Burials Unearthed in Poland Open the Casket on The Secret Lives of Vampires

What people actually did to prevent the dead from rising again was very different than what Hollywood would have you think

One of the excavated burials in Drawsko, Poland showed a skeleton with a sickle placed over its neck, likely to prevent the dead from rising again as the undead. Slavia Field School in Archaeology

Need to get rid of a pesky vampire? Thanks to Hollywood, you probably know the drill: Wear garlic around your neck, don't go out at night without a cross, and for Pete’s sake, never invite a debonair stranger into your house. Remember, you can tell if someone is undead by whether they have a reflection in the mirror, and if things go south, make sure you have a wooden stake or some means of decapitation handy.  

Actually, these fiction- and film-driven fantasies bear little resemblance to the centuries-old beliefs and practices that some Polish villagers turned to in an effort to ward of the misfortunes that befell them. By excavating graves from a 17th century Polish cemetery, anthropologists are finding that people attempted to protect themselves from the occult using vastly different methods than those portrayed in horror films.

“Two hundred years ago when they had no TV, books or very limited access to education, they just created a second world,” says Marek Polcyn, an adjunct anthropology professor at Lakehead University in Canada who has coauthored several studies on “deviant” burials in the rural village of Drawsko, Poland. “They often referred to the world they had known from oral tradition which very likely was rooted in beliefs reaching back to pagan times—an alternative world to explain the things happening around them which they couldn’t understand.”

Polcyn’s work describes one female body discovered with a sickle across her pelvis, a rock on her neck and a coin in her mouth. Four other bodies were found with sickles strewn across their throats. While Polcyn said in one study that sickles have been discovered in excavations in other countries like Slovakia before, burials with sickles across the throat are rare during this period. He says the practice could corroborate with historical knowledge of folk tales and beliefs about creatures that rise from the dead to commit evil deeds and bring misfortune to the living. 

“Throughout the world, people believe that sharp tools, iron—anything that was created by fire, by hammering, had anti-demonic properties,” Polcyn says.

Some of the earliest beliefs surrounding vampires came on the heels of the conversion of Slavic people to Christianity sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries, says Christopher Caes, a lecturer in Polish at Columbia University who has taught classes on Slavic vampires. Before Christianity, Slavs predominantly cremated their dead, in the belief that a person’s soul would only be released with the burning of their body. When missionaries converted them, the new practice of burying the dead would have horrified some.

“Clearly their relatives would be unhappy that they’re under the ground rather than having their souls released via fire,” Caes says. Possibly in response, he says the archaeological record shows an explosion of burials in the 7th and 8th centuries in which a stone is placed on top of bodies to keep the dead down as well as other practices such as putting things in graves to appease their dead relatives.

“In a sense the first vampire practices are kind of a by-product, an accident if you will, an unforeseen outcome in the cultural revolution forced on the Slavs,” Caes says. He adds that the word vampire itself may be derived from impurus—the Latin word for impure, or unclean.

Burials Unearthed in Poland Open the Casket on The Secret Lives of Vampires
Hollywood depictions of how to deal with vampires like this, from the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula, are a far cry from the actual practices of some Polish villagers. IMDB / Columbia Pictures

Evidence for these kinds of practices is fairly spotty for the next few centuries across Europe. But they start appearing again in the 15th and 16th century in the Balkans, when people start nailing corpses to the ground, Caes says. By this time, vampire beliefs had become a convenient explanation for misfortune. A key part of modern vampire lore usually involves a bite that kills someone and brings them back, as an undead creature thirsty for the blood of the living.

In Slavic cultures, almost all of the cases where vampirism was assumed to be at play became known in retrospect. People still alive were not usually identified as vampires. Usually it came across instead as a way to explain some of the bad things that happened to communities or people. When an area was afflicted by plague, failed crops, flooding or some other misfortune, villagers might look to put blame on the recently deceased.

If it was plague, the blame was usually put on the first person to die from the disease. “We have evidence of people going to the cemetery during plague time and driving stakes through them and dismembering the bodies, burning them, because they really believed that this person is responsible for the disease,” Polcyn says.

While a little gruesome, desecrating corpses in an effort to stave off bad luck was a relatively civilized way of dealing with community issues compared the treatment of so-called witches in other parts of Medieval Europe, says Caes. “Vampirism in a sense is kind of humane, because the vampire is already dead. You don’t have to burn anyone at the stake, you don’t have to execute anyone, you don’t have to lock somebody up. You simply blame it on the dead."

After a bout of misfortune, people would start to analyze recent deaths for likely signs of vampirism. These signs could be something as subtle as letting your clothing touch the casket during funerals—a faux pas that was thought to lead to awakening a demon, says Caes. Alcoholics could be suspect, and suicide was another good marker of vampirism since people who kill themselves are instantly excommunicated and therefore more susceptible to other forces. It could even be a birthmark or unibrow. 

Another possible sign of future vampirism includes people who were born with a an amniotic membrane still around their head, or other things associated with pregnancy or birth. In fact, Caes says that rituals surrounding birth and death present the greatest risk for vampirism, since they represent vulnerable transitions between states of existences, when unclean forces can hijack the ordinary process.

The most recent study Polcyn coauthored in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology used carbon and oxygen isotope testing to confirm that the people buried at Drawsko were likely local. An earlier possible explanation held that they were buried in this strange fashion due to the fact that they were outsiders.

In Poland, the concept of vampires—or revenants, as Polcyn calls them to distinguish them from the Hollywood image—actually encompasses a whole palette of highly localized beliefs about various demonic creatures. A lot of the information known about the creatures was taken from folk ethnographies recorded during the late 19th century right up until halfway through the 1900s. Ethnographers recorded various accounts of all aspects of village life at the time, and demonology figures show up prominently.

Polcyn says remembers talk of several creatures from growing up in Poland himself—in particular a female field demon called przypołudnica which hid in crops like wheat in wait for children. “My grandma told me not to go to visit such places. Don’t go into it. Don’t leave the path because you may be even captured by przypołudnica,” he says, adding that other classes of demons inhabited swamps, forests or even houses in folk beliefs in Poland in earlier times.

While everyone who’s read up on their vampire lore knows that garlic, wooden stakes, and crosses will drive off a vampire, Caes says that actual practices for dealing with these creatures differed greatly depending on the location, and changed over time. “What determined whether or not people put a rock on the corpse or a sickle across the neck was what worked. Did the catastrophe go away? Did people stop dying?” he says. “The best evidence is success in oral communities.”

Highly localized beliefs could explain Drawsko’s deviant burials, and why such burials haven’t been found elsewhere in Poland. Researchers have yet to find evidence that the bodies were dug up at some point after birth and the sickles were placed in the graves at initial burial. Besides the sickles and rock, they displayed nothing out of the ordinary from other burials at the cemetery, and Polcyn believes that the ritual likely represented a cautionary measure.

“They just wanted to prevent those people from rising from the dead,” he says. Who could blame them?

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