Vampires: From Myth to Murder
This week, we detail the history of the Vampire, from screen to the dark myths and very real folklore of Eastern Europe.
Arcjohn.wordpress.com – An excellent resource detailing several vampire burials throughout Europe.
David barrowcloughs paper on vampire burials – Another excellent paper, with a sceptical bent on deviant burials.
Amazon – Written in blood: A cultural History of the British Vampire – Great book, especially if you’re into horror and vampire films.
Amazon – The vampire in legend and fact – Another solid vampire book based in cultural history.
Amazon – From Demons to Dracula: The creation of the modern vampire myth – Another book on the cultural history of vampires.
Vampires: From Mythology to murder
Vampires are a staple in horror fiction the world over, the charismatic lady-killer or seductive succubi, biting necks and sucking the blood of their victims as they sleep. Equally popular in pop culture as they are to horror fans, poring over black and white B-movies, the character of the vampire holds universal appeal and to most, even those not usually prone to scepticism, remain completely fictional.
How can we explain then, the old folk stories, stated squarely and insistently as fact, that vampires, risen from the dead, stalked townsfolk and terrorised entire villages at night? Stranger still, that remains excavated in Bulgaria, Slovakia and right across Europe, staked into their coffins with Iron nails, teeth removed and bricks forced into their gaping mouths, have been found in their hundreds providing compelling evidence for said tales.
This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Creating a monster
The image that jumps into your mind when someone mentions vampires will most likely differ wildly depending on your age and location. From the disturbing Count Orlock or the middle aged pale faced, seducers of Hammer films, to the high school catalogue models of twilight, literature and popular culture has shaped what we imagine of a vampire for centuries. Far from the rotting plague bringers of Medieval Bulgaria, or the demon goddesses in ancient mythology, in the west and increasingly throughout the world, we’re faced instead with numerous affluent, well dressed vampires waiting to hunt prey at night, or pop to the nail salon for a quick manicure by day. Before we dig too deeply on the long and grim history of vampires in the real world, it’s important to understand the distinction between what we expect of a vampire today, versus the blight infested monsters of folklore and more disturbingly, the reality of the middle ages and beyond.
It is often stated that the first work of pure fiction to include a vampire in its pages is that of an Anglo-Saxon poem entitled “The vampire of the Fens”, dating from the 11th Century. There is however some who claim that the work doesn’t actually exist at all. Proving to be incredibly elusive as it does, it’s hard to argue. As to why or when this poem became a popular misconception is unknown, equally for what reason. It was not until 400 years later, in the 15th Century that a literary character would appear in a fictional tale with the tendencies that one can call “Vampiric”. Brian J Frost, in his book “The monster with a thousand faces: Guises of the Vampire in myth and folklore” traces the next fictional work to be that of Sir Thomas Malory, with his tale of “Le Morte D’Arthur”. Published in 1485, it is a Middle English retelling of the classic King Arthur tale, however Frost himself notes that it is a tenuous link, with only a single, side character, a queen, who drinks the blood of virgins to sustain her life. No other activities associated with the lore of vampires is mentioned.
After this, there was another long, 300 year hiatus in fiction of the stalking, blood sucking monster. It was in the 18th Century, after a “vampire boom” in popular folklore, that the popular work of Heinrich Ossenfelders “Der Vampir” was published in 1748. This poem is widely accepted as introducing the popular concept of the modern vampire into European Literature. The second verse introduces common themes as such:
And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life’s blood drain away.
In 1819, “The Vampyr”, a short work of fiction written by John William Polidori was published. Described by British writer Christopher Frayling as “the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre”. it tells the tale of Lord Ruthven, a suave and sophisticated nobleman, and elevated the Vampire character out of the villages, where is once stalked, rotten and disease ridden, to the affluent and educated killer, enjoying the rank of high society that it has retained almost exclusively since. Lord Ruthven mysteriously enters London society, where he seduces a young woman, marries her and then promptly sucks her body dry of blood and disappears into the night.
In 1847, James Malcolm Rymer, writing in a serialised format and released in weekly pamphlets known as “penny dreadfuls”, introduced Varney the Vampire to the literary world alongside many tropes now staples of our imaginations of the vampire. Sir Franics Varney was the first Vampire in fiction to sport sharp fangs, when he takes the life of a young woman and:
“With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang like teeth.”
