Literary Tradition and Symbolism of the Female Vampire and its Adaptation in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Female Vampire in Literature from Ancient Greek Mythology to the 20th Century

3. Selected Literary Representations of the Female Vampire and their Symbolism
3.1 Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s “Die Braut von Corinth” (1789)
3.2 John Keats’ “Lamia” (1819)
3.3 Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel” (1816)
3.4 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)

4. Vampirism and the Female Vampire in Twilight
4.1 Depictions of the Female Vampire
4.2 Approaches to Sensuality and Desire
4.3 Gender Roles and Sexual Stereotyping

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The vampire is one of the favourite artificial characters in popular literature. As a mythical creature that transcends the borders of life and death it has been used to depict the dissolution of boundaries in different forms of societies and belief systems since the ancient Greece, but varied in form according to social and individual developments. Equipped with supernatural powers that even outrange the common human’s most definite limit – death – the vampire has been the personification of people’s fears and ignorance.[1]

Especially the female vampire, the most original form of this character, personifies the threat of female power to male dominated societies. As a primarily sensual being the female vampire breaks with the taboos of patriarchal structures. She promotes activity where women were supposed to remain passive, she demands sexual fulfilment while women were denied to have any desires of their own, and subjects her victims by means of her irresistible erotic presence and unnatural strengths.[2] She kills by biting her prey and drinking its blood. This action of breaking through a human’s skin with her teeth has frequently been compared to the act of penetration during sexual intercourse. In this case, however, it is the female character that penetrates and thus assumes strictly male privileges.[3] It may be this reversion in the roles of the sexes that also leads to the vampire’s inability to conceive and bear children. Procreation for a female vampire can only be achieved through the biting of a human being without causing its death. The traditional female vampire, however, has little interest in motherhood and does so only to create company. She is thus depicted as a demonic “Negation der behütenden, umsorgenden Mutter”[4].

Female vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s very popular Twilight saga still exhibit many of the traditional features of a vampire. Contrarily though, it may be argued that the dissolution of boundaries in this case consists in a return to traditional values and the exercise of self-restraint. Her female vampires are still depicted as sensual creatures but also as being well able to use reason and willpower to overcome their animal instincts. Thus, Meyer creates her vampire family as a counter statement to the human family structure in her books without denying the strengths of her female protagonists. The demonic vampire, though, still remains visible in Meyer’s novels, if only as a secondary character.

This paper will first give a short overview of the origin and development of female vampires and lamiae in literature. Then a closer look will be cast on a few selected representations of the female vampire to show the various ways of their depictions, the similarities in their features as well as differences in their symbolic appliance. Finally, the female vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight will be focussed upon to further elaborate the characteristics of the “modern female vampire” in her family setting as opposed to her predecessors.

2. The Female Vampire in Literature from Ancient Greek Mythology to the 20th Century

The origin of the vampire tradition can be found in ancient Greece. According to Greek mythology, the young queen Lamia had several children with the god Zeus. His wife, the goddess Hera, killed these children out of jealousy. Grief and anger over the death of her children turned Lamia into a demon that stole children in order to kill them and drink their blood, thus reversing her original maternal instincts. In some versions the Lamia is depicted as a serpent, in others she is believed to have the power over life and death. She is also often mentioned in the same breath as the Empuses, semi-goddesses who seduce young men before they drink their blood and eat their flesh.[5]

Other sources name the Jewish legend of Adam’s first wife Lilith as a probable source for the vampire myth. Lilith, a woman of extreme beauty, had refused to accept a subordinate role to her husband and had therefore been cast out of Eden. She lived on as a demon, seducing men to create demonic children and drinking her victims’ blood afterwards.[6] Lilith, too, is sometimes portrayed together with or in form of a serpent.[7]

References to blood drinking can also be found in the bible. The Old Testament equates blood with the essence of life and thus strictly forbids its consumption.[8] In the New Testament the Gospel according to John encourages the drinking of Jesus’ blood in order to form a sacred connection to him[9]. In this case, however, the blood is substituted by red wine which constitutes a “civilized and permissible way”[10] to avoid breaking the ancient rules.

