Monday, October 31, 2016

Vampires and Werewolves in Russian Mythology by W.R.S. Ralston 1872

Vampires and Werewolves in Russian Mythology by W.R.S. Ralston 1872

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The power of dealers in magic to transform themselves or their victims into various shapes is widely spread in Russia, and plays an important part in the popular mythology of the country. A person thus changed bears the name of oboroten [oborotit' = to turn], or, when changed into a wolf, of volkodlak [volk = wolf, dlaka = a tuft of hair, and so a hide]. Werewolf stories are so well known among all nations, that it is unnecessary to give a detailed account of the proceedings of the Russian volkodlaki. But it may be as well to mention that the collection of laws, etc. called the Kormchaya Kniga states that in these transformed beings the people used to see no mere mortals, but "chasers of the clouds." Afanasief connects them with the okrutniki, or maskers disguised as various animals, who used to participate in the religious games of the Old Slavonians, and who still, though their original signification is forgotten, play a part in the rustic festivals at springtide and Christmas. So strong an odour of heathenism still hangs about them, that the peasants think the wearing of a mask at the Christmas Svyatki is a sin, one which can be expiated only by bathing in an icehole, after the benediction of the waters.

Connected with the idea of transformation is the belief, common among the Russian peasantry, that all witches have tails, and all wizards have horns, and that a werewolf may be known by the bristles which grow under his tongue. Such dealers in sorcery take various shapes, but generally, says Afanasief, those of the animals known as symbols of the cloud and the storm. In the Ukraine witches assume a canine form; their long teats trail on the ground, a fact on which Afanasief lays stress, remarking that the bosom, udder, or teat, was a well-known mythological synonym for a rain-cloud. Cats are generally thought uncanny in Slavonic countries, the Russian peasants believing that evil spirits enter into them during storms, and the Bohemians holding that a black cat at the end of seven years becomes either a witch or a devil. [There is a Bohemian tradition, however, that the devil invented mice in order to destroy "God's corn," whereupon God created the cat.] The owl is considered to be of a demoniacal nature, while the dove is so pure and holy that no witch is able to assume its form.

Of all living creatures, magpies are those whose shapes witches like best to take. The wife of the false Demetrius, according to popular poetry, escaped from Moscow in the guise of a magpie. As a general rule, no such bird is to be seen in that city, its race having been solemnly cursed by the Metropolitan Alexis, on account of the bad behaviour of the witches who often assumed its plumage. At the present day the peasants often gibbet a dead magpie, just as our gamekeepers do, but it is in order to scare away witches from stables and cow-sheds. Besides changing into the birds and beasts, of which mention has been made, Russian witches often assume the forms of stones, hay-cocks, or balls of thread— that is to say, observes Afanasief, of various objects mythologically connected with clouds.

Here is a specimen of a zagovor to be employed by a wizard who desires to turn into a werewolf:—

"In the ocean sea, on the island Buyan, in the open plain, shines the moon upon an aspen stump, into the green wood, into the spreading vale. Around the stump goes a shaggy wolf; under his teeth are all the horned cattle; but into the wood the wolf goes not, in the vale the wolf does not roam. Moon, moon! golden horns! Melt the bullet, blunt the knife, rot the cudgel, strike fear into man, beast, and reptile, so that they may not seize the grey wolf, nor tear from him his warm hide. My word is firm, firmer than sleep or the strength of heroes."

In this spell, says Buslaef, the aspen stump is mentioned because a buried werewolf or vampire has to be pierced with an aspen stake. The expression that the wolf has all the horned cattle in or under his teeth resembles the proverb now applied to St. George, "What the wolf has in his teeth, that Yegory gave"—St. George, or Yegory the Brave, having taken the place which was once filled by the heathen god of flocks, the Old Slavonic Volos. And the warm hide of the werewolf is in keeping with his designation Volkodlak, from dlaka, a shaggy fell.

There is, of course, a great difference between the voluntary and the involuntary undergoers of transformation. Dealers in the black art who have turned themselves into wolves are, for the most part, ravenous destroyers of all that falls in their way, but people who have been made wolves against their will seldom disgrace their human nature. Such gentle werewolves as these attach themselves to men, and by tears and deprecatory pawings attempt to apologize for their brutal appearance. Unless driven beyond endurance by hunger, they never slay and eat, and when they must kill a sheep, they seek one belonging to some other village than that in which they used to live. There once was a youth, says a Polish tradition, who was loved by a witch, but he scorned her affection. One day he drove into the forest to cut firewood, but no sooner had he swung his axe in the air than his hands turned into wolf's paws, and in a short time his whole body bristled with shaggy hair. He ran to his cattle, but they fled in terror; he tried to call them back, but his voice had become a mere howl. In another instance a witch turned one of her neighbours into a wolf, and he stated, after he had regained his former shape, that during the period of his transformation he made friends with a real wolf, and often went out hunting with him, but that he never forgot that he was really a man, though he had lost the faculty of articulate speech. The White-Russians have a tradition that once, when a wedding party were thoroughly enjoying themselves, they were all transformed by some hostile magician—the bridegroom and the other men into wolves, the bride into a cuckoo, and the rest of the women into magpies.

