In the early 1700s, the Czech Republic was the center of activity for suspected vampires and the undead
There was a “vampire panic” across much of Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 18th century. And no place was more caught up in fear of the undead than Moravia, the eastern half of what is now the Czech Republic.
It wasn’t all just idle talk. In the industrial city Ostrava, in the modern-day Moravia-Silesia region, a grave was found during renovations of the Church of St Wenceslas at the start of the 21st century. A skeleton with three coins in its mouth was weighed down by a heavy ceramic slab. This was one of several traditional ways to prevent a corpse from becoming a vampire.
Not everyone was caught up in the panic; a great thinker of the time said the whole idea was foolish. “What! Is it in our 18th century that vampires exist?” French philosopher Voltaire said in his Philosophical Dictionary from 1764, shortly after the vampire panic had ended.
He recounts the current notions, which he clearly did not believe. “These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris,” Voltaire said, taking a jab at the true bloodsuckers in the stock markets and in business.
In his 1914 book Vampires and Vampirism, Dudley Wright claims the printing press fed the panic, and listed many of the same places. “Pamphlets on the subject streamed from the press, the newspapers vied with one another in recording fresh achievements of the spectres, and though the philosophers scoffed at and ridiculed the belief, yet sovereigns sent officers and commissioners to report upon their misdeeds.
The favourite scenes of their exploits were Hungary, Poland, Silesia, Bohemia, and Moravia, and in those countries a vampire haunted and tormented almost every village,” he said.
Bohemia and Moravia make up the current Czech Republic. Silesia is now split between the north of Moravia and southern Poland. Modern-day Slovakia would have been lumped in with Hungary.
Some writers from the early 1700s shed light on the panic. Augustin Calmet, a Benedictine monk, gave a contemporaneous account. His two-volume study Dissertations on the Apparitions of Angels, Daemons and Ghosts, and Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and of Silesia was first published in 1746, and expanded and corrected in 1751. An English translation of the revised edition, called The Phantom World, was issued in 1850.
He said that “revenants, called by the name of oupires or vampires” had been appearing for 60 years in Central Europe, meaning the panic would have started in 1690 or so. The modern Czech word for vampire is “upír.” He relates the word to “leeches.”
“Men who have been dead for several months, come back to earth, talk, walk, infest villages, ill use both men and beasts, suck the blood of their near relations, make them ill, and finally cause their death; so that people can only save themselves from their dangerous visits and their hauntings by exhuming them, impaling them, cutting off their heads, tearing out the heart, or burning them,” he states.
Calmet claims these methods are rooted firmly in European history, and were practiced by “the ancient northern nations” when they were faced with beings that sometimes appear and are “no other than the souls of persons lately deceased.”
He describes the basics for Slavic vampires. “It is said that the vampire has a sort of hunger, which makes him eat the linen which envelops him. This reviving being, or oupire, comes out of his grave, or a demon in his likeness, goes by night to embrace and hug violently his near relations or his friends, and sucks their blood so much as to weaken and attenuate them, and at last cause their death,” he states.
“This persecution does not stop at one single person; it extends to the last person of the family, if the course be not interrupted by cutting off the head or opening the heart of the ghost, whose corpse is found in his coffin, yielding, flexible, swollen, and rubicund, although he may have been dead some time,” he adds. Later he relates that some 17 people died in a Hungarian village over a period of three months due to a vampire identified as the son of a mercenary named Millo.
More tales of the undead were told in Magia Posthuma, printed at Olomouc in 1706 (or some say 1704), written by lawyer Karl Ferdinand de Schertz. The rare work has yet to be translated from Latin into English, but Calmet and later authors quote its examples heavily.
Some Moravian as well as Hungarian vampires simply served as harbingers of death. It was common to see men who had died some time before show up at a gathering and sit down at a table with people they knew, without saying anything. The undead would nod at one of the living people, who would infallibly die some days afterwards.
This happened so often that in some villages people would routinely set out extra plates.
The Moravian bishops and priests consulted the Vatican but received no answer. They then took it on themselves to burn the corpses of suspected vampires, as this was more reliable than a stake in the heart.
The point about the stake can be seen in a tale of a shepherd of the village of Blov, near the town of Kadaň, in northern Bohemia. After death, the shepherd called on certain people who would then die within eight days. The villagers dug up the body of this shepherd, and fixed it in the ground by driving a stake through it. But even that failed to stop him.
This undead man derided the villagers for making him suffer and thanked them for giving him a stick to defend himself from the dogs.
“The same night he got up again, and by his presence alarmed several persons, and strangled more amongst them than he had hitherto done. Afterwards, they delivered him into the hands of the executioner, who put him in a cart to carry him beyond the village and there burn him. This corpse howled like a madman, and moved his feet and hands as if alive,” Calmet said, citing Magia Posthuma.
