A Brief History of Vampires & Werewolves in Ireland & the United Kingdom (and Some of Europe)
Earlier this fall, a Twitter user posted a map of Europe, broken down by whether vampires, werewolves, or both were the prominent monster in each country. The author claimed to have done significant research (and I have no reason to doubt them!) but did not lay out their criteria or methodology, leading to some skepticism. Ireland, the home of both Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, was primarily werewolf? Italy, the last place in Europe to cease paying wolf bounties (in 1950; they are now a protected species), was primarily vampire? I am sure these are accurate based on the map maker’s criteria, but again, I have no idea what that was.
Rather than argue with their map (which, again, I am sure is accurate to the criteria they used), I thought I would make my own criteria and lay out a text-map of werewolves and vampires in European mythology and literature. I planned to explain my methodology and source materials and lay out my findings, regardless of what breakdown I found and how closely it aligned — or did not — with this map.
…But it turns out that is easily six months’ work (perhaps six years), and I had given myself more like three weeks, so I chose a few European countries to focus on. I started with Ireland and the United Kingdom, and promptly found that there is so much history to go through in Ireland and the UK alone that I had written over 1,000 words on vampire fiction in Ireland before I got to Dracula. So I have chosen to focus my effort there — with some dalliance into France, Germany, and Eastern Europe — and have primarily focused on literature, discussing mythology and folktales mostly as relates to that literature. I am also focusing primarily on vampire fiction, for reasons that will become apparent, and sticking largely to works prior to the 20th century. The majority of my information comes from following various Wikipedia rabbit holes to their sources, as well as from books I already owned. Sources are linked throughout.
A note: Ireland was partitioned into The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland relatively recently (almost exactly 100 years ago), and a tremendous amount of the historical information I found was quite vague as to which Ireland it related to, because they were a single country at the time. I have said “Ireland and the United Kingdom” throughout, but it might be more accurate to say Ireland(s) and Great Britain. I apologize for any inaccuracies due to my lack of knowledge in the matter.
Vampires in Ireland & the United Kingdom
Vampire stories most likely made their way to Ireland and the United Kingdom from eastern Europe. A so-called “vampire craze” in the 1720s in Serbia led to the exhumation of two bodies believed to be vampires; their deaths had been followed by a spate of other deaths in quick succession, likely of people who had touched the corpses in some way or another (modern medical understanding suggests many reasons this could have happened) and the exhumed bodies appeared much fresher than they should have.
There is no definitive connection between these events and the rise of vampire stories, but most vampire historians, including J. Gordon Melton in 1994’s The Vampire Book, suggest they are linked. In 1746, this specific case was mentioned in “Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants,” a popular pamphlet written by Antoine Augustin Calmet, a monk and Benedictine scholar, published originally in French and translated into German and English. A number of German narrative poems came soon after, including “Lenore” by Gottfried August Bürger in 1773 and “The Bride of Corinth” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1797. The Bürger was later quoted in Dracula, while the Goethe was an adaptation of Philinnion, written by Phlegon of Tralles (Greece) in the 2nd century.
Vampires were first mentioned in English in poetry — specifically Thalaba the Destroyer by Robert Southey in 1801 and “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (written in 1800 but not published until 1816). In 1810, John Stagg’s poem “The Vampyre” was published following reports of sheep in northern England being drained of their blood, their throats cut (whether the poem is connected to those events is unclear). In 1813, Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour” included an encounter with a vampire.
The first vampire story published in English was The Vampyre by John William Polidori in 1819. Polidori is probably best known for a combination of this story (which was originally and erroneously credited to Lord Byron) and the fact that he was present on the dark and stormy night at Lake Geneva when Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Polidori wrote ghost stories, one of which became Frankenstein. Polidori is also widely believed to be Italian, but while his father was indeed an Italian ex-pat, his mother was English and he was born and raised in England. The Vampyre was based in part on the story Byron wrote that infamous night, and its main character on Byron himself.
