Friday, April 9, 2010

Q & A with Bruce A. McClelland, Part 2

For the previous installment, click here.
AH: Your book puts particular emphasis on a Bulgarian etymology for the origins of vampires. Do you think their contribution has been more historically important, than, say, the Serbian influence? If so, why?

BAM: If by Serbian vampires you are referring to the vrakolaka (with variant spellings) described by Perkowski, the etymology for that term is both clearer than and entirely different from that of the word vampir, from which, of course, the English vampire/vampyre derives. My dissertation focused on the Bulgarian vampire because, I believe, that is where the term comes into existence (recalling that present-day Macedonia was part of the Bulgarian empire, yet is only a stone's throw from present-day Serbia). My hypothesis concerns the religious and social conflict between the Christianizing forces coming into Bulgaria from Byzantium and the indigenous groups (Slavs and leftover Thracians, mostly) that in some cases resisted the attempts to make them give up their lifestyle, rituals and beliefs, which consisted of animal sacrifice and (possibly) belief in reincarnation, or at least a cyclical view of nature (where Christianity is teleological). I would contend that in much Bulgarian folklore, the frequently encountered hostility between vampires and wolves might in fact reflect some friction in the contact between the Serbian vrkolaka (literally, "wolf pelt") and the Bulgaro-Macedonian vampir. The "demon contamination" problem in the Balkans that Perkowski alludes to is very real, but is in fact just an example of semantic shift due to cultural contact. The more interesting question to me is when and how both of those vampires acquire some of the features of the western witch.

AH: Another angle explored in your book, is the transition from the etymological origins of the vampire as a type of heretic to a bloodsucking corpse. How did this transition take place and why?

BAM: The answer to that question, I'm afraid, took me an entire dissertation to provide (and even there, we don't really have enough data to be completely confident in the analysis). But, quickly, my claim is that the word vampir originally designated a small group (for if it were a larger group, we'd expect to find more evidence of the term) of people, probably agrarian Slavs, who had drawn the enmity of the Byzantine Christianizers because of their participation in pagan rituals, in particular, animal sacrifice. (The frequent polemics, although superficially directed against sacrifice, upon closer inspection turn out to have been directed at the revelry and abandonment (e.g. drinking, licentiousness) that accompanied such sacrificial rituals, as these were offensive to the Christian requirement for self-restraint and denial, or at least sublimation.) Eventually, the "pagans" were absorbed into the mainstream Orthodox Christian society, having no longer any official apologist for their beliefs. But, I surmise, the word vampir persisted, now with a general connotation of "someone who participates in anti- or un-Christian behavior." I suppose the term may have smacked of political resistance, since the Byzantines were indeed a political as much as a religious force in the late medieval Balkans. When the dualist sect known as Bogomils gained a foothold in the Balkans, their dualist and clearly anti-ecclesiastical beliefs represented a clear threat to the project of Christianizing Bulgaria, and they were the first "heretics" in the Balkans. I believe that the term vampir was then once again extended to refer not to the defunct pagans, but now the heretics (who, unlike their pagan predecessors, did not perform sacrifices, and in fact believed that the entire liturgical system of Orthodox ritual and symbolism (including the crucifix) was nonsense). Now the term took on an even broader meaning, suggesting apostasy and anathema. When the Bogomils went underground (to reemerge in southern Europe as Cathars, etc., where Dan Brown and Michael Baigent pick up the story), the word vampir, which no longer had any specific referents, came to be synonymous with "excommunicate." In late XVI or early XVII Macedonia, if I recall, the word is definitely associated with excommunication. Excommunication was a serious adverse status in an Orthodox Christian state, and among its eschatological implications was that the excommunicate could not undergo proper funerary procedures, and that his (or rarely, her) soul would not be able to rest, and the body would be rejected by the earth (admittedly, a later folk explanation). It is not a far leap from the soul being in a state of unrest (merging with the broader, proto-Slavic category of the "unquiet dead") to the image of a deceased body that is somehow still animated but soulless. Blood-sucking is a much later attribute, perhaps derived from desacralization/desymbolization of the Christian Eucharist, and most likely connected to ideas about witchcraft. I don't see much evidence for blood-sucking until the early 18th century, though there may have been some reflexes of Dionysian ritual involved (where the wine=blood symbolic connection seems to have preceded the Christian myth).
To be continued...

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