The equation of blood and life remained obvious as well in the female vampires of Eastern European folklore. Here the mostly female vampire was depicted as an undead creature that could only remain viable by regular feasts on human blood, an image that evoked fear and repulsion in the population.[11] The Hungarian Countess Elizabeth of Barthory (1560 – 1614), on the other hand, was intrigued by the concept of blood as the quintessence of endless life and, in her view, beauty and rejuvenation. She is believed to have killed hundreds of young women in order to drain their blood for cosmetic application and accordingly seen as the one real-life model of the female vampire in history.[12]

A fear of women in general and a firm belief in their susceptibility to evil was well established during the extensive witch-hunts in the Middle Ages. Women’s sexual desires were equated with a predisposition for demonic possession and thus imposed a great danger to men. They were considered “imperfect animals” due to the “defect rib”[13] they were made of at the creation of mankind. The consequences resulting from that flaw are described in detail in the Malleus Maleficarum of 1486:

The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of a woman’s vices is avarice. […] And the tears of a woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.[14] Vampirism is mentioned a few pages further down: according to the Malleus Maleficarum witches were known to occasionally kill children and drink their blood.[15]

The result of these accusations is obvious: an overt display of female sexuality was dangerous. Accordingly it was suppressed to the point of complete denial of its existence. The witch-hunts were relegated by the emergence of enlightenment; the demonization of women’s sexual activity, however, remained and found its new symbolic outlet in the body of the vampiress.

During the Victorian Age, the female vampire became a popular character of Dark Romanticism. On one side mirroring fears of death and the dead that even couldn’t be eliminated by the upcoming enlightenment[16], it was also the image “einer unmöglichen und verbotenen Liebe, in der sich der Liebestod als höchste Erfüllung eines besonderen Schicksals mit den Möglichkeiten tabuisierter Sexualität verbindet”[17] that fascinated readers of the time. Women were supposed to have no sexual desires of their own. At the end of the 19th century even medical journals and psychiatric textbooks stated that fact:

“Ist [das Weib] geistig normal entwickelt und wohlerzogen, so ist sein sittliches Verlangen ein geringes. Wäre dem nicht so, so müsste die ganze Welt ein Bordell und Ehe und Familie undenkbar sein.”[18]

Moreover, women with sexual desires were considered a “danger to the health and the very life of their husbands”[19]. The dualistic approach of seeing women as either “virgin or whore”[20] resulted in a similar division in works about vampires. In these texts women were depicted in two typical ways: as an innocent victim or a gory vampire. The innocent victim as the ideal image had to be preserved, whereas the vampire had to be destroyed. The activity of the female vampire posed too much of a threat to male dominated society by questioning the sexual stereotyping of the time.[21]

Women of the 20th century no longer face the same stereotypical gender roles that marginalized women of the 19th century. Inferiority in their position in society may still exist but is depicted in much more subtle ways. At the same time women are granted sexual needs and desires and gain control over their bodies and their sexuality through the possibilities of contraception.[22] The sexually active side of the vampire can no longer pose the main threat. It is now the women’s effort to establish a new position in society that is translated into vampire literature. The focus is set on the struggle of finding one’s own identity and position in life for the vampiress. Also, motherhood becomes a more important feature: The vampire “creates” a child to care for, which can be seen as a reaction to the methods and developments of modern reproductive medicine.[23] A female vampire that is supposed to frighten readers has to be depicted in a much more aggressive way, displaying more extreme forms of violence than its 19th century predecessors.[24]

3. Selected Literary Representations of the Female Vampire and their Symbolism

As the above-mentioned implies, there is a variety of texts that deal with female vampires in different contexts and, as such, use these images in several symbolic meanings. Among those the following four works have been chosen to demonstrate the steps in the development of the vampiress’ character.

3.1 Johann Wolfang von Goethe’s “Die Braut von Corinth” (1798)

Researchers claim that Goethe’s poem was the first to introduce the vampiress as a serious theme in literature after its previous existence as an Eastern European folktale.[25] Goethe’s fascination with blood as the container of one’s soul and life energy is even visible in his famous work Faust: “Blut ist ein ganz besondrer Saft”[26]. His poem, however, does not focus so much on the sensational aspects of blood drinking, but rather highlights the historical change from ancient polytheism to Christianity: a young boy, whose family still believes in the heathen gods, visits the house of his father’s friend, who has already turned to Christianity. When they were still children, he and the friend’s daughter had been promised to each other. Now the girl enters his room at night and they have a passionate night of love.

