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Among the Slavs, as well as among many other peoples, there is a wide-spread belief that certain persons can assume the form of wolves during their lifetime, like the English werewolf, the French loupgarou, the Lithuanian vilkakis, etc., such a man being termed Vlkodlak (Vukodlak, Vrkolak, Volkun, etc.). A child born feet foremost or with teeth will become a Vlkodlak; and a man may undergo transformation into such a being by magic power, this happening most frequently to bride and bridegroom as they go to the church to be married. A person turned into a Vlkodlak will run about the village in the shape of a wolf and will approach human dwellings, casting plaintive glances at people, but without harming anyone; and he will retain his wolf-like shape until the same person who has enchanted him destroys the charm.
Among the Jugo-Slavs ("Southern Slavs") there still lingers an old tradition, dating from the thirteenth century, of a Vukodlak who followed the clouds and devoured the sun or the moon, thus causing an eclipse; and accordingly, on such an occasion, drums were beaten, bells rung, and guns fired, all this being supposed to drive the demon away.
The Vlkodlak can transform himself not only into a wolf, but also into hens and such animals as horses, cows, dogs, and cats. At night he attacks cattle, sucks the milk of cows, mares, and sheep, strangles horses, and causes cattle to die of plague; he may even assail human beings, frightening, beating, and strangling them. The Slavs in Istria believe that every single family has its own Vukodlak, who tries to harm the house; but the house also possesses a good genius, the Krsnik (Kresnik, Karsnik), who protects it from the Vukodlak and battles with him. In popular tradition the Vlkodlak is frequently identified with the Vampire, and similar stories are told concerning both beings.
The Slavs universally believe that the soul can leave the body in the form of a bird (a dove, a duck, a nightingale, a swallow, a cuckoo, an eagle, a raven) or else as a butterfly, a fly, a snake, a white mouse, a hare, a small flame, etc. For this reason, whenever a man dies, the window or the door is left open, thus freely enabling the soul to come and go so long as the corpse remains in the house. The soul flutters about the cottage in the shape of a fly, sitting down, from time to time, upon the stove and witnessing the lamentations of the mourners as well as the preparations for the funeral; and in the courtyard it hovers around as a bird.
That the soul of the dead might suffer neither hunger nor thirst, various kinds of food or drink were put into the coffin or the grave; and besides other presents, small coins were given to the deceased, thus enabling him to buy a place of his own beyond the tomb. At the banquet celebrated after the burial a part of the meal was put aside for the soul, which, though invisible, was partaking of the feast; and during the first night after the funeral the soul returned to the house to see it once more and to refresh itself. Accordingly a jug of water was placed under the icons, and on the following day it was inspected to ascertain whether the soul had drunk or not, this practice sometimes being continued for six weeks. In Bulgaria the head of the grave is sprinkled with wine the day after the funeral, in order that the soul may not feel thirsty; while in Russia and in other Slav countries wheat is strewn or food is put upon the place of burial.
For forty days the soul dwells on earth, seeking for places which the deceased used to frequent when alive; it enters his own house or those of other persons, causing all sorts of trouble to those who had been enemies to the departed, and it is either invisible or else appears in the form of an animal. Bulgarian tradition speaks of the soul as approaching the body on the fortieth day, trying to enter it and to live anew; but being frightened by the disfigured and decaying corpse, it flies away into the world beyond the grave. The belief that the soul remains for forty days in the places where it had lived and worked is universal among the Slavs. According to Russian tradition it then flies upward to the sun, or the moon, or the stars, or else it wanders away into forests, or waters, or mountains, or clouds, or seas, etc.
The souls of the deceased often appear as jack-o'-lanterns flickering about in churchyards or morasses, leading people astray in swamps and ponds, or strangling and stupefying them. Woe to him who ridicules them or whistles at them, for they will beat him to death; but if a wanderer courteously asks their guidance, they will show him the road that he must follow.
In Slavic belief the souls of the departed maintained, on the whole, friendly relations with the living, the only exceptions being the ghosts of those who had been either sorcerers or grievous sinners in their lifetime, or who had committed suicide or murder, or who had been denied Christian burial. The souls of sorcerers, whether male or female, are loath to part with their bodies and cannot leave in the usual way by door or window, but wish to have a board in the roof removed for them. After death their souls take the shapes of unclean animals and enter houses at night, worrying the inmates and seeking to hurt them, the same enmity toward the living being shown by the souls of those who have committed suicide, since they endeavour to revenge themselves for not having been properly buried. In ancient times the bodies of suicides, as well as criminals, drowned persons, and all who had met with a violent death or were considered magicians, were refused interment in the churchyard, their corpses being buried without Christian rites in forests or swamps, or even thrown into pits. The lower classes believed that the souls of such persons caused bad harvests, droughts, diseases, etc.; and, therefore, a stake was run through their hearts, or their heads were cut off, despite the efforts of the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to put an end to this sort of superstition.
The belief in Vampires (deceased people who in their lifetime had been sorcerers, bad characters, or murderers, and whose bodies are now occupied by an unclean spirit), which may be traced back as far as the eleventh century, is still widely current among the Slav population. The name, which also appears as Upir, Upior, etc., is probably derived from the Turkish uber ("enchantress"); but other designations are likewise used, such as Wieszczy and Martwiec (Polish), Vedomec (Slovenian), Kruvnik (Bulgarian), Oboroten (Russian), etc.
The Southern Slavs believe that any person upon whom an unclean shadow falls, or over whom a dog or a cat jumps, may become a Vampire; and the corpse of such a being does not decay when buried, but retains the colour of life. A Vampire may suck the flesh of his own breast or gnaw his own body, and he encroaches even upon the vitality of his nearest relations, causing them to waste away and finally die.
At night the Vampires leave their graves and rock to and fro upon wayside crosses, wailing all the time. They assume every sort of shape and suck the blood of people, whom thus they gradually destroy, or, if they have not time to do that (especially as their power ends at cock-crow), they attack domestic animals. Various means of riddance, however, are known, and there is ample evidence of exhuming the corpse of a man supposed to be a Vampire, of driving a stake of ashwood (or wood of the hawthorn or maple) through it, and of burning it, these acts being believed to put a definite end to his evil doings.