Romanian Deaths and Burials-Vampires and Werewolves By Emily Gerard 1888
Nowhere does the inherent superstition of the Roumanian peasant find stronger expression than in his mourning and funeral rites, which are based upon a totally original conception of death.
Among the various omens of approaching death are the groundless barking of a dog, the shriek of an owl, the falling down of a picture from the wall, and the crowing of a black hen. The influence of this latter may, however, be annulled, and the catastrophe averted, if the bird be put in a sack and carried sunwise thrice round the dwelling-house.
It is likewise prognostic of death to break off the smaller portion of a fowl's merry-thought, to dream of troubled water or of teeth falling out, or to be merry without apparent reason. [Both Greeks and Romans attached an ominous meaning to a dream of fallingout teeth.]
A falling star always denotes that a soul is leaving the earth-—for, according to Lithuanian mythology, to each star is attached the thread of some man's life, which, breaking at his death, causes the star to fall. In some places it is considered unsafe to point at a falling star.
A dying man may be restored to life if he be laid on Holy Saturday outside the church-door, where the priest passing with the procession may step over him; or else let him eat of a root which has been dug up from the church-yard on Good Friday; but if these and other remedies prove inefficient, then must the doomed man be given a burning candle into his hand, for it is considered to be the greatest of all misfortunes if a man die without a light—-a favor the Roumanian durst not refuse to his deadliest enemy.
The corpse must be washed immediately after death, and the dirt, if necessary, scraped off with knives, because the dead man will be
more likely to find favor above if he appear in a clean state before the Creator. Then he is attired in his best clothes, in doing which great care must be taken not to tie anything in a knot, for that would disturb his rest by keeping him bound down to the earth. Nor must he be suffered to carry away any particle of iron about his person, such as buttons, boot-nails, etc., for that would assuredly prevent him from reaching Paradise, the road to which is long, and, moreover, divided off by several tolls or ferries. To enable the soul to pass through these a piece of money must be laid in the hand, under the pillow, or beneath the tongue of the corpse. In the neighborhood of Forgaras, where the ferries or toll-bars are supposed to amount to twenty-five, the hair of the defunct is divided into as many plaits, and a piece of money secured in each. Likewise a small provision of needles, thread, pins, etc., is put into the coffin, to enable the pilgrim to repair any damages his clothes may receive on the way.
The family must also be careful not to leave a knife lying with the sharpened edge uppermost as long as the corpse remains in the house, or else the soul will be forced to ride on the blade.
The mourning songs, called Bocete, usually performed by paid mourners, are directly addressed to the corpse, and sung into his ear on either side. This is the last attempt made by the survivors to wake the dead man to life by reminding him of all he is leaving, and urging him to make a final effort to arouse his dormant faculties—-the thought which underlies these proceedings being that the dead man hears and sees all that goes on around him, and that it only requires the determined effort of a strong will in order to restore elasticity to the stiffened limbs, and cause the torpid blood to flow anew in the veins.
Here is a fragment of one of these mourning songs, which are often very pathetic and fanciful:
"Mother dear, arise, arise,
Dry the tearful household's eyes!
Waken, waken from thy trance,
Speak a word or cast a glance!
Pity thou thy children's lot!
Rise, O mother, leave us not!
Death triumphant, woe is me,
From thy children snatcheth thee!
To the wall hast turned thee now,
Son nor daughter heedest thou.
Laid the church-yard sod beneath,
Thou shalt feel no breeze's breath
On the surface of thy grave;
From thy brow shall grasses wave,
From those eyes so mild and true
Nodding harebells take their blue."
Women alone are allowed to take part in these lamentations, and all women related to the deceased by ties of blood or friendship are bound to assist as mourners; likewise, those whose families have been on unfriendly terms with the dead man now appear to ask his forgiveness.
The corpse must remain exposed a full day and night in the chamber of death, and during that time must never be left alone, nor should the lamentations be suffered to cease for a single moment. For this reason it is customary to have hired women to act the part of mourners, by relieving each other at intervals in singing the mourning songs. Often the deceased himself, in his last testamentary disposition, has ordered the details of his funeral, and fixed the payment-—sometimes very considerable-—which the mourning women are to receive.
The men related to the deceased are also bound to spend the night in the house, keeping watch over the corpse. This is called keeping the privegghia, which, however, has not necessarily a mournful character, as they mostly pass the time with various games, or else seated at table with food and wine.
Before the funeral the priest is called in, who, reciting the words of the fiftieth psalm, pours wine over the corpse. After this the coffin is closed, and must not be reopened unless the deceased be suspected to have died of a violent death, in which case the man accused of the crime is confronted with the corpse of his supposed victim, whose wounds will, at his sight, begin to bleed afresh.