“And when they again pierced him through with stakes he uttered very loud cries, and a great quantity of bright vermilion blood flowed from him. At last he was consumed, and this execution put an end to the appearance and hauntings of this spectre,” he added.
Calmet goes on to say similar stake-proof undead beings appear pretty often in the range of the Carpathian Mountains found in Silesia and Moravia — now called the Beskid Mountains, or Beskydy in Czech — in both night and day.
Aside from showing up uninvited to dinner or strangling people at night, these beings would also send their invisible spirits to cause trouble. “The things which once belonged to them are seen to move themselves and change their place without being touched by any one,” he adds, again cautioning people about how to best deal with the corpses of the suspected vampires.
But this all had to be done within the law. Witnesses were heard, and the exhumed body was examined for unusual marks, mobility and suppleness of the limbs, fluidity of the blood, and uncorrupted flesh. “If all these marks are found, then these bodies are given up to the executioner, who burns them,” Calmet recounts.
But this didn’t always stop the haunting right away. “It sometimes happens that the spectres appear again for three or four days after the execution,” he adds.
Daytime vampires may seem a bit of a surprise, but Calmet repeats the claim. “The public memorials of the years 1693 and 1694 speak of oupires, vampires or ghosts, which are seen in Poland, and above all in Russia. They make their appearance from noon to midnight, and come and suck the blood of living men or animals in such abundance that sometimes it flows from them at the nose, and principally at the ears, and sometimes the corpse swims in its own blood oozed out in its coffin,” he states.
Calmet relates another Moravian case, again citing Magia Posthuma. A recently deceased woman who had taken all her sacraments, was buried in the usual way in the cemetery.
“Four days after her decease, the inhabitants of this village heard a great noise and extraordinary uproar, and saw a spectre, which appeared sometimes in the shape of a dog, sometimes in the form of a man, not to one person only, but to several, and caused them great pain, grasping their throats, and compressing their stomachs, so as to suffocate them. It bruised almost the whole body, and reduced them to extreme weakness, so that they became pale, lean and attenuated,” Calmet said.
This shapeshifting figure also attacked cows, leaving them half dead, often with tails tied together. Horses were also exhausted and foaming at the mouth for no visible cause. This went on for several months before the local people took it on themselves to apply the prescribed methods.
Vampires causing suffocation is a common notion, and it can be seen in the 16th century case of Stephen Hübner, a vampire who haunted Trutnov in northern Bohemia.
The vampire appearing as or transforming into another animal, such as a toad, insect, cat, dog or even a wolf, has a long tradition. “[In] Slav superstition it is very difficult to distinguish the werewolf from the vampire,” Montague Summers said in his 1929 book The Vampires of Europe.
Later he adds another connection. “There is a general belief among Slavonic peoples that a man who has been a werewolf in his life will be a vampire after death.” he said.
A unique method for catching a Moravian vampire was related by Calmet in the appendices to his revised edition. A “sensible priest” who had been consulting on vampires was in the town of Libavá, near Olomouc.
Local people told him of a notable but deceased inhabitant of Libavá who had often disturbed the living in their beds at night.
“He had come out of the cemetery, and had appeared in several houses three or four years ago. … His troublesome visits had ceased because a Hungarian stranger, passing through the village at the time of these reports, had boasted that he could put an end to them, and make the vampire disappear. To perform his promise, he mounted on the church steeple, and observed the moment when the vampire came out of his grave, leaving near it the linen clothes in which he had been enveloped, and then went to disturb the inhabitants of the village,” Calmet states.
The Hungarian went down quickly to get the vampire’s linen and carried it back to the tower. “The vampire having returned from his prowlings, cried loudly against the Hungarian, who made him a sign from the top of the tower that if he wished to have his clothes again he must fetch them; the vampire began to ascend the steeple, but the Hungarian threw him down backwards from the ladder, and cut his head off with a spade. Such was the end of this tragedy,” he adds, emphasizing that this was all just hearsay and none of the witnesses actually saw any of this.
Burying people just to dig them up again seemed a lot of extra work. “Sometimes the interment of the bodies of suspicious persons is deferred for six or seven weeks. When they do not decay, and their limbs remain as supple and pliable as when they were alive, then they burn them. It is affirmed as certain that the clothes of these persons move without any one living [person] touching them,” Calmet wrote, adding that a spectral figure of a dead but unburied person was seen at Olomouc who “threw stones, and gave great trouble to the inhabitants.”
Some specific examples from other regions in Central and Eastern Europe help to fill out the picture of the panic.
Wright gives a method used in what is now eastern Romania for preventing people from becoming vampires, and it is pretty direct. “A long nail was driven through the skull of the corpse, and the thorny stem of a wild rose-bush laid upon the body, in order that its shroud might become entangled with it, should it attempt to rise,” he said.
There was a less extreme method, too. People would prevent a person becoming a vampire by rubbing certain parts of the body with the lard of a pig killed on St Ignatius’s Day, which is July 31.
