In a remote village in the hills of Romania a young boy hides under the covers of his bed, the bright moonlight and trees cast gruesome and terrifying shadows against his bedroom wall. His grandfather’s stories of dragons and demons race through his mind. He takes a deep breath and rallies his courage, and then smiles, he is being silly. At nearly ten years old he will soon be a man, and men aren’t scared of silly children’s stories. He gets comfortable and prepares to drift off to sleep, when he hears a scratching at his window. Nervously he half opens his eyes and gasps, a grotesque face appeared, grinning in at him.
Romania has one of the richest folkloric backgrounds of any country in the modern world. Despite being highly developed, economically and diplomatically thriving, oral tradition is as important culturally now as it was before the formation of the country. Stories of werewolves in dangerous forests used to discourage children to wandering too far. The Pricolici, The Capcuan and the imported tales of Resulka. Ancient beasts that stalk an ancient land.
Chief amongst these is the Strigoi. Accounts differ between the cursed undead, decaying revenants, being so dark and corrupt in life that the underworld spat them back out, sustaining their existence in the blood or life essence of the living, particularly the young. Others described them as living, but dark and corrupt, warlocks of great power, striving for immortality by syphoning the vital essence of the innocent.
This should all sound familiar; in the seventeenth century these tales were codified and made their way to a fiction author named Bram Stoker. More than a few traits passed to his Count Dracula. These highly seductive enchanters could distort your thoughts with their words, draw you to them and offer your life willingly. They would extend their lives to near immortality. The earliest record I could find of someone being referred to as Strigoi around the region of Romania was a man called Jure Alilovic, who is reported to have been so evil that even death could not protect his village. He rode from his grave and settled old and petty scores, regularly sexually assaulted his widow and was generally a bit of a dick. One day the village priest asked himself “what would Jesus do”. Having dug deep to consult the best man he could be. He dug up the corpse, shoved a steak through its heart, cut its head off and reburied it face down. I presume he did this whole thing wearing a grubby trench coat and chain smoking.
Side Note: John Constantine 1.0
This all took place around 1600. But the legend of the Strigoi is much, much older. The word itself has its origins in the Latin word “to scream” so we look to Rome and their beast, The Strix. These half-man half-animal monsters would drink the blood of humans to sustain their lives. Described as imbued with a primal intelligence and able to change their shape at will. Presenting as a wolf, or a bear, or bats. Very rarely however being described in the full form of a human. The earliest references are from Ovid however as with much work of the time the great poets merely codified a much older oral tradition. It is entirely possible the Strigoi, Striga and Strix have been hunting men since the dawn of time.
Side Note: Terry Pratchett made the observation that each day is new and fresh and young. However the night is ancient, the same night that shrouds us today, once drew around our oldest ancestors, in its malevolence hiding any number of monsters with fangs and claws and dark powers. I wonder how many of our monsters in folklore have followed us through tradition since before Homo Sapiens emerged from Africa.
Strigoi in Science
One of the key traits ascribed to the Strigoi is their draining of blood or life essence, which throughout history have proven synonymous. Understandably so, when the red stuff is all gone, so is life. Additionally all Strigoi have an aversion to the sun. There is a rare group of conditions that afflicts humans called Porphyria. These are characterised by the bodies reduced ability to generate haemoglobin, a key component of human blood, extreme sensitivity to sunlight and in extremis a violent psychosis. Whilst drinking the blood of other humans would be an extremely inefficient way to supplement the body’s access to materials from which to synthesise haemoglobin it may provide some relief of symptoms, although I should stress I am sceptical. King George III of England obtained the epithet “The Mad” due to acute episodes of delirium believed to be secondary to Porphyria, whilst he probably had few to no symptoms normally the cosmetic application of arsenic and lead depleted his useable haemoglobin further, pushing him into acute episodes of madness. Thankfully Porphyria is now highly manageable through infusions of haem and a healthy lifestyle.
In some early tales of Strigoi, including Jure Alilovic, villagers would hang garlic to keep evil away. Garlic has been proven to have extensive anti-microbial properties. This is pure conjecture however I wonder if seeing the impact garlic had on treatment of skin infection, reduction of putrefaction and decay, equated to warding off evil spirits.
A steak through the heart has been a tried and tested method for killing demons and monsters since the earliest mythologies were codified. The basis of this appears to be that the soul or essence of a person was believed to sit in the heart. By destroying the heart, you destroy their essence. Very similar to decapitation, two methods from different times with conflicting basis, converging in one mythology. Additionally it could just be as simple as observationally nothing has been witnessed to be a problem once its head is cut off or its heart has been impaled.
Silver has a much more obvious basis for staving off evil. Where people have been buried with silver jewellery, for example a large silver arm band. Whilst the body decays, when the armband is later removed, the skin underneath is usually revealed to be untouched. Silver is extremely potent against bacteria. In a great number of cultures throughout history it has been valued more highly than gold and with the exception of a paragraph in the New Testament has been regarded as a holy metal.
So much of our culture has been influenced by our folklore and oral traditions. The monsters that hide in the darkness, being passed from one generation to the next with minor changes and evolutions, but always stemming from that same ancient darkness that poured icy fear into the veins of our ancestors. We learned to give them names, like Strigoi, and they began to represent a part of us, greed, rage, hatred. We made them something other to try and exorcise them from our collective being. The evolution and psychology of these monsters is fascinating and in my opinion essential the development of any kind of social system.