a [very brief] history of Slavic vampire lore

Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire, 1897

Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire, 1897

I promised to write a blog post on vampires and while this might not be the post everyone was expecting, it's the post that was written. The reason for this is two fold: 1) I simply didn't find a lot of evidence for the erotic nature of vampirism in folklore; and 2) I didn't want to talk about the vampire in popular literature or movies because, quite frankly, the material on these subjects is voluminous. Most of the imagery regarding the erotic vampire originated in nineteenth century Gothic literature.

So you can more or less forget about a discussion of hot mama vamp taking a bite out of a sweetheart like the one pictured in the post. If you're looking for shame, you won't find it in me. I'm not sorry in the least. It was just a cool picture and it was free. I tricked you, now you know. This is how marketing works.

What I am going to talk about is syncretism, which sounds like a bodily function but isn't. Most of my regular blog readers understand what the word means, but occasionally, I have a few folks drift this way who are still in the fart-joke stage of life so for their benefit, syncretism is essentially when belief systems from different religions amalgamate. This merging of beliefs doesn't always result in a new religion, but often is more about combining new ideas with existing schools of thought.

I really don't have space, or the materials right now, to do an extensive study of vampire lore throughout different cultures. For the purposes of this (already lengthy) post, I'm going to focus on the origins of Slavic vampire lore. Also, I'm not going to lie to you, this is where much of my research landed when I researched vampire lore for Miserere. Since Lucian and Catarina were originally from Wallachia, I wanted to be true to the lore of that area and most of my material reflects that research.

We can all agree that the idea of vampires is ancient. There is also no dispute that the vampire, regardless of culture, is a demonic creature, which is half-supernatural and half-human. Although the vampire is considered to be a magical creature, it is also subject to certain natural laws. These laws (when the vampire is active, how it can be killed, etc.) are the result of the assimilation of several different belief systems which produced the subsequent folklore that gives us the Slavic vampire we have come to know.

It's difficult to understand Slavic vampire lore without a brief introduction into very early Christianity, which was originally a sect of Judaism. Of course, after Jesus' death, Christians were generally frowned upon in synagogue. Having a group within their congregations proclaiming that Jesus was the Christ didn't sit well with a lot of the rabbis, so the Christians, as they came to be known, were more or less kicked out of synagogue. Nobody get self-righteous here. The rabbis believed they were protecting their doctrines against heresies, and the Christians believed the Messiah had truly come, so a schism was inevitable.

Here, we also see our first case of syncretism in that the Jews who became Christians carried a number of Judaic beliefs into their new religion, then they spent the next hundred years writing polemics as to why Christians weren't Jews. On the flip-side, Jewish leaders began their own written campaign and the rhetoric eventually devolved into what I've always called the "Jane, you ignorant slut/Dan, you pompous ass" stage whereupon both sides started making up vicious lies about one another. Face-slapping would continue throughout the next two thousand years, but I digress.

Christianity spread throughout the Middle East primarily along major trade routes, and as the new religion intermingled with established religions and cultures, Christianity began to grow in many and varied ways. During this time, there was no official doctrine, so everyone was more or less going with the flow of what felt good at the moment. As a matter of fact, that was the whole point to the first Council of Nicaea (in 325 A.D.), which was to establish some form of orthodoxy over the religion.

While the bishops met in Nicaea, Christianity continued to spread and not everyone initially got the memo about the council. During this time, the philosophical belief system that made up Christianity took a multitude of forms, some which were later declared to be heretical by the Orthodox Church. Gnostic belief flourished prior to the Church becoming organized enough to challenge the Gnostics, which they eventually did with fire and Inquisitors, but that is another blog post for another day.

One of the Gnostic sects that took hold in the Balkans was called Bogomilism, and Bogomilism was a merging of two different sects: another Gnostic sect called Paulicians and an Iranian sect called Mithraism. Not much is known about the pre-Christian beliefs of the early Slavs; however, there appears to be a great deal of Iranian influence in their early belief systems. Christianity and Mithraism appeared to have existed side-by-side for a period of time on the Balkan Peninsula. The most important thing to remember about Mithraism right now is that the religion carried dualistic qualities, meaning that good and evil were equal and in direct opposition to one another. Christianity, on the other hand, sees God as the ultimate good and as a force superior to all others.

According to Jan L. Perkowski, the "next Iranian cult to penetrate the Balkans is that of the Persian prophet Mānī, who died in 274 A.D." The cult of Manichaeism also traveled along trade routes to overtake much of the Mediterranean world. Manichaeism was not a Christian sect, but the religion did adopt and adapt its belief system to Christianity. Manichaeism taught that there are two separate forces in the world (good and evil), which plays out as: 1) God vs. Satan; 2) Good vs. Evil; and 3) Mana (i.e. God's grace) vs. Matter. (Perkowski)

This is highly important to understand, especially the third part when it comes to vampires, because it is the battle for the soul and the condition of the body in death that becomes relevant. In Manichaeism, humans are dual creatures where the soul is considered to be divine and the body is evil (Perkowski). Satan's job is to prevent the soul from reaching Heaven, which is, of course, where the divine resides.

