Welcome to the second installment of Know Your Myth, a series about the the myths and stories that have become ingrained in our pop culture. This week, we’re tackling the moon, specifically the ‘Super Blood Moon’ that has recently passed over the US, causing many us to gaze skyward and think about . . . vampires.
Let’s get started.
Today’s lunar eclipse was a spectacle not to be missed. It was, after all, the first combined Blood Moon, Super-Moon, and Blue Moon to grace the heavens in over a century and a half. However, stargazers shouldn’t be the only ones waiting with bated breath. Vampire lovers should be polishing their telescopes as well, because once upon a time, Blood Moons were thought to be caused by a long-forgotten species of vampire — known as the varcolac — from Romania folklore.
While that sounds strange, it stands to reason because myths are generally created to explain the unexplainable. If you were a peasant back in the day and you looked up to see the moon two sizes too big and colored crimson, you’d try to explain it, too. And without Google to help, you had to rely on the tales around you.
For Romanians back then, that meant vampires.
First, What Causes an Actual Super Blood Moon?
Before we dive into the lore, it’s important for us to get a basic understanding of what a Super Blood Moon is, according to the real science we know today. And it’s rather simple.Credit: Giphy
“The celestial event is known as a “blood moon” and it occurs as the moon slides behind Earth’s shadow during a lunar eclipse,” reports Nicholas St. Fleur from The New York Times.
That shadow is what gives the moon it’s odd, bloody color. The one that just passed over the US, however, was a combination of many other events, too, making it much rarer than just a normal blood moon, which happens quite often.
Here’s Fleur again with the details on why it’s such a neat sight:
“First, because it is a “blue moon” — that means it is the second full moon to occur in a month. Also, it is a supermoon, meaning it will be closer to the Earth than usual, but the difference in size is hardly noticeable. Here’s what you need to know to catch this lunar trifecta some are calling the “super blue blood moon.”
Based on all of this, you can see how understanding an event so complex wasn’t really in the wheelhouse of Romanian townsfolk back in the day. So, to answer what the hell was going on in the sky when the moon became huge and suddenly turned the color of blood, they turned to mythology.
Here There be Monsters: A Brief History
Vampire stories are some of the world’s oldest and most widespread, spanning from South America to Eastern Asia. While each of these creatures are uniquely horrible, they all share a few similar attributes.
Contemporary vampires, as we in the west have come to understand them, kind of sound like superheroes. They are attractive (most of the time), possess superhuman strength, speed, and cognition, and do not age.
Their weaknesses vary, from silver and garlic, to stakes and the crow of the rooster (yes, a rooster), but their primary — if not defining — vulnerability is the need to consume blood. Failing to consume blood in a timely, or less-than-glutinous fashion, can result in a bunch of issues for vampires, the most widely accepted being an overtly aged or monstrous appearance.
Think of a dried fruit.
As ubiquitous as this image of the vampire has become, there’s one retelling that’s been nearly forgotten, one that’s much more powerful and far more “real” than most modern vampires.
So, where did these vampire stories start, anyway?
Most research suggests that Romania is the birthplace of the European vampire, and responsible for most of the vampire lore in the world today. This is where the whole ‘blood sucking fiend’ story line starts. Since then, different cultures have taken the vampire myth and ran with it. However, there are also different ‘species’ or types of vampire within Romanian vampire lore and some of them have been seemingly lost to the passage of time.
This was the fate of the varcolac, a type of vampire — sometimes even taking the form of a werewolf, goblin, demon or really any other nasty, paranormal creature — that is at constant war with the moon.
What Are the Varcolaci?
Similar to vampires, varcolaci look much the same as normal people on the surface, just a bit pale with their strict aversion to sunlight.
There are also reports that the creatures took the form of a werewolf or some type of man-beast.
“In Romanian, vârcolac commonly means ‘werewolf’. It can occasionally mean ‘goblin’,” reports the Encyclopedia of Monsters.
“The word vârcolac is a loan from Slavic (Bulgarian varkolak, and vulkodlak, Greek vrykolakas), meaning ‘werewolf’ (etymologically ‘Wolf’s Fur’). The pricolici is another form of vârcolac, also resembling a werewolf.”
Despite these conflicting views on what the creature actually looked like, their powers are pretty much agreed upon. Instead of seducing people and using them like personal blood bags — the typical approach of modern and ancient vampire hunting practices — the varcolaci have bigger fish to fry, specifically the moon.
The tale goes that when the moon becomes full, this creature will fall into a deep, astral sleep. During its slumber, the varcolaci will become a spirit, and attempt to eat the moon while being linked to its body through it’s mouth.
Talk about a big, scary-as-hell appetite.
Here’s what the Encyclopedia of Monsters has to say:
Their power is said to last as long as the thread is not broken. If the thread gets broken, they go to another part of the sky. *Varcolaci are recognized by their pale faces, as well as the deep sleep they fall into when sending their spirits out through their mouths to eat the sun or the moon. If they are moved during their sleep they die as their returning spirit won’t be able to find the mouth where they came from.
Basically, the monster leaves it’s body behind where it turns grey in it’s sleep while it makes a journey to the moon. It’s kind of funny that — if you were to want to test is someone sleeping was a varcolac — all you’d have to do would be move the person to another room, causing the spirit to get lost.
Most of the time, though, the varcolac is unsuccessful and the full moon shines on normally. However, every so often, a varcolac succeeds, and is able to eat the moon. Having caught such huge, elusive quarry, the varcolac feasts (as most vampires do) voraciously, spilling blood down it’s mouth, and onto the moon. Thus, a Blood Moon is created.
A Paranormal Explanation
It’s easy to see how this myth came to be.
Imagine you’re a Romanian peasant. You (literally) scrape out a living tilling the earth, selling a few of the fruits of your labors at the market every so often, and spend most of your free time either asleep or hoping you aren’t raided by a passing bandit or invader.
Put simply, your understanding of the world is limited. So, when the moon turns red, you remember all of the stories your grandparents told you about the terrible, moon-eating varcolaci. So, you lock your door, and surround yourself with garlic and scriptures because who wants to be eaten by some blood-thirsty moon-eater?
Vampire tales — in general — have been employed to shed light on some of humankind’s deepest shadows. For eastern European villagers, vampires were the explanation behind the slow, complex processes that constitute decay. For the Victorians, vampires were an allegory for socially perceived deviant sexual desires.
And lunar eclipses scared Romanian peasants so far out of their wits they had to invent a whole other species of vampire to explain them.
That being said, even with the benefits of hindsight and twenty-first century rationale, they can’t be blamed.
Blood Moons are grandiose and inescapable. After all, it’s the moon we’re talking about. It’s up in the sky most every night, and now it’s way too damn big and the wrong color. What’s a peasant to do? Ignore it? Or try to explain it.