Ever since that time the metamorphosed bride has flown about seeking for and lamenting her lost bridegroom, and moistening the hedges with the "Cuckoo's tears," which we less poetically style "Cuckoo's spittle."

In order to produce such an effect as this on a wedding party, the hostile wizard, it is generally believed, must girdle each member of it with a leather strap or piece of bast, over which unholy spells have been whispered. According to a Ruthenian story, however, a witch once gained her end by simply rolling up her girdle, and hiding it beneath the threshold of the cottage in which the wedding festivities were being held. Every one who stepped across it immediately became a wolf. In order to effect the cure of an involuntary werewolf, it is necessary either to strip off his hide, or to remove the magic girdle or other amulet which has reduced him into his brute state. In one of the Russian stories a black dog behaves in so reasonable a manner, that the people to whom it has attached itself take it to a wizard for relief. Acting upon his advice, they heat a bath as hot as possible, and scald the dog's skin off. No sooner is this done than the dog turns into a young man belonging to a neighbouring village, whom an old sorceress had bewitched.

Witches and wizards constantly metamorphose people by the touch of a magic wand, stick, or whip.

Sometimes, however, even this is not essential. In Ruthenia, at least, it is believed that a wizard, if he only knows a man's baptismal name, can transform him by a mere effort of will, and therefore a man should conceal his real name, and answer to a fictitious one. Such a power as this is supposed by the Russian peasantry to have been employed upon one occasion by the Apostles Peter and Paul. As they were passing over a bridge one day, "a bad woman and her husband," who had agreed to frighten the holy travellers, and had dressed themselves up in sheepskins turned inside out, ran at them, roaring like bears. "Then the Apostles said,'Go on roaring from this time forward and for ever!' and at that very instant the mockers were turned into bears."

More terrible even than the werewolf, but closely connected with him, as well as with the wizard and the witch, is the dreaded Vampire. It is in the Ukraine and in White-Russia—so far as the Russian Empire is concerned—that traditions are most rife about this ghastly creation of morbid fancy. There vampires are supposed to be such dead persons as in their lifetime were wizards, witches, and werewolves; or people who became outcasts from the Church and its rites, by committing suicide, for instance, or by drinking themselves to death; or heretics and apostates, or victims of a parental curse. The Little-Russians, on the other hand, attribute the birth of a vampire to an unholy union between a witch and a werewolf or a devil.

The name itself has never been satisfactorily explained. In its form of vampir [South-Russian upuir, anciently upir], it has been compared with the Lithuanian wempti = to drink, and wempti, wampiti = to growl, to mutter, and it has been derived from a root pi [to drink] with the prefix u = av, va. If this derivation is correct, the characteristic of the vampire is a kind of blood-drunkenness. In accordance with this idea the Croatians call the vampire pijawica; the Servians say of a man whose face is coloured by constant drinking, that he is "bloodred as a vampire;" and both the Servians and the Slovaks term a hard drinker a vlkodlak. The Slovenes and Kashubes call the vampire vieszcy, a name akin to that borne by the witch in our own language as well as in Russian. The Poles name him upior or upir, the latter being his designation among the Czekhs also.

"There is a whole literature of hideous vampire stories, which the student will find elaborately discussed in Calmet," says Mr. Tylor ["Primitive Culture II., 175], who thinks that "vampires are not mere creations of groundless fancy, but causes conceived in spiritual form to account for the specific facts of wasting disease." Some writers, however, of whom Afanasief is one, explain the vampire stories mythologically. Of their explanations some account will presently be given.

In the opinion of the Russian peasant vampires, as well as witches, exert a very baneful influence on the weather. To them, and to werewolves, are attributed the presence of storms, droughts, famines, cattle-plagues, and similar evils. Where such unholy beings wander, one woe succeeds another. But worse than their evil effect upon the weather—one which they produce in common with the spirits of all persons who have died by violence—worse than their attacks upon cattle, are their terrible dealings with mankind. As a specimen of the Russian vampire stories, the following, heard in the Tambof Government, may be taken:—

A peasant was driving past a grave-yard, after it had grown dark. After him came running a stranger, dressed in a red shirt and a new jacket, who cried,—

"Stop! take me as your companion."

