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On Vampyrism

Robert Walsh Jr. and Eliakim Littel (1823)

This particularly well-written article from The Museum of Foreign Literature and Science presents several accounts of vampyres as well as related traditions in folklore. Of particular interest here is the assertion that vampyres are ultimately the creation of the Greek church, related to excommunicants and their classical mythology.

On Vampyrism.

"Carpere dicuntur lactentia viscera ristris,
Et plenum poto sanguine guttur habent."

The belief in the existence of vampyres is one of the most extraordinary and most revolting superstitions which ever disturbed the brains of any semi-barbarous people. It is the most frightful embodyment of the principle of evil, the most terrific incarnation of the bad demon, which ignorance and fanaticism ever suggested to the weak and the deluded. It displays superstition in its grossest and most unrelieved horrors. -Other creatures of fanatical creation have a mixture of good and bad in their composition - their mischief is sometimes distinguished by sportiveness and mingled with good humour - they are malicious, but not malignant - and the lightness and triviality of their spite against human nature is often united with an airiness of movement and a spirituality of character which render them amusing, and often highly poetical. -Puck, Will-o'-th'-wisp, the Bogles, the Ogres, the Nixies, and id genus omne, if they are to be considered as emanations of the Evil principle, are at least inspired with much of his drollery, and only a small portion of his gall and malignity; -the Gnomes are sulky and splenetic persons, but there is a certain impotence about them which prevents their becoming very terrific; -the Lamiae and the Larvae of the ancients were, indeed, horrid creations - but the latter were mere shadows, which takes off much of their monstrosity - but the Vampyre is a corporeal creature of blood and unquenchable blood-thirst - a ravenous corpse, who rises in body and soul from his grave for the sole purpose of glutting his sanguinary appetite with the life blood of those whose blood stagnates in his own veins. He is endowed with an incorruptible frame, to prey on the lives of his kindred and his friends - he reappears among them from the world of the tomb, not to tell its secrets of joy or of woe, not to invite or to warn by the testimony of his experience, but to appall and assassinate those who were dearest to him on earth - and this, not for the gratification of revenge or any human feeling, which, however depraved, might find something common with it in human nature, but to banquet a monstrous thirst acquired in the tomb, and which, though he walks in human form and human lineaments, has swallowed up every human motive in its brutal ferocity. The corporeal grossness, the substantiality "palpable to feeling as to sight," of this monster of superstition, renders it singularly terrific, and lays hold on the mind with a sense of shuddering and sanguinary horror which belongs to few of the aerial demons of the imagination, however ghastly or malignant.

