Excerpt: Russian Fairy Tales (on vampires)

Excerpt: Russian Fairy Tales (on vampires)

Tim Burton’s version of Dark Shadows (starring Johnny Depp) opens today. I watched the show when it was originally broadcast, and I’ve been going back through episodes on Netflix. I have some of the tie-in novels (in paper) by “Marilyn Ross”. My Significant Other and I will likely see the movie, but we sort of feel like we would be going because we “have” to see it. The trailer made me mad. Still, I wanted to connect to the opening, so I’m going with a piece from Russian Fairy Tales by the folklorist W.R.S. Ralston (originally published, I think, in 1873). I’ve never thought that Ralston wrote turned the folktales into stories very well, but I do like the nonfiction commentaries. Here, then, is Ralston talking about vampire legends. By the way, this excerpt was written before Dracula…which is sometimes credited with defining the British and American sense of the vampire. Compare what was said before it was published…

Russian Fairy Tales

by W.R.S. Ralston

The stories of this class are very numerous, all of them based on the same belief—that in certain cases the dead, in a material shape, leave their graves in order to destroy and prey upon the living. This belief is not peculiar to the Slavonians but it is one of the characteristic features of their spiritual creed. Among races which burn their dead, remarks Hertz in his exhaustive treatise on the Werwolf (p. 126), little is known of regular “corpse-spectres.” Only vague apparitions, dream-like phantoms, are supposed, as a general rule, to issue from graves in which nothing more substantial than ashes has been laid.But w here it is customary to lay the dead body in the ground, “a peculiar half-life” becomes attributed to it by popular fancy, and by some races it is supposed to be actuated at intervals by murderous impulses. In the East these are generally attributed to the fact of its being possessed by an evil spirit, but in some parts of Europe no such explanation of its conduct is given, though it may often be implied. “The belief in vampires is the specific Slavonian form of the universal belief in spectres (Gespenster),” says Hertz, and certainly vampirism has always made those lands peculiarly its own which are or have been tenanted or greatly influenced by Slavonians.

But animated corpses often play an important part in the traditions of other countries. Among the Scandinavians and especially in Iceland, were they the cause of many fears, though they were not supposed to be impelled by a thirst for blood so much as by other carnal appetites, or by a kind of local malignity. In Germany tales of horror similar to the Icelandic are by no means unknown, but the majority of them are to be found in districts which were once wholly Lettic or Slavonic, though they are now reckoned as Teutonic, such as East Prussia, or Pomerania, or Lusatia. But it is among the races which are Slavonic by tongue as well as by descent, that the genuine vampire tales flourish most luxuriantly: in Russia, in Poland, and in Servia—among the Czekhs of Bohemia, and the Slovaks of Hungary, and the numerous other subdivisions of the Slavonic family which are included within the heterogeneous empire of Austria. Among the Albanians and Modern Greeks they have taken firm root, but on those peoples a strong Slavonic influence has been brought to bear. Even Prof. Bernhard Schmidt, although an uncompromising opponent of Fallmerayer’s doctrines with regard to the Slavonic origin of the present inhabitants of Greece, allows that the Greeks, as they borrowed from the Slavonians a name for the Vampire, may have received from them also certain views and customs with respect to it. Beyond this he will not go, and he quotes a number of passages from Hellenic writers to prove that in ancient Greece spectres were frequently represented as delighting in blood, and sometimes as exercising a power to destroy. Nor will he admit that any very great stress ought to be laid upon the fact that the Vampire is generally called in Greece by a name of Slavonic extraction; for in the islands, which were, he says, little if at all affected by Slavonic influences, the Vampire bears a thoroughly Hellenic designation. But the thirst for blood attributed by Homer to his shadowy ghosts seems to have been of a different nature from that evinced by the material Vampire of modern days, nor does that ghastly revenant seem by any means fully to correspond to such ghostly destroyers as the spirit of Gello, or the spectres of Medea’s slaughtered children. It is not only in the Vampire, however, that we find a point of close contact between the popular beliefs of the New-Greeks and the Slavonians. Prof. Bernhard Schmidt’s excellent work is full of examples which prove how intimately they are connected.

