Slavs, Vampires and the

Slavs, Vampires and the

(pop culture)

While vampires and vampirelike creatures appeared in the mythology of many of the world’s peoples, nowhere were they more prevalent than among the Slavs of eastern and central Europe. Because of their belief in vampires, the Slavs experienced several panic-stricken “vampire” outbreaks in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that resulted in the opening and desecration of numerous graves. This belief system brought the vampire to the attention of the West and led directly to the development of the contemporary vampire myth.

The Slavic people include most eastern Europeans, from Russia to Bulgaria, from Serbia to the Czech Republic and Poland. Pouring into the region between the Danube and the Adriatic Sea, the people known collectively as the southern Slavs created several countries—Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. In the midst of the Slavic lands are two non-Slavic countries, Romania and Hungary, though each has shared much of its language and lore with its Slavic neighbors. Gypsies have been a persistent minority throughout the Slavic lands, though much of the Gypsy community was decimated by the Nazi holocaust.

The exact origin of the Slavs is a matter of continuing historical debate, but most scholars agree that they came from river valleys north of the Black Sea and were closely associated with the Iranians, with whom they shared a religious perspective that gave a central place to a sun deity. At some point prior to the eighth century C.E., the Slavs, made up of numerous tribes, migrated north and west into the lands they now inhabit. Once settled in their new homes, they began to unite into national groups.

The most important event to give direction to the Slavs was the introduction of Christianity. Initial penetration of the church into Slavic lands began as soon as the Slavs occupied the lands formerly in the hands of the Byzantine empire. However, systematic conversion attempts emerged as an outcome of the extensive reforms instituted during the long reign of Charlemagne (768–814). Charlemagne saw to the development of missions among the Moravians and the Croatians and had a bishop placed at Salzburg to further the Christianization of the Slavs. Most Slavs, however, recognize the work of the brothers Cyril (827–869) and Methodius (825–885) as the real beginning of Slavic Christianity. The brothers developed a Slavic alphabet capable of expressing all of the sounds in the Slavic language in its various dialects.

They borrowed letters from Greek, Hebrew, and Armenian and created a new literary language that included Greek loan-words and new Slavic words that expressed some of the subleties of Greek. This new literary language, most closely resembling Old Bulgarian, became Old Church Slavonic and influenced the various new national languages (from Bulgarian and Serbian to Polish and Russian) that were beginning to emerge from the older common language of the Slavic tribes. Cyril and Methodius translated the Bible and Greek liturgy into Old Church Slavonic. Out of their missions grew the several national eastern Orthodox communions, autonomous churches affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the spiritual (though not administrative) head of eastern Orthodoxy.

Through the ninth and tenth centuries, the Eastern Orthodox church and the Western Roman church engaged in a fight over policy and administrative matters that were to lead to their break and mutual excommunication of each other in 1054 C.E. That break had immense significance for the Slavic people, as the Bulgarians, the Russians, and the Serbians adhered to the Eastern church, while the Poles, Czechs, and Croatians gave their loyalties to the Roman church. This split had great significance in the development of vampire lore, as the two churches disagreed over their understanding of the noncorruption of the body of a dead person. In the West, the noncorruption of the body of some saintly people was seen as an additional sign of their sanctity, while in the East, the incorruptibility of the body was viewed as a sign of God’s disfavor resting upon the dead person, and hence, the likelihood of the individual’s becoming a vampire. Paradoxically, the Church, especially in Russia, also knows the idea of the incorruptibility of the bodies of the saints. Dom Augustin Calmet and others discuss the differences (e.g. the smell: the saints don’t stink).

Origin of the Slavic Vampire: Jan L. Perkowski, who has done the most thorough study of Slavic vampirism, concluded that it originated in the Balkans. Beginning around the ninth century, speculation on vampires evolved as a result of the confrontation between pre-Christian Paganism and Christianity. Bogomilism, a dualistic religion with roots in Iran that emerged in Macedonia in the tenth century, added yet another element to the developing concept. Eventually Christianity won over the other religions, and Pagan and Bogomil ideas, including the belief in vampires, survived as elements of popular demonology. (Perkowski’s reconstruction has been challenged by others who have found that it lacks evidence.) As the concept of the vampire evolved in Slavic mythology, several terms emerged to designate it.

