Monday, October 21, 2019

On the Belief in Vampires in Greece During the Ottoman Occupation (An Essay From 1844)

The Vroucalaca

(Published in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 
on Saturday, February 24, 1844)

The Vampire, of which so much has been written, is the descendant of the Vroucalaca of Modern Greece. It is astonishing to what a height of absurdity ignorance, aided by superstition, has arrived. Tournefort relates, that in all the Archipelago the people firmly believed that it was only in the Greek church that excommunication preserved the body entire and unputrified. Some ascribed it to the force of the bishop's sentence — others thought that the devil entered into the body of the excommunicate, and reanimated him, so that he became an evil spirit incarnate. There was a prevalent superstition that the dead ate and drank in their graves, that they devoured their own flesh and burial-clothes for want of better food, and that all the viands and wine placed on the bier, and in fact consumed by the priests, were really the nourishment of the dead. From this point an easy transition would lead the excited dupes to believe in the demoniacal and hungry corpse sallying forth from the tomb, and satisfying at once its malignity and its appetite by preying on the flesh and blood of the living. Tournefort was present at the exhumation, impalement, and burning of a Vroucolaca in the island of Mycone, who was reported to have broken the windows and the bones, and drained the bottles and the veins of half the inhabitants of the island. For many days the people were in continual consternation, and numbers left their abodes and the island — masses were said – holy water showered about in torrents — the nine days were passed, and still the Vroucolaca was every night at fresh mischief — the tenth day mass was said in the chapel where the unfortunate corpse lay — but without avail, owing, as the priests afterwards pretended to discover, to the negligence of not extracting the heart before the expulsory mass was said. Had the heart been first extracted and a mass instantly said, before the devil could have returned into possession, the people were convinced his Infernal Majesty's entry would have been barred, and the nuisance put an end to. The corpse was then exhumed, the town butcher took out the heart, and declared that the entrails were still warm. The putrid stench of the corpse obliged them to burn frankincense, which produced an amalgamation of fumes that laid hold of the people's senses, and helped to inflame their imaginations. "Vroucolaca! Vroucolaca!" echoed through the cloisters and aisles. The corpse was assailed with swords in all directions, till a learned Albanian appeared and told the people they were all fools for using Christian swords, since the cross of the hilt had the effect of pinning the demon more firmly in the body, instead of expelling him, and that the only sword for the purpose was the straight Turkish scymetar. The people would not wait for the experiment, but, with one accord, determined on burning the body entire. This was accordingly done on the point of the island of St George; and the people then defied the devil to find a niche in which to quarter himself, and made songs in celebration of their triumph.

Ricaut, in his history of the Greek church, relates, on the authority of a Candiote Caloyer, a history of a young man of the island of Milos, excommunicated for a crime committed in the Morea, and who was interred in a remote and unconsecrated ground. The islanders were terrified every night by the horrid apparitions and disorders attributed to the corpse — which on opening the tomb was found, as usual, fresh and flowing with blood. The priests determined to dismember the corpse, and to boil it in wine — a profanation of the grape which, we suspect, the descendants of the priests of Lyaeus would hardly in fact have executed, however they might urge the people to open their cellars for the pious occasion. The young man's relations begged for delay, in order to send to Constantinople for an absolution from the Patriarch. In the interim the corpse was placed in the church, and masses were said night and day for its repose. One day, as the Caloyer Sophronus was reading the service, a sudden crash was heard to issue from the bier, and on opening it the body was found mouldered and decomposed, exactly like a corpse deceased for seven years. The messenger arrived with the absolution, and on inquiry it was found that the Patriarch's signature had been affixed at the precise moment when the dissolution of the corpse produced the report in the coffin!

We can hardly read of such things with gravity, but they are the cause of serious annoyances to the poor relations of the deceased, who are by some accident the subjects of accusation. That will be seen from the above narrative.

In these extravagancies to this hour many believe. No doubt the general credulity enriches the few, which is the cause of the delusion being kept up from generation to generation.