Posted by: Lister | October 29, 2007

Real Vampires

Who actually desecrated the tomb of Petre Toma? Was it those who cut out his heart? Or the authorities who dug him up to see if his body had been mutilated?

Before telling the tale of the Toma family, from the village of Marotinu de Sus, and what was done to the corpse of Petre Toma, the head of the clan, it is worth noting a few things about vampires – what they are and are not; what vampire specialists argue about, and the universal fears and behaviours embodied in the myth and the reality.

Folklorists agree that there was an outbreak of vampirism in Eastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Individuals committing strange and/or aggressive behaviours, from earth-eating to rape, terrorised communities. Some people later claimed to have seen the perpetrators as living corpses, continuing the same activities after their recorded deaths. The Spanish neurologist Juan Gomez-Alonso believes that a rabies outbreak caused the panic, as the disease increases sexual aggression as well as causing hydrophobia and sensitivity to light; a more esoteric theory points to the rare blood disease porphyria, which restricts sufferers to solely nocturnal activities.

In any case, the scares became a mass hysteria which the church authorities, compromised by their need not to undermine belief in the possibility of actual physical resurrection, were ill-equipped to counter. At times, indeed, they joined in the disinterment and staking of the “problematic” dead.

Fear of the dead, and of people who cannot die properly because they were not born – or did not live – is found in many places around the world, as are beliefs that blood is an animating force. And corpses – as every forensic pathologist knows – are not always tractable outside a climate-controlled morgue. They swell and bloat and bleed and change colour; mouths gape; teeth bare themselves; the skin recedes from fingernails and sinks in around stubble giving a semblance of continued vitality; the dead may clench their fists and, by degrees, sit up. Sometimes they even explode, a feature that requires a degree of circumspection from any stake-wielding wannabe Buffy. Perhaps because of this, there is more than one way to deal with a vampire.

There is no agreement on the etymology of the word vampire. It may come from an old Tartar word, umpyr, meaning a witch or demon, or it may be a Slavic word meaning a nocturnal flying spirit. In any case, the Romanians prefer not to have vampires: they have enough to be getting on with with the local strigoi and moroi (two forms of undead), and the varcolak (essentially a ravening lycanthropist).

Petre Toma died just before Christmas 2003. Often there are reasons to believe that a man, and less often a woman, is in danger of becoming a strigoi. As a child, they may have cut their upper teeth before the lower ones; or a cat may have leapt over, or a bat flown over the newly dead corpse as it was left out, under vigil, in the family kitchen. In Toma’s case there were no prior signs, though neighbours’ and family accounts of his life vary: a good family man, but also (hardly unusual in the rural depths) a heavy drinker with a temper.

After his death, his niece suffered nightmares and appeared seriously ill. She claimed that her uncle was visiting her at night and feeding from her heart; that he was a strigoi. Toma’s brother determined to act. The sequence of events was normal for Marotinu de Sus but, through a constellation of circumstances to do with urbanisation and Romania’s imminent acceptance into the EU, became rapidly notorious.

There were many newspaper reports, all equally lurid, and each with plausible features, but their information was often contradictory. So Kathryn and I were lucky to arrive in Marotinu de Sus with the Romanian social anthropologist Mihai Fifor.

[…] Fifor proved a good guide, and we wandered through the graves, taking care not to fall into them. This was not always easy, as the form of the cemetery allows easy access to corpses. Wide cracks and gaps in concrete capstones reveal skulls and long bones spilling from broken coffins. Most graves are for couples, and some are preparatory, with the names engraved but the dead absent. The filled graves are marked by sometimes elaborate stone crosses (modelled on the posh cemeteries in town), but only ever in addition to the wooden ones, recalling Christ’s, the sine qua non of proper burial.

I asked Fifor why many of the graves had little hearths in front of them, with the remains of cooked food and sometimes a wine glass. “Well,” he replied, “this is where the village women light fires on the three nights from Maundy Thursday – it’s to give the dead some light. The dead are cold and afraid of the dark, and they are often hungry and thirsty.”

The dead of this cemetery are diligently cared for during the first seven years. After that, the skeleton is washed in wine and returned to become increasingly disarticulated; the soul is presumed to be in heaven, nourished by prayer.

Even more critical than the first seven years are the first 40 days. During this period, a corpse may be an unquiet strigoi, moving in its grave and travelling at night in a not quite re-embodied form, to feed off the blood of the living. After 40 days it will morph into moroi – the actual, incarnate, walking dead, able to appear during the day and mount vicious attacks. As Fifor explained the theoretical background, we were challenged by an old fellow brandishing a very large scythe. […] He had been present at more than one event where strigoi were dealt with. He had not been at Toma’s grave in 2003, but the proceedings had apparently gone to form, at least at first.

After the niece became ill, he said, Petre’s brother had had to wait, because he could not act within the 12 days of Christmas. On 8 January, the corpse was checked and deemed to be a strigoi. At midnight the next day, six men disinterred it and cut open the chest. I asked Niculae what they used for this and he looked at me as if I was mad, before brandishing his scythe again. Apparently, the chest was cut crosswise with a scythe tip, and the heart removed through the ribcage. Again, I asked what tools had been used. This time we needed help to interpret the words and gestures. It was with a growing image of James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein that I understood Fifor to say, as neutrally as possible, “He says it was with a pitchfork. Yes.” The subsequent description failed utterly to dispel my horror-film image. The men took the heart, spiked aloft, to the crossroads outside the village. There they roasted it over a brazier and, as far as I could understand, stuffed glowing coals into the ventricles. Held up in the night sky, the heart shed charred flakes that were caught in a tea towel. These were taken to the niece’s house, ground up and mixed in a glass of water. “The niece drank it,” Fifor confirmed, “and in the morning she said she felt better… in this way she was cured.”

None of this would have come to public attention had it not been for a family rift. One of Toma’s daughters, who had married an urbanite, was outraged. She alerted the police who dug Toma up again in full view of the public and media. His body was examined in a procedure one would be hard-pushed to call forensic. Although in village terms, this was desecration, that was what the court found Toma’s brother guilty of, and he received a prison sentence. It was only through the intervention of Fifor, who was able to articulate the logic of peasant traditions, that this was commuted, although not quashed.

What strikes me is how much a religion can change to fit into a new environment. The graves in the village cemetery have Christian crosses. And the burning of the heart had to be delayed because it couldn’t be done during the 12 days of Christmas.

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