When I was in Krakow, Poland recently, I was intrigued to discover that below the Cloth Hall in the grand Market Square there had been the old church cemetery and in this cemetery were five burials that were quite strange. These burials dated from the 11th Century and so are much older than the vampire hysteria of the 18th Century. They were buried in a foetal position with their legs tucked up, face down and their heads cut off. Archaeologists believe that they were bound with rope before being buried.
Vampire Burials in Europe
In Paderborn in Germany as early as 765, there are warnings about “chorts”. This word derives from Slavonic folklore and Chorts were demons with horns, hoofs and a tail. Anyone visited by one was to be burned at the stake, as if they could turn the living into chorts themselves.
There is a village in Poland called Dawsko where there is a cemetery. And in that cemetery, there are a lot of strange burials. Many of the corpses have had coins placed in their mouths and this seems to relate to a belief that this could stop evil spirits entering the body especially after death. In 2008, also in that cemetery, six skeletons have been buried with anti vampire precautions. For example with a sickle around the abdomen and a heavy stone placed on the neck. There are other burials like this in Europe dating from the 17th and 18th century when it was genuine fear and terror in Europe about vampires rising from the dead.
It was worrying to the peasant people that even if they saw a member of the walking dead they could become ill and die. It wasn’t just blood that vampires suck but they also spread disease.
Archaeologists researched the idea that there was something about the people that made them different skeletons these people – perhaps they were immigrants? But when isotope readings were done from the teeth, it showed they had been brought up locally. Then they wondered whether the individuals had been disfigured – but there were no signs of trauma disease of my marks on the body. Finally, it was considered that perhaps they were suicides or criminals, and thus more likely become hosts for evil spirits.
Vampire burials have been found in other parts of Europe, particularly in the east in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania but also in Poland. From the precautions, there seems to have been a difference between those people who were candidates to return as vampires and those people already believed to be vampires and were already coming out of the graves. For the ones who were believed to be vampires we find they have iron stakes through the rib cages, while the ones with sickles are precautionary measures to bind them to the earth. In some cases the heads are removed and put between their legs.
In another dig at a place called Perperikon in Eastern Bulgaria, they found an ancient skeleton identified as a 35 to 40 year old man who had a spike through his heart. This was the second Bulgarian skeleton with an iron spike through the rib cage. The first was at Sozopol. Also in Bulgaria, skeletons have been found with iron staples nailing them to the ground so they could not rise after death. None of the Bulgarian finds are women.
In 1991 in Slovakia in the crypt of an ancient church called holy Trinity in Prostejov, a body been buried in a coffin reinforced with iron bars. In addition to the physical restraint to this, there is the added protection that vampires (like the fairy folk!) cannot tolerate iron. The corpse had stones on its legs and the legs were severed from the torso as a way of stopping walking, we may guess. This burial dates from the 16th century, and it’s unusual that it was a church. Perhaps the holy surroundings were another way of stopping the vampire from rising.
Iron Spikes, Staples and Sickles
Sharp implements such as sickles are said to be anathema to vampires. There was a vampire burial found on the Greek island of Lesbos in 1994. It was a Turkish cemetery from the medieval period and the corpse was buried in a crypt hollowed out from the ancient city wall. It had been nailed down in his grave with heavy metal spikes through pelvis and ankle. This of course was a Muslim vampire, which is the first found in a non-Christian context. Remember above we said about the idea of vampires perhaps arising from a substrate of Slavonic paganism.
Also in Slavonic lands, in 1919 in the Czech Republic archaeologists found a cemetery completely full of vampires -14 in total. The cemetery is around 30 kilometres from Prague. The date is the 12th century. They were young adults – both men and women – and they were buried without vampire precautions.
There was also a vampire burial found on one of the islands that makes up Venice in the lagoon. In 2006, the skeleton of a woman from the 16th century was discovered in a cemetery for plague victims. She had a large brick ground into her mouth prior to burial. There was a belief that the vampires chewed in their graves and therefore to put something in their mouth to stop them chewing would stop them chewing their way out.
And the vampire fear went further west than you might have thought. In Ireland between 2005 and 2009 at Kilteasheen , two skeletons were discovered. One was a middle-aged man and another man in his 20s. They had rocks rammed into their mouths. They date from the 8th century and because they’re further west than the Slavonic, influence would ever reach, this suggests that the vampire belief did not originate in a purely Slavonic context. Ireland was Celtic, though you might expect pre-Celtic ideas that could originate in the Atlantic coast cultures of the Stone Age that spread up the west coast of Europe. But again, it’s it is very interesting that they have stones in their mouths. Once again, something that stops chewing.
