Vampire Superstition in Bulgaria
There is a common misconception that the creature notoriously known as the vampire was a fabricated myth hatched in the mind of author Bram Stoker and based loosely on the historic figure “Vlad the Impaler” of Romania. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The origin of the vampire has been demonstrated to date back to early Egypt and Mesopotamia, which is essentially the bedrock of human civilization.
The legend and folklore of the vampire especially took root in Eastern Europe. When Bram Stoker wrote his bestselling horror novel Dracula, which spawned the modern image and popularity of this blood sucking demonic creature from hell, Stoker drew heavily upon the myth and folklore of his native country of Ireland as well as many Eastern European countries. One of these countries whose culture held deeply to this superstition is Bulgaria.
The Vampire in Slavic Folklore
The country of Bulgaria is considered a Southern Slavic ethnic group which held to a very strange and idiosyncratic superstition concerning the vampire. According to their folklore, (each region had different versions), those people who died (in most cases, men) were to be pinned down by a strong wooden stake or a rod to prevent them from coming back as a vampire. Although this method was by no means exclusive, as there were many others, this particular method was well documented and the ideas have been carried over into modern books and movies.
According to a very old book of Bulgarian anthropology, history and folklore dating back to 1877 called the Twelve Years' Study of the Eastern Question in Bulgaria, it notes the following concerning the execution of a vampire: By far the most curious superstition in Bulgaria is that of the vampire, a tradition which is common to all countries of Slavonic origin, but is now to be found in its original loathsomeness only in these provinces. In Dalmatia and Albania, whence the knowledge of this superstition was first imported into Europe, and which were consequently, though wrongly, considered as its mother-countries, the vampire has been disfigured by poetical embellishments, and has become a mere theatrical being—tricked out in all the tinsel of modern fancy. The Dalmatian youth who, after confessing himself and receiving the Holy Communion as if in preparation for death, plunges a consecrated poniard into the heart of the vampire slumbering in his tomb; and the supernaturally beautiful vampire himself, who sucks the life-blood of sleeping maidens, has never been imagined by the people, but fabricated, or at least dressed up, by romancers of the sensational school (Brophy & St. Clair, 1877).
The Cult of Dionysis and Vampirism
However, these 19th century diatribes have been found wanting, especially in light of several vampire graves that have recently been discovered in Bulgaria. In 2014, Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov, discovered a plethora of graves that contained skeletons with wooden or iron rods pierced through the chest cavity where the heart would have been located. It has been stated by professional anthropologists and folklorists that this was the common practice in order to prevent the corpses from coming back to life and turning into vampires.
What is even more unique about these particular graves is the fact the town where these were discovered is the ancient city of Thracia. This city of Thracia was a province of the ancient Roman empire, and it is believed that the ancient temple of Dionysis was found in a nearby medieval fortress named Perperikon. Dionysis, also known as Bacchus, was the Greek god of wine and festivity. The cult of Bacchus would meet together several times a month and conduct drunken sexual orgies in the woods. This was known as the Bacchanal. There are also some scholars who believe this cult would kidnap people (especially virgins) and sacrifice them to Dionysis and celebrate by drinking their blood. Thus, there has always been a strong correlation between the Dionysian cult and vampirism.
History and Theories of the Vampire Graves
However, what is especially fascinating about the story of Dyonysis is the ancient myth and folklore that surrounds him. The Greek goddess Athena was believed to have stolen his heart from his body after he was murdered, which enabled Dionysis to spring forth and be reborn. Some Slavic vampire folklore surrounding this particular vicinity where the skeletons were discovered conveyed the idea there was a forty day metaphysical gestation period where the deceased person would return as a shadow, but then slowly metamorphosize into a vampire and be reborn.
There were ultimately close to one hundred vampire skeletons found in the vicinity. Some were dated to medieval times; others were dated to be much older. Throughout the course of history there have been many conquests, both pagan and Christian, surrounding this particular area. It is well documented that the apostle Andrew and the apostle Paul preached in this area and it became a vibrant Christian community.
Perhaps some of these vampire skeletons are the remains of the original members of the Dionysian cult which were killed in a type of Christian holy war and staked through the heart as a symbolic gesture for destroying the spirit of Dionysis. Nobody really knows the answers to these anomalies, but one thing that is certain is that vampires, or at least the superstition of them, have been around centuries longer than anybody ever anticipated. The vampire skeletons of Bulgaria prove that.
S. G. B. St. Clair & Charles A. Brophy, Twelve Years’ Study of the Eastern Question in Bulgaria (London: Chapman and Hall, 1877), 29-33.
Stephen A Brown (author) on October 09, 2019:
Some of these skeletons date back to at least the 13th century. I am not sure the TB phenomenon was an issue at that particular time in Bulgaria. Most people who would become vampires, according to folklore, were those unsavory characters who lived bad lives.
Tonya on October 09, 2019:
So, in your studies, did you find that the Bulgarians only staked certain people through the heart, say, those who may have died from Tuberculosis? Or did they put a stake through the heart of every man?
Stephen A Brown (author) on October 09, 2019:
Bulgaria was certainly a hotbed of vampire superstition, but there were many other countries in the area that had superstitions as well. The vampire is a global phenomenon, but it is Eastern Europe where all the finds are being made. Thanks for responding.
Lora Hollings on October 08, 2019:
I think that you are correct in saying that a lot of people probably think that the Dracula legend originated with the book by author Bram Stoker. And the old movies about this vampire mention Transylvania. I certainly learned much in reading this fascinating account that it was Bulgaria that this legend really had its roots. I had no idea that the origin of the vampire dates back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Rome. Thanks for sharing.
Stephen A Brown (author) on October 08, 2019:
Thank you my friend. I am glad that you found the article interesting.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 08, 2019:
A very interesting read.