Southern Slavs, Vampires and the

Southern Slavs, Vampires and the

(pop culture)

The region consisting of what was formerly Yugoslavia and Albania, now comprises eight countries of diverse religious, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Although very diverse in some respects, these eight nations share a common folk heritage that becomes quite evident upon examination of the reports of vampires and vampire beliefs in the area. Thus, it became fitting to treat vampires and vampirism in these lands as a whole phenomenon.

Background: Albania traced its history to ancient Illyria, a Roman province which reached from present-day Albania north and east across Croatia to Romania. Beginning in the fourth-century C.E., it was successfully invaded and occupied by Goths, Bulgars, Slavs, and Normans, successively.

Albanians, much like Romanians, asserted their Roman ties. In the twelfth century, Albania was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and remained in the empire until after World War I. As a legacy, the retreating Ottoman rulers left a population that had primarily been converted to Islam. Albania gained a measure of independence following World War I but was occupied by Italy during World War II. After the war, it became an independent nation. Under dictator Enver Hoxha, it was an independent Communist nation with a repressive government that was officially atheist and hostile to religion. Following Hoxha’s death the country regained some degree of freedom.

Today, the majority of ethnic Albanians live outside the boundaries of their homeland. There is a small but important Albanian community in the United States, and many live in Italy. The largest number of Albanians outside of Albania live in Serbia and constitute more than ninety percent of the new country of Kosovo.

Yugoslavia was created in 1918, following World War I, as a centralized state uniting the former independent countries of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro. To these countries a part of Macedonia, previously a part of the Ottoman Empire, and Slovenia, a part of the Austrian (Hapsburg) Empire, were added to the new country. Slavic tribes had first moved into the Balkan peninsula in the sixth century and by the eighth century had established themselves as the dominant influence in the area. Some unity was brought by the expansive Bulgar Empire at the beginning of the tenth century, which controlled most of present-day Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Christianity moved into the Balkans in strength through the ninth century. Following the division of the Christian movement in 1054 C.E., Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia became largely Eastern Orthodox while Croatia and Slovenia were Roman Catholic. Bosnia-Herzegovina was split between the two groups of Christians with a significant Moslem minority. The Bosnia Muslims derive largely from the surviving remnants of the Bogomils, who had persisted to the time of the Turkish conquest and chose Islam over both Orthodoxy or Catholicism.

In 1389 the Turks defeated the combined Slavic forces at the Battle of Kosovo, following which the Ottoman Empire established itself across the southern Balkans. Only Slovenia, controlled by the Germanic Kingdom (and after the thirteenth century the Austrian) remained free of Ottoman control. During the years of Muslim control, proselytization occurred most strongly in Bosnia and Croatia. At the end of the seventeenth century the Hapsburgs pushed further south across Croatia to the Sava River which flowed into the Danube at Belgrade. This territory was formally ceded to Austria in 1699. Through the next two centuries the line between the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empire continued to fluctuate. Serbians began to assert their political independence which was formally granted in 1878.

Following World War II, strongman Josef Broz Tito ruled Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. A decade of weakened central control led to the break-up of the country at the end of the decade. Six separate countries emerged in the early 1990s, and one more in the first decade of the new century.

The Southern Slavic Vampire: The southern Slavic vampire was a variation of the vampire of the Slavs, and the beliefs and practices related to it were influenced by those of their neighbors in every direction. The lands of the former Yugoslavia have been cited as the most likely land of origin of the Slavic vampire. Jan L. Perkowski has suggested that the peculiar shape assumed by the vampire originated through a combination of Pagan and Bogomil beliefs (religious ideas dominant in the region at the end of the tenth century) that were pushed aside by the conquest of Christianity, though he has found little support for his hypothesis. In any case, through the centuries, Christian leaders attempted to destroy the belief in vampires, but were often forced to accommodate them as they remained strong among the people. Islam proved quite accommodating to the belief in vampires.

Perkowski also traced the origin of the modern word “vampire” to an old Slavic form obyrbi or obirbi. Among the various Slavic groups and their neighbors, different forms of the word evolved. Dominant in the region in the modern era was upirina, a Serbo-Croatian word. The word vampir, with the addition of an “m” sound, was also present, and in Bosnia lampir was used. Also present was vukodlak (Croatian) or vurvulak (Albanian), words similar to the Greek designation of the vampire, vrykolakas. Vukodlak was often shortened to kudlak. In the late nineteenth century, in Istria near the Italian border, a kudlak was believed to be attached to each clan. It was considered an evil being that attacked people at night. It was opposed by another entity, the krsnik, which often interrupted a kudlak‘s attack and fought it.

