Sunday, 27 February 2011

On shrouds, vampires and the dance of the dead

This prologue to the well-known Hammer vampire movie The Vampire Lovers from 1969 based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's famous short story Carmilla, has its roots in vampire or revenant lore.

In Le Fanu's story it is told by a woodman in chapter 13:

"How came the village to be deserted?" asked the General.

"It was troubled by
revenants, sir; several were tracked to their graves, there detected by the usual tests, and extinguished in the usual way, by decapitation, by the stake, and by burning; but not until many of the villagers were killed.

"But after all these proceedings according to law," he continued - "so many graves opened, and so many vampires deprived of their horrible animation - the village was not relieved. But a Moravian nobleman, who happened to be travelling this way, heard how matters were, and being skilled - as many people are in his country - in such affairs, he offered to deliver the village from its tormentor. He did so thus: There being a bright moon that night, he ascended, shortly after sunset, the towers of the chapel here, from whence he could distinctly see the churchyard beneath him; you can see it from that window. From this point he watched until he saw the vampire come out of his grave, and place near it the linen clothes in which he had been folded, and then glide away towards the village to plague its inhabitants.

"The stranger, having seen all this, came down from the steeple, took the linen wrappings of the vampire, and carried them up to the top of the tower, which he again mounted. When the vampire returned from his prowlings and missed his clothes, he cried furiously to the Moravian, whom he saw at the summit of the tower, and who, in reply, beckoned him to ascend and take them. Whereupon the vampire, accepting his invitation, began to climb the steeple, and so soon as the had reached the battlements, the Moravian, with a stroke of his sword, clove his skull in twain, hurling him down to the churchyard, whither, descending by the winding stairs, the stranger followed and cut his head off, and next day delivered it and the body to the villagers, who duly impaled and burnt them."

The inspiration no doubt is Dom Calmet, who in chapter 51 of the second part of his 1751 Traité writes:

'Un prêtre de bon esprit m'a raconté il y a peu de temps que voyageant dans la Moravie, il fut invité par M. Jeanin, chanoine de la cathédrale d'Olmuz, de l'accompagner à leur village nommé Liebava, où il était nommé commissaire par le consistoire de l'évêché, pour informer sur le fait d'un certain fameux vampire, qui avait causé beaucoup de désordre dans ce village de Liebava, quelques années auparavant.

L'on procéda, l'on ouît des témoins; on observa les règles ordinaires de droit. Les témoins déposèrent qu'un certain habitant notable du lieu de Liebava avait souvent inquiété les vivants dudit lieu pendant la nuit, qu'il était sorti du cimetière et avait paru dans plusieurs maisons, il y avait environ trois ou quatre ans; que ses visites importunes étaient cessées parce qu'un étranger hongrois passant par le village dans le temps de ces bruits, s'était vanté de les faire passer et de faire disparaître le vampire. Pour satisfaire à sa promesse, il monta sur le clocher de l*église et observa le moment auquel le vampire sortait de son tombeau, laissant auprès de sa fosse les linges dans lesquels il était enseveli, puis allait par le village, inquiéter les habitants.

Le Hongrois l'ayant vu sortir de sa fosse, descend promptement du clocher, enlève les linges du vampire et les emporte avec lui sur la tour. Le vampire étant revenu de faire ses tours et ne trouvant plus ses habits, crie beaucoup contre le Hongrois, qui lui fait signe du haut de la tour, s'il veut revoir ses habits, qu'il vienne les cherchere. Le vampire se met en devoir de monter au clocher, mais le Hongrois le renverse de l'échelle et lui coupe la tête avec une bêche. Telle fut la fin de cette tragédie.

Celui qui m'a raconté cette histoire n'a rien vu; ni lui ni ce seigneur qui était envoyé pour commissaire. Ils ouïrent seulement le rapport des paysans du lieu, gens fort ignorants, fort supersticieux, fort crédules et infiniment prévenus sur le fait du vampirisme'

Or in the English translation of Henry Christmas:

'A sensible priest related to me, a little while ago, that, travelling in Moravia, he was invited by M. Jeanin, a canon of the cathedral at Olmutz, to accompany him to their village, called Liebava, where he had been appointed comissioner by the consistory of the bishopric, to take information concerning the fact of a certain famous vampire, which had caused much confusion in this village of Liebava some years before. The case proceeded. They heard the witnesses, they observed the usual forms of the law. The witnesses deposed that a certain notable inhabitant of Liebava had often disturbed the living in their beds at night, that he had come out of the cemetery, and had appeared in several houses three or four years ago; that his troublesome visits had ceased because a Hungarian stranger, passing through the village at the time of his reports, had boasted that he could put an end to them, and make the vampire disappear. To perform his promise, he mounted on the church steeple, and observed the moment when the vampire came out of his grave, leaving near it the linen clothes in which he had been enveloped, and then went to disturb the inhabitants of the village. The Hungarian, having seen him come out of his grave, went down quickly from the steeple, took up the linen envelopes of the vampire, and carried them with him up the tower. The vampire having returned from his prowlings, cried loudly against the Hungarian, who made him a sign from the top of the tower that if he wished to have his clothes again he must fetch them; the vampire began to ascend the steeple, but the Hungarian threw him down backwards from the ladder, and cut his head off with a spade. Such was the end of this tragedy. The person who related this story to me saw nothing, neither did the noble who had been sent as commissioner; they only heard the report of the peasants of the place, people extremely ignorant, superstitious and credulous, and most exceedingly prejudiced on the subject of vampirism.'