In many places two openings corresponding to the ears of the deceased are cut in the wood of the coffin, to enable him to hear the songs of mourning which are sung on either side of him as he is carried to the grave. This singing into the ears has passed into a proverb, and when the Roumanian says, "I-a-cantat la urechia" (they have sung into his ear), it is tantamount to saying that prayer, advice, and remonstrance have all been used in vain.
Whoever dies unmarried must not be carried by married bearers to the grave: a married man or woman is carried by married men, and a youth by other youths, while a maiden is carried by other maidens with hanging, dishevelled hair. In every case the rank of the bearer should correspond to that of the deceased, and a fruntas can as little be carried by mylocasi as the bearers of a codas may be higher than himself in rank.
In many villages no funeral takes place in the forenoon, as the people believe that the soul will reach its destination more easily by following the march of the sinking sun.
The mass for the departed soul should, if possible, be said in the open air; and when the coffin is lowered into the grave, the earthen jar containing the water in which the corpse has been washed must be shattered to atoms on the spot.
A thunder-storm during the funeral denotes that another death will shortly follow.
It is often customary to place bread and wine on the fresh grave-mound; and in the case of young people, small fir-trees or gay-colored flags are placed beside the cross, to which in the case of a shepherd a tuft of wool is always attached.
Seven copper coins, and seven loaves of bread with a lighted candle sticking in each, are often distributed to seven poor people at the grave. This also is intended to signify the tolls to be cleared on the way to heaven.
In some places it is usual for the procession returning from a funeral to take its way through a river or stream of running water, sometimes going a mile or two out of their way to avoid all bridges, thus making sure that the vagrant soul of the beloved deceased will not follow them back to the house.
Earth taken from a fresh grave-mound and laid behind the neck at night will bring pleasant dreams; it may also serve as a cure for fever if made use of in the following manner: The person afflicted with fever repairs to the grave of some beloved relative, where, calling upon the defunct in the most tender terms, he begs of him or her the loan of a winding-sheet for a strange and unwelcome guest. Taking, then, from the grave a handful of earth, which he is careful to tie up tightly and place inside his shirt, the sick man goes away, and for three days and nights he carries this talisman about with him wherever he goes. On the fourth day he returns to the grave by a different route, and replacing the earth on the mound, thanks the dead man for the service rendered.
A still more efficacious remedy for fever is to lay a string or thread the exact length of your own body into the coffin of some one newly deceased, saying these words, "May I shiver only when this dead man shivers." Sore eyes may be cured by anointing them with the dew gathered off the grass of the grave of a just man on a fine evening in early spring; and a bone taken from the deceased's right arm will cure boils and sores by its touch. Whoever would keep sparrows off his field must between eleven o'clock and midnight collect earth from off seven different graves and scatter it over his field; while the same earth, if thrown over a dog addicted to hunting, will cure him of this defect.
The pomeana, or funeral feast, is invariably held after the funeral, for much of the peace of the defunct depends upon the strict observance of this ancient custom. All the favorite dishes of the dead man are served at this banquet, and each guest receives a cake, a jug of wine, and a wax candle in his memory. Similar pomeanas are repeated after a fortnight, six weeks, and on each anniversary of the death for the next seven years. On the first anniversary it is usual to bring bread and wine to the church-yard. The bread is distributed to the poor, and the wine poured down through the earth into the grave.
During six weeks after the funeral the women of the family let their hair hang uncombed and unplaited in sign of mourning. It is, moreover, no uncommon thing for Roumanians to bind themselves down to a mourning of ten or twenty years, or even for life, in memory of some beloved deceased one. Thus in one of the villages there still lived, two years ago, an old man who for the last forty years had worn no head-covering, summer or winter, in memory of his only son, who had died in early youth.
In the case of a man who has died a violent death, or in general of all such as have expired without a light, none of these ceremonies take place. Such a man has neither right to bocete (grief), privegghia, mass, or pomeana, nor is his body laid in consecrated ground. He is buried wherever the body may be found, on the bleak hill-side or in the heart of the forest where he met his death, his last resting-place only marked by a heap of dry branches, to which each passer-by is expected to add by throwing a handful of twigs—usually a thorny branch on the spot. This handful of thorns—o mana de spini, as the Roumanian calls it—being the only mark of attention to which the deceased can lay claim, therefore to the mind of this people no thought is so dreadful as that of dying deprived of light.
The attentions due to such as have received orthodox burial often extend even beyond the first seven years after death; for whenever the defunct appears in a dream to any of the family, this likewise calls for another pomeana, and when this condition is not complied with, the soul thus neglected is apt to wander complaining about the earth, unable to find rest.
This restlessness on the part of the defunct may either be caused by his having concealed treasures during his lifetime, in which case he is doomed to haunt the place where he has hidden his riches until they are discovered; or else he may have died with some secret sin on his conscience-—such, for instance, as having removed the boundary stone from a neighbor's field in order to enlarge his own. He will then probably be compelled to pilger about with a sack of the stolen earth on his back until he has succeeded in selling the whole of it to the people he meets in his nightly wanderings.
