Sunday, 30 September 2012

'Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?'

'Scraping away soil with flat-edged shovels, and then brushes and bamboo picks, the archaeologist [Nick Bellantoni] and his team worked through several feet of earth before reaching the top of the crypt. When Bellantoni lifted the first of the large, flat rocks that formed the roof, he uncovered the remains of a red-painted coffin and a pair of skeletal feet. They lay, he remembers, “in perfect anatomical position.” But when he raised the next stone, Bellantoni saw that the rest of the individual “had been com­pletely...rearranged.” The skeleton had been beheaded; skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni recalls.

Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.

The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not “J.B.,” as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.

Finally, one colleague asked: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?”'

The October 2012 issue of the Smithsonian magazine contains a lengthy article on The Vampire Panic in New England, i.e. the numerous instances of corpses being treated in various ways to avoid vampirism, of which the case concerning Mercy Lena Brown is probably the most publicized.

Michael E. Bell, author of the well-known Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires, is, of course, one of the sources for the article. According to the version of the article available on Smithsonian's web site, 'a consulting folklorist at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission for most of his career, Bell has been investigating local vampires for 30 years now—long enough to watch lettering on fragile slate gravestones fade before his eyes and prosperous subdivisions arise beside once-lonely graveyards.

He has documented about 80 exhumations, reaching as far back as the late 1700s and as far west as Minnesota. But most are concentrated in backwoods New England, in the 1800s—startlingly later than the obvious local analogue, the Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts of the 1690s.

Hundreds more cases await discovery, he believes. “You read an article that describes an exhumation, and they’ll describe a similar thing that happened at a nearby town,” says Bell, whose book,
Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, is seen as the last word on the subject, though he has lately found so many new cases that there’s a second book on the way. “The ones that get recorded, and I actually find them, are just the tip of the iceberg.”'

According to Howard Peirce, who kindly notified me of the article, the internet article does not correspond to the one in the printed magazine, so it may well be worth the while to seek out a copy.

The Smithsonian has previously dealt with vampire related subjects. I have a copy of the February 1975 issue which contains an article on Vlad the Impaler and the Ceasescu era's interest in Dracula: 'Since he succeeded Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej upon the latter's death in 1965, Ceausescu has steadily solidified his powere base. And it is Ceasescu's appreciation of the potency of nationalism that has rekindled Romanian interest in the history surrounding the real Dracula - and has promoted the development of a tourist program which promises to bring Western visitors to Draculaland.'

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Pirates and vampires

Source: The Sofia Globe
The 'vampire skeleton' found in Sozopol in Bulgaria belonged to a man named Krivich, a name meaning the Crooked, according to novinite:

'He was a legendary pirate, manager of the Sozopol fortress or one of his heirs.

The Crooked, as his contemporaries called him, has been a crippled, but extremely intelligent man. He outshined everyone with his knowledge about the sea, the stars and herbs. Byzantine chronicles describe how he plundered a Venetian ship. It is possible that he was declared a master of the witchcraft because of these talents, which explains the metal stake through his heart.

Experts also believe that the man may have been an intellectual and perhaps a medic, as such individuals often raised suspicions in the Middle Ages. The grave was discovered near the apse of a church, which suggests that he was an aristocrat.'

National Geographic has produced a documentary about the skeleton, featuring Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the Bulgarian National Museum of History. Dimitrov has recently supported news of the discovery of the skeleton of a gambler in Sozopol. In this connection The Sofia Globe writes:

'Sozopol is one of Bulgaria’s oldest towns, the current settlement dating back to the seventh century BCE when it was founded as a Greek colony named Antheia (the town’s name would later change to Apollonia and then Sozopolois), but it appears that the site was inhabited as far back as the second millennium BCE, which makes it a rich digging ground for archaeologists every summer.

It does not hurt that one of the town’s more famous sons, the head of the National History Museum in Sofia, Bozhidar Dimitrov, rarely misses an opportunity to promote Sozopol – as he did with the “vampire” find, which grabbed international media attention and resulted in a documentary by the National Geographic channel.

Dimitrov is not averse to making bombastic pronouncements on the value of new finds – in 2010, he proudly proclaimed the contents of a relic urn found on a small island off the coast of Sozopol to contain the bones of St John the Baptist, even before the remains could be dated.