Only successively the girl’s vampiric state is hinted at. The suspicions that are raised by the girl’s appearance and behaviour are then confirmed in a confrontation with her mother, who discovers the lovers as she enters the room.

The mother represents the ascetic tendencies of the Christian belief system.[27] It is insinuated that her radical convictions cost her daughter her life. Death, however, holds no peace for her, Christianity cannot soothe her longing for her true love, and so she has to rise from the dead:

Ists euch nicht genug; /Daß ins Leichentuch /Daß ihr früh mich in das Grab gebracht? /Aber aus der schwerbedeckten Enge, /Treibet mich ein eigenes Gericht, /Eurer Priester summende Gesänge, /Und ihr Segen haben kein Gewicht;[28]

In their passion, the young couple represents sensuality in contradistinction to the cold austerity of the girl’s mother. Nevertheless the girl remains rather passive at first; she is not yet the sexually aggressive and seductive vampiress of later times. The sexual encounter between the two is much more connected to their deep love and fateful tie than to an overly desirous demon and her lust for blood.

Blood drinking does indeed only become relevant at the very end of the poem. Before that the reader has to deduce the girl’s vampiric state from certain hints about her appearance. She is very pale and cold, and, as we are informed later on, does not have a heartbeat: “Seine Liebeswuth /Wärmt ihr stares Blut, /Doch es schlägt kein Herz in ihrer Brust.”[29] References to a feast can already be found at this point: the girl refuses to eat from the bread the young man offers her but greedily savours the blood coloured wine he gives her. These characteristics can also be found in later texts about vampires and seem to constitute a prototypical depiction.

After the interruption by the girl’s mother and her accusatorial speech, the vampire reveals the young man’s (and her own) destiny: “Und zu saugen seines Herzens Blut. […] Schöner Jüngling kannst nicht länger leben.“[30] The vampiress knows that she has no choice but to kill her lover and she is also aware that others will follow. Her desperation about this fate leads her to one last request to her mother: she wants to be burnt at the stake in order to finally find her peace.

3.2 John Keats’ “Lamia” (1819)

Just like Goethe’s vampiress in “Die Braut von Corinth” Keats’ character Lamia reveals a certain amount of passivity, even helplessness. Lamia is imprisoned in the shape of a serpent and can only be restored to a human form with the help of the god Hermes, a fact that clearly links her to the mythical creatures Lamia and Lilith. The serpent and her symbolic value mark her as a sensual and sinful being. Her new body, however, is still untouched and pure: “A virgin purest lipp’d, yet in the lore /Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core;”[31].

Her human form is one of extreme beauty. Paleness (I, V.238), coldness (II, V.251 f.) and a certain fragility (I, V. 338) are also features she shares with Goethe’s Corinthian bride. As a serpent Lamia had the ability to let her spirit wander among humans and has fallen in love with the young man Lycius, whom she now goes to meet. Her beauty instantly bewitches Lycius. Their love, however, is not possible as long as Lamia remains a goddess and as such on a much higher status than her human lover. So she denies her divinity and superiority claims in order to be with him:

Thus gentle Lamia judg’d, and judg’d aright, /that Lycius could not love in half a fright, /So threw the goddess off, and won his heart /More pleasantly by playing woman’s part, /With no more awe than what her beauty gave,/that, while it smote, still guaranteed to save.[32]

Still, Lycius is aware of her immortality and, though deeply in love with her, wants to subdue her and make her his possession by marrying her:

He thereat was stung, /Perverse, with stronger fancy to reclaim /Her wild and timid nature to his aim: /Besides, for all his love, in self-despite, /Against his better self, he took delight /Luxurious in her sorrows, soft and new.[33]

On their wedding day, however, the philosopher and Lycius’ former teacher Apollonius reveals Lamia’s true nature as a serpent. Lamia vanishes and Lycius dies from grief.

Thus destruction of the couple is a result both of internal as well as external reasons. Lycius’ inability to cope with his lover’s superiority and his jealousy of her supernatural features cause their exposure to the external threat in the first place. Lamia on the other hand remains innocent insofar that her intentions reside only in the intimate togetherness with Lycius. She is the “liebende Geliebte ohne böse Absicht”[34] and a stigmatised demon[35]. Her struggle with her own identity, between serpent and goddess as well as between her true self and the human woman she wants to embody for Lycius, pervades the poem. On the other hand, she knows about her effect on him and is well aware of the consequences a kiss from her would have on Lucrius.[36] It could thus be argued that she already features a subtle form of the dangerous seductress, whose true self is the malevolent snake even though it is carefully hidden in a woman’s shape.