Sir Francis Varney also boasted traits such as superhuman strength and of immortality, with his estimated age being placed around 200 years old. He also suffers death several times throughout the story, but is always able to reanimate. He stalks women at night, creeping through their windows to bite them, leaving behind puncture wounds and has the ability of “turning” others into vampires, which he demonstrates when he savages a female member of a family he is terrorising by biting her simply for revenge. Alongside all of these now instantly recognisable characteristics, Varney is also the first literary vampire who cannot stand his condition, but lives as a slave to what he has become, the “sympathetic Vampire” as it was later known.
It was in Joseph Sherian Le Fanus Gothic Novella, “Carmilla”, again first published in serial format in 1871 that introduced a Vampire that possessed a dark, seductive and overt morbid sexuality. The main character was a female vampire using the false name of Carmilla, though she was in fact, as was now becoming the standard, from high society and known as the Countess Karnstein. Carmilla slept in a coffin and stalked around in the shadows with nocturnal habits, where she was able to transform into a black cat. She had unnatural beauty and preyed exclusively on young women. The story is narrated by her close friend and has, for the time, overt sexual overtones suggesting a lesbian romance between the two characters. “Carmilla” supplied vampires in fiction with another of its now core themes, elevating further, from affluent high society, to the seductive, sexualised undead that instil both fear and fascination among their victims and readers alike and a trait that would be exploited in both literature and film and made into a central point in numerous exploitation and B-movies right up until present day.
There are many that suggest outright that Le Fanus tale was a direct influence on the genres undoubtedly, most famous of tales, predating it by 26 years. That of one Abraham Stoker, or Bram Stoker for short, known the world over as “Dracula”.
Dracula, first published in 1897 has been reimagined on stage and screen the world over, and has enjoyed bestseller status since its release. The lasting legacy of Stoker, was his incarnation of Dracula as the definitive Vampire in fiction and the cementing of an image in our minds when first we hear the word “vampire”. From the Universal Studios films of the 1930s and 40s, through the output of the Hammer films in the 50s, 60s and 70s. When we see vampires on screen as monster of the week in the X-Files, in Buffy, interview with the vampire, or even more recently with Twilight, all stem directly and take great influence from Stokers portrayal of the vampire.
There are however, older stories of Vampires. Leaving the realm of fiction, we should leave also this perceived image of the vampire and enter into a darker world of folklore and mythology, where the lines between reality and fiction become increasingly difficult to distinguish.
Things that stalk in the night
In his book “From Demons to Dracula: The creation of the modern vampire myth”, Mathew Beresford wrote:
“There are clear foundations for the vampire in the ancient world, and it is impossible to prove when the myth first arose. There are suggestions that the vampire was born out of sorcery in ancient Egypt, a demon summoned into this world from some other.”
In folklore around the world and throughout cultures and history, we can see shadows of what we consider a vampire today, shaped by literature and cinema. Through legends and myths, there have long been tales of nocturnal beasts, bloodsucking undead and plague bringing revenants that rise up from their graves to terrorise the living in almost all corners of every society.
As far back as ancient Mesopotamian mythology we can find Lamashtu, the daughter of the sky god, Anu. Lamashtu was a demon and malevolent goddess who would kidnap children whilst they were breastfeeding, gnawing on their bones and sucking their blood. She would eat men, drink their blood, terrorise people in their sleep and bring sickness and disease to crops and people alike.
In ancient Greece, Lamia would seduce men and drink their blood and later, the vrykolakas, undead beings risen from the dead. It was told they would roam the lands, ruddy and gorged with blood, bringing sickness and death. They would sit atop people in their sleep, suffocating them, drink blood and at times grow wolf like fangs.
In Mayan mythology, Camazotz were death bats, associated with the night, death and sacrifices. And in Aboriginal folklore, the Yara-ma-yha-who were little red men who would wait in trees for unsuspecting victims and then using suckers on its hand and feet, attach themselves to their prey and drain their blood.