(Note: The discussion of terminology quickly brings even the most accomplished scholar into an area of possible confusion, simply because of the dynamic nature of language in which words are constantly shifting in meaning or connotation. There is a major disagreement among authorities over the primacy of older Slavic origins or Turkish origins. Perkowski favors a Slavic origin and his approach has been accepted as a framework for this discussion.)

The most widely used term was one or the other of many variants of the original Slavic term that lay behind our modern word vampire, which seems to have evolved from the common form obyri or obiri. Each language group has a cognate form of the older root word—upirina (Serbian and Croatian), upirbi (Ukrainian), up’r (Byelo-Russian, Czech, Slovak), upi–r (Polish), wupji (Kashubian), lampir (Bosnian), and vampir (Bulgarian, also vbpir, vepir, or vapir. There is a wide range of opinion on the origin of the root term opyrb, an unsolvable problem because the history of the early Slavic tribes has been lost.

The second popular term, especially among the Greeks and southern Slavs is vrykolakas (which, like vampire, possessed a number of forms in the different Slavic languages). This term seems to have derived from the older Serbian compound word, vblkb plus dlaka, meaning one who wore wolf pelts. Perkowski argues that the term designated someone who wore a wolfskin in a ritual situation. By the thirteenth century, when the word first appeared in a written text, the earlier meaning had been dropped and vlbkodlaci referred to a mythological monster who chased the clouds and ate the sun and moon (causing eclipses). Still later, by the sixteenth century, it had come to refer to vampires and as such had passed into both Greek and Romanian culture. The older southern Slavic term appears today as vrykolakas (Greek), vircolac (Romanian), vbkolak (Macedonian, Bulgarian), and vukodlak (Serbo-Croatian, sometimes shortened to kudlak). Because of the root meaning of the term, vudkolak has become part of the discussion of the relation of werewolves and the vampire.

Three other words have assumed some importance in the literature as designations of the vampire. Strigoi (female: strigoaica) is the popular Romanian word for witch. Harry Senn, author of Were-Wolf and Vampire in Romania, found a variant, strigoi mort (dead witch), as a common term for a vampire. Strigoi is derived from the Latin strix (screech owl) that had also come to refer to a night demon that attacked children. Russians commonly replaced up’r, their older Slavic term for a vampire, with eretik (or heretic), a Greek ecclesiastical word for one who has departed from the true faith. Vjesci (alternate spellings vjeszczi and vjeszcey) is a term employed by the Kashubs of northern Poland.

The Slavic Vampire: The vampire found its place within the world view of the people of eastern and central Europe. It was associated with death and was an entity to be avoided. However, it was not the all-pervasive symbol of evil it would come to be in nineteenth-century western European literature. Within the prescientific world of village life, the role of the vampire was to explain various forms of unpredicted and undeserved evil that befell people.

The Slavic vampire differed considerably from the popular image of the creature that evolved in twentieth-century novels and movies. First, it generally appeared without any prior contact with another vampire. The vampire was the product of an irregularity in the community life, most commonly a problem with the process of either death and burial or of birth. People who met a violent death, which cut them off from the normal completion of their live could become vampires. Thus, people who committed suicide or died as the result of an accident might become vampires. Most Slavic cultures had a precise set of ritualized activities to be followed after someone’s death and even for some days following the interment of the body. Deviation from that procedure could result in the deceased becoming a vampire. In a community where the church was integral to social life, and deviation from the church a matter of serious concern, to die in a state of excommunication was seen as a cause of vampirism.

Vampirism also could result from problems associated with birth. For example, most Slavic communities had certain days of the year when intercourse was frowned upon. Children conceived by parents who had violated such taboos could become vampires. Bulgarians believed that an infant who died before it was baptized could become a ustrel, a vampire that would attack and drink the blood of cows and sheep. Among the Kashubs, a child born with teeth or with a membrane cap (a caul) on its head could become a vampire after its death.

Thus, Slavic society offered many reasons why vampires could appear. Of course, part of the horror felt toward vampires was the possibility of its passing on its condition to others. The vampire tended to attack its family, neighbors, friends, and people with whom it had unfinished business. Those attacked assumed the possibility of also becoming a vampire. The belief that a number of community members might become vampires contemporaneously brought on waves of vampire hysteria experienced in Slavic communities.

In the cases where a deceased person was suspected of becoming a vampire, a wide variety of pre-burial actions were reportedly taken as precautions.

Among the most widespread was the placing of various materials into the coffin that were believed to inhibit a vampire’s activity. Religious objects such as the crucifix were the most common. Such plants as the mountain ash were believed to stop the vampire from leaving its grave.