"Pray take a seat." They enter a village, drive up to this and that house. Though the gates are wide open, yet the stranger says, "Shut tight!" for on those gates crosses have been branded. They drive on to the very last house: the gates are barred, and from them hangs a padlock weighing a score of pounds; but there is no cross there, and the gates open of their own accord.

They go into the house; there on the bench lie two sleepers—an old man and a lad. The stranger takes a pail, places it near the youth, and strikes him on the back; immediately the back opens, and forth flows rosy blood. The stranger fills the pail full, and drinks it dry. Then he fills another pail with blood from the old man, slakes his brutal thirst, and says to the peasant,—

"It begins to grow light! let us go back to my dwelling."

In a twinkling they found themselves at the graveyard. The vampire would have clasped the peasant in its arms, but luckily for him the cocks began to crow, and the corpse disappeared. The next morning, when folks came and looked, the old man and the lad were both dead.

According to the Servians and Bulgarians, unclean spirits enter into the corpses of malefactors and other evilly-disposed persons, who then become vampires. Any one, moreover, may become a vampire, if a cat jumps across his dead body while it lies in the cottage before the funeral, for which reason a corpse is always carefully watched at that time. In some places the jumping of a boy over the corpse is considered as fatal as that of a cat. The flight of a bird above the body may also be attended by the same terrible result; and so may—in the Ukraine—the mere breath of the wind from the Steppe.

The bodies of vampires, of wizards, and of witches, as well as those of outcasts from the Church, and of people cursed by their parents, are supposed not to decay in the grave, for "moist mother-earth" will not take them to herself. There is a story in the Saratof Government of a mother who cursed her son, and after his death his body remained free from corruption for the space of a hundred years. "At last he was dug up, and his old mother, who was still alive, pronounced his pardon; and at that very moment the corpse crumbled into dust."

Every one knows that when a vampire's grave is opened no trace of death is found upon its body, its cheek being rosy and its skin soft; and that the best way to destroy the monster is to drive a stake through it, when the blood it has been sucking will pour forth from the wound. The Servian method of discovering its grave may not be so well known. According to Vuk Karadjic it is customary to take an immaculately black colt, and drive it through the churchyard. Over the vampire's grave it will refuse to pass. The whole village then turns out, the vampire is dug up, pierced with a white-thorn stake, and committed to the flames.

It is worthy of remark that the stake with which the vampire's corpse is pierced must be driven into it by a single stroke. A second blow would reanimate it. This idea is frequently referred to in the Russian skazki and other Slavonic stories, in which it is customary for the hero to be warned that he must strike his enemy the snake, or other monster, once only. A repetition of the blow would be certain to prove fatal to himself.

Sometimes, instead of blood-sucking vampires, heart-devouring witches trouble the peasant's repose. A Mazovian story relates how a certain hero was long renowned for courage. But at last one night a witch struck him on the breast with an aspen twig as he lay asleep; his breast opened, and out of it she took his heart, and inserted a hare's heart in its place. The hero awoke a trembling coward, and remained one till the day of his death. Another Polish story of a similar nature tells how a witch substituted a cock's heart for that of a peasant. From that time forward the unfortunate man was always crowing. Sometimes the witches did not eat the hearts they stole, but merely exposed them to a magic fire so as to create love-longings in the breasts from which they had been taken. The idea still survives, as Jacob Grimm remarks, in our expressions of "giving" or "stealing one's heart."

A fondness for human flesh is attributed to ogre-like beings all over the world, so there is nothing remarkable in the depraved appetites of the supernatural man-eaters of the Slavonic tales. Somewhat singular, however, is one group of stories in which a dead wizard or witch is described as coming to life at midnight, and desiring to eat the person who is watching beside the bier. The body has generally been enclosed in a coffin, secured with iron bands, and conveyed to the church in which the watcher has to read aloud from Holy Writ above it all night long. As the clock strikes twelve a mighty wind suddenly arises, the iron bands give way with a terrible crash, the coffin-lid falls off, and the corpse leaps forth, and with a screech rushes at the doomed watcher, of whom, as a general rule, nothing remains next morning but bare bones. His only chance of escape is to trace a magic circle around him on the floor, and to remain within it, holding in his hand a hammer, the ancient weapon of the thunder-god. Here is one of the stories of this class from the Kharkof Government. "Once, in the days of old, there died a terrible sinner. His body was taken into the church, and the sacristan was told to read psalms over him. The sacristan took the precaution to catch a cock, and carry it with him. At midnight, when the dead man leaped from his coffin, opened his jaws wide, and rushed at his victim, the sacristan gave the bird a pinch. The cock uttered his usual crow, and that very moment the dead man fell backwards to the ground a numb, motionless corpse'."

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