Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bugbears and Others

I added The BS historian to the 'Reading list' a coupla days ago, as the blog touches on a few issues pertinent to the field. Which ones? These...

If there's anything I've learned from years of vampire research, it's that writings on the subject are rife with embellishment, misrepresentation, misinterpretation and flat-out lies. Now, you might be asking (depending on your poll choice), 'Hang on, vampires don't exist. It's not like it matters. They're imaginary.' To which I say, 'Maybe so. But you didn't make them up.'

When Rousseau wrote, 'There is not an historical fact in the world more fully attested, than that of the Vampires' (1763, p. 56), he wasn't kidding. Just to be clear, he wasn't upholding their reality, he was commenting on their status as a well-documented species. Regardless of one's personal beliefs on their 'existence', the vampire is as much a historical being - as portrayed by exhumation reports, folk beliefs and oral tales, etc. - as an 'imaginary' one. Proper respect needs to be given to their historical and cultural origins, ensuring they're represented accurately, without recourse to, well, making stuff up.

That's why I appreciate - and practice - the sceptical approach to texts in this field. It's a purgative (the reason why I called one of Elizabeth Miller's books an 'enema') approach in a field waist-deep in mud and dirt. Now, that doesn't mean I go around pooh-poohing the very idea of vampires themselves. That'd be almost redundant. No, I'm more interested in seeing whether what has been said about them is accurately relayed. You'd be surprised at how much speculation is presented as fact.

For instance, do you recall the Venetian 'vampire' unearthed in 2006? One major problem with that name: Venice has no extant vampire tradition. The whole case pretty much hinged on the skeleton of a woman in a plague pit found with a hunk o' brick in her mouth. This lead many to conclude that the item had originally been placed there as a method to prevent her feeding on the living. However, other explanations were possible, as the bshistorian recounts:
Yet another possibility, very relevant in this case, is some sort of prophylactic against the disease itself – sure, this woman was the only one in her mass plague pit grave to be so dealt with – yet lots of individuals in this Anglo-Saxon cemetery had stones in their mouths. A whole pit of vampires? Unlikely. Disease victims? More plausible. Or once again, were they punished criminals, or morally deficient in some way? We can’t really know. Nor can we with this Venice “Vampire”.
And that's the point. No need to automatically jump to that conclusion. I would also add that closer scrutiny should be given to the extant traditions in these locals. While debate continues over 'vampire's' etymology (see Kreuter 2006), we can at least agree that the tradition was centred in Slavic territories, as attested by its very name. However, it's generally accepted that the vampire is a universal tradition. To do so, however, a lotta wrangling's gotta be done over the definition of 'vampire'. The term, itself, however, applied to a specific type of revenant. This is also acknowledged by bshistorian:
One of the vampirologist’s (and indeed BS Historian’s) bugbears is the phenomenon of myth-creep. The more paranormal ideas are milked for their intellectual and commercial appeal, the more we see them distorted and modified to incorporate unrelated bits of history and folklore. In the case of the vampire it’s often an attempt to give it greater antiquity, presumably because the early 18th century isn’t far back enough for the first sightings of beings who we now think of as immortal. In fact that idea is itself a retrofit of a fictional, rather than folkloric attribute of the vampire.
LinkA word on 'the early 18th century' mention. Clearly, the era in which the vampire entered popular consciousness, is being alluded to here. However, there's precious little evidence that the tradition stretched much further back than that. Augustin Calmet, famous for his dissertations on vampires, made reference to the vampire's historicity:
In this age, a new scene presents itself to our eyes, and has done for about sixty years in Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, and Poland; men, it is said, 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, destroy their health, 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 their hearts, or burning them. These are called by the name of oupires or vampires, that is to say, leeches; and such particulars are related of them, so singular, so detailed, and attended by such probable circumstances, and such judicial information, that one can hardly refuse to credit the belief which is held in those countries, that they come out of their tombs, and produce those effects which are proclaimed of them.
Antiquity certainly neither saw nor knew anything like it. Let us read through the histories of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Latins; nothing approaching to it will be met with (1850 [1751], p. 2).
In this century, G. David Keyworth (2006) upheld Calmet's comments in his examination of vampire traits, by comparing them with other folkloric and legendary beings. He'd later expand his findings into a book (2007).

The attempts to give vampires a 'greater antiquity' for 'intellectual and commercial appeal' has been exploited in a variety of different ways. One of the obvious ones concern the popularity of vampire killing kits (VKK). That is, high-priced antiques sold off as genuine 19th century novelties. There are three things majorly wrong with this practice. Firstly, they're fake. Second, auctioneers present them as legit (which, in turn, can only cast a dim light on the profession, itself). Third, actual historical items are misrepresented - some, defaced - in the process of creating these kits.

The bshistorian has given brilliant coverage to the VKK 'industry' here, here, here, here, here and here. We need more blogs like that, not just in paranormal research, but in vampirology, too. It's one thing to enjoy vampires as entertainment, it's another to purposefully misrepresent their history and deceive others, to score a quick buck. So, my hat's off to BS!


