To the early Slavs, forests and swamps were omnipresent. Around farms and villages as well as on the mountains, the woods were inescapable. And in the shadows of those trees, spirits lurked.
Most spirits in Slavic mythology aren’t depicted in a positive light. Tales of demons in the shadows of the night spread all across the Slavic tribes and nations, and one of the most frightening tales told was that of vampires.
These creatures, especially those of Transilvanian origin, are fairly well known through pop culture osmosis or an interest in folklore, but what about the Slavic vampires? How did they come to be and what were they like? Let’s find out!
The word vampire has its roots in Serbia (вампир, vampir in latin) or in Hungary (vámpír).
In other languages…
- Bosnia – Lampir
- Czechia and Slovakia – Upír
- Poland – wąpierz, upiór
- Russia – упырь, upyr in latin
How did vampires come to be?
According to the Slavic beliefs, one of the main causes of vampirism is dying an “irregular” death, such as committing suicide. Other factors that could lead to one becoming a nightstalker are being born on a wrong day, being born with teeth, tail or a caul (the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus), not getting to know the proper religious rituals as a child or getting killed by magic or a practitioner of the black arts. Another possible reason for becoming a vampire was a sloppily or disrespectfully executed burial, which caused the recently deceased to rise from the grave.
Other sources claim that even a living person could become a vampire by suffering from a disease, having bodily deformations or from commiting sinful actions.
Preventive measures against vampires
When burying a person, a good preventive measure to take so they didn’t turn into a vampire was to put a crucifix in the coffin, placing blocks under the chin to prevent the body from eating the burial shroud (a length of cloth or an enveloping garment in which a corpse is wrapped) and itself (it needed to do that to survive), nailing the clothes to the coffin (for the same reason), filling the casket with sawdust (a vampire awakens in the evening and must count each grain of sawdust, which takes up the entire night, so the creature will die when it rises from the grave at dawn) or piercing the body with thorns or stakes. Sometimes the head of the body was cut off so it couldn’t eat anything or, instead of straight up decapitating it, a scythe blade would be placed over the neck of the body so it would behead itself when it rose from the grave.
Other sources claim that people back then would even put stones over the grave, bury the person with its stomach facing down or put a stone in its mouth to prevent the self-eating.
The different burial preventive measures
The image of Vampires
The description of vampires varied from location to location. Mostly, though, they were depicted as men with extraordinarily pale complexion. If women became vampires, they were said to be uncommonly beautiful and, similar to their male counterparts, white skinned.
Many nations thought of vampires as creatures that could easily blend with humans, with the difference being that the bloodsuckers seemed to be more active during the hours of the night, as they were avoiding the sunlight. Supposedly, they feasted on human blood, but it was said that they could gain their sustenance from the blood of animals as well. This method was said to be avoided though, as it drained their energy.
When a vampire arrived at a village the dogs went wild, and the cattle were restless. Telltale signs of a nightstalker in the vicinity were dead livestock, relatives or neighbours. Also, the sight of an exhumed body in a lifelike state with newly grown fingernails or hair, a body swelled up like a drum, or with blood on the mouth coupled with a ruddy complexion could be strong implications that a creature of the night was on the prowl.
And yes, they are afraid of garlic!
This was the fifth episode of Slavic Saturday. There are many other creatures I am ready to cover for you, my lovely fans. If you missed our previous episodes then you can find that here. I hope to see you all return next Saturday!