There was also a vampire burial found in 2010 in Nottinghamshire in England. The skeleton is dated from between 515 and 700 A.D. That’s older than most of the European ones. It predates the European vampire craze by a little while. We did see about the fear of the “chorts” in Paderborn in Westphalia in the western part of Germany. Even though it’s pretty far west, Paderborn seems to have had some Slavonic influence. But England? Germanic and Celtic, but a Slavonic explanation seems unlikely. The two Nottinghamshire burials from the Anglo-Saxon period had metal spikes through their hearts, shoulders and ankles. Putting a spike to the heart of course has long been associated with vampires and it’s interesting it’s so early time with the Irish evidence as well so perhaps fears about vampire threats were more common across Europe and across time, than we have guessed.
Another interesting vampire graveyard in Poland was found on the German border dating from the 13th the 14th century and all of the skeletons had been mutilated and the bones had been reversed, which is interesting, with the right leg and left being interchanged. It appears they were moved from the main part of the cemetery to an outer section. One of the skeletons was an old woman who was buried face down. I guess the idea was the vampire rising from the grave would go down and thus be fooled. Either our ancestors or the vampires were pretty silly to fall for that one. The old woman’s legs were broken possibly after death and there was no sign of healing. Perhaps her legs were broken to stop her running after people? Another two in this graveyard had their heads chopped off one of them had a spinal piercing pinning him down to the earth. As noted, this is another feature that we see in the Bulgarian vampire burials, and the Greek one, to keep them from getting up.
A Modern Vampire
There are so many vampire stories still, but a news item that shows the same ideas persist comes from Romania. In 2004, in Romania a dead man’s relatives pulled his corpse out of his grave, ripped out his heart, burned it to ashes, mixed it with water, and drank it. They believed he had returned as a vampire and was making the living ill. Vampires in current Romanian belief prey mainly on their families. There is a belief that a long knitting needle can be put into the bellybutton just after death and that will stop them rising. Once they have risen, they have to be dug up and their hearts cut out with a sickle. Just like the sickles in the Polish graveyards. And is the knitting needle the same idea that saw corpses have metal spikes driven into them a thousand years before?
I can understand the metal spikes and pins through the corpses and attempts to hold them down, or to break their limbs so they can’t run after people. I guess cutting off their heads would make it difficult for them to hunt their prey and messing around and interchanging their bones might be a similar idea. Even burying them upside down to confuse them coming out of the coffins is rational, in a way. But what’s this about stopping them chewing?
We have seen that this idea of the dead who chew goes a long way back from the older skeletons with stones in their mouths.
In 1679, Philip Rorh, a churchman, wrote a pamphlet called Dissertatio Historico-Philosophica de Masticatione Mortuorum – A Historico-Philosophical Dissertation on the Chewing of the Dead. A German named Michael Rauff also wrote a book called De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis – Of the Chewing of the Dead in Tombs. He says that the dead ate everything in their coffins, their shrouds, and even their own flesh. He said that the German peasants would put earth under the corpse’s chin. Or put money or a stone in their mouth, or tie a handkerchief around the throat. He reports that there was a belief in the chewing dead in Hungary too.
A Voracious Hunger
There must be something here about the hunger of the dead. They are so voraciously hungry that they will chew everything. If they chewed everything in their coffins, that would be fine, but the worry must be that they will chew their way out, as was explicitly said in some sources. In their book on symbolism, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant talk about the vampire’s hunger for blood as a symbol of the lust for life. The vampire tortures himself and even chews at his own vitals if the hunger is not satiated. And he’s always hungry. There must always be another victim.
I hate to get all mystical on you, but does the idea of a vampire symbolize our human condition? As the Buddha said in the Fire Sermon:
“Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?
“The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.
“The ear is burning, sounds are burning…
“The nose is burning, odors are burning…
“The tongue is burning, flavors are burning…
“The body is burning, tangibles are burning…
The vampire is the perfect example of the unenlightened human. He lives in the dark, flees from the light, shuns holy symbols and preservatives such as garlic (remember the Devil also flees from salt on his tail, another preservative). He lives underground in a tomb and chews in his tomb because his hunger knows no end. He preys on his family and his loved ones because his mind is dark with hunger. And remember that the risen vampire condemns others to an eternity of undeath when he infects them with his perverted lust for life.
Like the vampire, until we turn from craving we will never be free.
Now you didn’t expect an article on vampire burials to end with this, did you?