The districts of the Russian Empire in which a belief in vampires mostly prevails are White Russia and the Ukraine. But the ghastly blood-sucker, the Upir, whose name has become naturalized in so many alien lands under forms resembling our “Vampire,” disturbs the peasant-mind in many other parts of Russia, though not perhaps with the same intense fear which it spreads among the inhabitants of the above-named districts, or of some other Slavonic lands. The numerous traditions which have gathered around the original idea vary to some extent according to their locality, but they are never radically inconsistent.

Some of the details are curious. The Little-Russians hold that if a vampire’s hands have grown numb from remaining long crossed in the grave, he makes use of his teeth, which are like steel. When he has gnawed his way with these through all obstacles, he first destroys the babes he finds in a house, and then the older inmates. If fine salt be scattered on the floor of a room, the vampire’s footsteps may be traced to his grave, in which he will be found resting with rosy cheek and gory mouth.

The Kashoubes say that when a Vieszcy, as they call the Vampire, wakes from his sleep within the grave, he begins to gnaw his hands and feet; and as he gnaws, one after another, first his relations, then his other neighbors, sicken and die. When he has finished his own store of flesh, he rises at midnight and destroys cattle, or climbs a belfry and sounds the bell. All who hear the ill-omened tones will soon die. But generally he sucks the blood of sleepers. Those on whom he has operated will be found next morning dead, with a very small wound on the left side of the breast, exactly over the heart. The Lusatian Wends hold that when a corpse chews its shroud or sucks its own breast, all its kin will soon follow it to the grave. The Wallachians say that a murony—a sort of cross between a werwolf and a vampire, connected by name with our nightmare—can take the form of a dog, a cat, or a toad, and also of any blood-sucking insect. When he is exhumed, he is found to have long nails of recent growth on his hands and feet, and blood is streaming from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

The Russian stories give a very clear account of the operation performed by the vampire on his victims. Thus, one night, a peasant is conducted by a stranger into a house where lie two sleepers, an old man and a youth. “The stranger takes a pail, places it near the youth, and strikes him on the back; immediately the back opens, and forth flows rosy blood. The stranger fills the pail full, and drinks it dry. Then he fills another pail with blood from the old man, slakes his brutal thirst, and says to the peasant, ‘It begins to grow light! let us go back to my dwelling.’”

Many skazkas also contain, as we have already seen, very clear directions how to deprive a vampire of his baleful power. According to them, as well as to their parallels elsewhere, a stake must be driven through the murderous corpse. In Russia an aspen stake is selected for that purpose, but in some places one made of thorn is preferred. But a Bohemian vampire, when staked in this manner in the year 1337, says Mannhardt, merely exclaimed that the stick would be very useful for keeping off dogs; and a strigon (or Istrian vampire) who was transfixed with a sharp thorn cudgel near Laibach, in 1672, pulled it out of his body and flung it back contemptuously. The only certain methods of destroying a vampire appear to be either to consume him by fire, or to chop off his head with a grave-digger’s shovel. The Wends say that if a vampire is hit over the back of the head with an implement of that kind, he will squeal like a pig.

The origin of the Vampire is hidden in obscurity. In modern times it has generally been a wizard, or a witch, or a suicide, or a person who has come to a violent end, or who has been cursed by the Church or by his parents, who takes such an unpleasant means of recalling himself to the memory of his surviving relatives and acquaintances. But even the most honorable dead may become vampires by accident. He whom a vampire has slain is supposed, in some countries, himself to become a vampire. The leaping of a cat or some other animal across a corpse, even the flight of a bird above it, may turn the innocent defunct into a ravenous demon. Sometimes, moreover, a man is destined from his birth to be a vampire, being the offspring of some unholy union. In some instances the Evil One himself is the father of such a doomed victim, in others a temporarily animated corpse. But whatever may be the cause of a corpse’s “vampirism,” it is generally agreed that it will give its neighbors no rest until they have at least transfixed it. What is very remarkable about the operation is, that the stake must be driven through the vampire’s body by a single blow. A second would restore it to life. This idea accounts for the otherwise unexplained fact that the heroes of folk-tales are frequently warned that they must on no account be tempted into striking their magic foes more than one stroke. Whatever voices may cry aloud “Strike again!” they must remain contented with a single blow.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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