"A Triad of Mediaeval Myths: Vampires"
by J. Scoffern, M.B. Lond. (formerly professor of chemistry and forensic medicine at the Aldersgate College of Medicine)
from Stray Leaves of Science and Folklore, London: Tinsley Brothers, 1870. pp. 346-359.
Speculating on the use and misuse of words, an inquirer after truth may, without equivocation, reasonably doubt whether the word 'supernatural' has any significance. If Mr. William Howitt should see--as he so often has seen--three-legged tables dance fandangoes; if he should hear--as he often has heard--soft music discoursed by harmoniums touched by invisible hands; if Mr. Home, defying gravitation, should ascend to the ceiling and flit about--as he so often has done--I do not know that anybody has more right to call these things supernatural,
than I have to doubt the facts recorded. Made cognizant to human nature by that great resultant of law and forces which we agree to call simply Nature, how can any manifestation to human senses be justly called supernatural?
All discovery must have a beginning. Phenomena observed before the reason of them is made apparent always seem mysterious. The question, 'how an apple'--a gross corporeal thing--a material entity, to adopt the language of science--'gets into the middle of an apple-dumpling,' provokes no nine-days' wonder now; time was when it puzzled a king. Solomon was a wise man, and so was Socrates, and so was Solon: would they not have considered it a mysterious thing, had they seen messages sent by electric telegraphy to places thousands of miles away?
When Pizarro awoke the echoes of temples of the Incas, by firing-off his Spanish field-pieces, I wonder whether the Aztec priests did not regard the case as supernatural? On consideration, I think Mr. Howitt, Mr. Home, and every other gentleman who has had visional relations with the spirit-world, who has touched that fringe of which Mr. Howitt somewhere speaks,--that peculiar fringe which, according to him, descends upon earth from some celestial upholsterer's shop up above,--will own, upon consideration, that nothing has happened or can happen, nothing which has been seen or can be seen, that has been heard or can be heard, that has been felt or can be felt, that has been smelt or can be smelt, should be justly called supernatural.
I am one of those who have come to the conclusion, that more harm comes of believing too little than of believing too much. For my part, I believe almost everything that is recorded by a man of good repute, provided that my own experience does not disprove it; and, in a general way, I believe everything that is told me by a lady. It saves a world of trouble, this unlimited faith; it has the merit of being logical too, remembering how impossible it is to prove a negation.
After making this confession of faith, it will not seem wonderful in the least degree that I have been studying the manners and customs of spirits, hobgoblins, creatures of the elements, such as undines, sylphs, salamanders, gnomes, fairies and the like; witches, wizards, sorcerers, augurs, necromancers of various countries and various epochs; creatures, in short, that some people denominate--incorrectly, as I believe, and have sought to prove--'supernatural.'
Yes, I have been studying them all in many a recording page; from the mouldy and worm-eaten tomes coeval with the discovery of printing, to the railway volumes with many-coloured binding, reminding one of the particoloured coat of Joseph. Yes; things falsely called 'supernatural,' I have been studying them all; and not least carefully those beings so horrible, so dreadfully curious, so dangerous withal--concerning which some few explanatory words shall presently be written--the wandering bloodthirsty vampires--Vroucolakas or Broucolakas of the Greeks.
Perhaps there never was yet an extraordinary revelation vouchsafed to the faithful, concerning which skeptics and scoffers--people of science, as they call themselves; those men of dwarfed and paralysed minds, so beautifully portrayed by Mr. William Howitt--have not suggested some mean and groveling imputation, the acceptance of which would reduce the facts narrated to the category of mere superstitions, fostered mostly by churches and by priests. Accordingly, in the respect of vampires, I have seen the statement made, that the assumption of these creatures as realities is referable to a certain pretension that an individual dying under sacerdotal ban, and being interred, could not decay after the manner of honest corpses committed to earth.
A pretension indeed! as if the learned Michael Raufft, who wrote a learned book De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis, is not worthy of all credence. As if the learned book of similar title, published by Philip Rehrius, could leave the matter
in doubt. I grant that the recitals published by those learned authors do not abound with such deeds of active vampiredom as form the subject of popular tradition in places where vampiredom is most rife: but they are conclusive as to the main basis of belief on which vampiredom rests; affirming that divers human corpses have been known to retain a sort of spurious life, to move in their graves, to eat whatever came within the reach of their unhallowed jaws, to be heard munching and masticating like swine,--whence the title of the book, De Masticatione.