Next to the famous Mississippi scheme of Law, Vampyrism appears to have become the ruling mania in France and in Europe. From the year 1730 to 1735 vampyres formed the general topic of argument and speculation. Pamphlets were published on them - the journals continually detailed fresh prodigies achieved by them - the philosophers scoffed at them - sovereigns sent officers and commissioners to inquire into their terrific proceedings. Hungary, Poland, Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia, were the favorites scenes of their appearance and exploits. The people of these countries, sunk in the most abject ignorance, and living in a condition and on a coarse food little above the brutes, placed implicit faith in these wonders. A vampyre haunted and tormented almost every village. Deceased fathers and mothers, who had reposed for years in their graves, appeared again at their dwellings - knocked at the door, sat down to table in silence, ate little or nothing, sometimes nodded significantly at some unfortunate relation in token of their approaching death, struck them on the back, or sprang on their bellies or throats, and sucked draughts of blood from their veins. In general, however, this last consummation of vampyrism was left as an inference from the other facts - and the statement was, that certain men or women of the village grew pale, and gradually wasted away - young girls in the flower of health lost the roses of their cheeks, and sank into rapid and premature decay - then an apparition of some deceased individual was seen and suspicion instantly fixed on him or her as the cause. The grave of the apparition was resorted to - where the corpse was invariably found fresh and well-preserved - the eyes open, or only half-closed - the face vermillion-coloured - the hair and nails long - the limbs supple and unstiffened - and the heart beating. Nothing more was necessary to fix on the body the crime of vampyrism, and to attach to it the guilt of having drained the streams of life from all the pale youths and hectic maidens in the vicinity. Some judicial forms of proceeding were, however, often observed before proceeding to inflict the last penalty of justice on the offender. Witnesses were examined as to the facts alleged - the corpse was drawn from its grave, and handled and inspected; and if the blood was found fluid in the veins, the members supple, and the flesh free from putrescence, a conviction of vampyrism passed - the executioner proceeded to amputate the head, extract the heart, or sometimes to drive a stake through it, or a nail through the temples, and then the body was burnt and its ashes dispersed to the winds. Burning was found the only infallible mode of divorcing the spirit from the frame of these pertinacious corpses. Impalement of the heart, which had been long considered to be the means of fixing evil and vagrant spirits to the tomb, and which, in the case of suicides, our own law has somewhat barbarously retained from the days of superstition, was often ineffectual. A herdsman of Blow, near Kadam, in Bohemai, on undergoing this ceremony, laughed at the executioners, and returned them many thanks for giving him a stake to defend himself against the dogs. The same night he arose to his nocturnal meal, and suffocated more persons than he had ever attacked before his impalement. He was at last exhumed and carried out of the village. On being again pierced with stakes he cried out more lustily - sent forth blood of a brilliant erubescence - and was at last finally quelled by being burnt to cinders. This fact, with many other similar narratives, is related to a work called "Magia Posthuma," by Charles Ferdinand Schertz, dedicated to Prine Charles of Lorraine, Bishop of Olmutz, and printed at Olmutz in 1706. The Rev. Pere Dom. Augustin Calmet, Abbe de Senones (Abbey, as Voltaire insinuates, of 100,000 livres de rente) quotes, in his grand treatise on apparitions and vampyres, and extraordinary case of vampyrism detailed in the Glaneur Hollandois, No. XVIII. - In a canton of Hungary, near the famous Tockay, and between the river Tiesse and Transylvania, the people called Heiduques were possessed by a firm conviction of the powers of vampyres. Abour 1727 a certain Heiduque, and inhabitant of Medreiga, named Arnold Paul, was crushed to death under a load of hay. Thirty days afterwards four persons of the village died suddenly with all the symptoms indicative of death by vampyrism. The people, puzzled and eager to discover the vampyre delinquent, at last recollected that Arnold Paul had often related how, in the environs of Cassova, on the frontiers of Turkish Servia, he had been tormented and worried by a Turkish vampyre. This, according to the fundamental laws of vampyrism, should have converted Arnold into a vampyre in his grave; for all those who are passive vampyres on earth, invariably become vampyres active when they descend to the tomb. - Arnold Paul had, however, always stated that he had preserved himself from contagion from the attacks of the Turkish vampyre by eating some of the earth of his grave and by embrocating himself with his blood. These precautions appeared, however, to be fruitless, for the inhabitants of Medreiga, on opening his tomb forty days after his death, found upon him all the undoubted indices of an arch-vampyre - his corpse ruddy, his nails elongated, his veins swelling with a sanguinary tide which oozed from his pores and covered is shroud and winding-sheet. The hadagni or bailiff of the place, "qui etoit un homme expert dans le vampirisme," proceeded to impale Vampyre Arnold through the heart; on which he sent forth horrid cries with all the energy of a living subject. His head was then cut off and his body burnt. Similar executions was then performed on the four deceased persons, the supposed victims of Vampyre Arnold's attacks, and the Heiduques fancied themselves in safety from these terrific persecutors. - Five years afterwards, however, the same fatal prodigies reappeared. During the space of three month, seventeen persons of different ages and sexes died with all the old diagnostics - some without any visible malady - others after several days of languor and atrophy. - Amongst others a girl named Stanoska, daughter of the Heiduque Stotuitzo, went one night to rest in perfect health, but woke in the middle of the night shrieking and trembling violently - she asserted, that the son of the heiduque Millo, who had died nine weeks before, had attacked her in her sleep and had nearly strangled her with his grasp. Heiduque Millo's son was instantly charged with vampyrism. The magistrates, physicians, and surgeons of the commune repaired to his grave, and found his body with all the usual characteristics of animation and imputrescence, but they were at a loss to understand from what channel he had derived his faculties. At last it was discovered that the exhausted Vampyre Arnold Paul had strangled, not only the four deceased persons, but also a number of cattle, whose flesh had been plentifully eaten by Millo's son and other villagers. This discovery threw the Heiduques into fresh consternation, and afforded a horrid prospect of an indefinite renewal of the horrors of vampyrism. It was resolved to open the tombs of all those who had been buried since the flesh of the cattle had been consumed. Among forty corpses, seventeen were found with all the indubitable characteristics of confirmed vampyres. The bodies were speedily decapitated, the hearts impaled and the members burnt, and their ashes cast into the river Teisse. The Abbe Dom. Calmet inquired into these facts, and found them all judicially authenticated by local authorities, and attested by the officers of the Imperial garrisons, the surgeon-majors of the regiments, and the principal inhabitants of the district. The proces verbal of the whole proceedings was sent in January, 1735, to the Imperial council of war at Vienna, who had established a military commission to inquire into the facts. "Proces verbaux" and "juridical authentications" certainly are high-sounding things - but a sceptical critic has pretended, with a degree of malice prepense against the Vampyrarchy which we ourselves are far from applauding, that his Imperial majesty's surgeons-major and counsellors of war might perchance be deceived in some respects; and admitting a great deal of what they attest to be true, that Vampyrism is not a necessary inference from it - that Miss Stanoska was only a young lady of weak health and head, and strong imagination, who dreamt that young Mr. Millo appeared to her in the night, and laid hold on her more rudely than was becoming in a deceased person, which frightened her into fits, and occasioned her death in a few days - that though she professed to be sucked, yet she could not show the wound, or the "dente labis notam" of the vampyre - that no person ever caught a vampyre in the fact of his sanguinary osculations - and that, in this case, no purple aperture was exhibited, on any of the individual throats, which the connoisseurs assert is the true trace of the vampyre's embrace - that as for the fresh and vermilion corpses, allowing for the common exaggeration of two-thirds in the length of the period since their burial, their preservation might be easily accounted for by certain antiseptic qualities in the soil, similar to those which, in the abbatial vaults at Toulouse and in other places, have preserved corpses from putrefecation for many years - that Alexander, according to Plutarch, and Hector, according to Homer, were preserved incorrupt many days after death:

