Bulgaria, Vampires in

Bulgaria, Vampires in

(pop culture)

Bulgaria is one of the oldest areas of Slavic settlement. It is located south of Romania and sandwiched between the Black Sea and Macedonia. In the seventh century C.E., the Bulgar tribes arrived in the area of modern Bulgaria and established a military aristocracy over the Slavic tribes of the region. The Bulgars were only a small percentage of the population, and they eventually adopted the Slavic language.

Christianity arrived with force among the Bulgarians in the ninth century when Pope Nicholas I (r. 858–867) claimed jurisdiction over the lands of the former Roman province of Illyricum. He sent missionaries into Bulgaria and brought it under Roman hegemony. The Bulgarian ruler, Boris-Michael, was baptized in 865, and the country officially accepted Christianity. The pope sent two bishops but would not send an archbishop or appoint a patriarch, causing Boris to switch his allegiance to the eastern church in Constantinople. A Slavic liturgy was introduced to the church and has remained its rite to the present.

Among the many side effects of Byzantine influence in Bulgaria was the growth of a new rival religious group, the Bogomils. The Bogomils grew directly out of an older group, the Paulicians, whose roots went back to the dualistic Maniceans. The Paulicians had been moved into Bulgaria from Asia Minor in order to prevent their alignment with the Muslim Arabs. The Bogomils believed that the world had been created by the rejected son of God, Satanael. While the earthly bodies of humans were created by Satanael, the soul came from God. It was seen by the church as a rebirth of the old gnostic heresy. Jan L. Perkowski has argued at length that it was in the conflict of Bogomil ideas, surviving Paganism, and emerging Christianity that the mature idea of the Slavic vampire developed and evolved. However, his argument was not entirely convincing in that vampires developed in quite similar ways in countries without any Bogomilism. When the Christian Church split in 1054, the Bulgarians adhered to the orthodoxy of Constantinople.

The Bulgarians gained their independence at the end of the twelfth century, but were overrun by the Ottomans in 1396. They remained under Ottoman rule until 1878, when Turkish control was restricted by the Congress of Berlin, but they did not become independent until 1908.

The Bulgarian Vampire: The Bulgarian words for the vampire, a variety of the Slavic vampire, derived from the original Slavic opyrb/opirb. Its modern form appears variously as vipir, vepir, or vapir), or even more commonly as vampir, a borrowing from Russian. The modern idea of the vampire in Bulgaria evolved over several centuries. Most commonly, the Bulgarian vampire was associated with problems of death and burial, and the emergence of vampires was embedded in the very elaborate myth and ritual surrounding death. At the heart of the myth was a belief that the spirits of the dead went on a journey immediately after death. Guided by their guardian angel, they traveled to all of the places they had visited during their earthly life. At the completion of their journey, which occurred in the forty days after their death, the spirit then journeyed to the next life. However, if the burial routine was done improperly, the dead might find their passage to the next world blocked. Generally, in Bulgaria, the family was responsible for preparing the body for burial. There were a number of ways in which the family could err or become negligent in their preparation. Also, the body had to be guarded against a dog or cat jumping over it or a shadow falling on it prior to burial. The body had to be properly washed. Even with proper burial, a person who died a violent death might return as a vampire.

As in other Slavic countries, certain people were likely candidates to become vampires. Those who died while under excommunication from the church might become a vampire. Drunkards, thieves, murderers, and witches were also to be watched. Bulgaria was a source of tales of vampires who had returned to life, taken up residence in a town where they were not known, and lived for many years as if alive. They even married and fathered children. Such people were detected after many years because of some unusual event that occurred. Apart from their nightly journeys in search of blood, the vampire would appear normal, even eating a normal diet.

Among the Gagauz people—Bulgarians who speak their own language, Gagauzi—the vampire was called obur, possibly a borrowing from the Turkish word for glutton. As with other vampires among the southern Slavs, the obur was noted as a gluttonous blood drinker. As part of the efforts to get rid of it, it would be enticed by the offerings of rich food or excrement. The obur was also loud, capable of creating noises like firecrackers, and could move objects like a poltergeist.

James Frazer noted the existence of a particular Bulgarian vampire, the ustrel. The ustrel was described as the spirit of a child who had been born on a Saturday but who died before receiving baptism. On the ninth day after its burial, a ustrel was believed to work its way out of its grave and attack cattle or sheep by draining their blood. After feasting all night, it returned to its grave before dawn. After some ten days of feeding, the ustrel was believed to be strong enough that it did not need to return to its grave. It found a place to rest during the day either between the horns of a calf or ram or between the hind legs of a milch-cow. It was able to pick out a large herd and begin to work its way through it, the fattest animals first. The animals it attacked—as many as five a night—would die the same night. If a dead animal was cut open, the signs of the wound that the vampire made would be evident.

As might be suspected, the unexplained death of cows and sheep was the primary sign that a vampire was present in the community. If a ustrel was believed to be present, the owner of the herd could hire a vampirdzhija, or vampire hunter, a special person who had the ability to see vampires, so that all doubt as to its presence was put aside. Once it was detected, the village would go through a particular ritual known throughout Europe as the lighting of a needfire. Beginning on a Saturday morning, all the fires in the village were put out. The cattle and sheep were gathered in an open space. They were then marched to a nearby crossroads where two bonfires had been constructed. The bonfires were lit by a new fire created by rubbing sticks together. The herds were guided between the fires. Those who performed this ritual believed that the vampire dropped from the animal on whose body it had made its home and remained at the crossroads where wolves devoured it. Before the bonfires burned out, someone took the flame into the village and used it to rekindle all the household fires.

Other vampires, those that originated from the corpse of an improperly buried person or a person who died a violent death, were handled with the traditional stake. There were also reports from Bulgaria of a unique method of dealing with the vampire: bottling. This practice required a specialist, the djadadjii, who had mastered the art. The djadadjii’s major asset was an icon, a holy picture of Jesus, Mary, or one of the Christian saints. The vampire hunter took his icon and waited where the suspected vampire was likely to appear. Once he saw the vampire, he chased it, icon in hand. The vampire was driven toward a bottle that had been stuffed with its favorite food. Once the vampire entered the bottle, it was corked and then thrown into the fire.

The folklore of the vampire has suffered in recent decades. The government manifested great hostility toward all it considered superstitious beliefs, which included both vampires and the church. As the church was suppressed, so was the unity of village life that provided a place for tales of vampires to exist.


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Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. Vol. 10. Balder the Beautiful: The Fire-Festivals of Europe and the Doctrine of the External Soul. London: Macmillan and Co., 1930. 346 pp.
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———. Bulgarian Folktales. Cleveland, OH: The Author, 1979. 296 pp.
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Summers, Montague. The Vampire in Europe. 1929. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961. 329 pp.
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