In the Philippines, the Aswang are a shape shifting demon dating as far back as the 16th Century that are shy and elusive, at night changing into animals such as bats and black dogs. They move silently, stalking prey throughout the night, eating unborn children and bring sickness to victims, leading to death. The Aswang then returns to steal the bodies of the dead for sustenance.
The chiang-shi of China are vicious reanimated corpses or undead demons, with red eyes and fangs that tear their victims to shreds before feeding on their blood. They can turn to vapour or mist and have the ability to gain the power of flight through the draining of their victims Qi. By daytime, they rest in caves or in their coffins, only leaving them at night to hunt for the souls of their victims.
The myths and legends are so numerous that it seems like we can find a regional example of an evil undead with vampiric associations anywhere we chose to look. Whilst they do have deviations and differences, the similarities are striking. All have nocturnal tendencies, supernatural abilities and feast on blood of the living, whilst bringing plague, sickness or death to their communities. In the year 1047, the words ‘Upir Lichy’ were written in a document describing a Russian prince and directly translated, mean ‘Wicked Vampire’ in Russian, Czech and Slovakian. This is possibly the earliest reference we have to vampires by name.
In eastern Europe, these vampires are ultimately as varied as the creatures before, but in general were not handsome seducers. They were ruddy skinned revenants that crept through villages at night, bringing sickness and plague and foul odours. They ate children and drunk blood to gain life force in order to become a full human form again.
Of course, these creatures are all myths, legends and folklore, the embodiments of evil in a campfire story or twisted demigods of ancient mythology. The lines however, can often blur between fact and fiction when a myth takes hold and grips tight within a culture of fear.
The bones in the ground
In 1921, in the small coastal village of St Osyth, in Essex, England, Mr Charles Brooker, the owner of a house on Mill Street was carrying out some building work in his garden when his shovel, thrust into the ground hit something hard. Upon investigation, he discovered what looked to be a pelvic bone, and after clearing the dirt around it, found two full skeletons lying in a row, head to foot. Unusually, the bones had been nailed down at every joint with heavy Iron nails.
With the villages history relating so strongly with the witch trials of 1582, people were quick to jump to the conclusion that it was the remains of Ursula Kempe, a woman who had been tried and hanged as a witch in 1582. Years later, in 2002, it was discovered that the remains were in fact those of a young man in his early twenties, somewhat damning the witch hypothesis, despite this however, it is still often written of as the remains of Ursula Kempe and the misconception seems unstoppable at this point.
Throughout history, evidence of such burials have been discovered showing similar practices. In some cases, rocks or heavy objects were placed on the bodies and in others, spikes, stakes and heavy nails were driven through the remains, pinning it to the burial site. An important aspect, as we shall see, lies in the folklore throughout Europe that tells of Iron having magical properties. Specifically in reference to vampire lore, the Eastern European vampire is thought unable to touch the metal without suffering great wounds or death.
These methods of burial are known as “deviant burials” and encompass a wide gamut of macabre ways in which to prevent the dead from rising. These deviant burials were carried out for a multitude of reasons, always however, as a method of securing the dead beneath the ground. In his book “Vampire Forensics”, historian Mark Collins Jenkins states the purpose of such practices quite clearly:
“In graves thousands of years old, skeletons have been found staked, tied up, buried face down, decapitated … all well-attested ways of pre-empting the [attacks] of wandering corpses,”
In 1959, in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, England, Archaeologist Charles Daniels unearthed another unusual skeleton whilst excavating a site which had previously been known for the discovery of Roman remains. Dated to be from 550-700AD, the skeleton had metal spikes driven through its shoulders, heart and ankles. Given that it dates from such an early period of history, many archaeologists are not quick to attribute the burial with Vampire traditions. Predating the earliest legends of vampirism in Europe by at least several hundred years, it’s simply stated that the burial shows signs related to later vampiric burials and acts as both a curious anomaly and a warning to anyone who wishes to jump to a vampiric conclusion as an answer for deviant burials.
Moving away from England and into the heartlands of Gothic folklore, during a 1966 excavation of a 10th to 11th Century Churchyard around 30km North of Prague in Celakovice, in the Czech Republic, the remains of 14 individuals were found which had undergone the treatment of deviant burial. Each body was buried in separate graves, rather than mass burial, however given the brief history that the graveyard was known to be used, showed that they all died within a similar time period. They were all young adults, both male and female. They were found with heavy rocks covering their bodies, or spiked to the site with nails of varying length and metals.