Ghosts, hobgoblins, and, to be short, all other beings which certain superficial thinkers call supernatural, had been made matter of study long before tables began to speak, or even to turn. The learned Calmet gave much attention to pneumatology; vide his book in proof of it. * I think the following sentiments, enunciated in the preface to that book, will come commended to ti the appreciation of many; and I would humbly call attention to the highly important place the learned writer accords, in the science of the so-called supernatural, to the particular hobgoblins (if by their leave we may call them so) of which I shall have to treat.
'It is always a matter of regret,' writes Calmet in his preface, 'to have deceived one's self; and it is dangerous (speaking in a religious sense) to believe on insufficient grounds, to deny rashly, to remain in wilful ignorance, or to voluntarily continue wrapped in superstition or illusion.' A good deal will have been achieved by an individual who has learned how to doubt wisely, in such way that he does not allow his judgment to range beyond his testimony. That which has most impressed me in the matter concerning which I treat is the recitals I have met with of vampires, or 'revenans'
of Hungary, of Moravia, and Poland, of the Broucolakas or Vroucolakas, so called by the Greeks;--all excommunicated bodies which, it is said, are unable to decay.
The remark has been made by the Rev. H. Christmas, translator of Calmet's book Sur les Apparitions, that Calmet seems less disposed to believe in vampiredom than in any other manifestation of the so-called supernatural; that receiving the attestations of almost every sort of apparition without cavil, yet the French divine, rather indirectly than directly, seems to throw some sort of doubt on the history of vampires.
The reverend translator starts an hypothesis to account for this, which probably may be in some measure correct. He says that the records of vampiredom have especially belonged to people holding to the Greek or Eastern faith; for which reason a French divine would not be unlikely to cavil at the testimony handed down in relation to these beings.
Perhaps it may be just as well, before proceeding further, to explain, for the benefit of all who may require the information, what manner of being exactly a vroucolaka or vampire is. Truly, the name is common enough; but the meaning of many names one could mention is partly or even wholly unknown, though they are in the mouths of most of us, and come trippingly enough on the tongue. Awhile ago, a very popular author, yielding to impulsiveness, wrote that he would wake the welkin; then presently, laughing at himself, he confessed total ignorance as to what the welkin exactly might be. A vampire, then, is--well, what shall we say? Not a ghost, certainly; except we alter most of our existing notions of a ghost. The best definition I can give of a vampire is a living, mischievous, and murderous dead body. A living dead body! The words are wild, contradictory, incomprehensible; but so are vampires.
Assuming as true the records about dead people moving in their tombs, eating therein, coming therefrom, with or without murderous intent, the learned Calmet devotes entire
pages to a reasoned debate upon the case. He touches on the mysteries of life and death; he sets forth the extreme difficulty of accounting for the phenomena of a corpse rising from the tomb without disturbing the earth; of the utter unmeaningness of a ghoul such as this taking pleasure in the molestation, even murder, of its once dearest friends. Lastly, he asks how it can be that a dead body, out of which the soul, the life, hath fled, can yet retain a second life? All this he asks, and more; he throws doubt on the case, but nowhere expressly denies the existence of vampires. I think he tries to make it seem, inferentially, that vampiredom is wholly an illusion, a fiction of the Greek Church; but he almost cuts the ground from under him, by presenting certain records of living dead people, which come very nearly up to the mark of vampiredom. He quotes the German authors Raufft and Rehrius, concerning whom mention has already been made, seemingly disposed to believe much they have related concerning the gluttony, the swinish munching, practiced by certain evil-disposed corpses.
'Raufft takes it for a certain conclusion,' writes Cardan, 'that certain corpses have been known to devour the graveclothes and other things within their reach, nay, even their own flesh.' He remarks, that in certain parts of Germany, in order to prevent this horrible habit of underground feasting, grave-diggers are accustomed to put a good hard packing of earth under a suspected corpse's chin: that moreover, to make security doubly sure, some grave-diggers place in the mouths of suspected corpses a little bit of silver, or else a stone, taking further precaution to tie a handkerchief tight about the throat.
