Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Vampire in Romania

The Romanian vampire, in spite of the distinct ethnic origin of the Romanians, is a variation of the Slavic vampire. However, like the vampire in each of the other Slavic regions, the vampire in Romania has acquired some distinguishing elements. That distinctiveness begins with the major term used to label vampires, as found by Harry Senn in his field work in the 1970s. Strigoi (female, strigoaica) is closely related to the Romanian word striga (a witch), which in turn was derived from the Latin strix, the word for a screech owl that was extended to refer to a demon that attacked children at night. A second term, moroi (female, moroaica), also spelled murony in older sources, seems to be the common term in Wallachia, as strigoi is in Transylvania. The Romanians also distinguish between the strigoi vii (plural, strigoi), or live vampire, and the strigoi mort (plural, strigoi morti), or dead vampire. The strigoi vii are witches who are destined to become vampires after death and who can send out their souls and/or bodies at night to cavort with the strigoi mort.

The live vampires tend to merge in thought with the striga (witches), who have the power to send their spirits and bodies to meet at night with other witches. The dead vampires are, of course, the reanimated bodies of the dead who return to life to disturb and suck the blood of their family, livestock, and—if unchecked—their neighbors. The strigoi mort was a variation of the Slavic vampire, although the Romanians were not Slavs and used a Latin word to designate their vampire. The strigoi was discovered by an unusual occurrence either at their birth or death, and a living strigoi was a person who was born with either a caul or a little tail. A strigoi vii may become a strigoi mort, as well as other people who died irregularly by suicide or an accident. Romanians also use the term vircolac, but almost exclusively to describe the old mythological wolflike creature who devoured the sun and moon.

The closely related terms pricolici or tricolici were also wolves. Virolac is a variation of the Greek vrykolakas or the Serbo-Croatian vukodlak. Agnes Murgoci, who worked in Romania in the 1920s, found that they still connected the term with its pre-vampiric mythological meaning of a creature who devours the sun and moon. At times when the moon appears reddish, it was believed to be the blood of the vircolac flowing over the moon’s face. More definitive work was pursued by Harry Senn in Transylvania in the 1970s. He found that popular use of the vircolac distinguished it from the strigoi. The term vircolac described a person who periodically changed into one of several animals, usually a pig, dog, or wolf. As such it was much closer to the popular concept of werewolves than vampires. Nosferatu is an archaic Old Slavonic term apparently derived from nosufuratu, from the Greek nosophoros, “plague carrier.”

From the religious context, the word passed into popular usage. It has been variously and mistakenly cited as a Romanian word meaning either “undead” (Wolf) or the devil (Senn). Through the twentieth century it seems to have dropped from use in Romania. Stoker’s use of the term derived from Gerard. It was used by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in his attempt to disguise his movie, Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens from Dracula. He tied the story to the great plague that hit Bremen, Germany, in 1838.

In Romania the vampire was believed to come into existence first and foremost as the product of an irregular birth, and any number of conditions have been reported that could predispose a person to become a vampire. Children born out of wedlock, born with a caul, or who died before baptism could become vampires. Pregnant women who did not eat salt or who have allowed themselves to be gazed upon by a vampire could bear a vampiric child. The seventh child of the same sex in one family was likely to have a tail and become a vampire. Though children with an irregular birth were the prime candidates of vampirism, anyone could become a vampire if bitten by one. Other potential vampires included people who led wicked lives (including men who swore falsely), witches (who had relations with the devil), a corpse over whom a cat had jumped, or a person who committed suicide.

The presence of vampires was usually first noticed when several unexpected deaths in a family and/or of livestock followed the death of either a family member or of someone suspected of being a vampire. The vampire might, on occasion, appear to the family, and female vampires were known to return to their children. The home of a suspected vampire often was disturbed by the its activity, either in throwing things around (poltergeist) or getting into the food supplies. The vampire would first attack the family and its livestock and then move on to others in the village. If not destroyed it might move on to more distant villages and even other countries, where it could reassume a normal role in society. Vampires were especially active on the eve of St. George’s Day (either April 23 or May 5), the day witches and vampires gathered at the edge of the villages to plan their nefarious activities for the next year. Villagers would take special precautions to ward off the influences of supernatural beings on that evening. Stoker’s character Jonathan Harker made the last leg of his journey and finally arrived at Castle Dracula on St. George’s Eve. Vampires and witches were also active on St. Andrew’s Day. St. Andrew was the patron of wolves and the donor of garlic. In many areas of Romania, vampires were believed to become most active on St. Andrew’s Eve, and continued to be active through the winter, and ceased their period of activity at Epiphany (in January), Easter, or St. George’s Day.

St. George’s Day was and is celebrated throughout much of Europe on April 23, hence the Eve of St. George would be the evening of April 22. St. Andrew’s day is November 11, and the eve immediately precedes it. Romania which was on the old Julian Calendar, was 12 days behind the modern Gregorian calendar. Thus in Stoker’s day, St. George’s Day would have been celebrated in Romania on what was the evening of May 4 in western Europe. Likewise, St. Andrew’s Eve would have been the evening of November 23–24. The lag time between the Julian and our Gregorian calendar increases one day every century.

The grave of a suspected vampire would be examined for telltale signs. Often a small hole would be found in the ground near the tombstone, a hole by which the vampire could enter and leave the coffin. If there was reason to believe someone was a vampire, the grave was opened. Those opening the coffin would expect to find the corpse red in the face. Often the face would be turned downward and fresh blood on it or, on occasion, cornmeal. One foot might have retracted into a corner of the coffin. Senn reported that a vampire in the community could be detected by distributing garlic at church and watching to see who did not eat.

It was the common practice of Romanians to open the graves of the deceased three years after the death of a child, four or five years after the death of a young person and seven years after an adult’s death. Normally, only a skeleton would be found, which would be washed and returned to the grave. If, however, the body had not decayed, it was treated as if it were a vampire.

There were a wide variety of precautions that could be taken to prevent a person either from becoming a vampire or doing any damage if they did become one. A caul might be removed from the face of a newborn and quickly destroyed before it was eaten. Careful and exacting preparation of the body of the recently dead also prevented their becoming a vampire. The thorny branch of the wild rose might be placed in the tomb. Garlic was also very useful in driving away vampires. On St. Andrew’s Eve and St. George’s Eve, the windows (and other openings of the house) were anointed with garlic, and the cows would be given a garlic rubdown. Once the vampire was in the tomb, distaffs might be driven into the ground above the grave upon which the vampire would impale itself if it were to rise.

On the anniversary of the death of a suspected vampire, the family walked around the grave. Once a vampire began an attack on the community and its identity was discerned, the vampire had to be destroyed. Emily Gerard, author of The Land Beyond the Forest, found the emergence of a relatively new tradition in nineteenth-century reports in which a vampire might be killed by firing a bullet into the coffin. The preferred method, however, was to drive a stake into the body, followed by decapitation, and the placing of garlic in the mouth prior to reburial. This method was adopted by Stoker in Dracula as a means of destroying the vampiric nature that had taken over Lucy Westenra’s body. In Romania, the staking could be done with various materials, including iron or wood, and the stake was impaled either in the heart or the navel. Instead of decapitation, the body could also be turned face downward and reversed in the coffin. Millet seeds might be placed in the coffin to delay the vampire, who must first go through a lengthy process of eating the millet before rising from the grave. An even more thorough process might be followed in the case of a vampire resistant to other preventive measures. The body might be taken from the grave to the woods and dismembered. First, the heart and liver were removed, and then piece by piece the body was burned. The ashes could then be mixed with water and given to afflicted family members as a curative for the vampire’s attack.

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