Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Case of Vampirism in the Lives of the Saints?

By John Sanidopoulos

The English author and clergyman Montague Summers published a heavily researched book on vampires in 1928 titled The Vampire, His Kith and Kin. In the second chapter he goes into some detail about the history of excommunication, and the belief of many, especially among simple-minded Orthodox Christians, as to how this contributes to a curse especially seen after death that results in the folkloric belief in vampirism, where the body of the excommunicated deceased may show signs of foul incorruption and an undead state. The activities of these vampire-like beings, known among the Greeks as vrykolakas, are said to nearly always be harmful, verging from merely leaving their grave and "roaming about", through engaging in poltergeist-like activity, and up to causing epidemics in the community. Among other things, the creature is believed to knock on the doors of houses and call out the name of the residents. If it gets no reply the first time, it will pass without causing any harm. If someone does answer the door, he or she will die a few days later and become another vrykolakas. For this reason, there is a superstition present in certain Greek villages that one should not answer a door until the second knock. Legends also say that the vrykolakas crushes or suffocates the sleeping by sitting on them, much like a mara or incubus (cf. sleep paralysis) — as does a vampire in Bulgarian folklore.

Among the many examples of vampirism among the excommunicated, Montague Summers relates a little-known tale from the Synaxarion of Constantinople (a Greek collection of lives of the saints from the 11th century used by the Church of Constantinople) for October 15th which he describes as follows:

"A certain coenobite of the desert near Alexandria had been excommunicated by the archimandrite for some act of disobedience, whereupon he forsook his monastery, left the desert and came to the city. No sooner, however, had he arrived here than he was arrested by the orders of the Governor, stripped of his habit, and ordered to offer sacrifice in the temple to idols. The Coenobite refused, and after having been long tortured in vain, at length he was put to death, his head being struck off, and the trunk thrown out beyond the town walls to be devoured by the wild beasts. But the Christians took it up during the night and having embalmed it with rich spices and shrouded it in fair linen, they buried it honourably in a prominent place in the Church, since they regarded him, and with justice, as a Martyr. But upon the next Sunday when the Deacon had chanted the ritual formula, bidding the Catechumens and those who should not be present to withdraw, all were sore amazed when the tomb suddenly opened and the body of the Martyr glided therefrom and was seen lingering in the narthex of the church. When the Mass was done the body seemed to return once more to its grave.

The whole community was filled with fearful awe and confusion, and a Basilian nun of great piety having fasted and prayed for the space of three days received a revelation from an angel who informed her that the Coenobite was still excommunicate since he had disobeyed his superior, and that he would remain under the ban until the superior himself granted him absolution. Thereupon a company of honourable persons journeyed to the monastery, and besought the archimandrite to pronounce the words. In all haste the holy old man accompanied them to the church. Here they opened the tomb of the Martyr and a full absolution was pronounced. Thereafter he lay at rest in his appointed place."

After reading this, I decided to find and translate the story myself and compare the details to see if Montague Summers got the story right, since if he did it would surely be a case of vampirism of some sort in the official collection of the Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church. The translation can be read at the following link:

Having examined the actual translation of the account, we observe that Montague Summers got most of the details of the story correct, except one significant detail. Montague Summers says that "the tomb suddenly opened and the body of the Martyr glided therefrom and was seen lingering in the narthex of the church," whereas the actual account says that "everyone who was at the Liturgy saw the casket move on its own accord without any hands laying hold of it, and it would leave the Altar and temple area and stand in the narthex." Therefore, it was not the dead body that moved of its own accord, but the casket moved, as we read later on, through the power of an angel. Thus, there was no case of animation by a dead body. Hence, contrary to what Montague Summers records, there is in fact no such account of vampirism in the Lives of the Saints as recorded in the Synaxarion of Constantinople.