Nor dogs, nor vultures, have thy Hector rent,
But whole he lies neglected in the tent;
This the twelfth evening since he rested there,
Untouch'd by worms, untainted by the air,
All fresh he lies iwth every living grace, &c. &c. Iliad. xxiv.

and that the growing hair and nails might be accounted for on the principles of vegetation alone, independently of animal vitality. Reasonings of this sort, however, by no means either satisfied the poor Hungarians and Poles, or the physicians and metaphysicians of Germany and Sclavonia. The universities rang with the names of Stanoska and Arnold Paul; and while the book-stalls every day sent forth "Cogitationes de Vampiriis," "Dissertationes de masticatione mortuorrun," &c. the church-yards of Sclavonia every day vomited forth fresh bloodsuckers to confound or support their theories. At Warsaw, a priest having ordered a bridle of a saddler, died before it was completed. A few days afterwards he appeared on horseback, clad in the costume in which priests are buried, and demanded his bridle of the saddler.- "But you are dead," Monsieur le Cure," said the man - "I shall soon let you know the contrary," replied the reverend father, striking him a slight blow. The priest rode home to his grave, and, in a few days, the poor saddler was a corpse.- Sometimes the people ate bread steeped in the blood of a vampyre; and at the impalement, a white handkerchief was sometimes dipped in his blood, and handed round to the multitude to suck as a preservative against future attacks. A device resorted to in Walachia, in order to detect suspected vampyres, has something in it singularly wild and poetical. The people would place a virgin youth, about the age of puberty, on a horse as yet "insolitus blando labori," of a jet black colour, without a speck of white. The boy rode the horse about a suspected burying-ground; and over all the graves; and when the animal stopped short, and snorted, and refused, in spite of whip and spur, to set foot on any particular grave, it was an unerring indication that a vampyre lay within. The people immediately opened up the tomb and in general found it occupied by a fresh and well-fed corpse, stretched out like a person in a blooming and profound sleep.

