Sunday, 4 November 2012

Vampire species

When I was a boy, I collected stamps. After initially just collecting any kind of stamps, I got interested in a specific group of Danish stamps and the numerous misprinting errors of those stamps. These errors could be both systematic, because of variations in the gravure, or it could be more incidental like when the watermarks in the paper had accidentally got inverted. Looking for these variations in the printing and paper made it possible to identify when an individual stamp had been printed and which place it had had in the original sheet of stamps.

Similarly one can ‘collect’ instances of vampire beliefs – or ‘vampire species’, if you will - but in my opinion this kind of collecting first becomes really interesting when you try to eliminate the purely accidental and try to recognize the patterns in these beliefs. Unfortunately, while compiling it may become difficult to see the wood for the trees, and the pattern gets lost.

Several ‘vampire encyclopedias’ have resulted from this kind of compiling. Unfortunately, quite a few of them are not too reliable, and their selection of material all too frequently reflects what can be found in various modern books on the subject. One recent example attempts to collects various ‘species’ of vampires, and I can not help being baffled by e.g. the great number of variations of the word ‘vampire’ that are presented as distinct and distinguishable terms. I am here considering Theresa Bane’s Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology, a rather expensive volume published a couple of years ago. Expensive, because although in hardcover it has a recommended retail price of £70.50, but only contains 199 pages.

The first variant of ‘vampire’ listed under V by Bane is:

Vampiir (Vam-PEER)
In northern Europe, in the Republic of Estonia, the concept of a blood-drinking vampire was imported from the neighboring countries of Latvia, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine. Calling this vampire a vampiir, it entered silently into a person’s home, lay on top of someone, and smothered him to death while he slept. It had the ability to shape-shift into a bat and a wolf; however, a vampiir was only active a few hours each night and was susceptible to sunlight. Like many of the vampires that lived in neighbouring countries, the vampiir was killed either by burning it to ash, decapitation, or by hanging.
Source: Bunson, Vampire Encyclopedia, 87; Dundes, Vampire Casebook, 54’

The first reference is Matthew Bunson’s entry on Estonia:

Estonia A region situated along the Baltic Sea to the north of Latvia, historically part of Livonia. The Estonians had several species of vampires, largely the result of external influences, especially Russian. The rarest of the undead in Estonia was the vere-imeja (bloodsucker). The Estonian species, the veripard (blood beard), was essentially a manifestation of a nightmare, tormenting people during the night and pressing down upon them. Another type of Estonian undead, the vampiir, was probably another foreign tradition that found only limited acceptance in the region.’

And the second reference is in fact to a paper by Felix Oinas on East European Vampires originally published in 1982. Oinas is concerned with the roots and development of vampire beliefs in East Europe, including Russia and Ukraine, and for that reason he also considers Estonia and Latvia, noting that ‘In Estonia, beliefs in vampires are rather undeveloped. The term for vampire in Estonia is vampiir (vampire), vere-imeja (blood-sucker), or veripard (blood-beard). There are numerous stories about revenants who visit people in the night and press down upon them. However, the vampire as a bloodsucking and killing revenant is little known by the people, and the idea may have been taken from their neighbors.’

Oinas here refers to Grundzüge des Estnischen Volksglaubens by the Estonian folklorist Oskar Loorits published in Lund in Sweden in 1949. Loorits, at the time a refugee from Estonia who had found a haven during WWII in Sweden, deals extensively with e.g. revenant beliefs and burial customs in Estonia, so Oinas in fact only refers to a couple of passages of the book, while in fact several parts have some bearing on Estonian revenant beliefs.

Oskar Loorits. Source: Wikimedia
On page 100, Loorits mentions the quite rare ‘Blutbart’ (veri-pard), that probably derives from Finnish, and notes that a belief in vampires has remained undeveloped (‘die ganze Vampir-Vorstellung im estnischen Totengluaben unentwickelt geblieben und hat nur selten als fremdes und junges Gut gelegentlich Anklang gefunden’). Later, on page 563, he makes some comments on the use of terms in recent decades, but nowhere does he use the spelling ‘vampiir’ or claim that vampires in the sense of bloodsucking dead was a well-known belief in Estonia. In fact, ‘vampiir’ is simply the way of spelling the word ‘vampire’ in Estonian, cf. the entry on vampires in the Estonian Wikipedia.