In 1991, during archaeological research being undertaken at the ancient church of the holy trinity in Prostejov, slovakia, a sixteenth century crypt was discovered that entombed the remains of a man whose legs had been cut off at the knees, his body weighted with heavy stones. Just to be sure, he was then placed in a wooden coffin that was reinforced with thick iron bars.
In 1994, archaeologist Hector Williams discovered the remains of an adult man on the Greek isle of Lesbos. His tomb had been hollowed out of a solid stone wall and unlike the other bodies buried nearby who had been wrapped in cloth, he had been buried in a thick wooden coffin and then nailed into it with 8 inch long iron spikes through his neck, pelvis, and ankles. Interestingly, in this case was also the discovery that the man was almost certainly a Muslim, making it the only non-Christian corpse found to date that was buried in such a manner.
In 2005, in county Roscommon, Ireland, Archaeologist Chris Reed discovered the bodies of two men buried side by side. One was of a man in his later years, probably between 50 and 60 years old and the other was a young adult, thought to be in his twenties. During their excavation of the site, 137 bodies were unearthed in total, however setting the two apart were large black stones jammed in their mouths and in one case, with such force and the stone of such size, that it almost dislocated the jaw entirely. The bodies dated from the 8th century, which again placed them firmly before the times of popular vampire lore, however Ireland has it’s own tales of revenants, remarkably similar to the vampires of the Balkans, which could be attributed to the deviant burial.
Similarly, in 2006, in Lazzaretto Nuovo, Italy, two km North East of Venice, Italian Archaeologist Matteo Borini, whilst excavating a plague pit used in the 16th and 17th century, found the skull of a mature female. The skull was dated to the 1576 Venetian plague suggesting the victim had died of the disease, however unlike the numerous other victims unceremoniously buried in the pit, she was found with a brick shoved into her mouth with such force that her teeth had all been broken.
The same can be seen in the remains found in Kamien Pomorski, Poland, when in 2008, archaeologist Slawomir Gorka excavated a cemetery used periodically between the 13th and 18th centuries. of the 275 sets of human remains that were excavated, six were found to be deviant burials dated to the 16th or 17th century. Five of the six had been buried with Iron sickles placed across their abdomens and in one case, a male that had been buried with it’s legs nailed to the ground, its teeth removed and a stone forced into its mouth.
Such burials were attributed to vampires due to the legend that a vampire will feed from its burial shroud to awaken and reanimate after death. It was thought that by placing a brick, stone or wad of earth into the mouth, this could halt the process of returning as a vampire in its earliest stages.
Taking this one step further, In 2013 on a building site next to a roadside in Gliwice, Poland, four sets of remains were found dated to the 16th century, all of which had had their heads removed prior to burial and placed between their legs.
In Bulgaria, in 2013, during an excavation nearby the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon, Nikolai Ovcharov unearthed the remains of a 40-50 year old man, dated to the 13th Century that had a piece of Iron plough hammered through his chest with enough force to have broken his scapula bone.
The following year 2014, 200 miles to the East of Perperikon in the black sea town of Sozopol, two sets of male remains were uncovered thought to be from the 14th Century. Both had heavy iron pieces of plough rammed through their chests in the same way as the remains in Perperikon, however, these men also had had their left leg removed below the knee.
The list of burials attributed to vampirism continues on and on. According to the head of the Bulgarian National Museum, Bozhidar Dimitrov, there are one hundred such burials just like the examples above that have been discovered in Bulgaria alone.
These are of course, all archaeological finds of long dead persons, but there are stories too of living vampires who stalked through the night that date right up to modern times.
The bones no longer in the ground
There are, throughout history many stories of famous vampires and folklore legends, the rumours surrounding Vlad the Impaler being one particularly well trodden path. In this episode however, we’ll look at two of the more obscure, but historically well documented and highly influential cases.
