Garlic, or scientifically known as allium sativum, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Its close relatives include the onion, shallot, leek, chive, and Chinese onion. It is thought to be native to Siberia, but spread to other parts of the world over 5000 years ago. What makes this unsuspecting herb used in so many of our dishes so deadly to the blood sucking fiends that are popularly known as vampires?
What is a vampire?
Most people can name several tropes associated with vampire lore, especially in popular culture. However, as our understanding of vampires presently stands, there are no firmly established characteristics to unite all the disparate forms vampires had taken across cultures.
For instance, some variations of vampires are said to be able to shapeshift into bats or wolves… but others can’t. Some vampires are able to cast a reflection on surfaces like regular humans… but others don’t. Holy water and sunlight are said to repel or kill vampires… but this isn’t always true with vampire mythos across different cultures.
Needless to say, the platonic ideal of the vampire, its essential features are very difficult to capture. But perhaps the most universal characteristic among the different takes on the vampire is that they always have a thirst for draining a certain vital bodily fluid, typically blood.
Origins of the Vampire Mythos
The origins of the vampire mythos stems from centuries-old medieval superstition and assumptions about how bodies react after death, in addition to explaining phenomena which could not have been explained by science at the time (akin to how we used witches to pin our misfortunes on throughout history.)
The first recorded accounts of vampires followed a consistent pattern. Some baffling misfortune would occur to an unsuspecting person, family or town… and in a pre-scientific world, where we had little understanding say of weather patterns to explain poor crop harvests, or medical science to make sense of deadly outbreaks and their effects on humans (for example, rabies which produce vampire-like symptoms), any bad event for which there was no obvious cause could simply be blamed on a vampire.
Vampires were historically but another in a long list of easy answers to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. But of course, the imagery of the vampire has evolved beyond simply being the easy-to-blame boogeyman of old. Let us trace some well known vampire incarnations throughout history.
Vampires Across the Globe
Those looking for a historical “real” Dracula cite Romanian prince Vlad Tepes, the basis for Bram Stoker’s classic novel “Dracula.” In Romania, he is viewed surprisingly not as a blood-drinking sadist but as a national hero. These kinds of vampires are what we know as revenants, human corpses said to return from the grave to harm the living, a mythology that is Slavic in origin and only a few hundred years old.
There are also Asian vampires, such as the Chinese jiangshi (pronounced chong-shee), evil spirits that attack people and drain their life energy; as well as the aswang of Philippine folklore, an evil, shapeshifting creature that shares the grotesque characteristics of werewolves, vampires and ghouls.
What is common with these versions of the vampire as we know it? Apparently almost all of them could be repelled or killed by garlic. Strange isn’t it?
Vampires and Garlic in History
Tracing the history of garlic, it originally gained a good reputation during the era of ancient Egypt. Back in the day, it was believed to hold incredible healing powers, and from Egypt it spread and developed more uses and powers.
Over time, it came not only to be known not only for healing but also as protection against plagues and supernatural evil. For instance, in southern Slavic regions it was used to protect against demonic forces, witches and sorcerers.
Garlic as a defense against vampires was also common in Romania, the home country of the original “Dracula,” Vlad Tepes. In Romania, it was used to find and prevent vampires lurking among everyday people. How? According to them, a vampire in hiding apparently is not willing to eat garlic. No excuses for seeking to avoid bad breath could catch you a break from the old Romanian and Slavic peoples who would consider you a vampire if you even refused to eat it.
Even as far back as the 1970s, this use of garlic had persisted. A Romanian church distributed garlic during service, observing those who refused to eat it and figuring out if the person was a vampire. What happened to those who happened to simply not be in the mood for garlic? We don’t know, but we hope they’re alright.
Where did this idea that garlic deters vampires come from?
In addition to the supernatural reason, scientists have traced its possible origin with humanity’s experience with the disease rabies. In 1998, a Spanish neurologist made a correlation between reports of rabies outbreaks in and around Hungary which affected dogs, wolves, and other animals from 1721 to 1728, alongside the ‘vampire epidemics’ that erupted shortly thereafter. It could be that those “vampires” were merely unfortunate citizens suffering from a little understood disease called rabies. Thank god for modern scientific knowledge.
How did this obscure history however translate in our popular culture? What are some examples of vampires being known to hate garlic in our popular media such as books, TV, movies, and more?
The Origin of Vampires’ Hatred of Garlic in Popular Culture
One of the oldest vampire tropes dates back to medieval Europe. Namely, that vampires are weakened by the presence of garlic, whether flowers, bulbs, cloves or juice. Apparently, all of it is repellent to them. This trope in popular culture originated all the way in the original Dracula novel, where the main character Van Helsing attempts to protect Lucy from Dracula by giving her a garland of garlic flowers to wear, while rubbing garlic around the entrances of her bedroom.
Though succeeding media across the next century reproduced the vampire and garlic mythos in various forms, they’ve all practically riffed off of this original appearance of the vampire’s infamous weakness.
What would make garlic so repulsive for vampires (scientifically speaking)?
What if vampires were real creatures that actually existed on earth, what would be the most likely reason for them to be repelled? The scientific answer would likely come from a particular chemical called allicin, an oxygenated sulfur compound found throughout the whole plant.
Allicin is the chemical that produces the pungent smell which garlic is so known for… but it is also known to provide surprising health benefits. Modern research has proven garlic to be effective as an antimicrobial, antifungal, antiparasitic, and antiviral substance thanks to this chemical.
A scientific study observed that high concentrations of allicin were harmful towards mammalian cells. Interesting to note however is that when a parasite was introduced, the amount proved to be mostly harmless towards the mammalian cells but toxic towards the parasite!
Perhaps this is what would most likely be the most repelling thing about garlic to our favorite undead bloodsuckers: its sheer health benefit — the antithesis of the deathly imagery and mythos associated with vampires as we know them.