Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Vampires, Imagined and Historical

Much of the modern lore of vampires originates from a place called Transylvania, in part, due to the literary influence of Bram Stoker's original masterpiece, Dracula.  While many people know that, fewer know exactly where this is, and the history surrounding it.

Transylvania is located in what is now Romania, just to the west of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe.  The earliest mention of it as a political entity was in the 11th century, when it was a province under the Kingdom of Hungary.  It has also been a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Kingdom of Romania.

The region of Transylvania is a temperate plateau, bordered on several sides by the Carpathian Mountains, and most well known for farmlands and castles, many of which have been the inspiration for literary works such as Dracula.  In German and a number of Eastern European languages, the region's name translates to English as "seven cities" or "seven fortresses," a tribute to the colonization of the area by Saxons in the 12th century.

The Hunyad Castle, Transylvania, Romania, © Wikipedia user Koponya25

While Bram Stoker's novel has influenced much of the English-speaking world's view of Transylvania, stories from the region itself influenced Stoker to write it in the first place.  A Hungarian writer friend of Stoker's, Arminius Vámbéry, is said to have shared with him much of the Eastern European folklore, legends, and mythology that formed the basis for the original manuscript of Dracula.

The name Dracula comes from the historical figure Vlad III, Voivode of Wallachia.  His actual name was Wladislaus Dragwlya, of the House of "Drăculești," or translated, Vlad III Dracula.  He was the son of Vlad II Dracul, the patronymic whence the name Dracula originated.

Dubbed "Vlad the Impaler" after his death in late 1476 or early 1477, he was both hero and villain, depending on source of the tales about him.  In Romania, he was revered for his protection and defense of the country; to his enemies, he was a terrifying conqueror known for torturing and executing those he defeated in the cruelest of ways.

Vlad Ţepeş, the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, anonymous, 16th Century, Public Domain

Folklore involving the dead is quite common, and is the source of much of the vampire lore of today.  One tale that may have been related to Stoker by his friend Arminius Vámbéry is the tale of Petar Blagojević, an 18th century peasant from the town of Kisilova (now Kiseljevo), in northeastern Serbia.  Petar died in 1725.  His death was followed shortly by the deaths of a number of other villagers, each who died rather quickly after short, mysterious illnesses.  A large number of people died in the village the year Petar died, including over thirty children.  The survivors traced these deaths directly back to Petar as those who died claimed on their deathbeds to have been visited by him.

Most of the residents in the tiny village don't care to relate the tale.  To them, it's a stigma on the town that drives others away.  But some talk, if asked nicely enough.  As the story goes, the night it all started was dark and ominous, heavy with fog.  Nine people died in a span of just eight days, each claiming on his deathbed to have been visited by Petar, who had been the first to die.  Before they died, each victim said that Petar had come to their beds and had choked them during the night.  Petar's wife also claimed he had visited her in a dream, asking for shoes.  Other accounts say that Petar's son was brutally murdered after refusing to give him food when he came back to visit.  The mysterious deaths continued.

Village authorities finally ordered Petar exhumed, a full two months after his death.  He was allegedly found in the opened grave, still partially alive.  He had not rotted as a corpse should have; he was still lifelike, his lips still with fresh blood in them.  The villagers were so frightened by this that they demanded action be taken, even against the wishes of the local Austrian official.  They pulled Petar from the grave, stabbed his heart with a sharpened stick, and then for good measure, burned his body at the stake.

After Petar's death and the successive deaths of many more in the village, rumors of what was happening there spread to officials in the local Austrian government in Beograd.  Frombald, the Imperial Austrian head of the locality released a report to the Viennese newspaper, documenting the first recorded instance of vampires in Europe.  And at the request of Frombald, the Austrian military government dispatched a consignment of men to determine whether there were real vampires there, and if so, to determine if it signified the start of a vampire epidemic.

Ultimately, the Austrian commission could not make a determination, but that didn't stop the spread of rumors and tales of spreading, nor did it stop people from taking preventive measures against an outbreak of vampires, real or imagined.  Other such stories exist of vampires in the area at that time.  In each, the bodies of the dead were said to have looked alive, with fresh blood, and newly grown fingernails and hair.  A rash of such incidents of "vampire eradication" spread, where the newly dead were exhumed from their graves, staked in the heart, and burned.

Even today, the legend remains in the village.  Many of the younger generation are leaving, whether because of the tales or just to find work elsewhere, it's hard to say.  But the village is dying.  Few but the oldest denizens are left.  They remain, as does Petar Blagojević, who is still said to haunt the area.  A curse has even originated from the village: "Dabogda te Pera posetio!" - "May Peter visit you!"

The Premature Burial, by Antoine Wiertz, Public Domain

But is there scientific evidence vampires existed?  Maybe.  A while back in Poland, archaeologists found "vampire graves" on a construction site.  The remains buried there were decapitated, and their heads placed on their legs to ensure they stayed dead.  This finding is in line with the older, broader definition of vampires from the Middle Ages, but as with the story of Petar Blagojević, we find little in the way of empirical data.

In the field of medicine, there are a couple of interesting maladies that share symptoms with the more common legends of vampires.  Porphyria is one such malady, a genetic disorder that causes blisters, itching, and swelling of the skin when exposed to sunlight.  Other medical conditions which might lend themselves to such legends are catalepsy and catatonia, which cause states of unresponsiveness, something that without adequate medical training or facilities available could be mistaken for death.  Again, nothing that would indicate evidence of actual vampirism, but possible evidence explaining the root causes of such tales and superstitions.

The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897, Public Domain

So while there is no solid evidence supporting vampirism, the folklore remains.  The story of Peter Blagojević and others like it are quite common, and aren't confined to lore from Eastern Europe or the Balkans.  Vampire stories are rife throughout Western Europe, the Americas, and the rest of the world.  In fact, there are versions of the vampire found in almost every culture on Earth.

As with many such legends, most can be traced back to old wives' tales which attempt to put the inexplicable into terms which could be coped with, as strange as such terms may sound now.  Many of the signs of life as reported in these vampire tales can be explained by modern medicine as the signs of rigor mortis, or other common effects of death in a body.

But just as importantly, all such legends aren't likely to be completely disproved, leaving room for that one minute sliver of doubt in the mind, that one single thought in the back of the subconscious that allows us, every great once in a while, to believe they are true.

Quick note: several of the links in this post are in Serbian-Croatian, which is fine if you can understand them.  For those who can't, I suggest dropping the Internet addresses for them into Google and clicking on the "Translate this page" link.  It'll provide a rather shitty auto-translation that should get the job done for you.


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