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The Restless Dead - the History of the Slavic Vampire

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Obra Ebrahim plays the 'iconic modern vampire' - but there's more to the mythology than that.

Rarely has any creature of mythology taken such a firm hold upon the popular imagination as has the vampire. He is a prince of the night, an erotic and sensuous being with powers beyond mortality, and a history that stretches back centuries... except that this isn't the Slavic vampire at all! No - it is the post-Dracula vampire of modern society, the iconic modern vampire. To unearth the genuine thing ('genuine' in reference to the creature believed in by the various Slavic vampire cults from at least the 13th Century to even the present day), the reader must first of all undergo an exorcism.

The thing to be exorcised is the modern conception of the vampire.

The reader is urged to cast aside his notions of fangs, incredible strength, the power to fly, the lack of a reflection in a mirror, an aversion to garlic, a glittering and powerful sexual allure, immortality, beauty, and the power to hypnotise. These things should be put onto a metaphorical coat-hanger - they can always be picked up again later.

The Soil of the Vampire Cults

The subject of what actually contributed to the birth of the vampire cult is a huge topic in itself, and deserves an entry of its own. Suffice to say that the Slavs who poured into the Baltic regions prior to and after the 10th Century AD were subject to various waves of Iranian religious influences - such as the Mithraic Mysteries, Manichaeism, the Paulicians, and finally the most influential of all... Bogomilism.

These religions (save the Mysteries of Mithras, about which too little is known to assert much) share several things in common - a belief in soul migration, a belief in dualism (there is a persistent belief that God had two sons, and that one of them was the devil, who was responsible for creating the body of man - and thus the body is considered to be unholy as opposed to the soul), a belief in periods of time that were crossroads, times of transition (such as twilight, cock's crow, noonday), and so on. These elements are discernibly carried over into the belief system of vampire cults. Certainly Bogomilism also included a belief that all who were not Bogomilists were possessed of a daemon, and Bogomils dug up the bodies of those who were non-Bogomils in the belief that their bodies were unfit for burial (being possessed of a daemon). And significant in these cults and the folklore of the period was a creature known as a vukodlak - a meteorological daemon responsible for eating the sun and moon, and causing disturbances in the heavens.

The First Stirrings

The word 'vampire' is referenced for the very first time in a Slavic manuscript in 1047 - but the manuscript has nothing to do with vampires. Instead, the word upyr' (cognate with 'vampire') turns up as a proper name - Upir' Lichyj - referring to a particular Prince of Novgorod.

Russian names of the period very often were descriptive rather than simple nomenclature, but if the term upyr' meant anything at this period, nothing is known of it.

The first time the actual concept of a vampire appears in literature is over 200 years later, in a Nomokanon from 1262. The term used is vukodlak (which is today cognate with vampire in Serbo-Croat traditions, but not in East and West Slavic folktales). It turns up in various Slavic languages as vlokodlaci, vorkolak, vârcolac, vrykolaka, vurkolak, vârcolaci and svârcolaci.

The term 'vampire' has a rich but speculative etymological history, clearly being birthed in the Bulgarian area and subsequently being transferred into other Slavic cultures.*

Seeing the dead

With the devastating Black Plague attacking the Balkans in the 1300s, and a great deal of upheaval occurring socially, politically and religiously during this period, the secret beliefs of the Bogomils began to spill over into folk belief. In village after village, a frightening spate of deaths occurred. It seemed inexplicable - the enemy was invisible and seemed to strike without cause. The people still alive cast about frantically for a reason, a scapegoat, someone or something to blame...

...and they found it.

The Dead

The dead are to blame - of course! It becomes habit to assume that the first to die in a particular attack of plague somehow is re-animated, either by his own soul (unable to find spiritual rest) or by a daemon. Somehow, the corpse is attacking the others in the village - first its close family members, followed by neighbours and, ultimately, everyone. It is presumed to eat its own graveclothes, to chew its own flesh in a desperate search for nourishment, and - by sympathetic magic (when its lips touch the winding cloth) - to be able to suck the life or the blood away from relatives, friends and strangers.

The Behaviour of the Slavic Vampire

Reports of the vampires in these Balkan regions, translated from original documents, caused a sensation in Germany in the 17th Century and in England and France and Germany again in the 18th Century. A careful study of the source material1 reveals two specific types of report: 1) night-time visitations or nightmares (the reports of being choked, seeing the returned dead, feeling faint, etc) and 2) exhumation of corpses in a particular stage of decomposition.

These two aspects of reports have rarely been separated as non-related strands, which they are. The first aspect is clearly consistent in terms of a sense of fear propagated by nightmares (the mara) after a recent death, and is thus part of the context in which a returning dead person is desperately identified as responsible for continued deaths, an identification propelled by fear and a longing to explain the inexplicable. The second aspect is the so-called proof: during the 1300s in what is now Yugoslavia, it became the practice to consider a corpse exhibiting certain 'signs' as being a vampire.

