The Birth Of The Dead – Vampires In Yugoslav Culture

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Yeah, vampires. The blood-sucking undead, the fanged bastards of the deep, the commercially viable of the late 2000s. Where do you stand on vampires? Does it matter? Such a question is like asking where you stand on ghosts or other such mythical creepys. Chances are you believed in them as a child, before giving up somewhere between reading your last Goosebumps book and discovering pornography.

But the whole caboodle had to begin somewhere, right? We didn’t just wake up in 1964 and vampires had been around forever did we? No, of course not, that would be preposterous. To understand the early spreading of the vampire craze we need to head to the land from where the word ‘vampire’ originates. As far as I know there are only five words in the English language that have Serbo-Croat origins, and one of these is slivovitz. I’ve never heard the word ‘slivovitz’ in English outside of conversations I’ve personally had.

The most famous word that the Serbo-Croat tongue has given us is ‘vampire’. The word imaginatively comes from the word ‘vampir’, and according to Wikipedia it first featured in an English text way back in 1734. The whole thing comes from something of a craze in Northern Serbia in the early 18th century, of exhuming bodies and vanquishing what were called ‘vampires’. Austria took control of this region in 1718, and as a result digging up the dead to shove things in their now-not-beating-hearts became continentally known.

Who was the first? Well, the first unfortunate dude to be pointed at as terrified folk screamed ‘vampire!’ in his general direction was a man from Croatia by the name of Jure Grando, but you’ll have to purchase the (possibly) forthcoming book ‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ to learn more about that poor sod. Grando snuffed it (on a number of occasions) in the late 17th century, but half a century later a couple of dead but not really guys terrorised villagers in Northern Serbia.

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Petar Blagojević was an ordinary guy, not unlike you and I perhaps, who earned an honest living and died an honest death. Of course these are all assumptions, Blagojević could have been a total bastard that scammed folk hoping to move to his village of Kisilova for all I know, but let’s go with that. Blagojević died in 1725, and within eight days a further nine folk had followed him towards the inviting hand of death in the village. What’s worse is that all of the deaths had been the results of intense 24-hour maladies.

Many used their dying words to point the finger of blame directly at Balgojević, who had reportedly visited them as the moved slowly towards death. To make things worse Blagojević’s own wife claimed that he had shown up asking for her shoes, inducing enough grief in her that the poor girl was forced to leave town. Now, we all know vampires love shoes, so the inhabitants of the town decided to dig up poor Petar and get to the bottom of things.

They demanded the local Austrian chief be there, who was less enthused. He told the villagers to get permission from Belgrade, but when they returned with the compelling argument of ‘by the time we do that we’ll all be dead’ he reluctantly agreed to be party to the digging.  Blagojević was dug up, and the villagers were shocked to discover that his body hadn’t decomposed over the previous eight days at all. What’s more, his beard had grown and he seemed to have new skin. There was no news of any new shoes. The blood on the mouth was the final straw, and a stake was driven through the heart of this total bastard.

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The report of the Austrian chief was subsequently translated, and Europe was gripped by vampire fever. Balgojević wasn’t an isolated case either, and perhaps that of Arnaut Pavle is better known. Pavle was a Serbian hajduk who moved north from what is believed to be Kosovo, and he frequently complained that he was plagued by a vampire. Those wacky Kosovo Serbs! In order to free himself of this curse Arnie decided to eat soil from graves and smear himself with blood. It worked, and Arnaut was able to avoid a vampire-related death. I say ‘it worked’, what I actually mean is he died soon after after falling and breaking his neck. Ouch.

Pavle’s death led to an epidemic of vampirism in the area, leading to Austrian physicians and officers getting directly involved in the shape of reports and official documents. Folk complained that Pavle was plaguing them, and soon after making these complaints these folk found themselves dead. After 10 days Pavle’s grave was opened, and lo and behold a body lacking in decomposition was found. The body was quickly staked (through the heart of course), and burned. Better to be safe than sorry.

Well, the poor fools in the region would end up both safe and sorry, as five years later 10 more poor buggers died in just a week or two. The first of these was a 50-year-old codger called Milica, who was referred to as a ‘good neighbour’ albeit one that admitted eating a sheep that had been killed by vampires. Oh, Milica! The villagers implored the local authorities to investigate, and when the officials told them that the deaths were down to malnutrition the villagers decided to ignore the officials and blame vampires instead. Graves were dug up, heads were chopped off, stakes were driven through hearts, bodies were burned.

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What of Miloš Čečar, a soldier turned farmer turned vampire blamed for a number of deaths after his own death whilst haying? Then there is the wonderfully-named Sava Savanović, who lived in a watermill and drank the blood of the millers that used the mill? And these are just the stories that have survived centuries of being handed down. The reports posted by Austrian officials were soon discovered by the creatives of the west, and as they made for better stories than those conjured up by storytellers the craze of the vampire soon took over Europe. This would of course reach its apex in 2008 with the release of the first ‘Twilight’ film.

We can pretty much nail the whole thing down to poor understanding of decomposition in the area at the time, but why ruin a good story with the truth? No, it was vampires, it was always vampires, it always will be vampires. Vampires!

‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at miseryslavic@gmail.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here , although you can also buy the digital copy through us. That is unless you think Amazon deserves 30% of the work.

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One thought on “The Birth Of The Dead – Vampires In Yugoslav Culture

  1. Serbian folklore points out that In order to kill a vampire you need to use a stake made from the wood of hawthorn tree (Serbian:glog) and drive it through the vampire’s heart. Nothing else works!

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