It all began in the Eastern European steppes. Legends that gave rise to well-known monsters like vampires and the undead were born between Ukraine, Hungary, and Romania. Witches also finds its historical origin in these lands. Why there? Why are these fantastical creatures linked to historical events? In short, what are the origins of witches, vampires and undead? The answer lies among the steppe peoples who arrived in the Eastern plains between the 4th and 9th centuries AD.
Who Were the Steppe Peoples?
The term “steppe peoples” refers to the nomadic populations that emerged between the plains of Eastern Europe and Mongolia around 1000 BC. Harsh climatic conditions led to the development of a society with minimal hierarchy and a strong reliance on personal bonds rather than state-like structures. A tribal society.
Wealth was based on the size of the herds, and the constant movement of these peoples was driven by the need to find new pastures. These populations combined herding with raiding sedentary populations on the fringes of the steppes. For example, the Huns attacked the Chinese to the east and the Romans to the west. Both belonged to highly developed and wealthy state civilizations.
The Huns played a crucial role in the crisis and subsequent fall of the Western Roman Empire. Their migration from Asia to Europe in the 4th century AD caused the displacement of large groups of people who sought refuge from the violent advance of the Huns. Among the migrating populations were, for example, the Goths, major players in the “barbarian invasions.”
The Culture of Steppe Peoples
The formation of new peoples through the blending of different origins and cultures is technically called ethnogenesis, a complex topic. To simplify, the Huns in their “empire” (in quotes because only state civilizations can be truly called empires) brought together various peoples who adopted some cultural characteristics of the steppe peoples. Germanic populations like the Goths, and later the Lombards, adopted steppe rituals. When they invaded the territories of the Roman Empire, they brought with them.
What was the tribal culture of the steppes like? It was brutal, with bloody rituals as described in Latin and Greek sources. These are not prejudices against the barbarians. Archaeological evidence has shown a good correspondence between what the ancients told us and historical reality. However, in general, the Romans and Greeks did not understand the reasons behind such violent rites and tended to attribute them to the wild nature of these peoples.
Behind practices like flaying and impaling enemies lay needs born of the fragility of their social fabric. In a tribal society, every time the leader, the “king,” died, there was a concrete risk of community disintegration. It was especially true when the community included subjugated peoples like the Huns and their Gothic subjects. Personal loyalty was the only mechanism holding the tribe together: so when a betrayal or crime against the leader occurred, the punishment had to be exemplary, meaning violent and often gruesome.
Origins and Legend of Witches, Vampires, and the Undead
Origins of Witches
The legend of witches has very complex origins that trace back to the Scythians and Sarmatians nomads. These people roamed the Ukrainian steppes between the 9th century BC and the 4th century AD, and in their society, priestesses seem to have held great influence. Their cult was shamanistic and likely included human sacrifices. Even among the Huns, there were prestigious priestesses, but they were viewed with suspicion by the Goths. They had meanwhile converted to Christianity, and considered shamanistic practices to be associated with satanic rituals.
The priestesses who communicated with spirits gave rise to the witch myth, complete with a bronze cauldron for brewing magical potions. Cauldrons were not picturesque inventions but common artifacts in the burials of steppe and Hunnic populations. Their exact purpose is debated, and the two most plausible hypotheses at the moment are that cauldrons were used in water-related rituals (as they were often found near bodies of water) or for human sacrifices.
They show traces of fire and soot, indicating that they were indeed placed over the fire. Discoveries in funerary contexts have led to the hypothesis that they were used in ceremonies where a ritual meal was prepared for distribution to participants. We do not know whether the meat cooked in cauldrons was human, but it is not to be ruled out.
What is certain, however, is that the legend of witches spread to Western Europe following the migration of Germanic populations into the territories that had once been part of the Roman Empire. The figure of the witch also appears in Germanic-Norse mythology, as seen in the character of Grimhild. She is capable of creating magical potions and carrying out bloody vengeance against her enemies, as told in the Nibelungen saga.