So what were these vampiric signs? The contemporary reports agree: the corpse is not rigid, it is bloated, it does not look pale, it may have open eyes, it may have reddish fluid emanating from its mouth or orifices, it appears uncorrupted or its face may be red.

These are not symptoms of a daemonically-animated corpse, but of the middle stages of decomposition. Somehow these Slavic peasants were consciously aware of only two particular stages of decomposition - that in which rigor mortis affects the corpse, and that in which the corpse is reduced to its skeleton. That is, immediately after death, and some time later when the corpse has more-or-less completely decomposed.

The normal processes of decay are perfectly sufficient to explain all of these so-called signs of vampirism - and more (including the behaviour of the corpse when impaled, decapitated, mutilated, chopped up, or burned).

Victims Versus Viewers

Some writers contend that porphyria, catatonia, and premature burial are responsible for vampire reports from the medieval period onwards. However, examination of the source material shows that this is simply not the case. Report after report shows the pattern: someone is first to die. The widow (or other relatives) report seeing the dead person (a typical nightmare). Others die. Panic spreads. A cause is sought. Graves are desecrated - corpses are examined. Bloated corpses are identified as vampires. The 'vampires' are impaled, mutilated, burned... or preventative measures such as the spilling of millet seed are taken.

It's the presence of victims that causes the identification of vampires, not the presence of living perpetrators with conditions such as the inability to tolerate sunlight, and so on.

That is why the explanation for the vampire craze among the Slavic peasants must derive from something other than their observation of illnesses, symptoms of which might correlate with the features of today's notion of a vampire. The Slavic peasants' ignorance of the stages of decay which human beings undergo (for instance, the fact that rigor mortis only lasts a short time before the body once again becomes flaccid) is a pivotal point in the assumption that vampirism has occurred.

The Vampire crosses the Continent

Somehow, the entire cult of vampire belief began to be taken seriously. From being a belief subscribed to only by superstitious peasants in the Balkans and Greece, etc, it gained momentum after a sensation-seeking report of an autopsy (rather a disingenuous one!) was sent to the Emperor of Austria and translated into French and English only days later.2 It caused a sensation - and the notion of daemonically-animated corpses began to appear in English literature, just as they had appeared in German poetry and tales some years earlier. The image was romanticised, of course... and thus began the concept of this new vampire, a pale-faced nobleman with a dark secret and an insatiable appetite.

It wasn't until this European/English fiction that the idea of fangs came into play. In Slavic folklore, the notion of just how the vampire obtains blood is not distinct, and what references there are in the source material suggest sucking by remote action, ie, sympathetic magic. But in the literary tradition, a more erotic element than this putrefying corpse filled with the gases of decay was needed. The corpse's attack became direct - it bit, and sucked from the wound, in an attack which has become increasingly seen as an obvious sexual metaphor.

The Vampire Transition

Examples of the vampire in literature are so numerous that they deserve a separate Entry. They include the first English vampire novel The Vampyre by John Polidori (inspired by Byron), Varney the Vampyre or, The Feast of Blood by an anonymous writer of penny dreadfuls, Sheridan Le Fanu's excellent Carmilla, and the prince of them all, Dracula by Bram Stoker.

These works of fiction marked a discernible path towards the iconic modern vampire which is so well-known in our society that even those who have never read Dracula have a good idea of the basic elements of this vampire. Today's vampire recoils from garlic, holy water and Christian symbols, sees no reflection in a mirror, cannot bear daylight and may turn into a bat.

Still, the continued development of the vampire on stage and screen produced yet more elements that do not derive from Stoker's novel. Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula in the stage play and film began steering the silver screen Count along a more seductive vein. Today's vampire is the epitome of 'tall, dark and handsome', unlike the grotesque Count. And today's vampire probably wears evening clothes - he almost certainly has a fondness for black clothing, and may even swish around with a cloak.

Conclusion

We can see little of the original concept of the vampire in this far more elegant creature. From being a construct of folklore derived from the mingling elements of religious and political unrest in the Balkans, and performing the function of plague scapegoat (or scapegoat for any disaster, sickness or unusual happening), the vampire has been shaped into another creature entirely. Perhaps the change could be seen as a vampiric one... that is, the Slavic folklore vampire (always a peasant, by the way) travelled, was buried in the grave of literature, and emerged, a fresh and beautiful noble creature possessed of a wider and more alluring set of powers.

For as long as humans continue to be fascinated by darkness and danger, by the unknown and by the eroticism of power, the vampire will persist as a powerful image of the immortal, unchanging lord whose lack of a soul in no way impedes him from exerting a remarkable influence over those mortals in whose land he walks...

1For original source material translated into English, see Perkowski, Jan L: The Darkling: A Treatise On Slavic Vampirism, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers Inc, 19892Included and translated into French in Calmet, Dom Augustin. 'Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges, des Démons & des Esprits et sur les Revenans et Vampires, de Hongie, de Bohème, de Moravie, & de Silésie. Paris: Debure l'Aîné', 1751.

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