Monday, 31 December 2007

A New Year

My sincerest and best wishes for the new year to anyone visiting this blog!

It has been interesting and fruitful to start blogging about the subject of magia posthuma and vampires. It has taken time from my primary work on the subject, but it has allowed me to get in touch with a small number of people around the globe sharing my interest, and they all seem to have their own perspective on the subject. This feedback has mostly been via private e-mail,

In that respect the blog has been a success, but hopefully this is only the beginning of establishing some more contact between those of us who are seriously interested in putting the early modern tales and books on vampires and other revenants in their historical and folkloric context. There are, I believe, surprisingly few people who wish to understand “wie es eigentlich geschehen ist” when corpses were disinterred and destroyed out of fear of the dead in e.g. Moravia, Banat or Serbia in the 17th and 18th centuries. And fewer who go to the trouble of excavating contemporary source material, and if you excuse the pun, try to dig deeper than your average “vampirologist”.

So apart from hoping that I will find ample time to work on both my studies of the subject and this blog, it is my sincere wish that we can build some kind of network of people interested in this strange and morbid, yet somehow very giving subject. Although we are all, I suppose, hoping to give our individual and original contribution to the field, I believe that we can benefit from communicating our results and thoughts. At least, it would be useful just to know what is going on. So I hope to hear your comments, either through this blog or privately by e-mail, so it will be possible to assess the possibilities.

This year has seen the publishing of David Keyworth's Troublesome Corpses that is broader in its scope than what has previously been written in English, compiling a wealth of material on vampires and other "undead corpses". The only other new book that I can think of that was published this year, is Helmut Werner's Das Grosse Handbuch der Dämonen which is an enjoyable, but unfortunately unreliable attempt to collect a lot of information about vampires, werewolves, demons and "monsters".

Hopefully, 2008 will see more books and papers published on our subject. In fact, in 2006 several books of note were published (Peter Kremer's Draculas Vettern, Bruce McClelland's Slayers and their Vampires, the anthology Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, a new German annotated translation of Calmet's Gelehrte Verhandlung, and modern editions of Ranft's Traktat and a couple of other books), so it will be interesting to see if more are on their way.

In any case, the game is afoot, and you have my best wishes for 2008!

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Worth longing for?

When looking at ebay, one German book keeps popping up numerous times. I have so far resisted buying it, but it keeps turning up so I have considered buying it: Norbert Borrmann's Vampirismus oder die Sehnsucht nacht Unsterblichkeit (Vampirism or the longing for immortality). So why have I resisted? Well, Peter Mario Kreuter in his Der Vampirglaube in Südosteuropa calls it "einfach nur eine literarische Gemischtwarenhandlung" (simply just a literary mixed bag), and adds: "Bei der Lektüre dieses Buches muß man sich manchmal sogar fragen, ob Borrmann überhaupt verstanden hat, über was er da schreibt." (While reading this book one must often ask if Borrmann has at all understood what it is he is writing about). On the other hand, Rob Brautigam writes of the book on his Shroudeater web site: "This nice hardbound book was published at such a ridiculously low price that I was afraid that the quality of its contents would be of the same low level. I was wrong. Norbert Borrmann presents us with an interesting overview of Vampirism in which most vampire aspects seem to get a mention.". So, perhaps, it is not as bad as Kreuter would have us believe? Comments are welcome.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Observing, understanding and participating

Montague Summers obviously had a firm belief in witches and vampires, whereas modern scholars take on a more phenomenological approach, like e.g. David Keyworth who writes in the introduction to his Troublesome Corpses:

“And while it can be argued that perceived reality is no more than a shared consensus, a social construct that results from a collective belief in a particular world-view, authenticated and maintained by the participants involved and the world-view that was prevalent at the time, I do not personally believe that corpses can arise from their coffins to feed upon the blood of the living.” (p. 9)

Keyworth refers to Berger and Luckmann’s famous (or infamous, if you like) and highly influential The Social Construction of Reality (1966) which is e.g. known for its view that Haitian voodoo beliefs are as “real” as the Western belief in neuroses and “libidinal energy”. Unfortunately, I only own the book in a Danish translation, so I can’t quote the relevant part of the book.

Darren Oldridge, whom I have quoted and referred to before – on vampire beliefs and observations, and on the rationality of our ancestors in general - on the other hand finds that it is essential that we try to understand the rationality of the strange histories of the past.

