From the Twilight series to True Blood, there’s no absence of vampire lore (and entertainment) in the 21st century. Likewise, there are individuals who believe in the existence of vampires and are compelled to hunt these mysterious creatures of the darkness—some vampire hunters have even been arrested for weapons violations!
There are a few vampire-slaying weapons, however, that won’t attract the attention of law enforcement but may make you feel a bit safer while traipsing through a cemetery at night--or so the lore goes. Garlic, of course, has been trusted for centuries as a potent anti-vampire substance. And then there’s also silver, which has been woven into more recent vampire stories. Those unfamiliar with contemporary legends of vampires may wonder—Why silver? Why not gold or platinum or all precious metals?
A search for the origin of the belief in silver as a vampire antidote will reveal that the history of the idea is as murky as the underworld itself. Between "ancient texts" and internet lore, there's no shortage of incomplete, dubious, and fanciful stories to keep you entertained. Here's one to make your head spin:
Judas Iscariot as the “Original Vampire” (?)
In the New Testament, Judas Iscariot betrays Christ, resulting in Christ’s crucifixion. In return for his betrayal, Judas is given thirty silver pieces. He soon after regrets his decision, but his efforts to repent bring him no peace:
Then Judas, who had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:3-5)
This is where the New Testament leaves us as far as Judas’s story is concerned. According to one blogger with supposed access to a rare and ancient text, the narrative was revisited in 843 when a Catholic monk by the name of Aed penned the Book of Agulan, in which he recorded Judas’s fate after this scene in Matthew. The blogger suspects that Aed was recording threads of a story he’d heard shared around the community.
In this version of the story, God punishes Judas by restoring his life, cursing him to wander the earth, in fear of sunlight, without the comfort of death until the end of time. (Some sources debate the matter of light sensitivity.) As further punishment, God only permits Judas to drink human blood, forbidding him water and wine.
Silver as Punishment. As a final punishment in this narrative, God makes Judas silver-intolerant, a painful reminder of his transgression. In this story, Judas fathers many offspring—and all of them are fated to walk in the darkness as “Creatures of the Night,” feeding on human blood. Proponents of the Judas-as-original-vampire theory believe that the Iscariot clan spanned modern-day Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. (No references to this story appear before 2012, however.)
(Funnily enough, pieces of this legend sound a lot like the plot of the movie Dracula 2000. Coincidence?)
It’s generally acknowledged in contemporary vampire lore (internet and TV series) that silver both burns and temporarily paralyzes vampires, inhibiting them from removing the silver from their bodies.
Despite the hold that the Judas-as-vampire story seems to have on the some vampire internet "experts"-- and the belief that silver harms vampires--a look at older literature and events reveals that silver may be a recent adaptation. In fact, it may actually have its origins in legends of werewolves.
Silver Saves the French Countryside
In the 18th century, Gévaudan, an area in south-central France, witnessed the devastating attacks of what many believed to be a werewolf. From 1764 to 1767, the beast reportedly roamed the countryside, attacking, killing, and sometimes eating unsuspecting victims. One report notes that out of 210 attacks, 113 resulted in death.
Of course, what some believed was a werewolf could have been a pack of ordinary but hungry wolves. Either way, a hunting team was organized to kill the Beast of Gévaudan. Jean Chastel, a local hunter, was believed to kill the large wolf with a blessed silver bullet. Thus, the idea of silver-as-werewolf-killer was born.
Bram Stoker's Dracula--Not Harmed by Silver?
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker is arguably the most famous vampire novel and is considered a seminal text in the horror genre. It doesn't look like silver plays a big role in the story, however. The only references to silver (as a metal) are to a silver lamp that Dracula, himself, holds in his hands:
"Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door...He bowed in a courtly way as he replied:—“I am Dracula; and I bid you welcome...As he was speaking, he put the lamp on a bracket on the wall"
Silver crops up at least once more in the story in the form of the silver crucifix that Dr. Van Helsing, an occult specialist, gives to Jonathan Harker (Dracula's prisoner) before they go to hunt down Dracula. The power of the crucifix seems to be only in the fact that it is a crucifix, however.
Could this mean that silver as a vampire antidote was simply confused with werewolf legends? Has silver now become a go-to vampire weapon for screenwriters and contemporary horror writers? What are your thoughts?
Photos: Aniko’s Blog, Dracula Movie, Wikimedia Commons