The exploits of the Hungarian vampyres are, for the most part, performed by male heroes, and are characterized by an extravagant coarseness and brutality, which is wild without being poetical. Many and various are the theories which have been started by the hagiologists to a account for and explain so much of the extraordinary facts of vampyrism, the truth of which, it has been supposed, could not be denied. The Benedictine Abbe Dom. Calmet appears to have satisfied himself on every point, except the manner by which the vampyre escapes from his tomb without deranging the soil, and enters through doors and windows without opening or breaking them. This stumbling-block he cannot get over. Either the resuscitation of these bodies, says the Abbe, must be the work of the Deity, of the angels, of the soul of the deceased, or of the evil demon. That the Deity cannot be the instrument is proved by the horrid purposes for which the vampyre appears - and how can the angels, or the soul, or the demon, rarify and subtilize gross corporeal substances, so as to make them penetrate the earth like air or water, pass through keyholes, stone walls, and casements? - even taking it for granted, that their power would extend to make the corpse walk, speak, eat with a good appetite, and preserve its fresh looks. The only instance directly against Dom Calmet, where the vampyre has been caught in articulo resurgendi, is one stated before one of the many Vampyre special commissions appointed by the Bishop of Olmutz, at the beginning of the last century. The village of Liebava being infested, an Hungarian placed himself on the top of the church tower, and just before midnight (from midday to midnight are the vampyres' ordinary dinner-hours) saw the well-known vampyre issue from a tomb, and, leaving his winding-sheet, proceeded on his rounds. The Hungarian descended and took away the linen - which threw the vampyre into great fury on his return, and the Hungarian told him to ascend the tower and recover it. The vampyre mounted the ladder - but the Hungarian gave him a blow on the head which hurled him down to the church-yard, and descended and cut off his head with a hatchet; and although he was neither burnt nor impaled, the vampyre seems to have retired from practice, and was never more heard of. Here is a vampyre caught in the act of emerging from earth without the assistance either of spade or pickaxe - and the story of the Ghole, in the Arabian Nights, affords a case of one taken in flagranti delicto. It is, in fact, but fair to say, in justice to the vampyres, that the Abbe Calmet is rather a suspicious witness against them. His faith is unbounded and unshrinking, as to all the apparitions of the Romish Church - all the visions of St. Dunstan and St. Anthony, he never doubts that St. Stanislaus raised a Polish gentleman from the grave, to prove to the king that the good saint had paid him for an estate which he had purchased without paying - but he has a slight grudge against the vampyres, on account of their near relationship to, and probably their lineal descent from the imputrescent excommunicated bodies of the Greek church. At the same time he goes to the inquiry with an evident inclination for a miracle if it could be made out - whether Greek or Roman, it would be equally a point gained against the encyclopedists and the philosophers; - but if the vampyres could be made nothing of, why then, in one respect, tant mieux - a new argument would be supplied against the alleged powers of Greek excommunication. The Greek priests, it is well known, from early periods of their schism with Rome, asserted that the divine authority of their bishops was manifested by the fact of the persons who died under the sentence of excommunication resisting the decomposing influences of death; while the Latin church could not prevent its excommunicates from mouldering into dust, which, according to the ancient and modern Greeks, was so essential to the repose and happiness of the spirit, and which made them attach so much importance to burial rites.

Nec ripas datur horrendas, nec rauca fluenta
Transportarc prius quam sedibus ossa quierunt. Virgil.
_______ tali tua membra sepulchro,
Talibus exuram Stygio cum carmine sylvis
Ut nullos cantata maos exaudiat umbra. Lucan.

And this, we apprehended, is the real source of the Vampyre superstition. Hence the Vroucolaca of modern Greece, the real progenitor of the Vampyre of Sclavonia - who, it is to be observed, has hitherto confined his sanguinary proceedings to the countries within the pale of the Greek church and those nearly adjacent to it. Tournefort relates, that in all the Archipelago the people firmly believed that it was only in the Greek church that excommunication preserved the body entirely and unputrified. Some ascribed it to the force of the bishop's sentence - others thought that the devil entered into the body of the excommunicate, and reanimated him, so that he became an evil spirit incarnate. Add to this the prevalent superstition that the dead ate and drank in their graves, that they devoured their own flesh and burial-clothes for want of better food, and that all the viands and wines placed on the bier, and in fact consumed by the priests, were really the nourishment of the dead - and a very slight and easy transition would conduct a superstitious race to the full belief in the demoniacal and hungry corpse sallying forth from the tomb, and satisfying at once its malignity and its appetite, by preying on the flesh and blood of the living. Tournefort was present at the exhumation, impalement, and burning of a Vroucolaca in the island of Mycone, who had broken the windows and the bones, and drained the bottles and the veins of half the inhabitants of the island. For many days the people were in continual consternation, and numbers left their abodes and the island - masses were said - holy water showered about in torrents - the nine days were passed, and still the Vroucolaca was every night at fresh mischief - the tenth day mass was said in the chapel where the unfortunate corpse lay - but to no avail - owing, as the priests afterwards discovered, to the negligence of not extracting the heart before the expulsory mass was said. Had the heart been first extracted and a mass instantly said, before the devil could have returned into possession, the people were convinced his Infernal Majesty's entry would have been barred, and the nuisance put and end to. The corpse was then exhumed, the town butcher took out the heart, and declared that the entrails were still warm. The putrid stench of the corpse obliged them to burn frankincense, which produced an amalgamation of fumes that laid hold of the people's senses, and helped to inflame their imaginations. Vroucolaca! Vroucolaca! echoed through the cloisters and aisles. The poor corpse was impaled with swords in all directions, till a learned Albanian appeared and told the people that they were all fools for using the Christian swords, since the cross of the hilt had the effect of pinning the demon more firmly in the body, instead of expelling him, and that the only sword for the purpose was the straight Turkins scymetar. The people would not wait for the experiment, but, with one accord, determined on burning the body entire. This was accordingly done on the point of the island of St. George - and the people then defied the devil to find a niche in which to quarter himself, and made songs in celebration of their triumph.

