Ancient ‘vampire graves’ unearthed in Bulgaria
Archaeologists in Bulgaria have discovered a pair of medieval skeletons pierced by rods. These corpses were mutilated to prevent them from becoming vampires – and they are not alone.
Sifting through a medieval graveyard in Bulgaria, archaeologists have made a gruesome discovery: a pair of medieval corpses whose chests have been pierced by giant iron rods. The reason for this gruesome treatment? They were suspected of being vampires.
This is just the latest in a rush of similar discoveries over the last decade. It brings the total number of ‘vampire graves’ to more than a hundred in Bulgaria alone, with even more in neighbouring countries. Does this prove that vampires really did once stalk the night? No. But it does show just how powerful their legend was.
The vampires of ancient folklore were far from the pale, charming seducers of modern myth. After a life of madness or sin, these mythical ‘strigoi’ were thought to become bestial in death: wild, red, ravening and bloated from their victims’ blood. When a suspicious character died, villagers would often nail him to his coffin with iron rods, to prevent him from rising again.
Part of the explanation for these beliefs may be found in science. Disease experts have long noted that many of the symptoms of ‘vampirism’ are very similar to rabies. Both conditions make victims wild, with an uncontrollable urge to bite and tear; both are highly contagious.
But even if there is a link between the medical and mythical afflictions, vampires are part of a much larger phenomenon. Myths of corpses returning to this world to terrorise the living are popular all over the world.
China has jiangshi, or ‘hopping vampires.’ These are corpses that reawaken by night to prey upon the ‘qi’ (or life force) of healthy humans.
In India, ‘hungry ghosts’ known as Preta were once thought to roam cemeteries looking for bodies to possess. These were the unquiet spirits of mean or selfish characters, doomed to eternal, insatiable and unwholesome cravings. They are often drawn with enormous bellies but tiny mouths and necks.
Then there are the zombies, hypnotised corpses reanimated by witchcraft. Zombies originated in Africa, then spread with slavery to America and the Caribbean. It was probably not until the mid-20th Century that they became infectious and acquired a taste for brains.
Dawn of the dead
Some think that these are just meaningless superstitions. Vampires, zombies and the rest are just misguided explanations for natural phenomena, they say. All they reveal is how little medieval peasants understood of the world around them.
But these myths remain a fascination to the present day. Clearly, say anthropologists, they speak to us in powerful and enduring ways. Vampires are not just empty superstitions, they say, but reflections of deep-seated fears and urges which all of us share.
- If you were offered £100 to spend the night in a haunted house, would you accept? Why / why not?
- What do you think modern vampires like those in Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer can tell us about today’s culture?
- Make a list of your own superstitions and write a sentence on each, suggesting where it might have come from.
- Write your own vampire story, set in a modern environment. The vampires can be good or evil, classic or modern – it’s up to you.
Some People Say...
“All superstitions are stupid and irrational.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why are people so obsessed with these old folk tales?
- No doubt it’s partly just a fascination with horror and the supernatural. But these legends also give historians an important insight into the popular cultures of the past. Since few peasants could write and few nobles thought their affairs worth recording, very little evidence exists to illuminate the attitudes and beliefs of ordinary people.
- So people in the past were scared of vampires – so what?
- Cultural historians try to draw more conclusions than that. For instance, the fact that corpses of madmen or alcoholics were thought to be particularly prone to vampirism seems to reflect a suspicion of outsiders. Also, almost all mutilated corpses were male – an interesting insight into popular attitudes towards gender.
- The image of the vampire as a smooth, mysterious aristocrat originated with John Polidori, personal physician and friend to the great poet Lord Byron. His 1819 book The Vampyre had a huge influence – including on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
- The rabies virus, which occurs in all warm-blooded animals, is transmitted through bodily fluids like saliva or blood. Its effects are horrifying: after months of relatively mild symptoms, the victim is suddenly gripped by madness, depression and agony. The touch of water becomes incredibly painful and sufferers have an uncontrollable urge to bite their companions.
- In traditional Chinese philosophy, ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’) is the essence of life. Every living being possesses it. Qi can supposedly be manipulated in Chinese medicine to cure maladies, and in martial arts to give the fighter extra strength. Similar concepts exist in cultures all over the world.
- Spread with slavery
- Between the 17th and the 19th Centuries, almost a million Africans were taken from their homes and imported under awful conditions to the Americas, where they were forced to work as slaves. They brought with them many customs and beliefs, whose influences are still felt in American culture today.