A marriage between the phenomenological approach and the attempt to understand is in my view beautifully described by Michael E. Bell in the prologue to Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Describing a class he attended during his education, he writes of folklorist Wayland Hand:

“My epiphany came the day Wayland told us about the disappearance of giants from Europe. This was not a rapid, catastrophic event like the extinction of the dinosaurs. It was, rather, a more lengthy demise with the final death blow administered by the Industrial Revolution. As Wayland talked about the giants, I noticed that he stopped looking at us, and his eyes seemed to focus somewhere beyond the windowless walls of our Bunche Hall classroom. His voice, naturally soft, grew softer. He spoke about how Christians stigmatized the giants as devils, in league with Satan. He described how industry’s widening circle of smoke and clamor finally pushed the giants from their homes. His voice dropped to a near whisper, and I’m sure I saw tears well up, as he described how the giants shrank, deeper and deeper into the forests and caves. Demonized, and no longer able to find refuge, the giants vanished. When Wayland concluded, it dawned on me that he wasn’t talking only about giants no longer appearing in the folklore record. He was describing the extinction of a species. I thought, this is incredible: Wayland Hand, a meticulous, reasoning scholar – a professional folklorist – actually believes in giants.” (p. XI-XII)

Bell himself feels compelled to divide himself into two identities: The rational, observing scholar, and the guy who can suspend his disbelief to “participate wholeheartedly, without reservation”. (p. XIII)

Personally, I would be careful in stating my own approach to understanding the background of magia posthuma in such terms, but I suppose that a true understanding requires that you attempt to come as close as possible to viewing the investigated phenomena through the eyes of the observers, in casu peasants, Austrian military personnel, Catholic priests, medical scholars etc.

In fact, this is also what Keyworth attempts to do: “Indeed, I will follow what Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre (1984) called ‘cultural’ or ‘ethnographic’ history, and try to understand the situation from the participant’s point of view, not just cite the official version of events as evidenced by the historiographical sources, and take a non-judgmental, empathetic attitude towards the experiences and intentions of participants involved in the events described, given the cultural context of such traditions.” (p. 9)

No doubt, it can be hard and also very unpleasant to try to intellectually “participate” in events involving revenants, diseases, and the exhumation, examination and destruction of corpses, but as Oldridge has pointed out, “it is the very strangeness of these ideas – from a modern perspective – that makes them worth looking at.” (Strange Histories, p. ix)

Papers on Calmet to be published in 2008

The papers presented at the Année Dom Calmet conference at Senones commemorating the 250th anniversary of Dom Calmet's death earlier this year, including Philippe Martin's paper on Calmet and vampires that I mentioned in an earlier post, will be published in the spring of 2008 according to this web site: "Les actes de ces journées seront publiés au printemps 2008."

So where are you from?

The above figure shows the locations of those who have visited this blog during the past month. Taking into consideration that I have not been so active at posting during the past couple of months, quite a number of people seem to take a look at this blog, and obviously visitors come from various parts of the globe. Currently, USA is the region with most visits. And some of the visitors who get here via google or other search engines, are looking for subjects like magia posthuma, dom calmet, kauen und schmatzen der todten, or vampire quiz, to name some of the most popular keywords.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Horrors from the past

Apropos of the Danish tale of an uncorrupted corpse, I would like to mention this interesting web site, Gys og gru fra fortiden (Horrors from the past), on Danish revenants and other horrifying creatures. Unfortunately, it is only available in Danish, so most of you will probably only be able to appreciate the pictures. However, I might add that those familiar with e.g. German revenants will probably not be surprised to find that many of the ghosts and revenants of Denmark are similar to those of our neighbouring countries. Particularly interesting are the tales of people who conjure ("maner") revenants to abstain from harassing the living and return to their graves.

The illustration is by Paul Høyrup and is from an old book on Danish ghosts.

The story of a corpse in Egtved

As it is christmas time, this short tale told by the mother of a man called Kristen Kabel in the Danish town of Egtved to Evald Tang Kristensen (1843-1929) may be appropriate:

Once when they had dug a grave in the cemetery in Egtved, they found a complete corpse. The coffin had rotted until it crumbled, but the corpse looked as if it had only been a few days since it was put in the ground. It was a man from Torsted, who had been buried for some years, and he had had a girlfriend who lived in a house in Egtved. It was close to christmas, so the corpse was but on a bier up in the church and should lie there during the christmas days, and of course they told the priest of it. But then on christmas eve when the people at the rectory had dined, they began to talk about the corpse, and they promised a crazy old cowherd who wanted a drink, that if he went to the church and gave the corpse a spoonful of porridge, then he would get half a pint of brandy. When he got there and bended over the corpse, it locked its arms around his neck and told him that he should carry it down to a house in Egtved town (the one in which his girlfriend had lived). So when they got there, the dead man knocked on the window, and a woman came and opened for him. Then he asks her if she will stretch out her right hand to him as she had done once before. 'You have sworn by that hand that you would have me, but you didn't keep your promise.' So now she should give him the hand again, but she dared not, and then she ran to the vicar and asked him what to do. He said that she shouldn't give him her hand, but her right glove on a stick. In the meantime, the cowherd was standing with the dead man on his back. So she acted on the vicar's advice, and when she withdrew the stick, the glove was pressed into dust. Then she told the cowherd that he should take the dead man and put him back to where he had taken him. He did, and on christmas day, when people went to church, they were curious to see the corpse, but when they got there, only a bit of dust was left. Now he had found peace.

