Saturday, 12 October 2013

A Transylvania Vampire Expert

'This book represents one Hungarian historian and traveler's sometimes elusive but ever conscientious filtering of numerous sources - sources including not only those books listed in the bibliography (some folkloric works available only in Hugarian) but also Hungarian-language and other archival materials and, indeed, stories heard during many journeys over many years in Transylvania and elsewhere.'

Hungarian historian István Pivárcsi has written a number of books on vampires and other subjects in Hungarian, while so far only the book quoted from above has been translated into English: Just A Bite: A Transylvania Vampire Expert's Short History of the Undead (paperback, 292 pages, $14.95). 'For more than twenty years he has led vampire tours in neighboring Transylvania,' the publishers write, making the reader expect that the book will contain a lot of information on vampires related specifically to Transylvania. Most of the book, however, covers ground familiar from numerous other books: Vlad Tepes, Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles de Rais, werewolves, zombies, the Golem, beliefs related to blood, vampire bats, porphyria, and the vampire of popular culture, and quite a lot of what is said about Romanian vampire beliefs is very brief.

Pivárcsi writes that, 'although research has found that vampire myths are rooted most firmly in Serbian, Croatian, Ukrainian, Romanian, and Ruthenian folklore,' Transylvania is of particular importance in 'vampirology', as he names the field:

'Largely because the vampire that was to become best known by name, Count Dracula, was linked in the popular imagination to that region,' even though he actually ruled south of Transylvania, but also because 'Romanian folklore in particular came to be permeated by vampires, thanks in no small part to a certain tenet of the Eastern Orthodox Church - name, that those people who died after being excommunicated returned as the walking dead - moroi in Romanian. Indeed, such souls were condemned to remain in this most unfortunate state of limbo until the Church saw fit to relieve them of the curse.' According to Pivárcsi, it was, however, the merging with the strigoi, 'a nocturnal death-bird with supernatural powers that flew about at night, hunting human flesh and blood,' 'that yielded the characteristic Romanian vampire figure whose modern permutations we have come to know. Linked as they were to the Christian religious tradition that pervaded nearly every aspect of society, vampires became seen as agents of Satan, as instruments of evil bent on violating and annihilating humanity - and it was thought that a whole army of them were out there in the night maneuvering for final victory. They fed on human blood, and their bite infected their victims with vampirism. Blood and darkness alone sustained them.'

Pivárcsi, unfortunately, does not evolve this theme much, but in a short chapter he relates some accounts related to the Transylvanian belief that 'were adapted by your humble guide from my archival research in Transylvania coupled with material in the works of the noted twentieth-century Hungarian folklorists Enikö Csögör and Tekla Dömötör.' There are in fact only five accounts, or 'possibly true tales', a couple of which are rather schematic, while the rest include other, and more interesting aspects of local folk beliefs that unfortunately are not dealt with in the book.

The book also includes a glossary, and a chronology in which it is claimed that Philip Rohr's De masticatione mortuorum 'is the first work to be published in German language about vampires,' while under 1710 it says: 'Vampire hysteria sweeps across Eastern Prussia. Numerous cemeteries are dug up, and a mob sets the houses of suspected vampires on fire.' This sounds like a Hammer film!  Equally apocryphal, yet still fascinating is the entry for 1725-1732: 'In the southern territories ruled by the Austrians, inhabited mainly by Serbians, several people are sentenced to death on charges of vampirism.'

The only part of the book that presents something truly Hungarian that is probably not available elsewhere, concerns the Hungarian silent Dracula film, Drakula halála, from 1921, so if you are looking for information on that one, Pivárcsi's book may be worth getting hold of. Otherwise, well, maybe this book is simply intended for younger readers looking for a popular introduction to the subject, and in that respect it is probably not worse than so many other books. But if you are looking for something on Hungarian or Transylvanian folk beliefs, I'd rather go for e.g. Tekla Dömötör's Hungarian Folk Beliefs.

The original title of the book is not mentioned, but I think this is a translation of Pivárcsi's Drakula gróf és társai originally published in 2003.

The publisher, New Europe Books, specializes in books from and about the former East Bloc, 'a literary landscape shrouded for all too many in mystery': 'We seek to introduce new and classic-yet-undiscovered authors and books whose stories will resonate with readers far afield. Our authors include not only those born and raised in this part of the world (whether or not they happen to write about their own societies) but also expatriate writers from elsewhere and those who may have lived abroad for a short or long time but whose ancestry is rooted firmly somewhere in Eastern Europe—in short, all those whose lives are bound up in some manner with the region, and who share startling new perspectives on the human condition that will appeal to readers from far reaches of the globe.'

1 comment:

Anthony Hogg said...

Hi Niels,

In answer to the question whether the book's a translation...

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