Vampires have held our fascination for hundreds of years. They have gone from something people believed were real, to a fictional creature to fear in the night, to lost souls, to lovers.
To celebrate the opening of submissions for Triskaidekaphilia 2: Ravenous, Pen and Kink Publishing is hosting a series on vampires to get you in the mood.
This week, Aaron Canton looks estries, a Jewish equivalent of vampires.
Vampires are commonly associated with Christian themes, to the point that images of a vampire cowering before a raised cross or bouncing off a church’s threshold are well known to fans of the fantasy and horror genres. However, other cultures have similar legends which are also worthy of being explored in fiction. One example is that of the estrie, a blood-drinking monster from Jewish lore. These creatures share many similarities with traditional depictions of vampires, but are also different in key aspects which merit discussion.
The word estrie is derived from the Latin word for ‘owl’, strix, as owls were once thought to drink blood. Estries themselves are described in the Sefer Hasidim, a text written in the 13th century by Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Regensberg (also called Judah the Pious) which included accounts of many supernatural creatures. On estries, the Sefer Hasidim states that they have the traditional vampire powers of flight (though only when their hair is unbound), shapeshifting (on account of their bodies being left in an incomplete state when God stopped to rest after sunset on the sixth day of creation), and surviving mortal wounds (to the point where, if an estrie is killed but her mouth is not packed with earth, she will rise from the grave and resume attacking people). Also like vampires, estries must drink blood to survive, but in this respect they have an additional weakness. If an estrie is injured by her victim, no matter how slightly, then she must somehow trick that victim into giving her bread and salt or she will inevitably die. Finally, while stories of vampires often include both male and female examples of the species, the Sefer Hasidim describes only female estries without ever mentioning male ones, and tradition holds that estries are indeed exclusively female.
It should be noted that, like vampires, estries can be seen as a symbol of sexual immorality. Most schools of Orthodox Judaism require married women to bind and cover their hair in public, only revealing it to their husband, and so monsters with loose hair are often used to represent immodesty just as vampires often do. However, there are also significant differences between vampires and estries, of which the foremost is that defeating estries generally requires the use of discernment rather than physical strength or sacred objects. The myths recounted in the Sefer Hasidim frequently depict estries being overpowered by regular people with no particular skill at fighting and no holy symbols at hand, but those stories also show estries to be capable of great harm when they can trick others into believing they’re simple humans. For instance, one such tale describes two innocent people who are tricked into caring for an estrie that is very ill for lack of blood. When one of those helpers lets herself fall asleep, the estrie immediately unbinds her hair in preparation for flying at and attacking the sleeper; only the intervention of the other helper forces the monster away.
Another story describes a man who easily injures an estrie that took the form of a cat, but the very next day is almost tricked into giving bread and salt to that same estrie in the guise of an old woman. Fortunately, a wiser man passing by notices the danger and prevents the victim from healing the wicked monster. Estries, it can thus be seen, are of little danger to the wary, but are a grave threat to the unwise.
In sum, estries are a magical creature similar to, but distinct from, the traditional depiction of vampires. And while they may seem to be easy prey for almost any heroic sort, their many magical talents and penchant for stealth can make them a dangerous foe in a wide variety of fantasy and horror environments.
Several versions of the Sefer Hasidim are available online at the Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Project.
Additionally, the following books provide good overviews of Jewish depictions of supernatural creatures:
Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg. “Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion.”
Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.”
Rabbi Eli Clark has posted English translations of the sections of the Sefer Hasidim pertaining to estries here.
Rabbi Shael Siegel analyses the estrie myths here.
Aaron Canton is a Jewish-American writer currently living in Singapore. His short fantasy fiction has been published by Phobos Magazine, Mothership Zeta, and other venues. When he isn’t writing, Aaron can often be found reading fantasy and science fiction literature of all kinds and searching local bookstores for new additions to his library. He also enjoys listening to music, especially dark wave, and plays the piano as a hobby. He blogs at aaroncanton.wordpress.com, and his twitter account is @AaronCanton1.