Certain of the milder and least mysterious tales concerning dead-alive people admit of a sort of half-explanation, by adopting the hypothesis of trance; as, for example, the following cases narrated by Calmet:
The Count de Salm, having been thought dead, was buried alive. As night approached, great cries were heard in the church of the Abbey of Haute Seille; and the following morning, his grave having been opened, the corpse was found lying face downwards. Once upon a time, at Bar de Duc, a man having been interred, a sound was presently heard to come from the grave; being disinterred on the day following, he was found to have eaten the flesh of his arms. This man had drunk brandy to excess, and had been buried as dead. Raufft bears evidence concerning a woman of Bohemia, who, in 1345, had eaten, whilst in the grave, about one-half of her shroud.
More extraordinary, and trenching more nearly on the domains of pure vampiredom, is the following, narrated by William of Newbridge, an English author who lived in the middle of the twelfth century, and quoted by Calmet. He states that, in his time was seen, in the county of Buckingham, a man who appeared bodily, as when alive, three successive nights to his wife, and after that to his nearest relatives. They could only defend themselves by watching, and making a great noise when they perceived him approaching. The creature even dared to show himself occasionally in the daytime; whereupon the Bishop of Lincoln assembled his council, who told him that similar things had often happened in England, and that the only known remedy against the evil was to catch the wandering body, and burn it.
The bishop could not at once fall-in with this; he thought the remedy cruel. He adopted another plan, and it was this: Having written a schedule of absolution, he placed it on the body of the corpse; and from that time no more of him was seen or heard. 'This sort of apparition would appear incredible,' wrote the author, 'if several instances had not occurred in his own lifetime, and if he did not know several persons who believed in them.'
The latter argument is, I humbly think, irresistible. The
same author, Newbridge, states that a man who had been interred at Berwick came out of his grave every night, and made a great disturbance in the neighborhood. He even boasted that he should not cease to disturb the living until they had reduced him to ashes. Thereupon the neighbours selected ten bold and vigorous young men, who took him up out of the ground, proceeded to cut his body to pieces, then burn it to ashes. But some one among the crowd having said that he could not burn until they had torn out his heart, his side was pierced with a stake. Through the opening thus made they extracted the heart, whereupon the body was consumed, and appeared no more.
It is a remarkable fact, and therefore worthy to be noted here, that amongst the pagan Romans the notion prevailed that dead bodies of certain persons were subject to be allured from their graves by sorcerers, unless incremation had been performed, or decomposition had actually taken place. On this point study the following allusion of Lucan--the words are represented by him to have been spoken by an enchantress to an evoked spirit:
'Tali tua membra sepulchro
All this may have been, says Calmet; but that those who are really dead move their jaws, and amuse themselves by chewing whatever may be near them, is again, says he, a childish fancy--like what the ancient Romans said of their mandicus, which was a grotesque figure of a man with an enormous mouth, full of big teeth, the jaws being moved by springs. The Romans frightened children with these manduci; hence the following allusion of Juvenal:
'Tandemque redit ad pulpita notum
Some remains of the ancient custom may be seen in certain
processions, wherein the figure of a serpent is carried, which ever and anon opens and shuts its jaws, between which cakes are thrown by lookers-on.
'Authors have reasoned a good deal on these events,' writes my authority. (1) Some have believed them to be miraculous. (2) Others have looked upon them as simply the effect of a heated imagination, or a sort or prepossession. (3) Others, again, have believed therewas nothing in them but what was very simple and natural, these persons not being dead, but acting naturally upon other bodies. (4) Others have asserted it was the work of the devil himself. Amongst these, some have advanced the opinion that there were certain benign demons, differing from those who are malevolent and hostile to mankind. But what greater evils can one have to fear from veritable demons and the most malignant spirits, than those which the ghouls of Hungary inflict on persons whose blood they suck, and thus cause to die? (5) Others say it is not the dead who eat their own flesh or clothes, but serpents, rats, moles, ferrets, and other voracious animals, or even striges, birds that devour animals and men, and suck their blood. . . It is added, that these vampires are known only to certain countries, as Hungary, Moravia, and Silesia, where plague, pestilence, hydrophobia, drunkenness, are most common; where the people, being badly fed, are subject to certain disorders, occasioned by climate and food. As to what some have asserted, that the dead have been heard to eat and chew like pigs in their graves, it is manifestly fabulous, writes my author. Such an idea can have its foundation only in ridiculous prepossessions.