Since vampires had a fascination with counting, seeds (millet or poppyseed) were spilled in the grave, on top of the grave, and on the road from the graveyard. The vampire slowly counted the seeds before it assumed the privilege of engaging in any vampiric activity. On occasion, in more extreme cases, the body might be pierced with thorns or a stake, different groups having preferences for wood (hawthorn, aspen, or oak) or iron.

Believing that vampires would first attack and eat their burial garments every effort was made to keep the clothes away from the corpse’s mouth. A wooden block might be placed under the chin, or the clothes might be nailed to the side of the coffin.

While there were many possible causes for the creation of a vampire, the existence of one became apparent through the negative effects of its activities. Most commonly, the unexplained death of sheep and cattle (a community’s food supply) was attributed to vampires. Strange experiences of the kind usually studied by parapsychologists also suggested the presence of vampires. Included in the stories of vampires were accounts of poltergeist activity, the visitation of a incubus/succubus, or the appearance of the specter of a recently deceased person to a relative or friend. The sudden illness or death of a person, especially a relative or friend, soon after the death of an individual suggested that the person had become a vampire. Vampires also were associated with epidemics.

Once the suggestion that a community was under attack by a vampire was taken seriously by several residents, the discovery and designation of the vampire proceeded. The most likely candidate was a person who had recently died, especially in the previous forty days. (Derived from the forty days between Jesus’s death and ascension.) The body of the suspected vampire might then be exhumed and examined for characteristic signs. The body of a vampire was believed to appear lifelike and to show signs of continued growth and change. It would possess pliable joints and blood would ooze from its mouth or other body openings. It might have swelled up like a drum filled with blood. Its hair may have continued to grow and new fingernails may have appeared.

When the supposed vampire was located, it had to be destroyed. Destroying the vampire usually involved action against the corpse—most commonly, the body was staked using a variety of wood or metal materials. The stake was driven into the head, heart, or stomach. In some instances decapitation might occur. The Kashub people placed the severed head between the feet of the corpse before reburial. In the most extreme cases, the body was destroyed by burning. These actions were accompanied, where the services of a priest could be obtained, by such ritual activity as the repeating of the funeral service, the sprinkling of holy water, or even an exorcism.

While the belief in vampires was quite widespread, especially in rural eastern Europe, the cases of a community detecting a vampire and taking action against the corpse of the suspect were relatively rare. This was true especially after the widely reported incidents of vampires in the eighteenth century and the subsequent institution of legal penalties, both secular and ecclesiastical, against people who desecrated the bodies of the dead. However, besides the reports of contemporary vampires, a large body of vampire folktales set in the indefinite past circulated in Slavic lands. Like Aesop’s fables, these stories functioned as moral tales to teach behavioral norms to members of the community. Among the more famous was one titled simply “The Vampire,” originally collected by A. N. Afanasyev in Russia in the nineteenth century. It told of a young girl, Marusia, who became infatuated with a handsome young man who ventured into her town. He was rich, personable, and mannered, but he was also a vampire. Even after she discovered his nature, she did not act, and as a result several members of her family died. She finally learned what to do from her grandmother. The story offered the listener a number of guidelines. For example, it taught that wisdom was to be sought from one’s elders, and that young people should beware attractive strangers, as they might be the source of evil. Other stories offered similar advice.

The Slavic Vampire Today: Folklorists such as Harry Senn have had little difficulty collecting vampire stories, both folktales and accounts of the apparent actual vampires, among Slavic populations throughout the twentieth century, though increasingly they have had to travel to the more isolated rural communities to find such accounts. Governments hostile to any form of supernaturalism have had a marked influence on the loss of belief in vampires, effectively eradicating most such beliefs in the urban areas and among more educated persons. Also assisting in the decline of belief has been the rise of the modern undertaker, who has assumed the burial functions previously done by the family of the deceased. The removal of the burial ceremony from the people has caused a certain distancing from the experience of death, which has contributed to the decline of many beliefs about human interaction with the dead.


Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956. 394 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.
———. Vampire Lore: From Writings of Jan Louis Perkowski. Bloomington, Indiana: Slavica 2006. 610 pp.
Senn, Harry. Were-Wolf and Vampire in Romania. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. 148 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire in Europe. New York: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1929. 329 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961. 329 pp.
Wilson, Katherina M. “The History of the Word ‘Vampire.’” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, 4 (October-December 1985): 577–583.
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