In addition to the more ubiquitous words, the term tenatz has been found in Montenegro. This was used interchangeably with lampir, the local variation on vampir. It was believed to be the body of a deceased person that had been taken over by evil spirits. The tenatz wandered the night and sucked the blood of the sleeping. They transformed themselves into mice to reenter their burial place. A primary means of detecting a vampire in Montenegro was to take a black horse to the cemetery.

The horse would be repelled by the grave of the vampire and refuse to walk across it. Once detected, the body would be disinterred and if, upon further determination, the vampire hunters decided it was a vampire, the corpse would be impaled with a stake and burned.

In Croatia one also might find kosac, prikosac, tenjac, and lupi manari as terms for a vampire. Albanian names for a vampire included kukuthi or lugat. The strigon (Slovenian) and shtriga (Albanian, Macedonian) are blood-sucking witches related to the Romanian strigoi. Another blood-sucking witch related to the strigoi was the vjeshtitza (also spelled veshtitza) During her field work in Montenegro early in this century, M. Edith Durham discovered that people no longer believed that vjeshtitza existed but retained a rich lore about them.

Vjeshtitza were older women who were hostile to men, other women, and all children. Possessed by an evil spirit, the sleeping witch’s soul wandered at night and inhabited either a moth or a fly. Using the flying animal, the witch entered into the homes of neighbors and sucked the blood of victims. The victim, over a period of time, grew pale, developed a fever, and died. The witches were especially powerful during the first week of March, and protective measures would be taken against them. The protective ceremony, performed the first day of March each year, included the stirring the ashes in the family hearth with two horns, which were then stuck into the ash heap. Garlic was also a common protective substance.

The vampire was a revenant, a body that returned from the grave with some semblance of life. Some believed that it was a body inhabited by an evil spirit. A person was believed to become a vampire in several ways, but a sudden, unexpected, and/or violent accidental death, a wasting sickness, or suicide were seen as primary causes. M. Edith Durham, for example, recorded the story in Bosnia of an epidemic of vampirism associated with a typhus epidemic. Vampirism was also associated, in a day prior to professional undertakers, with the need to follow a prescribed process of preparation of the body of a deceased person and its subsequent burial. Irregularities in the process could cause a person to turn into a vampire. In particular, it had to be watched so that animals, especially cats, did not jump over the body prior to burial. In Macedonia, if a cat did jump over the body, the corpse would then be pierced with two needles. Vampirism was also assumed to be contagious—an attack by a vampire would lead to vampirism.

The shtriga and vjeshtitza were blood-sucking witches.

Although not revenants, the witches were members of the community believed to be living incognito. They were difficult to identify, although a sure sign was a young girl’s hair turning white. Shtriga attacked in the night, usually in the form of an animal such as a moth, fly, or bee. In fact, the word shtriga was derived from the Latin strix, screech owl, that referred to a flying demon that attacked in the night. The Albanian shtriga could be detected by placing a cross made with pig bones on the church door when it was crowded with people. The witch was unable to leave the church and would be seen running around the church trying to find a safe exit.

The shtrega traveled at night and, often in the form of an animal, attacked people and sucked their blood. If a shtriga was sighted, it could be followed and positively identified because it had to stop and vomit up the blood it had sucked. The vomited blood could then be used to make an amulet to protect one from witchcraft and vampirism.

The strigon of Slovenia was also a bloodsucking witch. The term was derived from the Latin striga (witch), which in turn was derived from strix, originally a screech owl that was perceived as a demon that attacked infants in the night. The term was also used more generally to describe a vampire.

Slovenian historian Baron Jan Vajkart Valvasor (1641–1693) recounted the killing of a strigon in Istria (western Slovenia). A person who was the suspected vampire had recently died and was seen by several people walking around the town. His suspected vampirism was reported by his wife after he returned home and had sexual relations with her. The strigon was killed by a stake made of hawthorn driven into its stomach while a priest read an exorcism. The corpse was then decapitated. All the while, the corpse reacted as if it were alive—it recoiled as the stake was driven in, cried while the exorcism was pronounced, and screamed out as its head was severed. After the decapitation, it bled profusely.

