Long before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires were well-known to the Slavs. Actually, the vampire is an originally Slavic mythological figure. It first appeared in print in the 11th century in Russia. The vampire story, of course, existed for centuries before that, but not the romanticized version we know (and sometimes love) today.
The Slavs believed that sometimes after death the body of the deceased rose from the grave at night to harass people and drink their blood. Although this demon had a human form, he was bigger and stronger than any human being. His ruddy, swollen skin, long fangs and claws, sometimes with an additional deformation – such as a missing nose or a cavity gaping at the back – gave him a truly diabolical appearance. In addition, he had a horrible stench.
There are many names for vampires: vampir, wampir, upyr, upir, wapierz, lampir. The vampire had many abilities not available to mere mortals, such as: flying, invisibility, changing into animals, being unaffected by wounds, mesmerizing and lulling their victims. He drew all his strength from his victim’s blood. Without it, he lost potency, grew thinner, and began to decompose. They attacked domestic animals, but often it was said that they liked to take revenge on their relatives.
A particularly dangerous aspect of the vampire was that his victims changed into vampires themselves. Therefore, any attack suspected to be a vampire’s work immediately mobilized the entire community. They would dig up graves and check the corpses. If a corpse looked fresh and ruddy, it meant, of course, that it’s a vampire, so the body had to be disposed of as quickly as possible. To this end, there were a number of practices: the deceased’s limbs were tied and he was turned to face the ground, his head was cut off with a spade, a steel nail was hammered in the skull, or an aspen stake driven through the heart, or the body was burned or thrown in a swamp.
As a result of numerous transformations of folk beliefs, one possible embodiment of the vampire was the strzyga. Strzyga is a female demon in Slavic, particularly Polish, mythology. Its name most probably comes from the Latin strix, which means owl. Ancient Slavs believed that under the guise of the Tawny owl, the deceased returned to drink the blood of people and animals.
People born with two hearts and thus two souls were suspected to be strzyga. After death, one of the souls went to the afterlife, and the second revived the deceased body and changed it into a bloodthirsty demon. Each night, the strzyga left its grave to appease its hunger. She was thin but muscular with a pale complexion, sunken red eyes, two rows of sharp teeth and long claws.
There were several ways to stop the beast. One was to find its nest in the woods and lay there facedown until dawn. Another was burning the body when it was dormant. Other sources say decapitation of a suspected body would rid the area of the strzyga. To protect children from her attack, it was forbidden to pour out their bathwater after sunset or bathe them on Fridays.
Not all strzyga were bloodthirsty and mindlessly brutal. Some could surprise with their refined viciousness. For example, they could cut off a person’s clothing with their eyes, resulting in a proper portion of shame and the need to get a new wardrobe. There are also stories that they entered homes to suck blood out of men’s nipples, causing the victims to grow female-like breasts.
Traces of belief in all the vampiric beings can be seen today in folk tales in Central and Eastern Europe.
Want to know more? Check out this podcast on the Slavic Vampire.
Book: Zych, Paweł and Witold Vargas. Bestiariusz Słowiański. Olszanica: Bosz, 2012. Print.