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Vampyres and Ghouls

Conducted by Charles Dickens

 

THESE gentry are not yet quite dead. At least the belief in them still lingers in some country districts; while in South-Eastern Europe, and South-Western Asia, the credence prevails among whole tribes, and even nations. There appears to be no essential difference between the European vampyre and the Asiatic ghoul--a sort of demon, delighting to animate the bodies of dead persons, and feed upon their blood. It is believed that the superstition has existed in the Levant since the time of the ancient Greeks; but among that artistic people the vampyre was a lamia, a beautiful woman, who allured youths to her, and then fed upon their young flesh and blood. Be that as it may, the Byzantine Christians, after the time of Constantine, entertained a belief that the bodies of those who died excommunicated were kept by an emissary of the Evil One, who endowed them with a sort of life, sufficient to enable them to go forth at night from their graves, and feast on other men. The only way to get rid of these passive agents of mischief was to dig the bodies up from the graves, disexcommunicate them, and bury them.

  William of Newbury, who lived in the twelfth century, narrates that in Buckinghamshire a man appeared several times to his wife after he had been buried. The archdeacon and clergy, on being applied to, thought it right to ask the advice of the bishop of the diocese, as to the proper course to be pursued. He advised that the body should be burned--the only cure for vampyres. On opening the grave, the corpse was found to be in the same state as when interred; a property, we are told, generally possessed by vampyres.

  The most detailed vampyre stories belong to the Danubian and Greek countries. Tournefort describes a scene that came under his personal notice in Greece. A peasant of Mycone was murdered in the fields in the year 1701. He had been a man of quarrelsome, ill-natured disposition: just the sort of man, according to the current belief of the peasantry, to be haunted by vampyres after death. Two days after his burial, it was noised abroad that he had been seen to walk in the might with great haste, overturning people's goods, putting out their lights, pinching them, and playing them strange pranks. The rumour was so often repeated, that at length the priests avowed their belief in its truth. Masses were said in the chapels, and ceremonies were performed, having for their object to drive out the vampyre that inhabited the dead man. On the tenth clay after the burial, a mass was said, the body was disinterred, and the heart taken out. Frankincense was burned to ward off infection; but the bystanders insisted on the smoke of the frankincense being a direct emanation from the dead body--a sure sign, according to popular belief, of vampyrism. They burned the heart on the sea-shore, the conventional way of getting rid of vampyres. Still this did not settle the matter. Positive statements went the round of the village that the dead man was still tip to all kinds Of mischief, beating people in the night, breaking down doors, unroofing houses, shaking windows. The matter became serious. Many of the inhabitants were so thoroughly frightened and panic-stricken as to flee; while those who remained nearly lost all self-control. They debated, they fasted, they made processions through the village, they sprinkled the doors of the houses with holy water, they speculated as to whether mass had been properly said, and the heart properly burned. At length they resolved to burn the body itself; they collected plenty of wood, pitch, and tar, and carried out their plan. Tournefort (who had found it necessary to be cautious as to expressing his incredulity), states that no more was heard of the supposed vampyre.

  In the year 1725, on the borders of Hungary and Transylvania, a vampyre story arose, which was renewed afterwards in a noteworthy way. A peasant of Madveiga, named Arnold Paul, was crushed to death by the fall of a waggon-load of hay. Thirty days afterwards, four persons died, with all the symptoms (according to popular belief) of their blood having, been sucked by vainpyres. Some of the neighbours remembered having heard Arnold say that he had often been tormented by a vampyre; and they jumped to a conclusion that the passive vampyre had now become active. This was in accordance with a kind of formula or theorem on the subject: that a man who, when alive, has had his blood sucked by a vampyre, will, after his death, deal with other persons in like manner. The neighbours exhumed Arnold Paul, drove a stake through the heart, cut off the head, and burned the body. The bodies of the four persons who had recently died were treated in a similar way, to make surety doubly sure. Nevertheless, even this did not suffice. In 1732, seven years after these events, seventeen persons died in the village near about one time. The memory of the unlucky Arnold recurred to the viilagers; the vampyre theory was again appealed to: he was believed to have dealt with the seventeen as be had previously dealt with the four; and they were therefore disinterred, the heads cut off, the hearts staked, the bodies burned, and the ashes dispersed. One supposition was that Arnold bad vampyrised some cattle, that the seventeen villagers had eaten of the beef, and had fallen victims in consequence. This affair attracted much attention at the time. Louis the Fifteenth directed his ambassador at Vienna to make inquiries in the matter. Many of the witnesses attested on oath that the disinterred bodies were full of blood, and exhibited few of the usual symptoms of death: indications which the believers in vampyres stoutly maintained to be always present in such cases. This has induced many physicians to think that real cases of catalepsy or trance were mixed up with the popular belief, and were supplemented by a large allowance of epidemic fanaticism.

  In Epirus and Thessaly there is a belief in living vampyres, men who leave their shepherd dwellings by night, and roam about, biting and tearing men and animals. In Moldavia the traditional priccolitsch, and in Wallachia the murony, must be somewhat remarkable beings. They are real living men, who become dogs at night, with the backbone prolonged to form a sort of tail, they roam through the villages, delighting to kill cattle.

