Poland, Vampires in

Poland, Vampires in

(pop culture)

The Polish vampire is a variety of the vampire of the Slavs, with which it shares most essential features. Poland as a national group emerged from the union of some twenty west Slavic tribes including the Polonians (from which the country’s name was derived), the Vistulans, the Silesians, the East Pomeranians, and the Mazovians. These tribes originally inhabited the Oder and Vistula River valleys. A significant boost was given to Polish self-identity in the tenth century with the founding of the Piast dynasty. Over the centuries it has found itself caught between the expansionist plans of the Germans and the Russians. Poland reached its greatest expansion in the seventeenth century, but at other times—following reverses on the battlefield—it almost ceased to exist.

Christianity was introduced to Poland in the late ninth century, and from the beginning, the Roman Catholic Church was dominant. As early as 969 C.E. a bishop was appointed to Krakow. Because of the allegiance of the people to Roman Catholicism, many of the beliefs about death and burial that pervaded the mythology of the southern Slavs were absent from Polish folklore.

Most importantly, unlike Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism did not believe that the body of those who died outside of the rites of the church would remain incorrupt. There was some indication that beliefs about the witch/vampire strix of Roman origins filtered into Poland during the years immediately after the country’s conversion to Christianity.

The Polish Vampire: Much of our knowledge of the Polish vampire derives from the field work of Jan L. Perkowski among the Kashubs (northern Poles) of Canada, where belief in vampires remains alive to the present day.

Perkowski’s research both confirmed previous work and documented some modern developments. The common words for vampire in Poland were upi—r or upier (male) and upierzyca (female), a variation on the root Slavic word opyrbi, and alternatively opji or wupji. (Upior/Upiorzyca were borrowed from the Ukranian language probably in the fifteenth century.) A second word vjesci (variously spelled Vjeszczi was also popular, and occasionally the term njetop was used. The future vampire was destined to its fate from birth. Infants born with a membrane cap (caul) on their heads would become a vjesci and those born with two teeth would become a upier/upierzyca (or wupji).

The vampiric career of the future vjesci could be diverted by removing the cap, drying it, grinding it into a powder (or burning it), and feeding it (or its ashes) to the child when he or she was seven years old. Perkowski noted that modern Kashubs tended not to separate the two types of vampires.

Those destined to become vampires led otherwise normal lives, but they were noted to have a hyperactive personality and a red face. There was a saying among the Kashubs, “as red as a vampire.” Also at the critical period, the time of their death, the future vampire would refuse final rites and the pastoral role of the priest. The body of a person suspected of becoming a vampire had to be watched carefully, for it was believed that the person did not truly die.

Hence, the body cooled very slowly, retained its color, and did not stiffen. Spots of blood often appeared around the face and/or fingernails.

After midnight, according to belief, it awakened and began to eat its own clothes and flesh. It then visited its relatives and sucked their blood. After visiting its relatives, it would go to the local church and ring the church bell. Those who heard the bell were destined to be the vampire’s next victims.

Several precautions could be taken to prevent the future vampire from rising. First, the sign of the cross was made over its mouth. A crucifix or coin was placed in its mouth. A block might be placed under the chin to prevent it from reaching the burial clothes. The vampire was also blocked by certain obstacles. For example, a net might be put in the coffin based on the belief that the vampire would have to untie the knots before ascending. In like measure, a bag of sand or poppy seeds would be placed in the coffin in the belief that the vampire would have to count all of the grains of sand or all of the seed before arising from the tomb. Added precaution was afforded by scattering sand or seeds on the route from the grave to the family’s house.

If, in spite of all precautions, a vampire managed to arise and attack the community, its tomb had to be opened and the body finally laid to rest. A nail could be driven through its forehead. However, the more common practice was decapitation of the corpse after which the severed head was placed between the corpse’s feet. At the time the head was severed, blood from the wound would be given to any who had fallen ill as a result of the vampire’s attack. The blood caused their recovery.

As late as 1870, in the town of Neustatt-an-der-Rheda (today known as Wejherowo) in Pomerania (northwest Poland), prominent citizen Franz von Poblocki died of consumption (tuberculosis). Two weeks later, his son Anton died. Other relatives also became ill and complained of nightmares. The surviving family members suspected vampirism and they hired a local vampire expert, Johann Dzigielski, to assist them. He decapitated the son who was then buried with his head placed between his legs. Over the objections of the local priest, the body of von Poblocki was exhumed and decapitated in like manner.

The priest complained to the authorities who arrested Dzigielski. He was tried and sentenced to four months in jail. He was released only when the family appealed the decision and found an understanding judge.

Polish Folklore Tales: Along with the accounts of actual vampires within the community, the Poles had a set of folktales about vampires that were told as a means of reinforcing community mores. One example, collected by Marion Moore Coleman, was called “The Vampire Princess.” It told of Jacob, a poor man, and a king whose daughter had become a vampire. To earn money to feed his own daughters, Jacob agreed to assist the king. An old man gave him instructions, which Jacob followed to the letter. The final step involved Jacob entering the tomb of the princess when she left it, writing the name of the Holy Trinity inside of the coffin, and sprinkling it with holy water. As a result of his action, the princess was laid to rest and Jacob was amply rewarded by the grateful monarch. Among the community beliefs promoted by the story were the need to rely on the wisdom of elders, the efficacy of the church’s means of grace, and the rewards that come to people for virtuous action.

Jan L. Perkowski has noted that belief in vampires, at least in their immediate presence, has been decreasing among the Canadian Kashubs he studied.

Among the important cultural factors leading to the loss of belief was the deper-sonalization of the birth and death process in hospitals and funeral homes. The preparation of the body in funeral homes broke the intimate dynamic between the deceased and the community and made the detection of the potential vampire difficult. Additionally, the Kashubs were surrounded by and participated in a larger culture that does not support a belief in vampires.

Sources:

Bratigam, Rob. “Vampire of Roslasin.” International Vampire 1, 1 (Fall 1990): 4–5.
Coleman, Marion Moore, comp. A World Remembered: Tales and Lore of the Polish Land. Cheshire, CT: Cherry Hill Books, 1965. 229 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.
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