Origins of the Undead (and Vampires)
Today, we think of the vampire legend as originating in Romania, in Transylvania, home to Dracula. However, this region was once part of Hungary, which, from the late Roman era to the early Middle Ages, was inhabited by nomadic populations much like those in neighboring Ukraine.
In the 9th century AD, the Hungarians arrived here, another steppe-origin population sharing many traditions with peoples like the Huns and Sarmatians. A characteristic of their culture was practices to ward off the evil influences of the deceased, who would have been able to return from the afterlife in the form of undead. Or vampires.
In the necropolises of present-day Hungary, there are rare but consistent examples of post-mortem mutilation of corpses. Some were missing their heads, hands, or feet, while others had their faces covered, and women were left with a single boot.
These precautions against the return of the dead to the world of the living were not limited to the Hungarians. Body manipulation is also found in necropolises associated with other populations who had some relations with the regions of the Hungarian and Ukrainian plains (populations united by what archaeology calls the Danubian culture). An example can be found in the Lombard necropolis of Spilamberto in Emilia-Romagna, where a head was found in a grave without the rest of the body. The presence of funerary items indicates that the burial followed a specific ritual.
To complete the explanation of the origin of the vampire legend, we need to delve into the medical field because some characteristics of vampires may be derived from a disease called porphyria, which includes symptoms such as anemia and photosensitive skin, resulting in a severe skin reaction to sunlight. Just like vampires, who are forced to move at night.
Origin and History of Dracula
Vampires, like zombies, share the common theme of being undead entities that return from the afterlife to torment the living. However, the legend of vampires is not only enriched by ancient beliefs derived from the tribal cultures of steppe peoples. The most famous vampire of all, Count Dracula, owes his name to a real historical figure from the 15th century, Vlad III Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler.
Vlad Dracul was the ruler of Wallachia, a region in modern-day Romania, and he had a complex history that combined his reputation as both a hero and a cruel king. He is considered a hero for resisting Turkish claims on Wallachia and defending Christian territories against the Muslim advance. However, he is also infamous for his gruesome acts, such as frequent use of the horrific method of execution known as impalement.
What is impalement, and where does it come from? Impalement is a particularly cruel form of capital punishment where the condemned person’s agony can last for days. Victims are impaled through the anus with a sharp pole that emerges from their shoulder. Care is taken not to damage vital organs, so death is as slow as possible. This brutal form of execution originated among the nomadic peoples who arrived on the fringes of Europe from the Asian steppes between the 5th and 10th centuries AD, such as the Turks and Avars. Vlad probably learned this technique from the Turks when he was held hostage by them during his adolescence.
The historical figure that gave rise to the legend of Count Dracula exhibits elements that can be traced back to the world of the steppes and the nomadics of the early Middle Ages. People whose religious beliefs and bloodthirsty practices contributed to the emergence of legends about witches, the undead, and vampires.
Further readings – Origins of witches, vampires and undead
To know more about the historical origins of witches, vampires and undead we need to delve into the peoples of the steppes and their culture. Yet, there is no simple bibliography about them, as it relies mostly on specialized archaeological literature. A well-written and accessible text about Huns and the steppe culture is “Attila” by Michel Rouche (2010), an important French historian. Just be aware that sometimes he does not provide a correct interpretation of archaeological data (as in the case of Hunnic cauldrons, which he unquestionably associates with human sacrifices).
For more specific information on the steppe peoples, one should turn to archaeological excavations. One excellent and comprehensive source is the work of two Russian scholars, fortunately available in French: “Des Goths aux Huns: Le Nord de la mer Noire au Bas–Empire et a l’époque des Grandes Migrations” by M. Shchukin, M. Kazanski, and O. Sharov (2006). I used this essay for my master’s thesis: it is rich in information but highly technical, so I would not recommend it to those seeking a popular science book.
For a first glimpse into the Goths there is « History of the Goths » (mainly Part I and Part II) by Herwig Wolfram, an important Austrian historian who spread the the concept of ethnogenesis.
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