Czech Republic and Slovakia, Vampires in the

Czech Republic and Slovakia, Vampires in the

(pop culture)

The first historical state in what is now the territory occupied by the Czech Republic and Slovakia was founded by tribes that settled in the mountainous region north of present-day Austria and Hungary. The state founded in the seventh century would, two centuries later, be united with the Great Moravian empire, which in 836 C.E. invited Cyril and Methodius, the Christian missionaries, into their land. While among the Czechs and Slovaks, the pair preached and taught the people in their native Slavic language. However, Roman Catholicism, not Eastern Orthodoxy, dominated church life, and Latin, not Old Church Slavonic became the language of worship. The Moravian empire disintegrated early in the tenth century and Slovakia became part of Hungary. After a period under German control, the Czech state reemerged as the Czech (Bohemian) kingdom. Like Poland, both the Czechs and the Slovakians became Roman Catholic.

The Bohemian kingdom survived through the Middle Ages but gradually through the sixteenth century came under Austrian hegemony and in the next century was incorporated into the Hapsburg empire. At the end of the eighteenth century, a revival of Czech culture led to a revival of Czech nationalism. Finally, in 1918, at the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia was created as an independent state. That country survived through most of the twentieth century, though 1,000 years of separate political existence had driven a considerable wedge between the Czechs and Slovaks. After World War II, Communist rule replaced the democratic government that had been put in place in 1918. The Communist system was renounced in 1989 and shortly thereafter, Bohemia and Moravia parted with Slovakia. On January 1, 1993, two separate and independent countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, emerged.

The Vampire in the Czech Republic and Slovakia: The Czech and Slovakian vampire—called an upir, and to a lesser extent, nelapsi, in both Czech and Slovak—was a variety of the Slavic vampire. The upir was believed to have two hearts and hence two souls. The presence of the second soul would be indicated by a corpse’s flexibility, open eyes, two curls in the hair, and a ruddy complexion. Among the earliest anecdotes concerning Czech vampires were two fourteenth-century stories recounted by E. P. Evans in his volume on the Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1906), as mentioned in Dudley Wright’s survey. The first concerned a revenant that terrorized the town of Cadan. The people he attacked seemed destined to become a vampire like him. They retaliated, attacking his corpse and driving a stake through it. That remedy proved ineffective and they finally burned him. In 1345, in Lewin, a woman believed to be a witch died. She returned in various beastly forms and attacked villagers. When uncovered in her grave it was reported that she had swallowed her face cloth; when the cloth was pulled out of the grave, it was stained with blood. She also was staked, which again proved ineffective. She used the stake as a weapon while walking around town. She was finally destroyed by fire.

Writing in 1863, Henry More recorded events that occurred in the late 1500s to Johannes Cuntius (or Kunz), a merchant who troubled his family and neighbors following his violent death. Cuntius lived in the town of Pentsch (present-day Horni Benesov). His son lived in Jagerdorf (present-day Krnov) in a part of Moravia dominated by Lutheran Protestants. Dom Augustin Calmet included reports of vampires from Bohemia and Moravia in his famous 1746 treatise. He noted that in 1706 a treatise on vampires, Magia Posthuma by Charles Ferdinand de Schertz, was published in Olmutz (Moravia). Magia Posthuma related a number of incidents of vampires who made their first appearance as troublesome spirits that would attack their former neighbors and the village livestock. Some of the reports were of classic nightmare attacks accompanied with pain, a feeling of being suffocated, and squeezing around the neck area. Those so attacked would grow pale and fatigued. Other stories centered on poltergeist effects featuring objects being thrown around the house and possessions of the dead person mysteriously moving. One of the earliest and more spectacular cases concerns a man of the Bohemian village of Blow (Blau) in the fourteenth century. As a vampire he called upon his neighbors, and whomever he visited died within eight days. The villagers finally dug up the man’s body and drove a stake through it. The man, however, laughed at the people and thanked the people for giving him a stick to fend off the dogs. That night he took the stick out of his body and began again to appear to people. After several more deaths occurred, his body was burned. Only then did the visitations end. Schertz, a lawyer, was most concerned with the activity of villagers who would take the law into their hands and mutilate and burn bodies. He argued that in cases of severe disturbances, a legal process should be followed before any bodies were desecrated. Included in the process was the examination of the body of any suspected vampire by physicians and theologians. Destruction of the vampire, by burning, should be carried out as an official act by the public executioner.