In the 18th century, Eastern Europe and the Balkans was swept by several waves of vampire epidemics. One of the more famous and well documented cases dates back to 1725 and revolves around a Serbian Peasant from the town of Kisilova named Peter Blagojevich. Whilst there are some slight variations to the tale, the generally accepted version is as such:
Peter Blagojevich lived and died a peasant during a turbulent period of Serbian history and the Ottoman occupation. He was married, had a son and scraped out a meagre existence in a bleak period. A short time after his death, in 1725, as night fell, Peters widow laid her son in his bed when a sharp rapping knocked on the front door. Collecting the lamp from the kitchen, she cautiously opened the door, only to see to her shock, Peter standing in the doorway, looking very much alive. He apparently wanted his shoes. This evidently, was the sanitised version of the tale, as in another, he demanded food from his son and then brutally murdered him, drinking his blood and fleeing into the shadows. In both cases, the incident was enough to see his widow take her leave of the village, fearing for her safety. Over the next two weeks, people in the village begun to fall ill and pass away with no prior history of illness. There were nine deaths in total and several victims, whilst lying on their death beds, told of how Peter had visited them at night and crushed them in their sleep.
The military representative of the village, a man named Frombald, was swamped with requests from the other villagers to exhume peters body and stop him from rising again. Despite initial scepticism, his attitude quickly changed when the villagers threatened to desert and leave the village to ruin if nothing was done. Frombald, along with a member of the local church marched through the graveyard and tore open Peters grave. What they saw astonished Frombald, who noted that the body had not decomposed at all, in fact, he had “new skin and nails” and his hair and beard had actually grown. In his report, he wrote:
“There was not the slightest smell of death…. The face, hands and also feet, and the whole body, were so recreated that they, in his lifetime, could not have been more complete. In his mouth did I see fresh blood, which, after the general opinion, he had sucked from those killed by him.”
The villagers in their haste to end the fear staked Peters body through the heart, which upon being struck, forced a large amount of fresh blood to pour from Peters mouth. His body was then cremated to ensure the job was done. In his report, Frombald wrote that he wanted no responsibility for allowing the villagers to do as they had, as “they were beside themselves with fear”. Upon receiving his report, the authorities took the whole completely in stride and nothing more was uttered about the case.
One other case, equally well documented from the time of the vampire epidemics, was that of Arnold Paole, a peasant militiaman who lived in Meduegna, Serbia. Common at the time, these militiamen were recruited from the poorest villages and paid off with small plots of land.
Whilst serving the militia in Greece, Paole later recalled to his wife that he had been visited by an undead revenant in his sleep and took it upon himself, as was the local tradition, to enact revenge by visiting the undeads grave, exhuming the body and burning it. He then ate dirt from the grave and smeared himself in the blood of the undead creature, which he was assured, would remove any ties the being had with him.
Upon his return to Serbia, he worked his land as a farmer until he one day slipped from a haywagon, breaking his neck. As the days passed after his death, things were, in general, normal for the villagers of Meduegna. There were whispers though, that several inhabitants had been visited by Paole at night and it seemed as if one by one, they were beginning to die suddenly from an unknown disease. Forty days after Paoles death, and after four people who had all complained of receiving visits from the dead man during the night had all died, his grave was ordered to be exhumed by the local military administration. Two military officers, a local priest, and two army surgeons made up the group that would carry out the grim task and in their report, signed by all five men, stated their findings as follows:
“fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; that the shirt, the covering, and the coffin were completely bloody; that the old nails on his hands and feet, along with the skin, had fallen off, and that new ones had grown”.
“his body was red, his hair, nails and beard had all grown again.”
They preceded to stake his heart whereby Paole reportedly shrieked in pain, before lying still again. They then burnt the body and scattered garlic around the remains.
And there are still more, in the United states there was the vampire epidemic of 1892 which culminated with the well documented tale of Mercy Brown, who upon exhumation, was found to have suffered no decomposition and whose heart was burned in an attempt to cure disease. In the UK, the beast of Croglin grange has fascinated people for centuries and remains an unsolved mystery, despite being investigated both in contemporary times and extensively throughout the past 80 years.
Far from existing only in films, literature and myth, we can see that through burials spanning hundreds of years and in well documented and reported cases that it appears as if there is a more sinister truth to the myths than we might have expected.