Dimitrov, who is a former diver and whose historian credentials are based mainly on his research of the medieval Boyana church near Sofia, has in recent years seized every opportunity to big up his hometown, nor is he afraid of stepping on anyone’s toes – earlier this summer, he proudly proclaimed Vlad the Impaler, the Wallachian prince who served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, as having been Bulgarian.

Following the “vampire” find earlier this summer, Sozopol plans to twin with Sighisoara, the Transylvanian town where Vlad spent his exile between his first two reigns.'

Earlier this Summer, The Sofia Globe noted that 'the Sozopol souvenir shops urgently are placing orders for Dracula souvenirs, as it turns out that the Sozopol “vampire” and the notorious Romanian count have been relatives. According to the website, several advertising agencies in Bourgas have received orders for vampire souvenirs.'

No doubt, pirates and vampires make for an excellent tourist attraction.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The men by sword and the women buried alive

In Lech Majewski's brilliant and unique cinematic recreation and interpretation of Brueghel's famous painting The Way to Calvary (known in German as Die Kreuztragung Christi), exhibited at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna, The Mill & the Cross via Michael Francis Gibson's book Le Moulin et la Croix, a woman is executed by being buried alive.

The imagery is not explicitly based on the painting, although perhaps all the characters can be found there, so obviously this is something that could have in the context of the painting's universe. The cruelty of the Spanish rulers is patently part of the theme of the film. Dated in 1564, the painting - in Gibson's words - is set in a time which 'has come to evoke the Spanish presence signified in this painting by the double file of horsemen dressed in red.'

'Despite the efforts of Charles V, the Reformation, successfully stamped out by the Inquisition on the far side of the Pyrenees, kept gaining ground in the Netherlands. The Flemish towns had always been vigilant guardians of their prerogatives and they steadfastly resisted the King's will. By 1520, underground printing presses in Antwerp were disseminating Flemish versions of the writings of Martin Luther to the far corners of Flanders. Just before setting sail for Spain, the gloomy Philip [Phlip II, son of Charles] had entrusted the regency to his half-sister, Margaret of Parma, and being rather more devious, and not as blindly devout as is generally assumed, he gave her some final instructions at the foot of the gangway in Vlessingen. They were to be of momentous consequence: the edicts of their father in matters of heresy had all too long been neglected, he noted. From now on they were to be rigorously implemented.

But what did these
plakkaten or "placards" of Charles V command?

Proclaiming heretics
seditieuse personen ende perturbateurs van onsen staet ende der gemeynde ruste, "seditious persons disruptive of our State and of the common peace," they commanded that they "be put to death," te weten de mans metten sweerde ende de vrouwen gedolven: "to wit, the men by the sword and the women buried alive." These harsh decrees were ruthlessly applied - and many were put to death in the sight of their families, some by fire while others, having first been tortured, were carried to the tip of the Antwerp pier where the executioners sewed them into a leather sheath and tossed them into the sea.'

The burying alive, particularly of women, as a method of punishment and execution is known from other parts of the world as well, and it has been discussed, e.g. by Dieter Feucht, to which extent this and related practices is related to revenant beliefs. In his recent, tiny volume Vampire, Wiedergänger und Untote: Auf der Spur der lebenden Toten, Wolfgang Schwerdt notes that, taking these and other practices of execution into account, one cannot easily conclude from the state of archaeological finds to a general belief in revenants.

Burial alive, dismemberment, or - essentially the theme of the painting - crucifixion, the practices of mankind surpass the imagination of various authors and film makers of 'horror' and vampire fiction.

The Mill & the Cross is available on DVD in Germany, France and USA.

Friday, 7 September 2012

A manuscript encouraging speculation

Mysterious manuscripts are, of course, the stuff that many a mystery or fantasy tale is made of, and here is one that might spark the imagination of an author or researcher.

The Old Bookshop of Bordentown, New Jersey, has a single sheet for sale. Dated 1709, it carries the heading: 'Sanguis/Eating of blood forbidden', this - according to the seller - 'is a piece that encourages speculation as to origin and intent.'