Curiously, Theresa Bane does not include an entry on the ‘veri-pard’ or the ‘vere-imeja’, but lists Vampiir as a phenomenon by itself, ‘imported from neighbouring countries,’ whereas it is quite evident that Loorits says that a vampire belief per se remains undeveloped in Estonia! Still, considering the vampire to be one of several related kinds of revenants, there is no doubt that Loorits deals with living corpses that haunt the living. To gain more information on those, one would have to consult the work by Loorits (and possibly more recent colleagues in Estonia), but Bane rarely goes to the source.

Instead, she sometimes relies on the most curious books, like Nigel Suckling’s Vampires for this strange, but highly entertaining entry:

Vanpir (Van-PEER)
The word vanpir (“werewolf”) was said to have been created by an unnamed German officer. In 1726 there were thousands of reports filed that the plague that was running unchecked in the southeast Slavic regions was started by REVENANTs. In life these revenants had been werewolves, but after they died, they had come back as what the locals called VRYKOLAKA. The German officer changed the word vrykolaka for one he allegedly made up – vanpir. No reason has ever been given for his decision to have done this. German newspapers began to pick up on the story and it spread. Eventually it came to France where the odd and obviously foreign word was changed once again, this time to a more familiar and as terror-inspiring word – VAMPYRE. Again the story began to spread and managed to make its way over the channel into England. This time the word’s spelling was changed to suit its British audience and became vampire.
Source: Singh, The Sun, 276; Suckling, Vampires, 54; White, Notes and Queries, vol. 41, 522’

The copy of Frombald’s report that is in the archives in Vienna uses the form ‘vanpiri’, and perhaps – perhaps! – this is the factual basis of these strange speculations. But overall, this entry sounds more like the plot of a novel than a piece of vampire history.

In a number of other instances, Bane seems to confuse various ways of writing a term. She includes entries on ’Flygia’ and ‘Fyglia’, but I think both refer to the concept of a fylgja, and it also seems hard to make out the distinctions between the Chinese ‘Kuei’, ‘K’uei’, ‘K’uei, Revenant’ and ‘K’uei, Spirit’. Similarly when it comes to the entries on the Romanian ‘Priccolitsch’, ‘Pricolic, Undead’, ‘Pricolic, Wolf’, ‘Priculics’ and ‘Procolici’.

It is not that I take some particular pleasure in criticizing such things, and I am afraid there are numerous more examples. Rather it grieves me to see all sorts of books on ‘vampires’ taken verbatim in collecting ‘vampire species’. The notion of an encyclopedia of this kind is certainly not bad, but it requires a sound methodology in approaching sources and deciding on entries. Collecting stories and ‘species’ without a keen and eye on the underlying patterns, discarding of the accidental and unreliable, is like collecting stamps with little or no interest in e.g. history and printing techniques.

From Oskar Loorits: Grundzüge des Estnischen Volksglaubens (1949), p. 91

Loorits on the other hand systematically describes Estonian folk beliefs in Grundzüge. Beginning with the concept of life force (Lebenskraft) and how it is related to different parts of e.g. the body, including blood, he explores the notions concerning the difference between a live and a dead body, burial customs, the nourishment that the dead may require, the ‘afterlife’ of corpses, revenants etc. Revenant beliefs consequently are not considered as anomalies, but are simply yet another part of a world view or system of belief.

Detached from a system of belief or even detached from any kind of etymology, ‘vampire species’ become more or less accidental fragments risking to blur rather reveal than the underlying patterns.

A diagram from Demons and the Devil: Moral Imagination in Modern Greek Culture by Charles Stewart (1991) of the places where Greek exotiká may typically be encountered. Vrykolakes are, as one would expect, found in graveyards.

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