However, going back to one of the most popular German (and consequently Protestant) works on apparitions of the 17th century, Erasmus Francisci Der Höllische Proteus, first published in 1690, one can find this story in his chapter on the masticating dead, Der schmätzende Todte:

'Es gedenckt auch Zeilerus, in seinen Trauer-Geschichten: Er habe / zu Eywanschitz in Mähren / im Jahr 1617 und 18 / zu unterschieclichen Malen / von glaubwürdigen Bürgern des Orts / erzehlen hören daß daselbst / vor etlichen Jahren / (nemligch von selbiger Zeit zuruckzurechenen) ein / dem Ansehn nach ehrlicher / Bürger / auf dem Kirchhofe selbiger Stadt beerdigt worden; aber stets / bey der Nacht / aufgestanden sey / und Leute umgebracht habe. Dieser ließ allezeit seinen Sterb-Kittel / bey dem Grabe / ligen : und wann er sich wiederum niderlegte; zoch er denselben wieder an. Es wurden aber einsmals die Wächter / auf dem Kirch-Thurn / gewahr / als er vom Grabe wegging; eilten derhalben hinab / und trugen ihm den Sterb-Kittel hinweg. Da er nun / wieder zum Grabe kommend / seinen Kittel nich antraff; rief er ihnen zu / sie sollten ihm den Kittel wiedergeben / oder er wollte ihnen Allen die Hälse brechen. Welches sie auch / in grossem Schrecken / gethan.

Aber nochmals musste der Hencker ihn ausgraben / und zu Stücken zerhauen. Worauf man witer nichts gespúhrt. Der Scharffrichter zoch ihm einen langen grossen Schleyer / aus dem Maul / hervor / welchen er seinen Weibe vom Kopff hinweg gefressen hatte. Diesen zeigte der Nachrichter dem umherstehenden Volck / und rieff: Schauet! wie der Schelm so geizig gewesen! Nachdem er aus dem Grabe genommen war / sagte er: Sie hetten es jetzo wol recht getroffen; sonst / weil sein Weib auch gestorben / und zu ihm gelegt wäre / wollten sie Beyde die halbe Stadt umgebracht haben.'

Zeilerus according to Francisci is 'Zeiler. im I Theil der Trauer-Geschichte p.25.seqq.', i.e. Les Histoire Tragiques de Nostre Temps: Das ist Newe/Warhafftige/trawrig/kläglich und wunderliche Geschichten/die wegen Zauberey/Diebstal und Rauberey/ Ehrgeitz / und anderer seltzamen und denckwürdigen Zufälle from 1624, a translation by Martin Zeiller of Francois de Rosset's popular Les Histoires tragiques de notre temps from 1615. I have looked at a digital scan of Rosset's work, and could not find the story. I may have overlooked it, but I think that the story may have been included by Zeiller in his edition. Unfortunately, I have not (yet) had Zeiller's translation at hand. For more on editions of Rosset's book, check here. The story, however, can also be found in Valvasor's famous book and elsewhere.

That Calmet's Liebava story is a variation on Zeiller's has been observed by others, cf. also Rob Brautigam's Shroudeater , and I think the earliest remark on it is made by Stefan Hock in 1900 who also referred to Ralston's Russian Folktales, and wrote (in a footnote):

'Eine ganz ähnliche Sage erzählt Calmet (II: 255 f.) aus Liebava in Mähren nach mündlichen Berichten von Zeugen, wo aber der Ungar, der die Rolle des Wächters spielt, das Gespenst hinunterstürzt und so das Dorf rettet. Diese Form steht Goethes Ballade viel näher.' (p. 32)

As noted by Hock, this tale was an inspiration for Goethe's Totentanz from 1815 which can be found here in the original and in an English translation. Speaking of the dance of the dead, there are some interesting web sites on the subject: The web site of the Europäische Totentanz-Vereinigung, and a fellow Dane's exploration of the Danish term: 'to look like Death from Lübeck'.

So you can follow this thread (of shroud, so to speak) back from a Hammer movie to earlier revenant concepts and the dance of the dead. And, appropriately, coming back to our 21st century, here is a recent version of Goethe's poem (re)animated by Lego bricks!

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