The Slavic Vampire

Scholars know that the vampire legends existed long before they were written down in the seventeenth century, but it makes it hard to define when they began. However the Russian text of the eleventh century addressed to the Novgorodian Prince Volodymyr Yaroslavovych is a commonly accepted starting point (See Upir).

Beyond the Russians, the vampire is well known to the Ukrainians. The vampire tradition is also well documented among the West Slavs, the Czechs, Poles and particularly the Kasubs, who live at the mouth of the Vistula River– and among the South Slavs– Macedonians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The vampire is also well-known in Greece, Romania, Hungary and Albania.

Slavic people began to move southward from Central Europe into the Danube Valley in significant numbers in the fourth century A.D. The process was a gradual drift and infiltration rather than a sudden invasion. By the sixth century the Slavs firmly occupied the Danube Basin and began to cross the Balkans.

Taking the common theory, that the origin of the word “vampire” comes from the Slavs, as truth, then 500 A.D. is the earliest possible time for the concept of the vampire to emerge.

These Slavic newcomers organized a number of powerful empires in the Balkans during the medieval period (before 800 A.D.). The first of these was the creation of the Bulgarians, a people who were not Slavs, but rather Finno-Tatars related to the Huns. Within a comparatively short time the Bulgarian minority was assimilated and became Slavic in everything but name.

The Serbs and Bulgarian Slavs organized great, though short-lived medieval kingdoms which borrowed their culture from Byzantium. In contrast, the Slovenes and Croatians, because of their position in the western part of the peninsula, became subjects of the Holy Roman Empire and were influenced by Rome rather than Constantinople in their cultural development.

After a few centuries of relative stability due to the wide adoption of Orthodoxy, the countries began to decay and became easy preys for Turkish invasion. By 1480 the Turks controlled the Balkans as far north as Serbia and Wallachia (part of modern-day Romania) and by 1683 they controlled all of present-day Romania and part of Croatia and Hungary.

It was likely that after dealing with this devastating pestilence that the image of the vampire as a harbinger of the plague began. By the fifteenth century the bubonic plague, also called the Black Death, spread profusely throughout Europe killing twenty-five percent of the population.

The disease was called the Black Death because it left victims discolored with black-and-blue faces. Many villagers who were only in a comatose state were pronounced dead and buried alive. Their hands and faces became drenched in their own blood as they frantically attempted to claw their way out of their coffins. Unable to explain the plague, much less find a cure for it, villagers blamed the “undead,” and in so doing, fuled the fire of the vampire myth. 

Averaging between the Plague in 1348 and the Turkish conquest of the 1400’s, a probable guess to the start of the vampire concept was around 1400.

There are very few records left of this period. Having lost their ruling class, which alone was educated and articulate, Balkan people were left leaderless, anonymous and silent and out of the Church reach. Little wonder then that they developed their own imaginations and oral traditions. This was usually anonymous, composed in the vernacular and passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

In the Old Russian anti-pagan work Word of saint Grigoriy (written in the 11th-12th century), it is claimed that polytheistic Russians made sacrifices to vampires.