How long would it take for you to be trapped in the freezing cold earth before you went insane and would do anything to escape?
In the lore of ancient Russia, the souls of all people–not just vampires–are trapped in their graves, going mad with the weight of the earth on them and the cold of the winter. There is a Russian Folk Funeral Song which laments that “Dark and joyless is our prison-house…” When folklorists would ask about this, or where the souls of the dead lived people would answer: “Stone and earth lie heavy on our hearts, our eyes are fast closed, our hands and feet are frozen by the cold.”
Before We Get to Our Vampire Tale…Here is Some Russian Vampire Lore…
“Especially during the winters do the dead suffer; when the spring returns the peasants say, “Our fathers enjoy repose,” and in Little-Russia they add: “God grant that the earth may lie light on you.” (Ralston, 1872)
The concept of the “soul”—as separate from the “body”—in Russian folklore involves the belief that a person has more than one soul. One may leave the body at the time of death, or even before death, and take the form of a bird, for example, flying off to Heaven: “‘What a beautiful bird I heard singing by my bedside to-night,’ a man in one story said to his wife on the night before his imminent death; to which the wife replied: ‘I well believe it.’ ‘It was my ghost,’ the man replied; ‘Alas, I cannot live long.’”
Here, we see that a person’s soul (spirit, ghost) can leave his or her body before he or she dies. But there is another soul according to Russian folklore—one that remains with the dead body, even during burial. What’s important for this story is that when people die, they have one soul that stays with them in the ground—and it is this soul that has the potential to answer old superstitions…to rise up, and haunt the living.
In the Russian folktale, “The Dead Mother“, a mother comes back from her grave to suckle her baby and eventually drains away its life. She than takes the baby’s body and its soul to stay with her in her grave.
The sorcerers in Russian folklore are truly terrifying, for they have an astounding array of powers and abilities. Indeed Russian peasants often drew very little if any distinction between living and dead sorcerers, for they believed hat both wreaked havoc upon he living in a similar fashion. Vampires were sometimes seen as living sorcerers, astral projections of the dead which take solid form to attack people (which is why the vampire doesn’t have to dig its way out of the grave).
In the folktale, “The Two Corpses“, a poor soldier is walking home on leave when a corpse begins to chase after him; he flees as fast as he can and eventually the corpse chases the him into a church where another corpse is waiting for the soldier. Rather than eat the soldier, however, the two corpses, seem to be rather territorial, and begin to fight over to whom the soldier belongs. Luckily for the soldier, they argue for until cock crows and the two vampires collapse unable to move in the daylight.
In Russian folklore, vampires didn’t just attack people, they were often just cruel for cruelty’s sake. For example, they were known to go after food sources, draining cows of their milk, for without this milk a peasant family could easily starve to death. Vampires could also blight crops and leave a family starving. We can see their cruelty and vindictiveness in the tale, “The Fiend”, in which a girl falls in love with a charming and suave man (who is really a vampiric creature in disguise). Eventually the man proposes to her; however, she soon grows curious about his life and wants to know where she’ll live when they are married. One day she follows the vampire home and discovers that he lives in a graveyard and feeds on fresh corpses. Terrified, she runs away. To get revenge, he attacks and kills her family in an attempt to force her to confess that she followed him. As her loved one’s die around her, the girl finally seeks advice from her grandmother, who tells her that she can die and come back to life on the condition that she can never enter a church again. In this way the girl is able to hide from the vampire who presumes that she is actually dead. Of course, this sort of trickery never works for long in fairy tales and eventually the girl must confront the vampire on more direct terms.
Defeating vampires in Russia isn’t very easy to do as is depicted in our story The Soldier and the Vampire. In this story, a poor soldier is returning home when he encounters a man who convinces him that there will be some good food at a wedding. Hungry, the soldier goes with the man to the wedding where he discovers that the man is a vampiric warlock (sorcerer) who kills the wedding guests. In order to prevent the vampire from killing again, the soldier hunts the vampire down and burns him, but rats, worms, and other creepy crawlies begin to form from the vampire’s ashes. Should just one of these things escape, it could take he form of the vampire; so in order to slay the vampire for good, the soldier has to capture each of these creatures and throw them back into the fire….
The Soldier and the Vampire
A Russian Folktale
A certain soldier was allowed to go home on furlough. Well, he walked and walked, and after a time he began to draw near to his native village. Not far off from that village lived a miller in his mill. In old times the soldier had been very intimate with him: why shouldn’t he go and see his friend?
The miller received him cordially, and at once brought out liquor; and the two began drinking, and chatting about their ways and doings. All this took place late in the afternoon, and before the soldier realized, it had grown quite dark.
When he proposed to start for his village, his host exclaimed: “Spend the night here, trooper! It’s very late now, and perhaps you might run into mischief.”