  Calmet, in his curious work relating to the marvels of the phantom world, quotes a letter which was written in 1738, and which added one to the long list of vampyre stories belonging to the Danubian provinces. "We have just had in this part of Hungary a scene of vampyrism, duly attested by two officials of the tribunal of Belgrade, who went down to the places specified; and by an officer of the emperor's troops at Graditz, who was an ocular witness of the proceedings. At the beginning of September there died in the village of Kisilony, three leagues from Graditz, a man sixty-two years of age. Three days after his burial he appeared in the night to his son, and asked for some thing to eat. The son having given him something, he ate and disappeared. The next day the son recounted to his neighbours what had occurred. That night the father did not appear; but on the following night he showed himself, and asked again for food. They do not know whether the son gave him any on that occasion or not; but on the following day the son was found dead in his bed. On that same day five or six persons in the village fell suddenly ill, and died one after another in a few days." The villagers resolved to open the grave of the old man, and examine the body; they did so, and declared that the symptoms presented were such as usually pertain to vampyrism--eyes open, fresh colour, &c. The executioner drove a stake into the heart, and reduced the body to ashes. All the other persons recently dead were similarly exhumed; but as they did not exhibit the suspicious symptoms, they were quietly reinterred.

  One theory in that part of Europe is, that an illegitimate son of parents, both of whom are illegitimate, is peculiarly likely to become a vampyre. If a dead body is supposed to be vampyrised it is taken up; should the usual symptoms of decay present themselves, the case is supposed to be a natural one, and the body is sprinkled with holy water by the priest; but should the freshness above adverted to appear, the ordeal of destruction is at once decided on. In some parts of Wallachia, skilled persons are called in to prevent a corpse from becoming a vampyre, by various charms, as well as by the rougher and coarser plan of driving a nail through the head. One charm is to rub the body in various places with the lard of a pig killed on St. Ignatius's Day; another is, to lay by the side of the body a stick made of the stem of a, wild rose. Some of the vampyrised persons are believed, when they emerge from their graves at night, not to go about in human form, but as dogs, cats. frogs, toads, fleas, lice, bugs, spiders, &c. sucking the blood of living persons by biting them in the back or neck. This belief forcibly suggests one remark: that as the peasantry in those parts of Europe are wofully deficient in cleanliness of person, clothing, and bedding, nothing is more likely than that they are bitten at night by some of the smaller creatures above named, without the assistance of any vampyre.

  Mr. Pashley, in his Travels in Crete, states that when he was at the town of Askylo, he asked about the vampyres or katakhanadhes, as the Cretans called them of whose existence and doings he had heard many recitals, stoutly corroborated by the peasantry. Many of the stories converged towards one central fact, which Mr. Pashley believed had given origin to them all. On one occasion a man of some note was buried at St. George's Church at Kalikrati, in the island of Crete. An arch or canopy was built over his grave. But he soon afterwards made his appearance as a vampyre, haunting the village, and destroying men and children. A shepherd was one day tending his sheep and goats near the church, and on being caught in a shower, went under the arch to seek shelter from the rain. He determined to pass the night there, laid aside his arms, and stretched himself on a stone to sleep. In placing his fire-arms down (gentle shepherds of pastoral poems do not want fire-arms; but the Cretans are not gentle shepherds), he happened to cross them. Now this crossing was always believed to have the effect of preventing a vampyre from emerging from the spot where the emblem was found. Thereupon occurred a singular debate. The vampyre rose in the night, and requested the shepherd to remove the fire-arms in order that he might pass, as he had some important business to transact. The shepherd, inferring from this request that the corpse was the identical vampyre which had been doing so much mischief, at first refused his assent; but on obtaining from the vampyre a promise on oath that he would not hurt him, the shepherd moved the crossed arms. The vampyre, thus enabled to rise, went to a distance of about two miles, and killed two persons, a man and a woman. On his return, the shepherd saw some indication of what had occurred, which caused the vampyre to threaten him with a similar fate if he divulged what he had seen. He courageously told all, however. The priests and other persons came to the spot next morning, took up the corpse (which in daytime was is lifeless as any other) and burnt it. While burning, a little spot of blood spurted on the shepherd's foot, which instantly withered away; but otherwise no evil resulted, and the vampyre was effectually destroyed. This was certainly a very peculiar vampyre story; for the coolness with which the corpse and the shepherd carried on their conversation under the arch was unique enough. Nevertheless, the persons who narrated the affair to Mr. Pashley firmly believed in its truth, although slightly differing in their versions of it.

  Modern vampyres in Western Europe seldom trouble society, so far as narratives tell; but across the Atlantic something of the kind has occupied public attention within the limits of the present generation. In 1854, the Times gave an extract from an American newspaper, the Norwich Courier, concerning an event that had just occurred. Horace Ray, of Griswold, died of consumption in 1846; two of his children afterwards died of the same complaint; eight years afterwards, in 1854, a third died. The neighbours, evidently having the vampyre theory in their thoughts, determined to exhume the bodies of the first two children, and burn them; under the supposition that the dead had been feeding on the living. If the dead body remained in a fresh or semi-fresh state, all the vampyre mischief would be produced. In what state the bodies were really found we are not told; but they were disinterred and burned on the 8th of June in the above-named year.

