25 maio 2011

Why Are Vampires terrified of Garlic?

vampire garlicVampires, evil beings that fed on blood, have been particularly prevalent in in the 18th century. Although superstition may have originated from Western Europe, fear of vampires became wides spread and sent the whole of Europe into mass hysteria. A well-known defense against vampires is to chew garlic and have cloves of garlic around you at all times. Of course chewing garlic release a putrid smell that is almost impossible to get rid of. This is because upon chewing garlic a sulphur containing chemical called allicin is produced, and sulphur containing compounds (thiols) are well known to smell nasty. The smell is often associated with rotting eggs or rotting meat, and it this is exactly what people wanted as surrounding oneself with this smell is thought to offer protection against the evil vampires. The Romanians took this so far as to smear garlic on every nook and cranny (including their windows, doors, gates and even cows). Now the question begets, “Why is Garlic useful against vampires”; wouldn’t it be more logical propagate a myth where vampires are terrified something that smells good? If not, something that smells less vile.
One of the possible explanations for this odd belief is that garlic is known to have anti-bacterial qualities. Garlic was used to ward off various diseases such as the plague and it is believed to have many health benefits.  Infact, there have been many scientific studies (2)(3) showing the anti-bacterial properties of garlic. Asvampires were associated with “evil”, a category that diseases and plagues belong to, one might assume that garlic might also ward off this evil.
Another possibility is that garlic is natural mosquito repellent. Since vampires are also blood sucking fiends, having an odour of garlic might repel them away also.
A rather interesting hypothesis by the French Occultist Robert Ambelain (4)(5) is that the burning of arsenic compounds started off this whole trend. This might sound a bit preposterous, but there is certain logic to the argument. During the time vampires lore is dominant; Arsenic, a potent poison, was believed to hold power over evil (arsenic was also used in many folk medicines). This ideology was strongly held by many alchemists in major cities like Prague and Moravia at that time. When alchemists were hired to ward of vampires, they would burn arsenic containing compounds to provide the illusion that they are warding off evil with powerful evil slaying odours. These arsenic containing compounds when burnt would provide a nasty odour that smells exactly like that of chopped garlic. The peasants would of course notice this and make the connection that chewing garlic would produce the same effect and would be cheaper than hiring and alchemist (hence contributing to its spread and popularity). One critique of this theory is that garlic burning was localized to a few countries in Europe whilst Vampire lore was much more widespread.
One interesting twist to the story is an experimental study done in 1994 by Sandvik H et al (6). Devoid of real life vampires, the group used blood sucking leeches to try to find out if a garlic smeared hand would repel the leeches. As it turns out, the garlic actually attracted the leeches and decreased the amount of time it took to attach itself to the hand. They therefore proposed that garlic might actually attract vampires. This might not be a conclusive theory, but it is sure enough an ironic result. Perhaps they should try an experiment with vampire bats next time.
Of course there are many other other explanations, if you have have any ideas please post them below:
  1. Silver & Ursini, The Vampire Film, pp. 22–23.
  2. Cavallito, C. J.; Bailey, J. H., Allicin, the Antibacterial Principle of Allium sativum. I. Isolation, Physical Properties and Antibacterial Action. Journal of the American Chemical Society 1944,66 (11), 1950-1951.
  3. Farbman, K. S.; Barnett, E. D.; Bolduc, G. R.; Klein, J. O., Antibacterial Activity of Garlic and Onions: A Historical Perspective. The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal1993,12 (7), 613.
  4. http://www.shroudeater.com/agarlic.htm
  5. William R Cullen, Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac?: The Sociochemistry of an Element, William R Cullen
  6. Tidsskr Nor Laegeforen. 1994 Dec 10;114(30):3583-6. 

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