These restless spirits, called strigoi, are not malicious, but their appearance bodes no good, and may be regarded as omens of sickness or misfortune.
More decidedly evil is the nosferatu, or vampire, in which every Roumanian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell. There are two sorts of vampires, living and dead. The living vampire is generally the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons; but even a flawless pedigree will not insure any one against the intrusion of a vampire into their family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent persons till the spirit has been exorcised by opening the grave of the suspected person, and either driving a stake through the corpse, or else firing a pistol-shot into the coffin. To walk smoking round the grave on each anniversary of the death is also supposed to be effective in confining the vampire. In very obstinate cases of vampirism it is recommended to cut off the head, and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing its ashes over the grave.
That such remedies are often resorted to even now is a well-attested fact, and there are probably few Roumanian villages where such have not taken place within memory of the inhabitants. There is likewise no Roumanian village which does not count among its inhabitants some old woman (usually a midwife) versed in the precautions to be taken in order to counteract vampires, and who makes of this science a flourishing trade. She is frequently called in by the family who has lost a member, and requested to "settle" the corpse securely in its coffin, so as to insure it against wandering. The means by which she endeavors to counteract any vampire-like instincts which may be lurking are various. Sometimes she drives a nail through the forehead of the deceased, or else rubs the body with the fat of a pig which has been killed on the Feast of St. Ignatius, five days before Christmas. It is also very usual to lay the thorny branch of a wild-rose bush across the body to prevent it leaving the coffin.
First-cousin to the vampire, the long-exploded were-wolf of the Germans, is here to be found lingering under the name of prikolitsch. Sometimes it is a dog instead of a wolf whose form a man has taken, or been compelled to take, as penance for his sins. In one village a story is still told—-and believed—of such a man, who, driving home one Sunday with his wife, suddenly felt that the time for his transformation had come. He therefore gave over the reins to her and stepped aside into the bushes, where, murmuring the mystic formula, he turned three somersaults over a ditch. Soon after, the woman, waiting vainly for her husband, was attacked by a furious dog, which rushed barking out of the bushes and succeeded in biting her severely as well as tearing her dress. When, an hour or two later, the woman reached home after giving up her husband as lost, she was surprised to see him come smiling to meet her; but when between his teeth she caught sight of the shreds of her dress bitten out by the dog, the horror of this discovery caused her to faint away.
Another man used gravely to assert that for several years he had gone about in the form of a wolf, leading on a troop of these animals, till a hunter, in striking off his head, restored him to his natural shape.
This superstition once proved nearly fatal to a harmless botanist, who, while collecting plants on a hill-side many years ago, was observed by some peasants, and, in consequence of his crouching attitude, mistaken for a wolf. Before they had time to reach him, however, he had risen to his feet and disclosed himself in the form of a man; but this in the minds of the Roumanians, who now regarded him as an aggravated case of wolf, was but additional motive for attacking him. They were quite sure that he must be a prikolitsch, for only such could change his shape in this unaccountable manner; and in another minute they were all in full cry after the wretched victim of science, who might have fared badly indeed had he not succeeded in gaining a carriage on the high-road before his pursuers came up.
I once inquired of an old Saxon woman, whom I had visited with a view to extracting various pieces of superstitious information, whether she had ever come across a prikolitsch herself.
"Bless you!" she said, "when I was young there was no village without two or three of them at least, but now there seem to be fewer."
"So there is no prikolitsch in this village?" I asked, feeling particularly anxious to make the acquaintance of a real live were-wolf.
"No," she answered, doubtfully, "not that I know of for certain, though of course there is no saying with those Roumanians. But close by here in the next street, round the corner, there lives the widow of a prikolitsch whom I knew. She is still a young woman, and lost her husband five or six years ago. In ordinary life he was a quiet enough fellow, rather weak and sickly-looking; but sometimes he used to disappear for a week or ten days at a time, and though his wife tried to deceive people by telling them that her husband was lying drunk in the loft, of course we knew better, for those were the times when he used to be away wolving in the mountains."
Thinking that the relict of a were-wolf was the next best thing to the were-wolf himself, I determined on paying my respects to the interesting widow; but on reaching her house the door was closed, and I had the cruel disappointment of learning that Madame Prikolitsch was not at home.
We do not require to go far for the explanation of the extraordinary tenacity of the were-wolf legend in a country like Transylvania, where real wolves still abound. Every winter here brings fresh proof of the boldness and cunning of these terrible animals, whose attacks on flocks and farms are often conducted with a skill which would do honor to a human intellect. Sometimes a whole village is kept in trepidation for weeks together by some particularly audacious leader of a flock of wolves, to whom the peasants not unnaturally attribute a more than animal nature; and it is safe to prophesy that as long as the flesh-and-blood wolf continues to haunt the Transylvanian forests, so long will his spectre brother survive in the minds of the people.