From these remarks it would seem that Calmet is altogether sceptical about the narrations of dead-alive men and women. I do not know why he should be, since he does not venture to impugn the following still more extraordinary narration, communicated to him by a contemporary priest of his own church:
'A curé of the diocese of Constance,' he states, 'named Bayer, makes to me in writing the following relation. He states that, in 1728, he (Bayer) having been appointed to the cure of Rutheim, he was disturbed one morning by a spectre, who came in the form of a peasant, badly made, ill-dressed, and smelling abominably. He knocked at the door in an insolent manner, and, being admitted, entered the study. He then told the curé Bayer, that the prince-bishop of Constance had sent him (the hobgoblin) upon a certain business. . . but the statement was untrue. The hobgoblin then asked for something to eat; whereupon meat, bread and wine were set before him. Taking up the meat with both hands, he devoured it, bones and all, saying, "Observe how I eat both flesh and bone: do the same!" Then taking up the wine-cup, he swallowed the contents of it at a draught; asked or another, which, when supplied, he served the same. Rising then, he withdrew, never so much as saying "Good-bye" to the cure. The servant who saw him to the door, having demanded his name, "I was born at Rutsingen, and my name is George Raulin," he replied; but he spoke falsely. Then turning to the curé, whilst going down-stairs, the hobgoblin said in German, "I'll show you who I am."
'He passed all day in the village,' Calmet's curé's letter of testimony goes on to state, 'showing himself to everybody. Towards midnight he returned to the curé's door, crying out three times in a terrible voice, "Monsieur Bayer, I will let you know who I am!" Day by day for three long years he returned towards four P.M., and every night remaining till day-dawn. He showed himself in different forms; sometimes like a water-spaniel, sometimes like a lion or other terrible animal, sometimes as a man, but sometimes (and this must have been the worst of all) in the guise of a pretty girl, sitting at the curé's bedside! Thus testifies Monsieur Bayer. Sometimes the hobgoblin made an uproar in the house, like a cooper hooping a cask. The curé, desiring to have
witnesses, often sent for the beadle and other chief people of the village to bear testimony. At last the curé had recourse to exorcism, but with no effect.
'Despairing almost of being delivered from these vexations, he provided himself at the end of the third year with a holy branch, on Palm Sunday; also with a sword sprinkled with holy water. The hobgoblin was now seen to have the worst of it. Appearing again [whether in the form of a man or dog, a lion or a young lady, informant does not state], the curé first dashed the holy water in the goblin's face, then smote the being with the blessed sword. He did this once or twice, and from that time was no more molested. This is attested by a Capuchin monk, witness of the greater part of these things, August 29, 1749.'
Calmet declines to guarantee the truth of all these circumstances. The judicious reader may make what induction he pleases. If they are true, here, says he, is a real ghost who eats, drinks, and speaks,--giving tokens of his presence for three whole years, without any appearance of religion!
Sceptics may seek to throw discredit upon the narrations of vampiredom, by urging, what I conceive to be the fact, that although vampires have been seen by the thousand, have been known to leave their graves, and wander about biting and bloodsucking their once dearest friends; still, no authentic information is available relative to the manner in which they leave their graves, or the way in which they go back to the same.
No vampire, that I am aware of, has ever been caught in the very act of coming out of a grave, or going back again. The omission is not of a sort to shake the belief of any reasonable man in the general truth of vampiredom, knowing well, as all of us do know, that thousands of occurrences take place from time to time, under the very noses of the people near, without their seeing what happens.