As we saw earlier, there are descriptions of mythological creatures throughout history that cover a vast geographical distance. It is however, the folklore of the Balkans and Eastern Europe that refers to the Vampire directly by name and it is from here that we see the most crossover from folklore into popular literature and film. Superhuman strength, the Vampiridzhija, or vampire slayers, living nocturnally, drinking the blood of victims to sustain their life-force and bringing plague and disease are all features of Balkan and Eastern European folklore concerning Vampirism. It is from these accounts that the western view of the contemporary vampire stems and it is from here, with so much physical evidence found buried in the ground, that the question begs, can vampires really exist?
The earliest writings on vampires were frequently authored by clerics, monks and high ranking church members. These historical texts refer to vampires as unclean spirits, wreaking havoc on the living. The Russian Upir, a word meaning revenant and often associated as the root of the term Vampire, was originally someone who was considered a heretic or sinner. Banished from their churches and communities, it was believed that they were susceptible to demon possession after death and would be used by the devil as a reanimated corpse to terrorise the living. It is from these early supernatural and spiritual origins that the Vampire rose to prominence in folklore. In the Slavic countries, where the perpetuation of vampire mythology was strongest, there was not a widespread belief of witches. This leads one to hypothesise that the vampire could well be a substitute scapegoat, cast out by church and society, for many of a regions ills, just as witches were in England. Giuseppe Maiello, a professor at Prague’s Charles University, once wrote that:
“If in a small community there was a typical epidemic and people began to die… they were sure it was the action of one or more vampires.”
Early accounts of Vampires follow a consistent pattern, whereby a family or village would suffer a grave misfortune, either in a loss of crops, or a spout of deaths from infectious disease or plague and in a society that perpetuated fear through spirituality, doubled up with the absence of any scientific or medical knowledge, vampires became an answer that people were able to grasp as to why bad things were happening.
As was the case on many occasions and as we saw earlier with both Arnold Paole and Peter Blagojevich, graves were exhumed and with a lack of medical knowledge, peoples worst nightmares were confirmed when the site of a body which looked to be in a healthy state or, at the very least was not decomposing as was expected, was found in place of a rotting corpse.
If, as was the case with Mercy Brown, in the US, the body was buried in winter, putrefaction could have been delayed by weeks. Intestinal decomposition and the rotting of the gastrointestinal tract could form a substance known as “purge fluid”, a dark substance that would flow from the nose and mouth. A similar result could be caused by bloating forcing blood from the mouth. In both cases, if a shroud was used, these fluids could break down the material, giving the impression that the corpse had recently sucked blood and as in the case of Lazzaretto Nuovo, reinforced or even created the theory that a vampire must consume its shroud as part of the first step to reanimation. On top of all this, it’s a well known medical fact now that hair and nails continue to grow for a period after death and that blood moving to the surface of a cadavers skin can make a body appear flushed, rather than pale as might be expected. It’s unlikely that these observations would have been known among laypeople of medieval Europe.
This would have been compounded in times of plague and great sickness, where it became common practice to reopen crypts, vaults and grave sites to bury the newly dead by the common folk in great numbers. It is important to note that in all regions where vampire burials have been discovered, there have been severe and extremely damaging cases of plague and sickness. The correlation then, between sickness, death, limited medical knowledge and the perpetuation of spiritual beliefs, is a convincing argument as to how the belief and fear of the vampire was so strong for so many centuries and why we now find so many deviant burials, undertaken as preventative measures for things which were seemingly based in fact and stooped in evidence.
Far from characters existing only in literature, we are confronted then with a long and complicated history that spans centuries and crosses numerous cultural and physical borders.
It is clear from the evidence of burials that people took the myths of the vampire very seriously and why not? When confronted with what was tantamount to solid evidence to a medically ignorant population of the 16th and 17th centuries, there is little reason to doubt and every reason to fear. Although the tales of vampires stem entirely from myth, the absolute belief in their existence created something which was tactile and real.
As for the existence of vampires in modern times and the many cases reported of blood drinkers, living a shadowy existence, is another story. One thing we know for certain however is that for as long as humans have maintained a practice of burying their dead beneath the ground, we have held a fear of those same bodies re-emerging from the tomb and preying on the living under the darkness of night.
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