Friday, October 8, 2021

How Lord Byron's Trip to Greece Brought the Modern Vampire to the West

When Lord Byron was 21 years old, he decided to undertake the customary upper class Grand Tour. The Grand Tour was the 17th- and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip through Europe undertaken by upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperone, such as a family member) when they had come of age (about 21 years old). Byron, who studied ancient Greek and the history of Greece, longed to see Greece and Constantinople, and thus made these the special focus of his Grand Tour.

It was in Greece during Lord Byron's Grand Tour, between 1809 and 1810, that he was told several local myths and legends. While in Athens, he became aware of the Turkish custom of throwing a woman found guilty of adultery into the sea wrapped in a sack. This inspired him to write The Giaour, the first of his three oriental tales.

"Giaour" (Turkish: Gâvur) is an offensive Turkish word for infidel or non-believer, and is similar but unrelated to the Arabic word "kafir". The story is subtitled "A Fragment of a Turkish Tale", and is Byron's only fragmentary narrative poem. Byron designed the story with three narrators giving their individual point of view about the series of events. The main story is of Leila, a member of her master Hassan's harem, who loves the giaour and is killed by being drowned in the sea by Hassan. In revenge, the giaour kills Hassan and then enters a monastery due to his remorse.  
The Giaour is also notable for its inclusion of the theme of vampires and vampirism, which is a belief Lord Byron first encountered in Greece. After telling how the giaour killed Hassan, the Ottoman narrator predicts that in punishment for his crime, the giaour will be condemned to become a vampire after his death and kill his own family by sucking their blood, to his own frightful torment as well as theirs.

Horace Vernet, Le Glaour, Conquerer of d'Hassan

The description of the vampire, lines 757–768:

    But first, on earth as vampire sent,
    Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:
    Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
    And suck the blood of all thy race;
    There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
    At midnight drain the stream of life;
    Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
    Must feed thy livid living corpse:
    Thy victims ere they yet expire
    Shall know the demon for their sire,
    As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
    Thy flowers are withered on the stem.

At this stage the vampire in Byron's poem and in English literature is more a zombie figure, which is what the traditional Greek vampire was believed to be. He comes out of the ground and sucks the blood out of those around him and then goes back into the ground. He can't wander far from his place of birth and his family.

That perception was about to change and Byron would be central to it. It's not until a couple of years later that the vampire becomes this cosmopolitan, seductive figure.

The story goes that in 1816 Byron was visited at his rented home on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, by the future Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron's doctor John Polidori. The group challenged each other to write the most frightening ghost story. The infamous evening resulted in Mary Shelley creating Frankenstein and Byron starting, but not finishing, a tale of vampires. But in the days that followed, the poet's ideas were expanded by Polidori.

Polidori published The Vampyre in 1819, the first tale of the fanged creature printed in English. It included a character called Lord Ruthven, who was the first portrayal of the vampire as a debauched aristocrat preying on people - it is believed the character was based on Lord Byron himself. This vampire was originally based on a concept by Lord Byron that he never developed. Even after its publication there was confusion about the author. Many people believed Byron had written The Vampyre, but this was publicly denied by both Byron and Polidori. 

Thus, before Bram Stoker brought Dracula to England from Romania in 1896, Lord Byron had brought the vampire to England from Greece through The Gaiour which was published in 1813, that developed into Polidori's The Vampyre in 1819.