I once explored the battle-field of Waterloo, in companionship
with a local guide, who, during that day of mortal strife, had been present in the amateur capacity of a suttler or canteen-bearer, ministering comforts to the wounded. Gazing from the summit of the huge mound whereon the Belgion lion stands--allegorical, in a certain sense, of Belgian bravery--I looked down on many a grave and many a trophied marble. Thick they were--thick those graves, those trophied marbles!--and I bethought me how far more thickly strewn on the evening of the day of strife must have been the writhing wounded, the shattered and gory dead! I pictured to myself the serried squares, belching their volleys at advancing French columns. I sought to reproduce the scene of men stricken by lead or steel, and suddenly laid low. 'They fell fast enough,' said I; 'it must have been an awful sight.'
'Parblue!' interposed my guide; 'you may think it odd, but I did not see one man fall. They would come on. Then a volley, a bayonet or cavalry charge, a tremendous noise, fire, smoke and all that; and when it was over, there they would lie, just like those sheep there, Monsieur; but, on my honour, not one fellow did I actually see go down.'
Very well; Calmet did not record, and assuredly would not wish it to be understood, that revenans, as he calls them--or, to be plain, disreputable corpses whom earth rejects--can be numbered by the million. He perhaps refers to some scores; and if nobody ever caught one of these in the very act of coming out of a grave, what does this prove? Nothing, to my mind, after what the guide told me at Waterloo.
The act of munching in a grave, or even coming out of a grave, violates social proprieties truly, but nothing more. It is not every human mind, indeed, that is strong enough, or sufficiently well balanced, to look upon a horrible prodigy unmoved. If revenans, as Calmet denominates them, were more frequent than they are, then probably many spectators might be scared into fits or go mad outright; but if a disreputable
pg. 358corpse should get out of its coffin, and wander about murderously intent, wreaking vengeance all night, biting, bloodsucking, and going back to its grave before morning, it would be a very serious, a very dangerous matter. This is just what vampires do, nevertheless.
In like manner as sceptical people--the men of paralysed minds so beautifully described by Mr. Howitt, the paralysis having been induced by a too continuous study of what we falsely call the inductive sciences--find some absurd way of accounting for, or else denying altogether, the best-attested facts of pneumatology,--such as table-turning, table-dancing, spirit-rapping, spectral writing, luminous hands, mystical accordion playing, and other modern spiritual manifestations; so more than one writer has attempted to explain away the precise relations concerning dead-alive people of all varieties, from the masticators of Raufft to the vroucalakas of the Greeks.
Accordingly, it is argued, as already stated, that the milder, the less extraordinary of these recitals, are amply accounted for on the assumption of trance; and that the records of pure vampiredom, tales about dead-alive men arising from their tombs, stalking about, bloodsucking and murdering, are based on a pretension of the Greek church, to the effect that Mother Earth refuses to accept, and retain in her bosom, corpses of persons who have come under orthodox excommunication. It has even been accepted as a tenet of faith by the Eastern church, I believe, that no unorthodox corpse can possibly decay if buried in orthodox soil. There might be something in this view of the case, if records of dead-alive people were traceable only to authors of the pure Greek faith; but, in view of testimony from other quarters, considering that dead-alive people have been known to wander from their tombs in England, Germany, and elsewhere, it seems that the hypothesis cited falls to the ground wholly. It must be conceded, however, that vampiredom has received
what we may call its highest development in countries the people of which acknowledge the orthodox Greek church. Eastern European vampires have always been more fierce, more murderously inclined, than corresponding beings of the west. Climate may have something to do with this; and perhaps temperament. Greek brigands are more terrible than others,--why not Greek vampires?
Even on matters most apparently transcendental, one can draw practical deductions. No harm can ever come of making security doubly sure. I am led to infer, then, that if a dead body, after a reasonable time of burial has elapsed, be still found soft and pliable; if it bleeds on puncture, and shows no sign of fulfilling the decree of dust to dust, there is room for the worst suspicions.
In such a case the unquiet and evil-disposed corpse can be laid by adopting one of two expedients. The first is, to cause the grave to be beaten with a hazel twig, the operator being a virgin of not less than twenty-five years old. The second expedient consists in digging the body up and burning it. My authorities leave me no room to doubt that the first and much simpler remedy is not equally effectual with the second; nevertheless, for some inexplicable reason, the remedy of incremation is always practiced, in lands where vampires do most abound.