Apollonius as her opponent, on the other hand, represents the power of reason. He does not expose Lamia as a person, but as the mythical creature that she stands for. Consequently, he does not only take away Lycius’ lover but also the possibility of the human to connect to a supernatural, sensual power.[37]


[1] Cf. Hans Esselborn, “Die Konstruktion der Vampirin in Goethes Braut von Corinth,” Der Mensch als Konstrukt: Festschrift für Rudolf Drux. ed. Rolf Füllmann and others. (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2008) 143-154. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as “Konstruktion der Vampirin” in the text.

[2] Cf. Angelika Schoder, Blutsaugerinnen und Femmes Fatales: Weibliche Vampire bei Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu und Bram Stoker (Diedorf: Ubooks, 2009) 8-18. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as Femmes Fatales in the text.

[3] Cf. Petra Flocke, Vampirinnen: ‘Ich schaue in den Spiegel und sehe nichts’ Die kulturellen Inszenierungen der Vampirin (Tübingen: Konkursbuchverlag, 1999) 8-13. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as Vampirinnen in the text.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Cf. Schoder, Femmes Fatales, 12-13.

[7] Cf. Elke Klemens, Dracula und <seine Töchter>: Die Vampirin als Symbol im Wandel der Zeit (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2004) Cover picture and inside front cover. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as Die Vampirin als Symbol in the text.

[8] Cf. Bibel: Nach der Übersetzung Martin Luthers ( Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005) 3.Mose, 17.12.

[9] Ibid., John, 6.53.

[10] Flocke, Vampirinnen, 10.

[11] Cf. Esselborn, “Konstruktion der Vampirin,“ 144.

[12] Cf. Flocke, Vampirinnen, 11.

[13] both quotes: Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, The Malleus Maleficarum (London: Dover, 1971) 43.

[14] Ibid., 44.

[15] Ibid., 48.

[16] Esselborn, “Konstruktion der Vampirin”, 148.

[17] Ibid., 150.

[18] Dr.Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia sexualis, quoted from Schoder, Femmes Fatales, 20.

[19] Cf. Bram Dijkstra, “Metamorphoses of the Vampire; Dracula and His Daughters,” Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (New York, Oxford: OUP, 1986) 335. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as “Metamorphoses” in the text.

[20] Ibid., 333.

[21] Cf. Klemens, Die Vampirin als Symbol, 12-16.

[22] Cf. Ibid., 17-20.

[23] Cf. Ibid., 305 – 319.

[24] Cf. Ibid., 19.

[25] Cf. Esselborn, “Konstruktion der Vampirin”, 144.

[26] Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust. Erster und zweiter Teil ( München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997) V.1740.

[27] Cf. Esselborn, “Konstruktion der Vampirin”, 147.

[28] Johann Wolfgang Goethe, “Die Braut von Corinth,” Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Sämtliche Werke, Bd .1 (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1977) 152 -157. V.159-165. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as “Die Braut von Corinth” in the text.

[29] Ibid., V.124 – 126.

[30] Ibid., V.179 - 183.

[31] John Keats, “Lamia,” Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1996) 163 – 182. Part I, V. 184-185. All quotes are taken from this edition and referred to as “Lamia” in the text.

[32] Ibid., Part I, V.329-334.

[33] Ibid., Part II, V.69-74.

[34] Flocke, Vampirinnen, 33.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Cf. Keats, “Lamia,” Part I, V.285-304.

[37] Cf. James D. Boulger, “Keats Symbolism,” English Literary History 28.3 (1961):252-256.

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Literary Tradition and Symbolism of the Female Vampire and its Adaptation in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Monstrous Loves and Beautiful Beasts: The Twilight Series in Literary Contexts
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literary, tradition, symbolism, female, vampire, adaptation, stephenie, meyer, twilight, saga
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Kathrin Vogel (Author), 2011, Literary Tradition and Symbolism of the Female Vampire and its Adaptation in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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