Monday, August 1, 2016

The Russian Vampire, article in Chambers's Encyclopaedia 1893

The Russian Vampire, article in Chambers's Encyclopaedia 1893

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One of the most gruesome superstitions in the world is that of the Vampire, of the dead leaving their graves to destroy and prey upon the living. It is characteristically Slavonic, though by no means exclusively so, and it is strongest of all in White Russia and the Ukraine. It still dominates the popular imagination in Russia, Poland, Servia, among the Czechs of Bohemia, and the Slovaks of Hungary, and also in a less degree in Albania and Greece. The modern Greek term for a vampire is Bourkolakas, which Bernhard Schmidt identifies with the Slavonic name of the werewolf (Bohemian, vlkodlak; in Bulgarian and Slovak, vrkolak), the regular name for a vampire in Servia being vukodlak. The Russian vampir (South Russian, upuir, anciently upir, Polish, upior) in his earthly life was a wizard, a witch, a werewolf, a suicide, or one cursed by his parents or the church. But even an innocent man may involuntarily become a vampire by himself falling a victim to one, or merely by a cat or a bird accidentally crossing his corpse before its burial. And we find a survival of this notion in Henderson's account of how the Northumbrians at once put such a cat to death. Such bodies do not decay in the kindly earth, for when a vampire's grave is opened no trace of death is seen on the corpse; he lies turned in his grave, with fresh cheeks, open staring eyes, the skin, hair, and nails still growing. During the night he rises from his grave and sucks the blood of sleepers, who pine and die while he draws his nourishment from their life. He can only be laid to rest by a stake (in Russia of aspen) being driven through his body at a blow—a custom only abolished in the case of suicides in England by 4 Geo. IV. chap. 52. Sometimes when he first awakes in the grave to his unhallowed shadowy life he begins to gnaw his own hands and feet, or to chew his shroud, causing his kindred to pine away and die. In many cases such witches only devour the hearts of their victims, or steal them out of their bodies, substituting for them the heart of a cock or a hare, and so destroying the nature. The stolen heart they expose over a magic fire in order to create hopeless love-longings in the breast from which it was taken—an idea which Jakob Grimm says lies at the foundation of our metaphorical phrases within the vocabulary of love of ‘giving’ or “stealing one's heart.'

Such a notion of a nocturnal demon eating out the souls or hearts and sucking the blood of men gives to the primitive mind a natural and rational explanation of such phenomena as a patient seen becoming from day to day, without apparent cause, thin, weak, and bloodless. We find it widely prevalent in popular folklore, and imbedded in the doctrine of folk-medicine, sorcery, and witchcraft everywhere, and Dr Tylor refers it directly to the principles of savage animism: We need not linger over Afanasief's mythological interpretation of how the sucking of the sleeper's blood symbolises the drawing of rain from the clouds by the thunder-god and the spirits of the storm at the close of the death-like sleep of winter. The likeness to the corpse-eating ghouls of Oriental folklore and the 'alukah of Proverbs xxx. 15 is apparent, and scarcely less the points of contact with the still more widely-spread superstition of the Werewolf. Teutonic mythology has parallels enough of animated corpses returning to satisfy a thirst for blood or their carnal appetites, and it is a commonplace of popular folklore that it is fatal to meet a revenant of any nature. Hertz notes that little is known of regular ‘corpse-spectres’ among races which burn their dead, and Hanusch maintained that therefore the ancient Slavonians who burned the dead must have borrowed the vampire superstition from some other race. But, as Ralston points out, it is not certain that burial by cremation was universally practised by the heathen Slavonians, Kotlyarevsky's conclusion being that there never was any general rule, some burying without burning, others burning first and then burying the ashes.

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