Image courtesy of Victor Habbick at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In my previous post, I talked about signs that led people to believe an infant could turn into a vampire. I decided to do a series of post on the legends of vampires, since my WIP 'Sons of Sivadia' is about a new breed of living vampire.
It is believed that some of the vampire myths may have started as a result of fear, and the decomposition of a body. In Medieval times, it was common for ordinary people to see human bodies after they had died. Peasants had to bury their own dead, and sometimes religious rituals involved leaving an open coffin in the house for several days, giving relatives and friend’s time to come pay their respects. After all, they couldn’t just hop in the car and go thirty miles in a matter of minutes, as we can.
According to what the person died of and the conditions where the body was being stored (extreme heat, cold, moisture) the effects of decomposition on a human corpse could be quiet terrifying.
The Slavic ‘old religion’ was full of beliefs about the spirits of the dead that watched how families and friends behaved after they were gone. They believed the dead were jealous of the living and might take revenge in some way. Also, the Christian church’s teaching on immortality was twisted so that, instead of life after death being a reward for living a decent life, it became a form of eternal damnation, with the vampire emerging from the grave to wreak its evil revenge on the living. For this reason, a number of horrific mutilations were performed before the body was buried.
We all know that piercing the heart with a wooden stake was thought to kill a vampire, preventing it from rising at night and stalking its victims. If the stake was made of rosewood or ash, it was considered to be more effective. Who knows how that one came to be?
There were some precautions with more severe corpse mutilations. Such as, the head and feet would be cut off so the corpse couldn’t rise from the grave and walk into the village from the churchyard. They would be buried beneath the buttocks so it couldn’t get them from beneath the body when it came back to life.
In other cases, the heart might be taken out and put on top of the head. Some bodies were often mutilated more severely, and the body parts tied together in a bundle before being placed in the grave. Occasionally, nails would be driven into the head. Wow! That’s a little extreme.
Other slightly less gruesome, but equally superstitious ‘precautions’ were taken to prevent dead bodies from becoming vampires.
The eyes were weighted down with coins to prevent the vampire from seeing when it woke up.
The mouth tied closed, so it couldn’t bite victims, or stuffed with garlic, which was considered a powerful deterrent.
It was also common practice to break the legs of a corpse and cut the knee ligaments.
Further precautions included burying the corpse face down, or burning it and scattering the ashes over a nearby river.
Once the body was in the grave, the anxiety still did not stop. A number of rituals were performed to keep it there. One bizarre method was to lead a virgin boy sitting on a virgin stallion through the graveyard. In Albania, the stallion had to be black, while in other countries it had to be white. If a vampire was lurking in one of the graves, the stallion would refuse to walk past it.
If everyone in a village didn’t agree with the methods used, the body would be exhumed, only to find it peacefully rotting away with no signs of vampirism.
Much of what’s known today about medieval superstitions concerning vampires comes from archaeologists, who have found remains from mutilated skeletons buried for hundreds of years.
Stay tuned for the next post, I plan to discuss some of the popular poems, novels, and movies over the last few centuries. And, it’s all about vampires.
Until next time,