Gypsies, Vampires and the

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Christian gypsies believed that the crucifix would repel a vampire, much as this one being used on actor Christopher Lee.

Gypsies, Vampires and the

(pop culture)

In the opening chapters of Bram Stoker‘s novel Dracula, Jonathan Harker discovered that he was a prisoner in Castle Dracula, but he was given hope by the appearance of a band of Gypsies:

A band of Szgany have come to the castle, and are encamped in the courtyard. These Szgany are gypsies; I have notes of them in my book. They are peculiar to this part of the world, though allied to the ordinary gypsies all the world over. There are thousands of them in Hungary and Transylvania who are almost outside all law. They attach themselves as a rule to some great noble or boyar, and call themselves by his name. They are fearless and without religion, save superstition, and they talk only their own varieties of the many tongues.

He soon discovered that the Gypsies were allied to the Count. The letters he attempted to have the Gypsies mail for him were returned to Dracula. The Gypsies were overseeing the preparation of the boxes of native soil that Dracula took to England. The Gypsies then reappeared at the end of the novel, accompanying the fleeing Dracula on his return to his castle. In the end, they stepped aside and allowed their vampire master to be killed by Abraham Van Helsing and his cohorts.

The Emergence of the Gypsies: Since the fourteenth century, the Gypsies have formed a distinct ethnic minority group in the Balkan countries. Within the next two centuries, they were found across all of Europe. While they received their name from an early hypothesis that placed their origin in Egypt, it is now known that they originated in India and were related to similar nomadic tribes that survive to this day in northern India. At some point, around 1000 C.E., some of these tribes wandered westward. A large group settled for a period in Turkey and incorporated many words from that country into their distinctive Romany language. Crossing the Bosporous, the Gypsies found their way to Serbia and traveled as far north as Bohemia through the fourteenth century. They were noted as being in Crete as early as 1322. In the next century, a short time before the emergence of Vlad Dracul and Vlad the Impaler as rulers in Wallachia, they moved into what are now Romania and Hungary. The Gypsies fanned out across Europe throughout the next century. They were in Russia and Poland, eventually making their way to France and Great Britain.

In Romania and Hungary, Gypsies were often enslaved and persecuted. Their nomadic, nonliterary culture left them vulnerable to accusations of wrongdoing, and they became known not only as traveling entertainers but as thieves, con artists, and stealers of infants; despised minority groups in Europe faced the latter charge quite often. During World War II, the Nazis attempted an extermination of the Gypsies as a “final solution” to what they had defined as “the Gypsy problem.”

Gypsies and the Supernatural: Gypsies developed a sophisticated and complicated supernatural religious world view, made more difficult to describe by the diversity of the different bands in various countries and the reluctance of Gypsies to talk to outsiders about their most sacred beliefs. Only the most diligent and persistent effort by a small band of scholars yielded a picture of the Gypsies’ world view, which varied from country to country. Gypsy theology affirmed the existence of o Del (literally, the God), who appeared one day on Earth (the Earth being the eternally present uncreated world). Beside o Del, the principle of Good, was o Bengh, or Evil; o Del and o Bengh competed in the creation of humanity.

O Bengh formed two statuettes out of earth, and o Del breathed life into them. Because there was no written text, the account differed from tribe to tribe. The expanded world of the Gypsies was alive with the forces of Good and Evil contending with each other throughout nature. Wise Gypsies learned to read the signs and omens to make the forces work for them and to prevent evil forces from doing them harm.

Gypsies kept a living relationship with the dead (some have called it a cult of the dead), to whom they had a great loyalty. Gypsies regularly left offerings of food, especially milk, so the dead would protect living family members. E. B. Trigg, in Gypsy Demons & Divinities: The Magical and Supernatural Practices of the Gypsies, described this practice as a form of worshiping vampire gods, which he compared to the activity of Indian worshipers toward the vampire figures of their mythology.

What happened to the dead? Among the Gypsies of the Balkans, there was a belief that the soul entered a world very much like this one, except there was no death. Bosnian Gypsies, influenced by Islam, believed in a literal paradise, a land of milk and honey. Others, however, believed that the soul hovered around the grave and resided in the corpse. As such, the soul might grow restless and the corpse might develop a desire to return to this world. To keep the dead content, funeral rites were elaborate and families made annual visits to the grave sites. Within this larger world there was ample room for the living dead, or vampires. This belief was found among Gypsies across Europe, but was especially pronounced, as might be expected, in Hungary, Romania, and the Slavic lands.

Questions have been posed as to the origins of Gypsy vampire beliefs. In India, the Gypsies’ land of origin, there were a variety of acknowledged vampire creatures. For example, the bhuta, found in western India, was believed to be the soul of a man who died in an untimely fashion (such as an accident or suicide). The bhuta wandered around at night, and among its attributes was the ability to animate dead bodies, which in turn attacked the living in ghoulish fashion. In northern India, from whence the Gypsies probably started their journey to the West, the brahmaparusha was a vampirelike creature who was pictured with a head encircled by intestines and a skull filled with blood from which it drank. Gypsies also had a belief in Sara, the Black Virgin, a figure derived from the bloodthirsty goddess Kali. Thus, Gypsies may have brought a belief in vampires, or at least a disposition to believe in them, to the Balkan Peninsula. Once in the area, however, they obviously interacted with the native populations and developed the belief of what became a variety of the Slavic vampire.

