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The counting seeds myth

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9 replies to this topic

#1
Darkness

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The lore of a vampire counting seeds or similar has got me wondering where this might have originated. It may not have originated with the vampire at all as it also applies to some evil spirits based on my research. Anyone have some insights or theories?

#2
Moon_Vampire

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I'm sure you're aware of the tons of examples of vampire lore in which vampires must stop and count seeds, allowing a person to get away in the meantime or keeping the vampire busy until the sun rises. There are variations of this that include poppy seeds, sesame seeds, grains of rice, and peppercorns. Some lore has the seeds mixed with iron nails, owl talons, or iron shavings so that the vampire would be wounded or distracted and have to start counting all over again.

This lore is quite prominent, especially in eastern Europe. Examples include the Azéman of Suriname, the Gierach of Poland, Mjertovjec of Belarus, Nelapsi in Slovakia, Trinidad's Soucayant, the German Vampir, and Russia's Viesczy.

A similar practice involved throwing a fishing net over a vampire's grave. It was thought that the vampire would have to untie all of the knots before being able to pass the net, and sometimes it was believed that the vampire could untie only one knot per year. Or, in the case of the Gierach: "Even a simple sock placed in the grave will occupy its attention. The gierach will not leave the grave as long as the sock is intact, but it will not undo more than a single stitch a year" (Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology; Theresa Bane).

Back to the topic of origin: There are also many ways in which people used seeds, herbs, etc. to drive away evil spirits or to honor the dead. In hoodoo, burying two halves of an onion on either side of one's doorstep is thought to keep out evil spirits. Other hoodoo herbs used to keep away evil spirits include Eucalyptus, Five Finger Grass, Peppermint, Sage, and Asafoetida (AKA Devil's Dung - because it smells absolutely awful!). In the Hindu Mecaru ceremony, people placate the spirits of nature with a sacrifice that includes offerings of colored rice seeds and other food. In Japan, offerings of rice are often given to spirits for all sorts of reasons. Spirits are also known to desire bread, mostly in European countries or those in which bread was a primary source of sustenance.

For Dia de los Muertos, sweet bread is a common offering. Bread itself was considered sacred to many in European countries, as it was a staple of their diets (not to mention all of the religious associations). Bread was life. In Japan, rice represented life as well as fertility. In China, seeds were associated with life, fertility, and offspring. In all cultures, spirits crave this life. I believe this is why offerings of rice, bread, seeds, etc. are an effective method to appease a spirit.

Perhaps vampire lore concerning seeds and rice arose from this basic symbolism? The vampire craves life (blood), so perhaps it made sense that they would be fascinated with such strong symbols of life. Then again, this lore also assigned vampires some serious OCD issues as well.

Another similarity worth looking into is the idea that labyrinths are known to catch or distract evil spirits of all sorts. Celtic knots are considered wards against evil spirits, and some suggest that this is because evil becomes caught in the endless knots. This is closer to the OCD nature of the lore.

That's all I can think of at the moment. Hopefully some of this rambling is useful :)

#3
Darkness

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Thanks. Good info but I'm also wondering at which point someone decided to prescribe OCD to evil spirits or vampires. There should be a simple or logical explanation but I couldn't think of one.

#4
Moon_Vampire

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Ah, ok. I can only guess at the reasons, primarily by looking at how humans develop OCD. In particular, how OCD thoughts and actions are usually side-effects of fear and assigning great importance to what most would view as a mundane item, action, or thought. In other words, making a mountain out of a mole hill. It is likely that people assigned their own fears to vampires and evil spirits, as we have already done with the fear of death, and simply included this one to allay their own fears with a simple ritual (tossing a handful of seeds behind them when afraid that they are being pursued by a vampire/spirit).

Many people who are concerned about evil spirits even now are often obsessed with the idea, constantly worrying that every "bad" thing in their lives can be attributed to some sort of evil force. To give the thing you fear this very same obsession, while creating a ritual solution to one's own fear, isn't too far fetched in my opinion.

#5
Darkness

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Ah right, and maybe they saw someone with OCD and thought they were possessed by an evil spirit.

#6
Rhuen

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Not likely one person came up with this, this is a universal over the entire world.
Every culture has evil spirits, faeries, and everything between and beyond that has some OCD like cases, the thing is OCD as a mental disorder wasn't recognized until relativly recently.

Counting broom stick straw, counting sugar grain, counting sand, counting stones, counting the number of bricks, counting shaved hairs, counting cotton balls, counting grains of rice, counting grains of corn, ect...

It is weird that so many different peoples around the world came up with the same thing; but the constant is this (a way to stall something that would otherwise be far more than a normal person would be able to handle, and using a method that is readily available to the peoples of that culture). Sounds to me like an easy idea to come to, to give people both something to fear and peace of mind to a way to deal with it at the same time.

The *insert horrible nocturnal monster* is immune to all weapons made by man, stronger than the strongest beast, and faster than you could ever run.
-so how can I hope to get away, must I live in fear *insert local religious/superstition leader*
Oh, no, don't worry while you should fear this horrible beast that makes you run towards our faith for guidance, there is a simple way to stall it till you reach the safety of your home or our protection (and insert the only way a people with nothing else to use to stall have, easy to come by household items or food that are numerous, small, and would be a pain to sit there and count individually).

#7
AdornedOdin

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This is a very interesting myth. Since vampires were not featured prominently in lore around my neck of the woods, I have only heard of the Celtic Knot version and the seeds from my study of European lore, which is not very extensive. I think the idea that people observed those with OCD and decided to attribute it with the idea of being possessed makes sense. Another thought lies in the realms of autism and Idiot-Savants, and other "niche-" or pattern- inducing illnesses. A family member of mine was a foster mother, and I remember one particular girl that she took care of that would always count her pieces of food before she ate it, especially with food that comes in several parts, like peas. It would stand to reason that somebody saw this, thought "Why is so-and-so being so weird? It must be a spirit/demon/what-have-you!", and it evolved from there. I know Savants of mathematics sometimes like to count things, and I can see where this would drive them mad, which could have produced the same effect.

#8
Rhuen

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The only problem I have with the OCD possession hypothesis is that none of the myths regarding the use of counting as a deterent that I have encountered are used for possession cases, its always leaving the stuff out or telling people to throw it down if they are chased by some invisible boogyman. There are a wide array of weird superstitions for dealing with supposedly possessed people from the comical *letting a dog lick their face* to the horrific *drill a hole in their skull*.

#9
Skadi

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I guess this is why the Count is so obsessive with counting on Sesame Street. Aha!

I am guessing the legend about counting seeds and vampires most likely originated from the belief that Witches had an obsessive counting disorder. The Witch and the Vampire were one in very early mythology to the point where the name of the vampire is very similar to that of the witch in many cultures

IE in Romanian a witch is called a strigoaică but a vampire is a strigoi. Strigoaică is just the feminine for strigoi.


#10
CultHero

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I guess this is why the Count is so obsessive with counting on Sesame Street. Aha!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-Wd-Q3F8KM
Sorry, couldn't resist. :P