Calmet, A, 1850 (1751), The phantom world: or, the philosophy of spirits, apparitions, & c., vol. 2, trans. H Christmas, Richard Bentley, London.

Keyworth, GD, 2006, ‘Was the vampire of the eighteenth century a unique type of undead-corpse?’, Folklore, vol. 117, no. 3, pp. 241–60.

Keyworth, [G]D, 2007, Troublesome corpses: vampires & revenants from antiquity to the present, Desert Island Books, Southend-on-Sea.

Kreuter, PM 2006, 'The name of the vampire: some reflections on current linguistic theories on the etymology of the word vampire', in P Day (ed.), Vampires: myths and metaphors of enduring evil, At the interface/probing the boundaries 28, Rodopi, Amsterdam, pp. 57–63.

Rousseau, JJ, 1763 (1762), An expostulatory letter from J.J. Rousseau, citizen of Geneva, to Christopher de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, London.


bshistorian said...

Hi Antony,

I really appreciate the kind words - I've been following your blog (and Niels') for about six months now and have learned more in that time than in the last couple of decades. It's rare to find such quality information online, as you are only too aware.

I completely agree with you on the 'reality' of the vampire (and revenant). I get some funny looks from fellow academics and professionals when I tell them I'm working on the subject - as though one can only either believe in such things, or ignore them entirely.

More directly on topic for your latest post, I've been reading Masters' 'A Natural History of the Vampire', which suffers badly from the 'lumping in' syndrome you describe. Taking his lead from Summers, *everything* becomes somehow evidence of vampire belief - revenants, ghosts, cannibals, serial killers, you name it. But this is an 'old' book - it's when we see this still going on today that I really despair.

Though I said 'early 18th century), would I in fact be right in saying that the 'Jure Grando' incident of 1672 (reported by Valvasor in 1689) is the earliest instance of a 'true' (i.e. bloodsucking) vampire?

Though pretty firmly in the 'fiction' category, I'm still working on the vampire kit side of things and am drafting a comprehensive article on the subject - I have FT in mind for it. I examined my first kit only recently.

Anyway, thanks again, and keep up the excellent work.

Anthony Hogg said...

G'day bs,

I'm honoured by your presence there! So thank you, in advance, for your comment.

I am, indeed, only too aware of the paucity of info available. Niels' blog is, by far, the best resource of its type I've come across.

I guess I'm too immersed in the subject to really understand why people react so strangely to studying up on the undead. It's quite a fascinating field and, to me, is no different from studying folklore, myths and legends. No belief, required!

Paul Barber had the same issue affect him, too. A footnote in his 1988 book (I'm sure you know which one!) mentions: '. . . many people have concluded - bafflingly - that if I am writing a book on vampires, then I must believe in them' (p. 4).

In terms of 'lumping', to be fair on Summers and Masters, the concept of the 'universal vampire' has been around much longer than their works. Dudley Wright, for instance, wrote about vampires from all over the world and Stoker has Van Helsing say:

'For, let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome, he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chersonese, and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples for him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.'

I would argue that once writers started using the term more flexibly (as early as 1732), its application to a variety of other revenants began in earnest, especially as the early writers sought parallels in other 'magia posthuma'. Ranfft's 1725 dissertation, for instance, links the Plogojovitz case with the previously popular magia posthuma: shroudeaters.

Personally, I would disagree that Guire Grando qualified as a vampire: for one thing, the undead bugger didn't drink blood! Instead, he is referred to as a 'strigon'. See:

I will say that the 1693 and 1694 sources Calmet mentions for Polish 'oupires' is a pretty good antecedent for vampires. But, to my current knowledge, the earliest use of the term 'vampire' ('vampyri') in association with bloodsucking undead, was Plogojovitz. But don't quote me on that. I'm sure Niels would have a better idea. Admittedly, this is a decidedly murky area to explore, both culturally and etymologically. Bruce A. McClelland (Slayers and their vampires, 2006), for instance, argues for a Bulgarian origin for vamps. If you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it.

Your coverage of the vampire killing kits has been brilliant. When I started covering it, meself, I was surprised at how popular the topic turned out to be. I'll be looking forward to your future instalments.

bshistorian said...

Hi Anthony,

I did notice that line in Barber! I've managed to convince most of my co-workers of the validity of my little sideline, but I'm sure some still think I'm a loon.

You're right about the 'universal vampire' of course - and in a sense they are partly right. Barber's book makes a strong case for the 'universal revenant'. But Bathory et al are, needless to say, a load of red herring!

Thanks for your recent post also - I did try to comment but not sure that it worked.



PS Forgive the anonymity - I admire your lack of it in the Bishop Bonkers debacle, but have chosen the easy route I'm afraid.

Anthony Hogg said...