The Gypsy vampire was called a mulo (or mullo; plural, mulé), literally “one who is dead.” Gypsies viewed death essentially as unnatural, hence any death was an affront and viewed as being caused by evil forces attacking the individual. Thus, any individual—but especially anyone who died an untimely death (by suicide or an accident)—might become a vampire and search out the person or persons who caused the death. Given the clannish nature of Gypsy life, these people were most likely those close to the deceased. Prime candidates would be relatives who did not destroy the belongings of the deceased (according to Gypsy custom) but kept them for themselves. The vampire also might have a grudge against anyone who did not properly observe the elaborate burial and funeral rites.

The vampire usually appeared quite normal, but often could be detected by some sign in its physical body. For example, the creature might have a finger missing, or have animal-like appendages. Easier to detect was the vampire that took on a horrific appearance and could only be viewed under special conditions. Vampires might be seen at any time of day or night, though some believed them to be strictly nocturnal creatures. Others thought that vampires could appear precisely at noon when they would cast no shadow. Slavic and German Gypsies believed that vampires had no bones in their bodies, a belief based upon the observation that a vampire’s bones are often left behind in the grave.

Gypsies believed that vampires engaged in various forms of malicious activity upon their return from the dead. They attacked relatives and attempted to suck their blood. They destroyed property and became a general nuisance by throwing things around and making noises in the night. Male vampires were known to have a strong sexual appetite and returned from the dead to have sexual relations with a wife, girlfriend, or other women. Female vampires were thought to be able to return from the dead and assume a normal life, even to the point of marrying—but would exhaust her husband with her endless sexual demands. Gypsies thought that animals and, on occasion, even plants be came vampires. Dead snakes, horses, chickens, dogs, cats, and sheep were reported as returning as vampires, especially in Bosnia. In Slavic lands it was thought that if an animal such as a cat jumped over a corpse prior to burial, the corpse would become a vampire. Gypsies believed that the animal might become a vampire at the time of its death. Plants such as the pumpkin or watermelon could, if kept in the house too long, begin to stir, make noises, and show a trace of blood; they would then cause trouble, in a limited way, for both people and cattle. In the most extreme cases, family tools might become vampires. The wooden knot for a yoke or the wooden rods for binding sheaves of wheat became vampires if left undone for more than three years.

It was believed that action could be taken to prevent a dead person from returning as a vampire. As a first step, the victim of a vampire called upon a dhampir, the son of a vampire. Gypsies believed that intercourse between a vampire and his widow might produce a male offspring. This child would develop unusual powers for detecting vampires, and a dhampir might actually hire out his services in the case of vampire attacks. There was some belief that the dhampir had a jellylike body (because some thought that vampires had no bones) and hence would have a shorter life span. Many Gypsies thought that iron had special powers to keep away evil. To ward off vampires, at the time of burial a steel needle was driven into the heart of the corpse, and bits of steel were placed in the mouth, over the ears and nose, and between the fingers. The heel of the shoe could be removed and hawthorn placed in the sock, or a hawthorn stake could be driven through the leg. If a vampire was loose in a village, one might find protection in different charms, such as a necklace with an iron nail. A ring of thorn could be set around one’s living quarters. Christian Gypsies used a crucifix. Slavic Gypsies prized the presence of a set of twins, one male and one female, who were born on a Saturday and who were willing to wear their underclothes inside out. Such people could scare off vampires immediately, it was believed.

The grave site might be the focus of a suspected vampire. Gypsies have been known to drive stakes of ash or hawthorn into a grave, or pour boiling water over it. In more problematic cases, coffins were opened and the corpse examined to see if it had shifted in the coffin or had not properly decomposed. In the case of a body thought to be a vampire, Gypsies followed the practices of their neighbors: having the prayers for the dead recited; staking it in either the stomach, heart, or head; or resort to decapitation and/or, in extreme cases, cremation.

The need to destroy the vampire was slight among some Gypsies who believed its life span was only forty days. However, some granted it a longer life and sought specific means to kill it. An iron needle in the stomach often would be enough. In Eastern Orthodox countries, such as Romania, holy water would be thrown on the vampire. If these less intrusive means did not work, Gypsies might resort to more conventional weapons. If captured, a vampire might be nailed to a piece of wood. If one was available, a dhampir might be called upon to carry out the destruction. Black dogs and wolves were known to attack vampires, and some Romanian Gypsies believed that white wolves stayed around the grave sites to attack vampires; otherwise the world would be overrun with the dead.

Numerous reports on the mulo have been collected and show significant variance among geographically separated Gypsy groups. There has been some speculation that their vampire beliefs originated in India, from whence the Gypsies themselves seemed to have derived. India had a rich vampiric lore.

The legends have become differentiated over the centuries as Gypsies dispersed around Europe and North America and interacted with various local cultures.

Conclusion: The belief in vampires has survived among Gypsies, but, like all supernatural beliefs, it has shown signs of disappearing. In particular, the strength of this belief has been affected by secular schooling, modern burial practices, and governments hostile to actions taken in response to vampires, such as the mutilation of bodies.

Sources:

Clebert, Jean-Paul. The Gypsies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1963. 282 pp.
Leland, G. G. Gypsy Sorcery. New York Tower Books, n.d. 267 pp.
Trigg, E. B. Gypsy Demons & Divinities: The Magical and Supernatural Practices of the Gypsies. London: Sheldon Press, 1973. 238 pp.
Vukanovic, T. P. “The Vampire.” In Vampires of the Slavs. Jan L. Perkowski, ed. Cambridge, MA: Slavica Publishers, 1976, 201–234.