Vampires attacked people it had strong emotional attachments to—both positive (family and friends) and negative (those with whom it had quarreled in life)—and sucked their blood. A sure sign of a vampire was an outbreak of various kinds of contagious illnesses. People who became sick and died from what were then unknown causes were often considered victims of vampiric activity. The vampire could also attack the village livestock in a similar manner.

The southern Slavic vampire was, like that among the Gypsies, capable of having sex with a spouse or lover. Durham related the story of a girl in Montenegro who was forced to marry the man chosen by her parents rather than her true love. Her beloved left the country and, in his despair, died. He returned from the grave as a vampire and visited the girl who eventually became pregnant by him. In appearance, the child closely resembled the deceased man.

The villagers were frustrated because the man had died abroad, and thus they could not destroy him. Bodies of males uncovered in the search for a vampire would often have an erect sex organ.

The existence of a vampire could be detected by a variety of means. In Montenegro, for example, a black horse (in Albania, a white horse was used) would be led to a local cemetery—the horse would be repelled by a vampire’s grave. The horse usually had to be ridden by a boy who had not yet experienced puberty or a virginal girl. In Croatia, there were reports of strange animal sounds coming from the grave of someone later determined to be a vampire. The body was then disinterred. The discovery of a body turned face down or bloated to the point that the skin was stretched like a drum indicated that the correct body had been uncovered. If only bones remained in the grave, it was not considered a vampire. The Serbians and Bosnians shared the belief with Gypsies in the dhampir, the son of a vampire. The offspring of a vampire was considered to have the power to both see and destroy his father and other vampires. In Macedonia, there was the belief in the power of people born on Saturday. Such Sabbatarians, as they were termed, were thought to have a great influence over vampires including the power to lure them into traps where they could be destroyed. On Saturdays, the Sabbatarians could see and kill vampires.

For average people, protection from vampires was secured by barricading their homes with thorn bushes (an old remedy for witches).

Once discovered, the vampire could be rendered harmless or destroyed by the traditional means of fixing the body to the ground with a stake and/or decapitation. In the most severe cases, the body might be dismembered or burned. In general, a priest was asked to be present to repeat the funeral prayers over the person who was perceived to be dying a second time. (As part of an attempt to stop the mutilation of dead bodies, the church in Serbia and Montenegro threatened any priest who cooperated in such activity with excommunication.) In both Montenegro and Albania, it was believed that a vampire could be stopped by hamstringing the corpse. G. F. Abbott reported observing the destruction of a vampire by scalding it with boiling water and driving a long nail in its navel. The body was returned to the ground and the grave covered with millet seeds so if the vampire was not destroyed, it would waste its time counting the millet until dawn. In Croatia, it was believed that a stake driven into the ground over the grave prevented the vampire from rising. In Serbia, a white-thorn or hawthorn stake or other sharp objects might be stuck into the ground over a vampire, or a sickle placed over the neck of the corpse when it was reburied.

It was common among the southern Slavs (as among the Greeks) to dig up bodies some years after their burial, to cleanse the bones, and rebury them in a permanent location. It was important that the soft tissue be completely decomposed by that time—delays in decomposition were cause for concern and could lead to suggestions of vampirism.

The Vampire Epidemics, 1727–1732: The beliefs and practices of the southern Slavs concerning vampires were brought to the attention of western Europe primarily through two spectacular cases that were publicized due to official inquiries into the cases by Austrian authorities. Both cases occurred in a region of Serbia north of Belgrade that had been taken over by Austria from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the seventeenth century and, subsequently, incorporated into the Hungarian province. One incident began with the sudden death of Peter Plogojowitz. He was seen by his family several nights after his death. Shortly thereafter, Plogojowitz appeared to several people in their dreams. In one week, nine people died of no known cause. When the local army commander arrived to investigate, Plogojowitz’s body was taken from the grave. It was found to be as fresh as it had been when buried. The eyes were open and the complexion was ruddy. His mouth was smeared with fresh blood. Fresh skin appeared just below an old layer of dead skin he appeared to be shedding, and his hair and nails had grown. It was concluded that he was a vampire. Plogojowitz’s body was staked and burned.