A letter appended to The Phantom World written by an Austrian solider stationed in what is now eastern Romania described an unusual method to determine which graves held vampires.
A young boy would ride a black horse that had never stumbled. The horse and rider would go about the cemetery and pass over all the graves. If horse refused to pass over any grave, even after repeated blows, that grave was believed to house a vampire.
The throat of the corpse in the indicated grave would be cut with a spade, and the body drained of much of its blood. Once the grave was refilled, those who had been attacked by the vampire would recover their strength.
In what is now Croatia, people would lock up all the cats and dogs when someone died because if these animals stepped over the corpse it would return as a vampire. Placing an iron fence around a grave to keep animals from it was common for a long time in much of Europe, though the reasons for it varied.
Stakes were popular in some areas even up until the early 20th century. “Many held that to drive a white thorn stake through the dead body rendered the vampire harmless, and the peasants of Bukowina still retain the practice of driving an ash stake through the breasts of suicides and supposed vampires,” Wright tells us. Bukowina was an area now split between modern Ukraine and Romania.
Other more universal practices include crossing the arms of a corpse or placing an iron cross above the grave. Heavy stone slabs, often with an inscribed cross, placed on top of the tomb also help to keep the dead from rising up. Weights of various kinds could also be placed directly on an at-risk corpse, with iron rods being popular. Simple rocks would also do. Suicides, a group highly at risk of becoming vampires, were sometimes buried at a crossroads so the large geographical cross would hold them back.
Burying a corpse with poppy seeds, sand or millet was also common, as the corpse would get caught up in counting these tiny items, which would take all night. Then it would be too late to go haunting. These items could also be piled on or near the grave.
The notion that evil spirits have obsessive-compulsive disorders such as repetitive counting is not new, as for centuries unsolvable mazes were used above and around door frames to stop evil spirits from entering. The spirits would get caught up solving the maze and forget to go inside. Word puzzles such as palindromes and magic squares of lettering would also stop spirits as they would obsess over them.
There is a rather gruesome method for making oneself immune from vampires. As Calmet pointed out, vampires often drink so much blood that they are literally dripping with it in the coffin. Some of this blood could be mixed with flour and baked into bread. Eating a piece of this bread will make the eater safe from becoming a vampire. This pseudo-vaccination method was mentioned in connection with vampires from Poland and Russia.
Reverend Summers claimed that a fire can keep the vampires away. “In Russia (at least until lately), in Poland, in Serbia and among the Slavonic peoples generally, an epidemic among the cattle is generally ascribed to a vampire who is draining them of their vitality,” he said.
A need-fire is made. These are ritual fires that are meant to ward off evil spirits or disease. They are often made by rubbing sticks together, or some other form of friction.
“It is kindled with a very definite reason, to wit that the flames may keep off the vampire who cannot pass through them. One of the chief days, in Poland at any rate, upon which it was usual to kindle these fires, was the feast of St. Roch, who during his lifetime devoted himself both to persons and animals stricken by the plague,” Summers said. St Roch’s feast is August 16 or 17.
Due to territorial conflicts, more soldiers from Austria were present in Moravia in the early 1700s than previously. They began to send home odd stories of people being dug up from their graves and executed again after death.
Talk of undead people rising up in the backwaters of Austria’s territorial holdings eventually became an embarrassment to the authorities in Vienna, where they were trying to promote science and logic, and welcome in the Age of Enlightenment. Superstition was officially frowned upon.
Empress Maria Theresa sent her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, to Moravia in 1755 to investigate why some people were refusing to stay dead. His research resulted in the treatise Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts (Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster), which explained away such things as failure to decompose in scientific terms of the time.
Maria Theresa then banned such anti-vampire practices as beheading and burning corpses, or putting wooden stakes in the heart. This for all intents and purposes put an end to the panic.
Van Swieten in a later essay would dismiss vampires by saying, “All the fuss doesn’t come from anything other than a vain fear, a superstitious credulity, a dark and eventful imagination, simplicity, and ignorance among the people.”
The character of Abraham Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is inspired by van Swieten.
A stray and quite unusual vampire case would pop up in the Czech-Moravian Highlands as late as 1817. This case, involving a local castle administrator in Žďár nad Sázavou called Alois Jan Ulrich, is quite different from the ones in the vampire panic of the early 1700s, and deserves its own separate story.
The vampire panic seems to have not caught on in Prague. There is an undated legend of a shy vampire at Prague’s Olšany Cemetery, but it seems more of a fairy tale than something based on a real incident. A town just north of Prague, Čelákovice, had suspected vampire graves dating back to the 11th century.
Burning of corpses, better known as cremation, remained illegal in Bohemia and Moravia until 1919, shortly after Czechoslovakia became independent from Austrian rule. The Czech Republic now leads the European Union in cremation.
Main image: Horní náměstí in Olomouc, the largest city in the the middle of Moravia. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.