  This superstition appears to be closely connected with that of the Were-wolf, which sometimes presents very terrible features. Medical men give the name of lycanthropy to a kind of monomania which lies at the bottom of all the were-wolf stories. In popular interpretation, a were. wolf is a man or woman who has been changed into the form of a wolf, either to gratify a taste for human flesh and blood, or as a Divine punishment. The Reverend Baring Gould narrates the history of Marshal de Retz, a noble, brave, and wealthy man of the time of Charles the Seventh in France. He was sane and reasonable in all matters save one; but in that one he was a terrible being. He delighted in putting young and delicate children to death, and. then destroying them, without (so far as appears) wishing to put the flesh or the blood to his lips. In the coarse of a lengthened trial which brought his career to an end, the truth came to light that he had destroyed eight hundred children in seven years. There was neither accusation nor confession about a wolf here; it was a man afflicted with a morbid propensity of a dreadful kind. Somewhat different was the case of Jean Grenier, in 1603. He was a herd-boy, aged fourteen, who was brought before a tribunal at Bordeaux on a most extraordinary charge. Several witnesses, chiefly young girls, accused him of having attacked them under the guise of a wolf. The charge was strange, but the confession was still stranger; for the boy declared that he had killed and eaten several children, and the fathers of those children asserted the same thing. Grenier was said to be half an idiot; if so, his idiocy on the one hand, and the superstitions ignorance of the peasantry on the other, may perchance supply a solution to the enigma. One of the most extraordinary cases on record occurred in France in 1849, the facts being brought to light before a court-martial, presided over by Colonel Manselon. Many of the cemeteries near Paris were found to have been entered in the night, graves opened, coffins disturbed, and dead bodies strewed around the place in a torn and mangled condition. This was so often repeated, and in so many cemeteries, that great anguish and terror were spread among the people. A strict watch was kept. Some of the patrols or police of the cemeteries thought they saw a figure several times flitting about among the graves, but could never quite satisfy themselves on the matter. Surgeons were examined, to ascertain whether it was the work of the class of men who used in England to be called resurrectionists, or body-snatchers; but they all declared that the wild reckless mutilation was quite of another character. Again was a strict watch kept; a kind of man-trap was contrived at a part of the wall of Père la Chaise cemetery, which appeared as if it had been frequently scaled. A sort of grenade connected with the man-trap was heard to explode; the watch fired their guns; some one was seen to flee quickly; and then they found traces of blood, and a few fragments of military clothing, at one particular spot. Next day, it became publicly known that a non-commissioned officer of the Seventy-fourth Regiment had returned wounded to the barracks in the middle of the night, and had been conveyed to a military hospital. Further inquiry led to a revelation of the fact that Sergeant Bertrand, of the regiment here named, was the unhappy cause of all the turmoil. He was in general demeanour kind and gentle, frank and gay; and nothing but a malady of a special kind could have driven him to the commission of such crimes as those with which he was charged, and which his own confession helped to confirm. He described the impulse under which he acted as being irresistible, altogether beyond his own control; it came upon him about once a fortnight. He had a terrible consciousness while under its influence, and yet he could not resist. The minute details which he gave to the tribunal of his mode of proceeding at the cemeteries might suit those who like to sup on horrors, but may be dispensed with here. Suffice it to say that he aided by his confession to corroborate the charge; that he was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment; and that eminent physicians of Paris endeavoured to restore the balance of his mind during his quiet incarceration.

  Fifty years ago, vampyre literature had a temporary run of public favour. The Vampyre, or the Bride of the Isles, a drama, and The Vampyre, a melodrama in two acts, were presented at the theatres: the hero being enacted by some performer who had the art of making himself gaunt and ghastly on occasions. There was also a story under the same title, purporting to be by the Right Honourable Lord Byron, which attracted notice. The form of the superstition chiefly prevalent in modern Greece is that vampyres, notwithstanding all the means used to destroy their bodies, will resume their shape, and recommence their mischievous wanderings, as soon as the rays of moonlight fall on their graves. This serves as the foundation of the tale in question. But Lord Byron repudiated it. In a characteristic letter to Galignani, he said ; "If the book is clever, it would be base to deprive the real writer, whoever he may be, of his honours; if stupid, I desire the responsibility of nobody's dulness but my own." The authorship was afterwards claimed by another writer, who stated that the idea of the tale had been suggested to his mind by something he had met with in Byron.

  All the stories of vampyres, ghouls, and were-wolves, we may safely assert, can find their solution in a combination of three causes--a sort of epidemic superstition among ignorant persons; some of the phenomena of trance or epileptic sleep; and special monomaniac diseases which it is the province of the physician to study.

End.

 
 
 
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