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Origins of Vampiric Folklore

Written by Cole Wellman

We will first look at the history of the area where vampire legends were born. Although no one knows how the legend of the vampire began (Cooper, p. 34), it is generally accepted that the folklore originated among the Slavs (Dundes, p.4). The area we are most interested in includes Serbia, Bosnia, Wallachia, Transylvania, Moldova, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, as they were in the 15th century. It is impossible to say how far back the legends go, but by the first half of the 14th century, the Serbian Emperor Stefan Dusan had passed a law prohibiting the exhumation and cremation of dead bodies supposed to be vampires (Perkowski, Vampires, p.205), so we may assume it was a well-established belief by then.

We now look at possible motivations for the belief in the undead. Before we can get to that, we need to mention how folklore is spread, and why. This is something Michael Bell calls the folklore process:

“As we interact with close acquaintances during the normal course of daily life, we make observations, give opinions, discuss our lives, share our burdens, seek—and give—advice, and convey other expressions that we deem important enough to pass along.” (Bell, p.75)

Naturally, this process would take place rather quickly as nations exchanged culture through trade, travel, immigration, and warfare. A peasant in Germany, perhaps, complains to his friends that his family has become ill and his children have been dying. A traveler from Hungary overhears and claims to know what the problem is: his family is plagued by a vampire. The traveler has this on the best authority from a Serbian merchant whose mother witnessed a vampire with her own eyes; and so it goes.

The Slavic belief in life after death is that the soul will wander for forty days on earth, visiting those places it knew in life. After the end of this period, it will try to reenter the body and live again, but will be frightened by the state of its decayed corpse so much that it flees permanently to the underworld (Perkowski, Vampires, pp.24-25). Certainly this lends itself very easily to the idea of the dead returning, and perhaps the relevant question to ask is what influences do these underlying beliefs draw on? In the 9th through 14th centuries, a religious sect greatly influenced the Slavic people. It was called Bogomilism after its founder Bogomil who lived in Bulgaria during the reign of Tsar Peter (927-969). Bogomilism has been called the most powerful sectarian movement in the history of the Balkans (Perkowski, Darkling, pp.24-26), and taught the Iranian concept of dualism. Dualism is the belief that there are two forces competing for control of the world: good (or God) and evil (the devil). Further, it assumes that neither is truly omnipotent (this is why it was considered heresy by Christians) but both battle continually for dominance. Matter, including the body, was evil in origin, but man’s spirit was divine. At death, the body returns to matter, the underworld, and darkness while the spirit ascends to heaven and light. So what happens to the spirit of an evil person? If it could not ascend, it would remain on earth, in the world of matter, or perhaps remain tied to the material body… It is from there but a very short step to vampirism as it appears in folklore. Evidence supporting this connecting in found in the Panoplia Dogmetica, from which we learn that Anatolian bishops were accused of being Bogomils in 1143 because they “dug up bodies in the belief that they were possessed of demons and unfit for burial (Perkowski, Darkling, p.26).” The dualistic belief was taught in Iran by Zoroaster (686 – 551 BC), so it had almost a thousand years to develop and absorb ideas before reaching the Balkans. By this time, the Zoroastrian deities had become the God and Devil of Christianity.

We can now address the question of why the vampire has the characteristics it does. The notion of blood-sucking demons is probably older than recorded history. Blood is the life. It has always been a custom of man to anthropomorphize and objectify the danger that continually surrounds him. These become demons that can easily steal away the life of the unwary. It is not such a great step to give this an even more concrete basis: that which steals your life can do so by stealing your blood. But in the vampire we have a different twist: the demon that preys on the living by stealing blood was at one time human itself. It has a human body, albeit a corpse, it still presumably remembers its human life, and it takes blood not only to kill, but to sustain itself in the state it occupies, between life and death. And perhaps one of the most important aspects of a vampire: it always attacks its own family first, and only when all of them are dead does it move on. Thus the vampire of folklore obeys blood ties as well as blood thirst.

