Wednesday 23 January 2013

In Search of Peter Plogojowitz’s Grave

James Lyon, author of the excellent novel Kiss of the Butterfly, has kindly sent me this report from his recent visits to Kisiljevo. Click on the photos to see them in greater detail.

On 9 December 2012, and again on 17 January 2013, I visited the village of KisiljevoSerbia, the site of the first known recorded use of the word “vampire” in history, the famous case of Peter Plogojowitz from 1725. Given that Niels has already written a number of excellent posts on the topic, I write on the assumption that the reader is familiar with the case.

The purpose of the visit was two-fold: to discuss local legends of the Peter Plogojowitz case with residents, and to see if it was possible to identify the site of Peter Plogojowitz’s grave. Due to heavy snowfall on 9 December that restricted access to the graveyard, that visit was limited to interviews only. On 17 January, I returned to the graveyard after the snows had melted.

The village president, Mirko Bogičić, and author James Lyon
Although I spoke with a number of very friendly Kisiljevo residents, most were hesitant to discuss Peter Plogojowitz, and all referred me to the village (mesna zajednica) president, Mirko Bogičić, a man in his mid-50s who is also the custodian of records for the nearby municipality of Veliko Gradište, which is located further east along the Danube. Mr. Bogičić turned out to be a very warm and intelligent gentleman, who was well-versed in local history and folklore, and who is in the final phase of publishing a book on the history of Kisiljevo. He lives in a household with four generations under the same roof, a common practice in the region.

Kisiljevo used to be a river port on an arm of the Danube, but is today located on the banks of a 14-kilometer long artificial lake (Srebreno Jezero) that was dammed off in 1971 to prevent flooding along the southern banks of the river. Today the lake is a popular summer tourist resort in Serbia. Kisiljevo itself, however, has not profited from this tourism, the town’s population continues to decline, and a number of homes are abandoned and falling apart, due to lack of upkeep. Although the 2002 census listed the town as having 704 residents, that number appears optimistically high.

An abandoned home in the town centre, 
with death notices on the telephone pole 
in the foreground
Mr. Bogičić took great pride in his hometown and noted that it was first mentioned in the 14th century during the time of Serbian Prince Lazar (who lost his head at the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389), and again in the Ottoman census of the Branicevo district (Braničevski Defter 1467). At that time, Kisiljevo was a large and economically powerful town, with more than double the number of households of nearby Požarevac (Passarowitz). He also recounted the local legend of the origins of the town’s name, which dated to the time of the Great Plague.

In Kisiljevo, there is no surname of Plogojowitz, and no such surname exists among the South Slavs. The locals all refer to him as Petar Blagojević, and until recently there was still a Blagojević family in the village, so one must assume that Imperial Provisor Frombald used a Germanized spelling of the name in his report. The following material is transcribed from a recording I made on 9 December.

Mr. Bogičić said that “Petar Blagojević isn’t the only vampire. Here among us in Serbia, vampires are frequently spoken of. The Vlahs say ‘Drakulj’… Vojvoda Tsepes was a legendary figure, the way Kraljević Marko is with us, as a man who was dangerous in battle against the Turks. But he didn’t have vampire characteristics, such as were seen in Petar Blagojević.”

Bogičić mentioned that two women visited him from Berlin [?! sic] with photocopies of Frombald’s original report, which he could not read, as they were in a language which he assumed was German. He noted that under the Treaty of Passarowitz (Požarevac) the north of Serbia belonged to Austria and the seat of regional administration was in Veliko Gradište. But when it came to details about the Petar Blagojević case, neither he nor the other local residents appeared to have passed on much in the way of folklore about the events of 1725. Rather, it appeared as though much of the information regarding the Blagojević case was of relatively recent origin.

The Other Kisiljevo Vampire: Ruža Žapunjica

Bogičić, however, did raise an interesting point of local folklore regarding an entirely different vampire. “People also speak about an old woman who became a vampire, at least 100 years after Petar Blagojević. The old people say that an old woman, whose name was Ruža [Rose], turned into a vampire. She had the nickname of Žapunjica… The old folks called her Ruža Žapunjica, no one knows what the nickname means. She became a vampire. My great-grandmother remembered those times. She [Ruža] would make incidents in the middle of the day. She would bang around houses, climb up into the attic and begin to make noise in the middle of the day. She would throw things around in the attic of the house, and people could hear sounds, but when they went up to the attic, they couldn’t see anyone. But this was quite some time after Petar Blagojević, because my great-grandmother as a child had seen this and heard it from her parents. Those houses no longer exist; they were torn down.”

Bogičić continued: “One person – and this is very important -- saw her after she died in the early evening on the steps in front of one of the houses, even though she had long since died. That old man who saw her, died a few years ago at the age of 93. He said that he had seen Ruža Žapunjica, even though she had died over 100 years earlier, and he repeated this on television, that he had seen her figure and silhouette on the steps. This was in the 1930s, when he was a young man in his 20s, before the war. So Petar wasn’t the only one.”