Haha sorry to hear about the perceptions bestowed upon you by your co-workers. But put it this way: we all engage in a variety of escapism. Why else do people read novels, books, watch films, etc. The difference with us, is that we take it a little more seriously than your average. If they wanna mock, they miss out!

Ah, the 'universal revenant' I agree with. If anything, I'd say the vampire is a local manifestation of that global trope. But what else did Barber say about that concept in association with vampires? Let us turn to pages 2-3:

'The tendency to use the term vampire rather loosely will be evident in my discussion. One encounters insuperable difficulties in discussing the genus "vampire/revenant" without violating the integrity of the terms for the various species. If I am discussing the "revenant" as a class, any term I use will in a strict sense be inappropriate for most members of that class. As a rule, therefore, I refer to the "undead" by the generic term revenant, and where the process of transformation is at issue, I use the word vampirism (it is probably asking too much of the language to expect it to put up with revenantism). Finally, following a venerable scholarly tradition I shall refer to the Slavic revenants as vampires, even though this solution too is a compromise: many have other names entirely.'

I should note that when Perkowski writes of such variants, he tends to include their local names, too. But this level of 'compromise' is telling.

I share Barber's ideas on a 'genus' of the undead. It's kinda like a biological 'kingdom'. Sure, lions, cheetahs, etc. are 'big cats', but they're not all the 'same thing' are they? They're not all 'lions' even if that might be the most popular one of the lot.

This is where the interpretations get decidedly murky, because it'll keep coming back to, 'Ok, then what is a vampire?' The word has evolved from its local use to an archetype. The problem I find with this, is that the localised version, i.e. the same creature whose name we use in the first place, is obscured by a mish-mash of various other beings and lore. My interest is in tracing a 'pure' bloodline, so to speak.

The exhumation reports on Plogojovitz and Paole are just about the closest thing we have to establishing that, as these guys were free from imposing 'popular' terms on local belief. They simply used the words and traits described by the 'natives'.

No worries on anonymity. I would've been anonymous, meself, if the 'Bonkers' crew hadn't publicly revealed my name.

Rather than succumb to their intimidation practices (they hypocritically - and cowardly - remain anonymous while 'outing' their 'enemies'), I eventually decided to bite the bullet and start using my real handle. Nonetheless, I certainly respect your desire for anonymity.

Anthony Hogg said...

Oh, and speaking of the VRS, the generic use of the vampire is sometimes used to establish the vampire's 'historicity', i.e. 'evidence' of its 'existence' in a universal context, as part of an agenda.

For instance, Montague Summers was trying to establish the reality of the vampire in his books by noting various parallels in other myths, legends, accounts, etc. i.e. an agenda.

The VRS has done that for their so-called 'Vampirological testimony' which I dismantled in four parts (part one, part two, part three, part four).

I'm sure you would've noticed this practice employed by other paranormalists (for instance, your coverage of Bigfoot).

bshistorian said...

I think it's that latter phenomenon that has me so interested in what is/isn't a vampire. I feel cheated every time I discover that a given 'vampire' tale isn't really one at all. Yet at the same time, for those interested in the 'real' thing, the blood-drinking can be considered almost irrelevant, with 'vampire' a synonym for 'revenant' as Barber semi-concedes. It's only really with respect to pop culture that a lack of blood-guzzling becomes a glaring difference between the two.

Ah well, back to my kits - I'm waiting on a valuable contact to finish off my latest bit of research.

Do you have an email address you can post publically? If not drop me a line at

Anthony Hogg said...

I admit that the definition of vampire gets decidedly murky the more one tries to define it.

But that's also because our modern use of it, over 250 years from its original use, has been diluted somewhat from the original.

As you - and Barber - have pointed out, the term is generally used for convenience's sake. I could also apply that to revenant, itself. After all, the French use may have referred to a specific kind of being before it became a 'catch-all', too.

I will say this, though, it's obvious - even within the Slavic cultures that used the term - that there were variants in what a vampire was/could do. For instance, a standard trope is the vampire's ability to infect its victims with vampirism, in kind, as per the Paole case. However, this phenomena does not occur, nor is it mentioned, in the Plogojovitz case.

At best, we can only look for 'clues' in these early reports, to get some idea of what extant lore there was. The Paole case mentions that to prevent infection, one should smear themselves with the vampire's blood and eat earth from its grave. This lore isn't found in the Plogojovitz case.

Since those reports were recorded, who knows how often the vampire tag was 'misused'. The early English accounts from the 12th century certainly didn't use the term, yet, occasional translations do. Funny thing is, they weren't described as drinking blood, but I can see where the confusion's arisen, especially as in one case, 'The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons.'

Note 'might have been taken', with no explicit link to blood-drinking throughout the rest of the account. See: 'William of Newburgh on Vampires'.

Looking forward to your follow-up piece on VKKs. I do have an e-mail addy, yeah. I'll contact you. :)

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