The sheet is signed by Brook Taylor (1685-1731), an English mathematician famous for Taylor's theorem as well as Taylor series, known by those (like me) who have studied mathematics or physics. Taylor, however, according to Wikipedia also wroted an unfinished treatise On the Lawfulness of Eating Blood, and the sheet for sale is probably thematically related to that.

Whether the sheet is worth spending $350 on, or whether it is of use to anyone, is hard to say, but the Old Bookshop of Bordentown finds it 'an intriguing piece with its undercurrent vampire theme, connection to a famed mathematician, and "demonic" place name.'

Wikipedia, however, mentions another unfinished treatise by Taylor, On the Jewish Sacrifices, so I am afraid that the subject of the sheet is less of a mystery, as it is probably simply a discussion of Old Testament practices?

Far more expensive than Taylor's sheet is a note by Abraham Lincoln that is currently at sale here in Denmark. However, it is far less of a mystery than Taylor's manuscript, as Lincoln simply had this to say: 'I have not time to add a line intelligibly, I am terribly pressed to day. A. Lincoln. February 16, 1863.' The estimated value of this prosaic note is €4,000-5,000! But then, who knows, perhaps Lincoln was busy hunting vampires?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Follow the yellow brick road

'First came the Thracians, about 2,700 years ago, followed by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Turks and then the Communists. These days — more than two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and five years after joining the European Union — the Bulgarian capital is finally coming into its own. In place of the old Lenin monument, a statue of Sofia’s patron saint now stands tall — a dark princess that somehow embodies the city’s East-meets-West, old-meets-new allure. Under her gaze, a youthful, creative energy displays itself as Sofia angles for the title of European Capital of Culture 2019.'

If you are still intrigued by the Bulgarian 'vampire skeleton' discovered this Summer, New York Times has suggestions for a 36 hour stay in Sofia, including a visit to the National History Museum to take a look at the skeleton itself. Frankly, looking at the photos I would not mind going there for a couple of days, if only to take in the sights and taste the local food and drink.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Kiss of the Butterfly

‘Something has torn apart the once-proud Yugoslavia with ease and is feasting on it’s life essence.’

In 1991 when the Yugoslav Wars were beginning to take place, Steven Roberts, a student and teaching assistant of Professor Marko Slatina in San Diego, California, is travelling to Serbia on a mysterious ethnography grant. Steven’s scholarship involves studying a large amount of books and archival material on history, folklore and ethnography. Some of it concerns Societas Draconis, the Order of the Dragon, but most of it turns out be about vampires. Studying at the National Library in Belgrade, he e.g. reads of a vampire case on the Dalmatian island of Pasman in 1403 and of vampire investigations in Dubrovnik in the 18th century.

‘The research was tedious, and his eyes grew tired easily because of the poor lighting. Sometimes he felt he could read no more. Gradually, he uncovered small pieces of what increasingly seemed to be a much larger puzzle. Some came from historical documents, while others came from collections of folk tales recorded by ethnographers… Ducic, Novak, Zovko, Klaic, Liepopili, Karadzic … the names blurred together. Everywhere he turned he found Serbian newspaper accounts of people who were arrested and tried for opening up graves and driving stakes through the hearts of suspected vampires. He had particular problems with one 15th century document written in the Glagolithic alphabet, a precursor to Cyrillic that resembled mangled bicycles, trapezoids and triangles. It took him the better part of three days to read a two page document.’

Steven is astounded by the numerous references to vampires, and their similarities. He notes that ‘these vampires were unlike anything he had ever heard of and bore scant resemblance to film versions of Dracula,’ but the amount of material prompts him to write Professor Slatina that: ‘I suspect there might have once been some phenomenon that led to the establishments of these myths. In fact, there are days when I wonder if vampires might actually have once existed.’

Other threats are, however, more imminent than vampires. In the winter of 1991-92, the secret police in Belgrade is naturally interested in an American staying in Belgrade, and when Steven finds some interesting articles by Tihomir Djordevic on vampires, strange things happen. Apart from the well-known article from 1953, Vampir i druga bica u nasem narodnom verovanju i predanju (Vampires and other beings in our folk beliefs and traditions), ‘a veritable catalogue of vampirism, scientifically organized and categorized with instructions’, Steven discovers a rare article titled The Twelve Mighty Vampires in Legend and Fact. He asks the librarian if she can help photocopy it, but the next day the librarian is ill and replaced by another librarian who refuses to let him see the article. As Steven later learns, only 100 copies were printed, and it had been placed on a restricted list prior to publication by the Yugoslavian secret police, UDBA.