Charles Nodier adapted The Vampyre for stage, setting it in Scotland; this play was re-adapted by James Planché as The Vampire, or, The Bride of the Isles, performed at the Lyceum Theatre in London and still set in Scotland, which introduced the use of the “vampire trap,” or trap door, to make the vampire appear and disappear. Heinrich Marschner’s German opera Der Vampyr was an adaptation of the Nodier version, and moved the setting to Wallachia, a region of Romania. Planché translated this version into English, again bringing it to the Lyceum. From there, it was adapted as a play titled Le Vampire in 1851 by none other than Alexandre Dumas.
Varney the Vampire (Volume II) was published in penny dreadfuls in 1847. Its authorship is uncertain, but it has mostly been credited to James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, both British. (It is a coincidence that Bram Stoker was born in 1847, but it nonetheless feels worth mentioning.)
In 1872, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu wrote Carmilla, which bears a strong resemblance to “Christabel” in its basic plot line and themes of lesbianism. (Speaking of coincidences, Vincenzo Verzeni was convicted in Italy of murdering two people and drinking their blood that same year.) Carmilla is set in the Duchy of Styria, modern-day Austria and Slovenia; I cannot find any confirmed link between Fanu and Der Vampyr, but the use of central Europe as a location in western vampire fiction was fairly firmly established after Carmilla.
In 1874, there are again reports of sheep with their throats slit and their blood drained, this time in Ireland. In 1878, Hans Wachenhusen’s Der Vampyr – Novelle aus Bulgarien was published in Germany.
We skip ahead now to 1897 and the publication of one of the most influential pieces of vampire literature of all time. I refer, of course, to “The Vampire” by Rudyard Kipling. I kid! Although it really was published the same year as…
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Born on March 8, 1847, in Dublin, Abraham “Bram” Stoker was the third of seven children and apparently sickly as a child. He attended Trinity College from 1864 to 1870, where he was an athlete and befriended Oscar Wilde (one assumes the two are only tangentially related). After graduating, he became the theatre critic for Dublin Evening Mail, which was co-owned by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In 1876 he wrote a favorable review of Henry Irving’s performance in Hamlet, and Irving subsequently invited him to dinner. The two became life-long friends, and in 1878 Stoker and his new wife Florence moved to London, where Stoker became the manager of Irving’s theater, the Lyceum (yes, the same one where all those vampire plays were performed years earlier). In 1890 his first novel, The Snake’s Pass, was published, and he visited Whitby (which would become the setting of his famous novel). Dracula was published in a single volume in 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company, and subsequently serialized in the United States, where it was then published as a novel in 1899 by Doubleday. It has been adapted on screen over 200 times and is in the public domain.
(Some biographical information comes from Stoker’s obituary, which amusingly suggests he was a better biographer than he was a novelist. Additional information is sourced online to Barbara Belford’s 2002 biography Bram Stoker And The Man Who Was Dracula, which delves into the sexual politics of the book. I have yet to read it, but it looks very interesting.)
For the last 50 years or so, popular belief has been that Count Dracula was based, however loosely, on Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler. This theory was posited by Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally in their 1972 book In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires, though it probably did not originate there. Repeated in other sources such as The Vampire Book, the theory has actually been challenged since at least 1990, when Elizabeth Miller began her academic study of Dracula. Her books on the topic include Reflections on Dracula; Dracula: The Shade and the Shadow (which includes the section “Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula vs. Vlad the Impaler,” which covers the matter nicely); Dracula: Sense & Nonsense; and Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula with Robert Eighteen-Bisang, among others. Although Dracula’s name is extremely similar to Vlad Tepes’s father, Vlad Dracul, Miller includes the following from Stoker in Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula:
“Dracula in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.”
Another title, Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night by Bob Curran, covers this and goes in depth about an alternate source of Stoker’s inspiration: an Irish one. This is an excellent summary of the legend of Abhartach; I also recommend the 2020 Irish film Boys From County Hell for a bloody and hilarious modern Abhartach story.
