Of vampires and corn
Corn arrives in Europe in 1492.
Staple peasant food within a century.
Outbreaks of pellagra soon follow.
Pellagra and vampirism share common manifestations.
Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, among the many
things he took back to Spain was corn, where it soon supplanted
wheat and rye among the poor because of its high caloric
yield per acre. It then spread to northern Italy, where
boiled cornmeal or polenta became the peasants staple
Polenta is still a common food in many countries and is
known by various names. In South Africa, cornmeal mush is
eaten as mealie pap. In West Africa its called fufu.
In Barbados, cou-cou. In Curacao, funchi. Corn grits in
the southern USA is somewhat similar.
Venezuelans eat cornmeal as part of their Christmas meal,
hallacas or huge pastelles, as well as for their traditional
breakfast, arepas, made from white corn filled with various
ingredients from grated cheese to shredded meat to black
beans, and enjoyed by generations of young men after a night
It was in poverty-stricken eastern Europe where corn became
the main source of energy for poor people. Cornmeal or onions
or lard with a swig of schnapps or rakija or slivovitz (plum
brandy) was what you ate on a daily basis. The corn is known
as polenta in sweet Croatia and imperial Austria, palenta
in troubled Serbia, kachamak in unknown Bulgaria, and mamaliga
in Draculinean Rumania.
Therein lies a story.
Wherever it was introduced a strange disease, called pellagra,
soon arose. Pellagra is a vitamin deficiency disease caused
by dietary lack of niacin (B3) and proteins containing the
essential amino acid tryptophan. Pellagra is another word
derived from the Italian pelle agra (pelle =
skin; agra = rough). Medical students remember it as the
four Ds: dermatitis, diarrhoea, dementia, and
death. It kills within four to five years if left untreated.
In modern societies, a majority of patients with clinical
pellagra are poor, homeless, alcohol-dependent, or psychiatric
patients who refuse food. But in Europe for centuries after
it was first introduced, it was responsible for epidemics
of slow, lingering, horrible deaths and no one knew what
to do until American scientists established the cause just
before World War I.
It turns out that maize lacks readily accessible niacin
or tryptophan unless cooked with alkali, a process which
natives of America had worked out over the ages. They had
learned to add either ashes or lime to the cornmeal to liberate
vitamin B3 or they added beans to the corn (tamales) because
beans contain niacin.
It was a fairly typical example of foreigners coming into
a culture and copying something they like without fully
understanding the cultural or, in this case, the medical
Stories of vampires have their origin in the folklore of
eastern Europe countries beginning in the early 1700s. It
is now thought that there is a relationship between these
stories and pellagra.
If one examines the four major characteristics of pellagra,
one finds a close association between three of them and
the vampire belief.
Victims of pellagra are nocturnal because their skin is
hypersensitive to sunlight. With repeated episodes of dermatitis,
their skin becomes pale, paper-thin and parchment-like,
yet their tongues remain inflamed: smooth and red. Because
of the dermatitis, their lips are often red and cracked.
In Bram Stokers Dracula, the vampire is described
as a man of extraordinary pallor...without a speck
of colour in him...yet with a bloated face and
red, voluptuous lips.
The symptoms of dementia are insomnia, unjustified aggression
and desire to fight, alternating with periods of depression
when the person hides himself away from society.
These symptoms are characteristic of the folkloric vampire
who does not sleep at night, shuns normal society and is
moody and irritable.
Pellagra is a slow, progressive, wasting disease, frightful
to friends and family who have no idea what causes it. Typically,
it affects close relatives of the initial case, since they
share similar diets.
Vampire folklore holds that those who die of the bite of
a vampire leave behind enemies or loved ones with whom they
have unfinished business or strong emotional connections.
They leave their graves to seek vengeance or to be reunited
with their loved ones in eternal bloodsucking life.
The fourth D, diarrhoea, has never been described as an
aspect of the vampire myth. However, body functions were
normally not spoken of in past centuries and may not have
entered the myth for this reason. Certainly, refusal of
food (vampires supposedly survive by drinking blood), anorexia
and weight loss are common among people with pellagra, as
were poor hygiene and sanitation, leading to worm infestation,
reflective of the vampires legendary association with
There are other significant associations between corn and
vampires. The word vampire first entered the
English language in 1734, the year before pellagra was first
described by a Spanish physician as a disgusting disease
of peasants. Pellagra was known as the springtime
disease, when new crops were not yet ready and the
use of cornmeal increased.
According to tradition, St Georges Day in late April
or early May was the day on which vampires would gather
at the edge of a village to plan their attacks on villagers.
And, as we all know, the two telltale signs of an exhumed
vampire are a red face marked with fresh blood
and a ring of cornmeal around the mouth of the deceased.