More famous than the Plogojowitz incident was the case of Arnold Paul. Paul lived in the village of Medvegia (spelled in numerous ways in different sources), Serbia, north of Paracin. He told his neighbors that while he had been serving in the army in Turkey, he had been bitten by a vampire. A week later he died. Several weeks after his death, people began to report seeing him, and four such people died. On the fourtieth day after his burial, the grave was opened and he was found in a lifelike condition. When his body was cut, he bled freely. When staked, it was later reported that he groaned aloud. He and the four people he reportedly vampirized were decapitated and their bodies burned.

The Arnold Paul case should have ended with his funeral pyre. However, in 1731, some seventeen people in the village died of an unknown cause. Vampirism was suggested. Word of the unusual occurrences reached all the way to Vienna, and the emperor ordered an official inquiry. Following the arrival of Johannes Fluckinger in Medvegia, the body of a new suspected vampire was disinterred. He was also found to be in a healthy state. After some further investigation, it was discovered that Paul had vampirized several cows. Those who ate the meat from the cows were infected with a vampiric condition. The bodies of the recently dead were then disinterred and all were staked and burned.

Fluckinger returned to Vienna and presented the emperor with a complete report. During 1732, the report and several journalistic versions of it became bestsellers throughout Europe. The two cases became the basis of a heated debate in German universities, and after a decade of arguing, the participants concluded that vampires did not exist. However, the debate spurred the interest of Dom Augustin Calmet, a French biblical scholar, who, in 1746, completed a most important treatise on the subject published in England as The Phantom World.

The fame of Plogojowitz and Paul should have focused attention on Serbia and the southern Slavic countries. Instead, from mere geographical ignorance, many involved in the debate placed the occurrences in Hungary, and thus Hungary—which has the least vampire mythology of all the Eastern European countries—became known for vampirism. As a result, scrutiny of vampire beliefs was directed away from Serbia and its southern Slavic neighbors. The misdirection given vampire phenomena by Calmet was reinforced by the writings of Montague Summers and number of writers on vampires who essentially copied him.

The vampire has had a long and interesting history in what is now the independent country of Slovenia. Largely Roman Catholic in background, the country existed for many centuries as an Austrian province; however, south of the Drava River, especially in rural areas, Slovenes resisted Germanization and retained their own language and folklore. One of the earliest books to deal with vampires was Count Valvasor’s Die Ehre des Herzogthums Krain (1689), which told the story of Grando, a peasant of the district of Kranj. A quiet man in life, in death Grando began to attack his neighbors and his body was ordered exhumed. His body was found with ruddy complexion and he appeared to have a smile on his face. A priest called upon the vampire to look to his savior Jesus Christ, at which the body took on a sad expression and tears were flowing down his cheek. The body was then decapitated and reburied. A more general account of vampires in the region was given in the famous 1734 travelogue, The Travels of Three English Gentlemen.

Modern Vampires among the Southern Slavs: Vampire beliefs have continued into the twentieth century, in spite of several generations of hostile governments that denounced both religion and superstitions. Folklorists have had no trouble locating vampire stories. The depth and persistence of the vampire belief was vividly illustrated in a most unexpected manner early in 1993, in the midst of the most violent era experienced directly by Serbia following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. During that year, a man made a number of appearances on Serbia’s state-controlled television station at the height of the country’s conflict. He, in all seriousness, argued that at the moment when final destruction threatened the Serbian nation, a fleet of vampires would arise from the cemeteries to defeat Serbia’s enemies.

In preparation for this event, he advised viewers to keep a supply of garlic at hand lest the vampires attack them by mistake.

Sources:

Abbott, G. F. Macedonian Folklore. Chicago: Argonaut Inc., 1969. 372 pp.
Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988. 236 pp.
D’Assier, Adolphe. Posthumous Humanity: A Study of Phantoms. San Diego, CA: Wizards Bookshelf, 1981. 360 pp.
Durham, M. Edith. “Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans.” Man 121 (December 1923): 189–192.
Kinzer, Stephen. “At Root of Mayhem: A Bizarre Dream World Called Serbia.” Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (May 16, 1993): 11A.
Perkowski, Jan L. The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1989. 174 pp.
———, ed. Vampires of the Slavs. Cambridge, MA: Slavica Publishers, 1976. 294 pp.
Petrovitch, Woislav M. Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians. London: George G. Harrap, 1914. 393 pp. Rept. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1972. 393 pp.
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