There have, of course, been vampires in fiction in Ireland and the UK since Dracula, but for now I will end there.
Werewolves in Ireland and the United Kingdom
An early depiction of a man transforming into a wolf may be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh, and other stories appeared throughout Greek history. The story of Damarchus tasting the flesh of another boy and turning into a wolf for nine years was told by Pliny the Elder, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the story of King Lycaon, who turned into a wolf when he murdered someone under Zeus’s protection. (More in this article.) But how did those stories make their way to Ireland and the UK, and did they have their own werewolf stories?
There are no wolves in Ireland (except in the Dublin Zoo and a sanctuary in Donegal), and haven’t been since they were hunted to extinction in 1786, 100 years after the last reported wolf in Scotland and 300 years after they were wiped out in England. There are, however, plenty of werewolves in older Irish stories! Unlike the werewolves we are most used to, though, these were helpful, often godly (in one case actually a goddess) shape-shifters. The best online source I found for a basic rundown of Irish werewolf mythology is this article on We Are Star Stuff.
Irish werewolf poetry dates back at least as far as the 11th century, with “De Mirabilibus Hibernie (On the Marvels of Ireland)” by Bishop Patrick of Dublin; the 13th century Latin poem “De hominibus qui se vertunt in lupos (Men Who Change Themselves into Wolves).” Also in the 13th century, the Norse Konungs Skuggsjá (King’s Mirror) mentioned Irish werewolves; this makes sense, as it was Norwegian Vikings who attacked and settled in Ireland.
Across the way in Wales, there are several stories concerning wolves and babies — one in which a man finds his dog covered in blood and kills it, believing that it ate his baby (!!!) only to discover that it was the blood of a wolf the dog killed defending the baby; another in which St. Ciwa the “Wolf Girl” was suckled by wolves. However, I cannot find a werewolf tradition in Wales.
In England, I had no such trouble: gothic fiction often included werewolves in some fashion. The 1839 gothic novel The Phantom Ship by Frederick Marryatt, based on the legend of The Flying Dutchman, includes a sequence with a woman who turns into a wolf. G.W.M. Reynolds’s Wagner the Wehr-Wolf features a young man who makes a deal with the devil to become a wolf for 18 months in exchange for money and youth. Catherine Crowe’s “A Story of a Weir-Wolf” is believed to be the first werewolf story published by a woman, in 1846 (it is included in The Best Werewolf Short Stories 1800-1849: A Classic Werewolf Anthology). Suffragette leader Clemence Housman wrote The Were-Wolf, which was published one year before Dracula.
Scotland’s most famous werewolf story is only arguably such: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson contains a transformation that is very similar to the werewolf’s, but purely subtext as Mr. Hyde is still human. Colin Wilson lays out the case for considering it a werewolf story in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural.
It is interesting that there is so much werewolf fiction and so little mythology — but perhaps that is largely due to the fact that what we think of as werewolves in modern fiction is largely cinematic. Although there were other werewolf movies before it, 1941’s Universal movie The Wolf Man written by Curt Siodmak is the source of many modern ideas about werewolves.
A Conclusion, Of Sorts
I have completely failed in my original goal to determine whether the map was accurate, but I believe my findings show that Ireland has a strong vampire tradition in both mythology and literature, and a somewhat more lacking —but present — werewolf tradition. England seems to have a good sampling of both, and I found very little about Scotland or Wales. Werewolf traditions in general seem to be quite different from the werewolves of modern fiction, while vampires bear a stronger resemblance to their modern counterparts.
Vampires are present in mythology, folklore, legends, and fiction around the world, going back much further than in Ireland and the UK. The 2004 DVD release of The Lost Boys included a special feature titled “A World of Vampires” that was researched and narrated by my husband. It is not particularly in-depth, but is worth watching for Alan Griswold’s art that accompanies it.
Vampire Myths from Around the World, and What They Have in Common
Foretelling the Future of Vampire Books
Bringing the Lesbian Vampire Home: Carmen Maria Machado’s Reclamation of Carmilla