The village church
“People usually don’t like to talk about that. As children we grew up on the stories of the older people about those unbelievable, unusual nighttime events, but the only incident that was actually written down was the one of Petar Blagojević. You know we have this church in our village that was built in 1825. Those people in the village who are close to the Church, who are Orthodox Christians, don’t like it when people speak about Petar. They don’t want it glorified and say that we’re speaking against Christianity. But this is something that has nothing to do with Christianity, or belief in God, or attending church, or our Orthodox customs now.” Bogičić mentioned some famous Serbian historical figures who were born in Kisiljevo, noting regretfully: “But these things are much less known, because it is truly the vampire that jumps out from Kisiljevo. Not a single church council has ever questioned or denied the vampirism that was then around”.

Death Rituals

Bogičić shared with me a number of local customs surrounding death. When a person dies, they keep a lit candle next to the body from the moment of death until the body is placed in the casket. The body is kept in the home, and someone is next to it 24 hours a day. In olden times, gold coins were placed over the eyes of the deceased, but today they use regular coins. This is so the deceased will have money for the next life. Prior to placing the body in the coffin, they conduct several ceremonies against evil spirits. These include burning incense and then igniting a small amount of gunpowder in the bottom of the coffin. The graveyard is always in a better location than the village, because they don’t want anything to disturb the dead. The Danube used to flood Kisiljevo before they built the dams, and the village graveyard is up on a high bluff overlooking the Danube.

Searching for Petar’s Grave

On 17 January 2013 I visited the Kisiljevo graveyard with Mr. Bogičić. The graveyard is located on a bluff high above the banks of Srebreno Jezero and offers a panormaic view over the lake and the island between the lake and the Danube.

Bogičić explained that that graveyard was divided into three parts. The first part consisted of the oldest graves, which predated the late 18th century. This section was entirely overgrown and the grave markers were not easily recognizable as such. The stones consist of roughly-hewn thin stone slabs made of greenish rock from a quarry further west along the Danube near Ram. None of these slabs appeared to have any trace of engravings on them, and Bogičić said that prior to the late 18th century the gravestones were not engraven with names. This is the portion of the graveyard where Petar Blagojević would have been buried. As a result, it is not possible to ascertain which grave is his. I should add, that it is impossible to ascertain which grave belongs to which family, and as a result, no one has cared for the graves.

From the oldest part of the graveyard
The second part consists of graves from the latter half of the 18th century onward, when grave markers were carved into recognizable shapes, such as crosses, or tombstones with rounded edges and engravings. This portion of the graveyard is in better shape, as people are still able to identify a gravestone with a particular family, and members of that family will continue to care for it.

The third portion of the graveyard dates largely from the early 20th century and consists of modern – sometimes elaborate – gravestones and family burial plots, usually outlined by small concrete walls about ten centimeters high. In many cases, families have taken the old pre-20th century gravestones and fixed them in concrete in the modern family burial plot.

Modern gravestones with old gravestones embedded in concrete in front of the family burial plot
In the modern part of the graveyard, I came across two plots for the Blagojević family. Bogičić told me that there are no longer any Blagojevićs in Kisiljevo.

The Blagojevic family plot
As a parting gift, Mr. Bogičić kindly presented me with a bottle of his own home-made grape brandy, which he jokingly referred to as “vampire rakija”.


My overall impression is that local lore related to the Peter Plogojowitz incident of 1725 has been suppressed over time by the Serbian Orthodox Church; many people feel uncomfortable discussing the matter. It seemed that although everyone knew something had happened in the distant past regarding a vampire named Petar Blagojević, no one really knew the details outside of what has been uncovered by more modern scholarship. Unlike the village of Zarožje, where local inhabitants were well versed in the legend of Sava Savanović, Kisiljevo residents seemed more aware of Ruža Žapunjica and less of Petar Blagojević. Interestingly, the characteristics associated with some of Ruža's behavior – while similar to a poltergeist – are not at all unusual for vampires in South Slavic folklore. The state of the grave markers in the old part of the graveyard is such that it seems unlikely anyone will ever be able to identify with absolute certainty the actual grave site of Petar Blagojević.

James Lyon is currently working on a sequel to The Kiss of the Butterfly.

Text and photos © James Lyon.


James Lyon said...

Many thanks to Niels for hosting this guest post. I hope everyone found it useful and informative.



jackdirt said...

It is an amazing privilege to be able to read about Mr.Lyons journey! This is what made kiss of the butterfly so incredible. I look forward to the second book with great zeal.

James Lyon said...


I just wanted to thank you for your marvelous review of "Kiss" on your blog. It was really wonderful to see how you engaged with the book exactly the way I had intended.

Stay tuned for more adventures coming up.



Anonymous said...

A very well written article, thank you. I'm not from Kisiljevo but everything sounds familiar. Today, older people in Serbian villages still know stories about vampires and are willing to talk about them. As stated, a vampire in Serbia has some poltergeist characteristics. Just like a ghost, a vampire sometimes hides in the attic of the house, makes noises and strange voices. I heard a story about an older woman who turned into vampire after death and started terrorizing people in her village - they heard strange noises and crashing from the nearby corn field. If anyone wants to know more about vampires in Serbian folklore he/she can check the movie Leptirica (1973). Greetings from Serbia.

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