“God is punishing us! A terrible warlock has died among us, and by night he rises from his grave, wanders through the village, and does such things as bring fear upon the very boldest! How could even you help being afraid of him?”
“Not a bit of it! A soldier is a man who belongs to the crown, and ‘crown property cannot be drowned in water nor burnt in fire.’ I’ll be off: I’m tremendously anxious to see my people as soon as possible.”
Off he set. His road lay in front of a graveyard. On one of the graves he saw a great fire blazing. “What’s that?” he thought. When he drew near, he saw the warlock sitting by a fire, sewing boots.
“Hail, brother!” called the soldier.
The warlock looked up and said: “What have you come here for?”
“Why, I wanted to see what you’re doing.”
The warlock threw his work aside and invited the soldier to a wedding.
“Come along, brother,” he said; “let’s enjoy ourselves. There’s a wedding going on in the village.”
“Come along, then!” said the soldier.
They came to where the wedding was; there they were given drink, and treated with the utmost hospitality. The warlock drank and drank, reveled and reveled, and then grew angry. He chased all the guests and relatives out of the house, threw the wedded pair into a slumber, took out two phials and an awl, pierced the hands of the bride and bridegroom with the awl, and began drawing off their blood. Having done this, he said to the soldier:
“Now let’s be off.”
On the way the soldier said: “Tell me; why did you draw off their blood in those phials?”
“Why, in order that the bride and bridegroom might die. Tomorrow morning no one will be able to wake them. I alone know how to bring them back to life.”
“How’s that managed?”
“The bride and bridegroom must have cuts made in their heels, and some of their own blood must then be poured back into those wounds. I’ve got the bridegroom’s blood stowed away in my right-hand pocket, and the bride’s in my left.”
The soldier listened to this without letting a single word escape him. Then the warlock began boasting again.
“Whatever I wish,” he said, “that I can do!”
“I suppose it’s quite impossible to get the better of you?” says the soldier.
“Why impossible? If any one were to make a pyre of aspen boughs, a hundred loads of them, and were to burn me on that pyre, then he’d be able to get the better of me. Only he’d have to look out sharp in burning me; for snakes and worms and different kinds of reptiles would creep out of my inside, and crows and magpies and jackdaws would come flying up. All these must be caught and flung on the pyre. If so much as a single maggot were to escape, then there’d be no help for it; in that maggot I should slip away!”
The soldier listened to all this and did not forget it. He and the warlock talked and talked, and at last they arrived at the grave.
“Well, brother,” said the warlock, “now I’ll tear you to pieces. Otherwise you’ll tell others my secrets!”
“What are you talking about? Don’t deceive yourself. I am an honorable man. My word is good. I serve God and the Emperor.”
The warlock gnashed his teeth, howled aloud, and sprang at the soldier, who drew his sword and began laying about him with sweeping blows. They struggled and struggled; the soldier was all but at the end of his strength. “Ah!” he thought, “I’m a lost man, and all for nothing!” Suddenly the cocks began to crow. Morning had broken. The warlock fell lifeless to the ground.
The soldier took the phials of blood out of the warlock’s pockets, and went on to the house of his own people. When he had got there, and had exchanged greetings with his relatives, they said: “Did you see any disturbance, soldier?”
“I saw none,” he said.
“There now! Why we’ve a terrible piece of work going on in the village. A warlock has taken to haunting it!”
After talking awhile, they lay down to sleep. Next morning the soldier awoke, and began asking: “I’m told you’ve got a wedding going on somewhere here?”
“There was a wedding in the house of a rich moujik,” replied his relative, “but the bride and bridegroom have died this very night; from what, nobody knows.”
They showed him the house. Thither he went without speaking a word. When he got there, he found the whole family in tears.
“Why are you in mourning?” he said.
“Such and such is the state of things soldier,” they said.
“I can bring your young people to life again. What will you give me if I do?”
“Take what you like, even were it half of what we’ve got!”
The soldier did as the warlock had instructed him, and brought the young people back to life. There was much rejoicing; the soldier was hospitably treated and well rewarded.
Then, off he marched to the Starosta, and told him to call the peasants together and to get ready a hundred loads of aspen wood. Well, they took the wood into the graveyard, dragged the warlock from his grave, placed him on the pyre, and set it alight—the people all standing round in a circle with brooms, shovels, and fire-irons.
The pyre quickly became engulfed in flames and the warlock began to burn. His corpse burst, and out of it crept snakes, worms, and all sorts of reptiles, and up flew crows, magpies, and jackdaws. As the soldier had instructed, the peasants knocked the creatures down and flung them back into the fire, not allowing so much as a single maggot to creep away!
And so the warlock was thoroughly consumed, and the soldier collected his ashes and strewed them to the winds.
From that time forth there was peace in the village.
The soldier received the thanks of the whole community. He returned to the czar’s service with money in his pocket. And, when he had served his time, he retired from the army, and lived a life of ease.