Sometime in the seventh century, a heretical Christian sect known as the Paulicians arose in Armenia. Their belief system incorporated Manichaeism and Christianity, and this is where the two belief systems merged. The Paulicians sent missionaries into Bulgaria where a syncretic sect called Bogomilism branched off from the Paulicians.

Bogomilism retained the dualistic beliefs of Manichaeism, which the Paulicians had also adopted. Bogomilism was no fly-by-night sect. While Bogomilism never held a formal doctrine or established a capital for itself, the dualistic beliefs of Bogomilism traveled into the East Slavic territories and as far as France (Albigensians). Portions of the Cather's philosophies can be traced back to Bogomilism. Needless to say, the Orthodox Church had a hissy fit, denounced Bogomilism as heretical, and attempted to stamp this branch of Gnosticism into the ashes. However, the Bogomils hid themselves behind the very orthodoxy that sought to destroy them by being good Orthodox Christians when in plain sight and practicing what the church considered their more heretical beliefs behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, the Bogomils didn't leave a lot of writings behind, and/or those writings were destroyed by the Church. What we do know about Bogomilism comes from Church records. Euthymius Zigabenus, a twelfth century monk, gives us some interesting insight into the Bogomil demonology:

"The Bogomils say that the demons ... inhabit all other men (non-Bogomils) and instruct them in vice, lead them to wickedness and after their death dwell in their corpses, remain in their tombs and await their resurrection in order to be punished together with them and not depart them in their torments. The belief that each man is inhabited by a demon they hold from the Massalians." (Perkowski)

Not everything was destroyed by the Church. The Bulgarian Bogomil Magi (upper clergy) produced apocrypha during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and these documents do give us some insight into the Bogomils' beliefs. God represents the Force of Creation, which is opposed by the equally powerful Force of Destruction. This following excerpt is a catechetical description regarding death and burial, and is highly interesting because of the Bogomils' belief in reincarnation. 

"When, all the same, some member of the commune falls victim to the Force of Destruction and dies, then the bells of the church sound the tocsin, and after work each member of the commune must go to the body to express the wish that the soul of the deceased resettle in the body of a person who will be born in the near future, so that it can return to the living through rebirth and thus defeat the Force of Destruction, which can destroy only the material part of the man and not his soul, which is eternal and whose eternity in this manner causes man to be eternal." (Perkowski) [Emphasis mine]

Other important points about this apocrypha are:

  • Man avoids the forces of darkness through restoration through utilizing the four elements: bathing and washing; air (ventilation of the house and living outside); greeting the sun in the morning; and recognizing the celestial creations in the evening; and, of course, through the sermons of the church;
  • Burial of the dead takes place outside of the town and is done only during the evening after sunset or during the predawn hours;
  • It is forbidden to bring dead bodies into a church, because dead bodies belong to the Force of Destruction. (Perkowski)

Entrenched in the Bogomil belief system are the seeds for what eventually becomes modern vampire lore. Primarily that the early Slavs believed that the body (as matter) is evil and representative of Satan while the soul is holy and deserving of reincarnation. It is easy to see how Bogomilistic views on demonology combined with the dualistic natures of the Force of Destruction and its need to destroy the Force of Creation birthed the vampire. The continual battle between Destruction and Good can be encapsulated by a demon's ability to animate a corpse that sucks the blood (i.e. life force) from a living person.

Once entrenched within a culture, these beliefs don't die easily (no pun intended ... okay ... maybe a little one). These dualistic beliefs were also evident among the West Slavs almost a century later. Pre-Christian practices on the Baltic coast are described by Helmold in his Chronicle of the Slavs (1164-1168):

"... after the victim is felled the priest drinks of its blood in order to render himself more potent in the receiving of oracles. For it is the opinion of many that demons are very easily conjured with blood ... The Slavs too, have a strange delusion. At their feasts and carousals they pass about a bowl over which they utter words ... in the name of the gods ... of the good one, as well as the bad one--professing that all propitious fortune is arranged by the good god, adversity by the bad god." (Perkowski)

If we take the association of corpses with evil forces (i.e. the Force of Destruction) and combine it with demons, which hound men and women in order to deplete them of their life force, we can easily see how mundane illnesses can be attributed to vampires. The killing of the vampire is also rooted in Bogomilistic beliefs. Since most medieval philosophies held that the head and the heart were the repositories for a person's emotions and desires, it made perfect sense to pierce both the head and heart in order to curb the violent desire for destruction exhibited by the vampire. Cremation occurs in order to execute the "ultimate separation of elements belonging to the force of good and those belonging to the force of evil" (to wit: water/blood, earth, and fire).

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the quick and dirty of how we arrived at folklore surrounding the Slavic vampire. As with my previous post on demonology, I've essentially hit the highlights for you here. If you want to read more about vampires and vampire lore, I can recommend a brief bibliography for you:

Dundes, Alan, ed. The vampire: a casebook. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Masters, Anthony. The Natural History of the Vampire. New York, NY: Penguin, 1972.  [Note: I think there have been newer editions published, but this is the original bibliography information.]

Perkowski, Jan L. The darkling: a treatise on Slavic vampirism. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1989. [A very brief note: Dr. Perkowski has many treatises out about the vampire, all of which are some of your best sources.]

Twitchell, James B., ed. The Living Dead: A Study in Romantic Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981. [Note: This is more of a literary study of the vampire but well worth reading.]