your positive evaluation of the book and agree with you and Lilith. But there's that other side of me, the one that is burdened by history, guilt, oppression and defiance against the West, which makes me see it from the other side as well. I love western literature when it deals with the West. I'm a huge fan. But I found myself time and again being disappointed with the way, the "others" are portrayed, possibly with the best of intentions.

Your post "Something to Sink my Teeth into http://suffonsifisms.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/something-to-sink-my-teeth-into/ was an amazingly enjoyable read. But what's new, eh? I love everything you write :-)

abufares tartoussi said...

@Joseph
Glad you enjoyed it my friend. How about a little compensation for your effort :-)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cShYbLkhBc

abufares tartoussi said...

@Gabriela
When I read (or watch) fiction, I don't really care much about my own beliefs. If the work is good, it takes me to its own universe and everything becomes real. Am I making sense? This is how I appreciate science fiction, historical fantasy, horror and even romance ;-) If I'm following a well written/produced work on vampires then I feel that they are real, and this is the only thing that counts!!!

Give it a try. The Historian, despite my negative comments on it is a great work of fiction. It was so good in fact, it made me lose sight of the fine line separating what's real and what is not. I think this is its strongest point and what makes it so scary. More than the subject matter itself.

abufares tartoussi said...

@Isobel
And sorry for spoiling your "surprise" watching The Vampire Diaries. I just couldn't hide my discovery when I googled "Isobel Vampire".
I thought I got you, and I was so glad I did, lol!!!

Adela said...

What a coincidence, the Institut de Monde Arabe just had an event based on the "Lilith" mythological story. I especially like the ironic poignancy of the event being sponsored by Human Rights Watch! For those who dabble in French, below is a description of the event. (PS: if you ever have a chance to go to L'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, do so, it is truly beautiful and interesting!)

LILITH
avec Lamia Safiedine
En partenariat avec Human Rights Watch

Et Dieu créa… Lilith. Dans les mythologies monothéistes, Dieu, avant la création d’Eve, aurait donné vie à Lilith. Lilith (en arabe Leïla, « la nuit ») était l’égale du premier homme. Elle assumait son côté masculin et n’était pas inférieure à son partenaire. Adam niant son côté féminin, Lilith le quitte. Déchue, maudite, elle devient dès lors symbole d’une féminité péjorative (Mal, obscurité, terre…)

C’est à partir de ce mythe que Lamia Safieddine tisse sa chorégraphie. Sensible, très tôt, à la cause de l’émancipation de la femme arabe, elle rend ici hommage à la femme, dans toutes ses composantes. Un spectacle de danse arabe contemporaine qui s’égrène sur les partitions des plus grands compositeurs et interprètes arabes et européens tels que Rabih Abou-Khalil, Abed Azrié, Jacques Brel, Safy Boutella, Régine Crespin, Faïrouz, Oum kalsoum, Khaled, Marcel Khalifé, Ravel…

abufares tartoussi said...

@Adela
Thank you so much for your comment and for the information provided. I wish I had stumbled upon Lamia Safiedine's beautiful choreographic rendition of Lilith during my recent research on the subject.
I watched this amazing dance on Youtube http://youtu.be/J1-wQlR20-k and loved it.
Lilitu, Lilith, Leila... fascinates me as a concept and as a woman. She was an affirmative person who at the same time was purely feminine.
That's what it's all about, isn't it? :-)

Omar S said...

What a wonderful read Abufares! Lately I have been having a renewed interest in myth and legends, it's a subject that I know very little about, but find intriguing whenever I come across.

You really need to start taking this writing gig full time. Every subject you touch you make interesting!

abufares tartoussi said...

@Omar
I've been absorbed in the occult during most of the winter and writing this post was a natural outlet.
Glad you enjoyed it and you're right, I should start on a new one. Hopefully, I cross this writer's block soon.

abufares tartoussi said...

@Omar
I've been absorbed in the occult during most of the winter and writing this post was a natural outlet.
Glad you enjoyed it and you're right, I should start on a new one. Hopefully, I cross this writer's block soon.

Anonymous said...

There no bigger bunch of drivel than what you wrote about the relation between Lillith/Lilitu and modern vampires. Please understand that your analysis is only a misguided opinion and for you to present it as credible research is laughable. Stick to shankleesh recipes.

sincerely
Rocco

abufares tartoussi said...

@Rocco
You must be very lonely.

Isobel Adams said...

Hey Rocco! You got any supportive research to back up your claims! I somehow doubt it. You're just spouting off for the fun of it. Clearly anyone can see who's misguided here.

Sonja Lishchynski said...

I have the fangs ... :) and surprisingly knew all this. The again ... Fantasia Lillith ... right? this took me back. Thank you.

abufares tartoussi said...

@Sonja
So nice to see you here after all this time. Yes! I think this post is right up your alley.
Thank you for the visit :-)