Montague Summers was most impressed by the evidence of vampirism detailed by the Count de Cadreras, who early in the 1720s was commissioned by the Austrian emperor to look into events at Haidam, a town near the Hungarian border. The Count investigated a number of cases of people who had been dead for many years (in one case 30 and another 16 years), and who had reportedly returned to attack their relatives. Upon exhumation each still showed the classic signs of delayed decomposition, including the flow of “fresh” blood when cut. With the Count’s consent, each was beheaded (or nails driven into the skull) and then burned. The extensive papers reporting these incidents to the emperor survived, as well as a lengthy narrative given by the Count to an official at the University of Fribourg.

It is unlikely that the town of “Haidam” will ever be identified. No place by that name has been recorded. It has been suggested most convincingly that the term derived from the word “haidamak,” a Ukrainian term meaning “outlaw” or “freebooter.” Haidamak, derived from the Slavic “heyduck,” referred to a class of dispossessed who had organized themselves into loose itinerant bands to live off the land. Eventually the Austrian Hapsburg rulers employed them as guardians along their most distant frontiers. This Haidam probably referred to the land of a haidamak rather than a specific town by that name.

As recently as the mid-twentieth century, folklorist Ján Mjartan reported that the belief in vampires was still alive in Slovakia. The vampire was thought to be able to suck the blood of its victims (humans and cattle) and often suffocated them. The vampire also was believed capable of killing with a mere glance (evil eye), thus devastating whole villages. Preventing the rise of a suspected vampire was accomplished by placing various objects in the coffin (coins, Christian symbols, various herbs, the dead person’s belongings), putting poppyseed or millet seeds in the body orifices, and nailing the clothes and hair to the coffin. Finally, the head or the heart could be stabbed with an iron wedge, an oak stake, a hat pin, or some thorn such as the hawthorn. The body was carried headfirst to the grave, around which poppyseed or millet was scattered. The seeds also were dropped on the path homeward, and once home various rituals such as washing one’s hands and holding them over the stove were followed. The family of the deceased repeated these measures if they proved ineffective the first time.

Contemporary Vampire Lore: As with other Slavic countries, the belief in vampires receded to rural areas of the Czech Republic and Slovakia through the twentieth century. It made a brief appearance in the midst of the Czech cultural revival of the nineteenth century in a famous short story “The Vampire” by Jan Neruda (1834–91). In recent decades, Josef Nesvadba, a Czech psychiatrist, has emerged as an impressive writer of horror fiction. A collection of his stories in English was published in 1982 as Vampires Ltd. In the twenty-first century, Czechs and Slovakians have rediscovered Elizabeth Bathory, one of the superstars of the vampire world, though they are caught in the middle of promoting her for the sake of tourism while having their most famous citizen vilified as a monster. A few have arisen to seriously look at the defense of Bathory as a victim of Catholic anti-Protestantism, published in the 1980s by Laszlo Nagy. However, as books on Bathory continue to appear, the legend generally wins over history. A variety of publications on Bathory have appeared in the Czech Republic and Slovakia since the fall of the Berlin wall, as have several movies (Demons Claw, 2006; Bathory, 2008; and Blood Countess, 2008).

Sources:

Calmet, Augustine. The Phantom World. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1850. Reprint of English translation of 1746 treatise.
Hrbkova, Sárka B. Czechoslovak Stories. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. 330 pp.
Nesvadba, Josef. Vampires Ltd. Czechoslovakia: Artia Pocket Books, 1982. 225 pp.
Perkowski, Jan L., ed. Vampires of the Slavs. Cambridge, MA: Slavica Publishers, 1976. 294 pp.
———. The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1989. 174 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire in Europe. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. 1929. 329 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961. 329 pp.
Wright, Dudley. Vampires and Vampirism. London: William Rider and Sons, 1914, Revised ed.: 1924. Rept. The Book of Vampires. New York: Causeway Books, 1973. 217 pp.
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