37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Wednesday 3 February 2016
Bulgaria has a long tradition of vampire myths. While it may be neighbouring Romania where Bram Stoker chose to base his 1897 novel Dracula, the folklore from which he drew his inspiration does not always recognise national boundaries; and many similar legends appear in Bulgaria’s history.
Ever since the arrival of Christianity in the 10th century, the Bulgarians have told stories of the dead rising from their graves. In medieval times vampires were sometimes believed to spread pestilence and contagion; and the plagues that swept across Europe in those centuries provided ample fuel for such rumours.
According to the lore, there were many ways that the deceased could become a vampire. Unnatural deaths, suicides, the lawless and the irreligious; people who lived suspiciously long lives or children who died in infancy; those who died between Christmas and St. Jordan’s Day, when the year was at its darkest and the evil spirits of winter were yet to be banished… all of them were considered liable to return in vampire form.
The Bulgarians have relatively little in the way of written histories from their 500-year period of Ottoman occupation; and so what exists of their vampire myths survives largely through religious traditions or word of mouth. In recent decades though, archaeological evidence has emerged to shed new light on these medieval beliefs. Most recently: the discovery of several vampire skeletons near the seaside town of Sozopol.
Just to be clear, no one today is claiming that the skeletons – dug up by archaeologists close to the town’s old monastery – were those of actual vampires; but whoever buried the corpses certainly wasn’t taking any chances.
The first skeleton discovered had its chest pierced with a wooden ploughshare. The next two, found together, had iron poles stabbed through their bodies. These materials were chosen for their earthy, grounding qualities, and would be used to effectively pin the corpses into their graves; thus preventing the dead from ever rising again.
Last year I visited one of the more recent discoveries, the bones of the first, so-called ‘Sozopol Vampire.’
Sozopol itself is quite beautiful – a town founded in the 7th century BC on top of Bronze Age foundations, it overlooks the Black Sea from a cove just south of Burgas. The day I arrived though, I stepped straight into a late-September rainstorm… so rather than the hot and balmy tourist trap known to summer visitors, instead I was greeted by strong winds that snapped at flags and sails, wet ropes and salty air; a maritime atmosphere that I found immediately more authentic, and more appealing than any beach resort.
The museum lay in the town centre, just off a network of narrow, cobbled streets overhung by wood-beamed houses. It was all but empty, only two museum staff floating aimlessly in a whitewashed barn filled with glass cases, pottery and spotlights. I made my way through the rows of vases and beads, past tools and weapons and coins and jars, up the stairs, until I spotted a glass display case in a far back corner: the Sozopol Vampire.
The bones lay scattered across soil inside their transparent coffin. A rough chunk of matter sat between two rib bones – allegedly, the wooden ploughshare.
The bones have been dated to somewhere around 800 years old… although according to Bozhidar Dimitrov, chief of Bulgaria’s Natural History Museum, the practice of pinning corpses into their graves remained common in rural areas until as late as the 20th century. The country’s archaeologists have now documented more than 100 instances of these superstitious, ritual burials. Heavy metal rings attached to limbs, stones placed on top of coffins, hands bound in rope; people tried all sorts of things to keep the dead from rising.
Dimitrov does insist though, that these bones always return to the ground once they’ve had a chance to contribute to the discussion. “They are the builders of this county, they are the fathers of this country, so we need to pay them some respect,” he says.
Of course, the final irony is this: all those practices the rural folk of Bulgaria performed in order to ensure that the dead remained safely in their graves, in the end had the opposite effect; ensuring, instead, that of all the many bones beneath Bulgaria it would be these skeletons, the suspected vampires, who did indeed rise from the earth once more.
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