The story is no. 902 in volume 5 (concerned with stories of ghosts and haunting) of Evald Tang Kristensen's famous collection of Danish folklore, Danske Sagn som de har lydt i Folkemunde. The volume was originally published in 1897. The translation is mine.

Egtved is a town in Jutland in Denmark which is famous for the find of a Bronze age woman, the so-called Egtved girl. Pictures and information (in Danish) on the church and cemetery in Egtved is available here.

Metallic Magia Posthuma

According to this short text on Rohr's 1679 De masticatione mortuorum,

"De Masticatione Mortuorum (or to use its full title Dissertatio Historico-Philosophica de Masticatione Mortuorum) is now cult among the modern 'vampire' community, and a favourite name for death metal bands."

As one easily notices when searching the net for information about "magia posthuma", there also was a Belgian heavy metal band called Magia Posthuma. According to various web sites they released one album and have now split up.

Personally I find it pretty hard to relate to this association between the topic of this blog and a musical genre which I find myself unable to appreciate. Aesthetically and musically it is quite adverse to what I identify with. I remember many years ago buying a LP titled Nosferatu by a band called Helstar because both the title and cover illustration referred to Murnau's 1922 movie Nosferatu. Well, it was very hard to just listen to once, so I have steered clear of that kind of records ever since.

But it seems to be a curious fact that people can have very different approaches to our subject of vampires and magia posthuma.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Merry christmas!

After weeks of silence I have considered how to wish visitors of this blog a merry christmas. Unfortunately, I have not had time to write a longer essay, so I will present you with the gift of a scan of the front page of one the seminal works on vampirism, VISUM REPERTUM ANATOMICO-CHIRURGICUM oder Gründlicher Bericht von den sogenannten Blutsäugern, VAMPIER, oder in der wallachischen Sprache Morie by the well-educated physician Georg Tallar published in Vienna and Leipzig in 1784.

I found this book at The Royal Library in Copenhagen in the mid Eighties, when the book was virtually unknown. At least, it was not mentioned in any bibliography that I knew of, including Dieter Sturm and Klaus Völker's Von denen Vampiren oder Menschensaugern. Later on I noticed that Aribert Schroeder knew of it, when he wrote Vampirismus: Seine Entwicklung vom Thema zum Motiv in 1973, but Schroeder's book was and is for some reason unfortunately very scarce.

Then, in 1988, Tallar turned up a few times in Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial, and Death, and later on he has been quoted by a few other authors, so his investigations are getting their proper place in the history of magia posthuma. Investigations that include interviewing and examining people who claim to be the victims of vampires (or moroi) and the examination of corpses suspected of being vampires.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The price of Calmet

I have tracked auctions of Calmet's book on revenants and vampires for some time, e.g. here and here. Now a German translation from 1751 has just been sold on ebay at the top bid of € 817,12! It seems that one may have to pay several hundreds of euros to obtain an early edition in various languages. There are no doubt a number of collectors looking for this famous book out there.

Saturday, 8 December 2007


I am aware that I have been unusually silent lately. The end of the year is usually a pretty busy time in my life (I suppose it is the same for a lot of those who visit this blog), and consequently I have found it hard to give this blog as much time and attention as I would have preferred. However, I hope to find more time to post when all the time consuming tasks of December have been attended to. So keep coming back once in a while.

And a big thank you to those who comment or send me an e-mail.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Vampire theses

A few people have written an academical thesis on vampires and related topics over the past years. In the above photo Stefan Grothe's Ph.D. thesis Der Einfluß der Seuchen auf die Entstehung des Vampirmythos im Spiegel der Leipziger Vampirdebatte 1725-1734 (The Influence of Epidemics on the Rise of the Vampire Myth as reflected in the Leipzig Vampire Debate of 1725-1734, 2001) is placed on top of Peter Mario Kreuter's Der Vampirglaube in Südosteuropa (The Vampire Belief in South East Europe, 2001). Some theses have been reworked into books: Bruce A. McClelland's Slayers and their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead (2006) and David Keyworth's Troublesome Corpses: Vampires & Revenants From Antiquity to the Present (2007). More will no doubt follow in the years to come.
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