Vampires: The Bulgarian Connection

08.06.2012 § 7 Comments

Source: NHM Bulgaria

According to the BBC, Sofia News Agency, and a few dozen other outlets, the “remains of two vampires” were discovered in a tomb near the Bulgarian seaside town of Sozopol. In other words, two skeletons were unearthed posthumously pinned to their graves with iron spikes through the chest.

Bozhidar Dimitrov, a Sozopol native and Bulgaria’s chief historian, explains that there have been over 100 such burials found on Bulgarian territory, mostly dating back to the Middle Ages. He goes on to explain some of the historical background and symbolism behind the ritual.

Much of it has to do with the lack of knowledge in Medieval times of bodily decomposition after death. As a body begins to decompose, its internal organs liquify, then turn to gas, while its skin is stretched tightly over its bones on account of evaporation and loss of elasticity. If one were to open the coffin of a perfectly non-supernatural human a few days after death, one might observe:

  • lips receding, forming a sneer or scowl
  • gas escaping through the mouth as a sigh or moan
  • blood in the mouth as gum tissue disintegrates
  • seemingly longer hair and nails due to the skin drying and receding

Combine this with the story of Christ’s resurrection and the unfortunate Medieval habit of burying people who were not entirely dead (no heart monitors in the 1200’s) and finding scratch marks on the insides of coffins from those few unfortunate enough to have woken up after burial, and the idea that someone who is dead will remain dead becomes far more tenuous.

Assume then that someone really evil has just died, someone the village does *not* want to see resurrected to torture the world. Not knowing enough about the undead, they could not prevent that person from rising again, but they could prevent him from exiting the grave by driving a spike through his chest and his coffin. That is what Bulgarian archaeologists have been finding throughout Bulgaria, manifestations of the mechanical impediment to the dead rising.

Vlad the Impaler

The myth of the present-day vampire originated on the Balkans, and Western society first became aware of these myths when historians began recording oral folk mythologies in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.  No one has done more to popularize the myth than Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula about a sophisticated Transylvanian vampire. To arrive at Dracula, Stoker conflated two Balkan myths: that of vampirism and the accounts of the supposed cruelty of a Wallachian warlord named Vlad III Dracula (a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler) who lived in the 1400’s and battled the Ottoman empire. Vlad had a terrible reputation for being cruel, a reputation that was somewhat inflated by his political enemies, and was rumoured to have killed over 80 000 people. Upon his death in 1476, tales of his cruelty circulated throughout Germany and Russia in a Middle Age precursor to the slasher movie genre, titillating and terrifying pearl-clutching old ladies throughout Europe. Stoker borrowed heavily from the mass panic that Vlad’s very mention was said to elicit and even appropriated his patronymic, Dracula.

Wait, hang on. Patronymic? In my article about Bulgarian naming customs, I mentioned that Bulgarians’ middle names were in fact patronymics, meaning “belonging to” followed by the person’s father’s name. This practice is not unique to Bulgaria (in fact, Russian patronymics have far wider cultural significance) and was common throughout the Slavic world. The name Vlad Dracula means “Vlad, son of Dracul”. His father’s name was also Vlad, but he was known as Dracul (“Dragon”) on account of his membership to the Order of the Dragon. The presence of a patronymic, as well as the origin of his relatives’ names (Mircea, Vlad,  Vladislav, Radu) hints that Vlad the Impaler was of Slavic origin, which at the time meant that he was Bulgarian.

Wallachia had been conquered and intermittently held by the Bulgarian kingdom since the mid-600’s. It had been one of the areas where the newly created Cyrillic alphabet was adopted in the 9th century, and it had been ruled by Bulgarian rulers well into the 14th century, until Bulgaria’s fall under Ottoman rule. Even Romanian historians grudgingly admit that Vlad Dracula spoke Old Church Slavonic, which is the present-day name of Middle Bulgarian, the administrative and ecumenical language of the Bulgarian state.

Obviously the statement “Vlad the Impaler is Bulgarian” is an exaggeration as the present-day notion of the bordered state of Bulgaria is very different from the collection of Bulgarian-speaking people that was on the Balkans in the 15th century, but it is known for certain that Vlad’s administration was conducted in Cyrillic, he spoke Middle Bulgarian, and he had a Slavic name, making him about as Bulgarian as one could be at the time.

And there you have it, Bulgaria’s vampire connection.

P.S. Thanks to Bergie and Rhys for the tip!

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§ 7 Responses to Vampires: The Bulgarian Connection

  • Stan says:

    Ah, yes, another example of the way in which nationalists from all countries try to claim famous people for their own, as though this somehow makes them better people. (For instance, some Romanians seriously claim Al Gore is Romanian!) Why people should feel pride because of something as meaningless as “[insert famous people here] belonged to the same imaginary social construct as I do” is beyond me.

    • vpandeliev says:

      This is pretty typical of small nation-states that have either had greater cultural significance in the past than they do currently, or have never had any. I’m the first to admit (in the last paragraphs of the article) that the appropriation of Vlad Dracula as Bulgarian is tenuous at best. However, the fact that his administration and heritage was Slavic is at least noteworthy as a curious footnote, no?

      People feel pride for all sorts of not entirely rational reasons – allegiance to sports teams, nations, even family members is based on social constructs of belonging that don’t always seem justified.

      There is a case to be made for this sort of nationalist pride as a driving force for change and for good in places where such a force is sorely needed. If you’ve grown up in a political morsel of a country, being flung about by this superpower or the other, at the mercy of global politics without any real agency, if you’re hard-working and hopeful for your children’s future, yet bad things are happening around you that you have no control over, then something small like “great people originated from this country” may be a welcome piece of positive thinking. Does it objectively mean much for your life or prospects? No more than your team winning a sports competition or your second cousin meeting the Pope. But sometimes a small nudge of optimism or pride can go a long way. One of the driving forces behind the recent protests in Bulgaria was the example of Bulgarian leaders of the past, who demonstrated that it is in fact possible to effect change. As members of a society that doesn’t hear an awful lot of good news most of the time, I think we can be forgiven a pang of national pride now and then.

      • Stan says:

        I suppose optimism by itself is harmless. But what I object in these kinds of situations is that arguments about the ethnicity of this or that famous person often get confrontational and just leave both sides angry (and really, does it ultimately even matter what ethnicity the person had?) If a Serbian tried to show that Pancho Vladigerov was Serbian, in the name of “national pride”, I doubt the results would be more negative than positive.

      • Stan says:

        For instance, you note that “the appropriation of Vlad Dracula as Bulgarian is tenuous at best.” The word “appropriate” means “to take to oneself in exclusion of others”.

        In discussions about who actually “owns” this or that person, everybody assumes that a person can only be of one ethnic group, so that if a foreigner dares insinuate that he could have a multi-ethnic origin, then that’s equivalent to some kind of cultural imperialism manifesting itself in something like “he’s not really from your group, but actually from ours!” And, indeed, many nationalists say just that.

        To be clear, I’m totally not claiming you’re one of those people. It’s just that discussions about the “real” ethnicity (as though such a thing existed) of historical people make me uncomfortable, for the reasons mentioned above.

  • […] Guardian is also talking about Bulgarian vampire skeletons. Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterRedditPinterestLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  • This stuff has been going on for many years. Lots of digs have uncovered similar things.
    I reccomend reading or watching vampire forensics. Great book/tv show that reveals allot of funky stuff.

  • abtwixt says:

    It’s funny how the truth would almost never be as good in a movie 🙂

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