Actually, it is worth noting that not all vampires suck blood, at least not originally. In some areas, the vampire appeared as a specter that would silently sit down to dinner with its family from life. Without a word, it would nod to one of the family, who would die a few days later. Other times, the vampire would go to the church at midnight and ring the church bell. All those who heard it were sure to die (Perkowski, Vampires, pp.87 & 138). The means in which the vampire kills is not the most important thing.

The folkloric vampire played (and in some places still plays) a very important role in Slavic society. Not only does it anthropomorphize the danger of life, such as disease, it also gives the people of the community a way to fight back. By digging up and impaling, beheading, or burning the corpse of a supposed vampire, the peasantry of Eastern Europe were able to strike a literal blow against evil, pestilence, and the harsh reality of their existence. In this way the vampire was perhaps similar to the witch and sorcerer, living scapegoats found in many cultures throughout the world. In fact, the word upir, for “vampire” can also mean “witch” (Perkowski, Vampires, p.184). There are other cases of the distinctions between the two being blurred linguistically as well. This is hardly surprising, since those who were witches or sorcerers in life were thought to become vampires in death.

Among the Gypsies of Kosovo, it was also believed that pumpkins, watermelons, and even farm tools could become vampires of sorts. These were weak vampires, and thought only to wander around breaking dishes and causing minor mischief. The ritual for killing a vegetable vampire was simple, and involved boiling the thing (Perkowski, Vampires, p.] 213). In this way, every housewife was equipped with a physical means to counter even life’s minor inconveniences.

The myth of the vampire had many other, more subtle, roles to play as well. The example of the witch illustrates one: it served as a deterrent to subversive and non-conformist behavior. People whose spirits were thought to be vampires included not only witches, but also suicides, those who committed murder or other serious crimes, and in some cases even those who were especially mean-spirited. Paul Barber says, “…list of potential revenants tend to contain people who are different from the people who make the lists (Barber, p.30).”

This generalization is only half true, however. There were numerous ways to become a vampire, both before and after death. These varied somewhat from region to region. Being the victim of a vampire attack, or having an animal, especially a cat, leap over your dead body usually meant you would become a vampire yourself. In some cases, even a shadow passing over the body was enough. Not only did this ensure there could never be a shortage of vampires (thereby ensuring the people would never feel totally helpless against ill fortune and death), but it may also have served to make sure no one was alone when they died. The corpse had to be carefully watched from the moment of death onward, and guarded so that nothing would pass over it until it was in the ground.

There were also ways to be destined from birth to become a vampire. A child born with a crimson caul on his head, or with teeth, was said to have that fate in store. In the case of the caul, a remedy was possible. The caul must be removed, and dried or burnt to ashes. The ashes must be kept, and fed to the child when he or she was seven. In this way all danger could be avoided. In the case of those born with teeth, special precautions must be taken at death (Perkowski, Vampires, p.190).

The final function of the vampire folklore in Slavic society existed among the Gypsies of Kosovo and Novopazarski (an area in Serbia, perhaps related to modern-day Novi Pazar), who believed that a vampires first concern upon returning from the dead was to seek out his former wife, or, if he was a bachelor, some young woman of the town, for sexual satisfaction. This, of course, provides a very convenient safety net for those women who seek sexual comfort after the death of a husband, or who for any other reason may give birth to an illegitimate child. It can easily be said to be the child of a vampire. These Dhampirs, as they were called, also had a future waiting for them. It was believed that the child of a vampire could see and destroy the monsters. In return for killing a vampire, the Dhampir was given either a fixed sum of money, or cattle. In the latter case he was given as many as he asked for. In addition, his traveling expenses while hunting the vampire were paid by the village, and he was given a meal in celebration when the hunt was over. It was also thought that the Dhampir could pass the knowledge of vampire hunting on to his or her children (Perkowski, Vampires, pp. 217-222). So the vampire myth provided a niche in society for these children who otherwise would have been abandoned or shunned.

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