Ricaut, in his history of the Greek Church, relates, on the authority of a Candiote Calover, the history of a young man on the island of Milos, excommunicated for a crime committed in the Morea, and who was interred in a remote and unconsecrated ground. The islanders were terrified every night by the horrid apparitions and disorders attributed to the corpse - which on opening the tomb was found, as usual, fresh and flowing with blood. The priests determined to dismember the corpse, and to boil it in wine - a profanation of the grape which, we suspect, the descendants of the priests of Lyaeus would hardly in fact have executed, however they might urge the people to open their cellars for the pious occasion. The young man's relations begged for delay, in order to send to Constantinople for an absolution from the Patriarch. In the interim the corpse was placed in the church, and masses were said night and day for its repose. One day, as the Caloyer Sophronus was reading the service, a sudden crash was heard to issue from the bier - and on opening it, the body was found mouldered and decomposed, exactly like a corpse deceased for seven years. The messenger arrived with the absolution - and on inquiry it was found that the Patriarch's signature had been affixed at the precise moment when the dissolution of the corpse produced the report in the coffin!!!

The Vampyre, then, we take to be originally a creature of the superstition of the Greek church - a monster generated from the persuasion of the wonderful efficacies ascribed by the Greek priests to the excommunication of their bishops, and perhaps inheriting some of his horrid characteristics from some of the traditionary monsters of the ancient Greek mythology. The beautiful and bloody Lamiae of Libya, of Suidas and Diodorus Siculus, who enticed children to devour them, and whom Horace (de arte Poetica, 340) most properly excludes from the legitimate dramatis personae of a poet - as he would unquestionably have done the Vampyre, had he lived in his reign - resemble the Gholes and Vampyres in their hominivorous propensities; and the horrid vulture-beaked Strygis, whose wings,

"Strigis infames, ipsi cum carnibus, alas,"

Ovid makes Medea cast into her cauldron, not only comes nearer to the blood-suckers of Greece and Hungary, but became a well-known demon of the middle ages, whom the Lombards and Germans frequently saw and burnt in the shape of suspected and mysterious males and females, among other sorcerers and magicians. A capitulary of Charlemagne on this subject is very curious; enacting that "if any person, deceived by the Devil, should believe, after the manner of the Pagans, that any man or woman was a Strygis or Stryx, and was given to eat men, and for this cause should burn such person, or should give such person's flesh to be eaten, or should eat such flesh, such man or woman should be capitally punished" - Capit. Car. Mag. pro part. Saxon. - so that it appears from this law (penned with a precision which the members of St. Stephen's might sometimes emulate with advantage) that it was in those days the fashion not only to believe in men-eaters, but occasionally to visit them with the lex talionis, and to eat them in their turn.


Originally published in The Museum of Foreign Literature and Science, Volume 2 (January to June, 1823) by Robert Walsh Jr. and Eliakim Littell, E. Littell, Philadelphia, 1823.

Interestingly, this article uses the words "impale," "Walachia" and "Transylvania" long before they were linked to historical Dracula by Stoker. Other colorful phrases of note in this well-written essay are 'blood of a brilliant erubescence,' 'vampyre delinquent,' and 'laid hold on her more rudely than was becoming in a deceased person.'

Walsh also makes an interesting assertion that the vampire legend rose among Greek excommunicants, merging with classical Greek mythology - most specifically related to the flesh-eating Strygis, which certainly sounds like the later Slavic Strigoi.