Steven, however, asks a bookseller in Sremski Karlovci, south of Novi Sad, to help him get hold of a copy, while travelling with friends to Petrovaradin and Novi Sad. At the Matica Srpska library he finds more information on vampires, in particular in the work of Stefan Novakovic, ‘the scholar who had found the original Flückinger documents about the Austrian Army vampire-hunting missions in Serbia.’ Novakovic had, apparently, found more information concerning the activities of Flückinger and other Austrians. Steven also finds information relating to the subject in the archives at the Fortress in Petrovaradin which leads him and his friends on a guided tour of the underground of that Fortress.

I am not going to disclose more of the exciting plot, but obviously Steven encounters an unexpected world in Serbia. Here evil is not an abstract term: ‘In America, if I were to talk about evil as being real they would laugh me out of the university. Yet everybody I speak with here talks of evil as if it exists and is a palpable presence.’

Source: Wikimedia
And the past and the present are intertwined. The novel sets out with Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, following the Driva River upstream between Serbia and Bosnia in February 1476, heading to Srebrenica in connection with the Battle of Sabac. In 1991 Srebrenica is again to play a role in history. Vampire folklore, the Order of the Dragon, events in 18th Century Serbia and the conflict on the Balkans in the early 1990’s all become the backdrop of a conflict that transcends centuries.

A conflict that is related to the topic of Steven’s research, vampires that are in many ways very different from those Steven had heard of in California. They are shape-shifters, but typically turn into butterflies or moths, as in the Serbian folklore, the human spirit leaves the body in the form of a butterfly.

Kiss of the Butterfly is certainly an exciting read. The backdrop of Serbia on the brink of war, the minutiae of history, geography and customs, combined with a well-crafted mix of fact in fiction in the findings of Steven’s vampire research makes it a fascinating read as well. I recommend that readers have their smartphone or computer at hand when reading it, because it will prove handy to look up places and things on maps and in dictionaries while following Steven’s exploits. Eventually, you may find inspiration for future reading and travelling.

In short, I can highly recommend James Lyon’s Kiss of the Butterfly.

Kiss of the Butterfly is available as an e-book from Amazon.

Professor Marko Slatina: 'I am interested in real vampires, Balkan vampires, and they existed long before Dracula. The answers to the questions I have posed bear no resemblance to popular imagination. To find your answers you must undertake solid, academic research. You must comb through Balkan folklore, history and ethnography. You must find what the people who actually experienced vampires have to say. Find out how peasants, priests and soldiers fought against these dreaded creatures and what they had to do to vanquish them.'

James M. B. Lyon has over 30 years experience with the Balkans and the lands of former Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Although he calls San Diego home, he has lived and studied in Boston, Florida, Germany, the Soviet Union, and England. He has a Ph.D. in Balkan History from UCLA and has lived in the Balkans for more than 18 years, during which time he has been involved in international peacekeeping efforts and Non-Governmental Organizations, and worked as a business consultant. A well-known political analyst, at present, he divides his time between Belgrade, Sarajevo and the Dalmatian coast.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Trusting Peter Haining or not

How 'Arnold Paul' became a 'High Duke of Medreigia', I posted about some years ago. Peter Haining was the perpretator behind this curious misrepresentation of the famous 1732 Visum & Repertum. As I noted back then, in my youth I was initially impressed by Haining's prolific production of books, but later on I became increasingly sceptical of his research. Another instance is mentioned in a post under the title Another Haining Fraud on the Wormwoodiana blog, which concludes that 'it has become increasingly apparent that you can’t trust Peter Haining on anything.'

According to an obituary in The Guardian, the incredibly productive author, compiler and editor Peter Alexander Haining (1940-2007) 'was rooted in, and sustained by, a childhood passion for hidden nuggets of terror, witchcraft and crime.'  From 1963 to 1972 he was editor at New English Library, and readers of his books and anthologies - or indeed anyone interested in British paperbacks published in the Seventies - may enjoy watching this video about NEL and its books and authors that includes an interview with Haining himself.

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