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Serbian Vampires

It was a foggy day that April 6, back in the year 1725 when angry villagers of rural hamlet of Kisiljevo, Serbia opened the grave of their neighbor Petar Blagojević who died eight days before. His death was followed by a spate of nine other sudden deaths and numerous claims by the victims being throttled by Petar at night. When they cracked the casket open, features associated with vampires, just like they anticipated, were indeed present, the body was undecomposed, the hair and beard were grown, there were mixture of new skin and nails along with old ones peeled away, and there was blood flowing out of his mouth.
The villagers were accompanied with an official of the Austrian administration (Austrian empire governed the area in early 18th century) and local priest. The entire case was documented and reported to the officials and covered by Die Wiener Zeitung, a Viennese newspaper on July 21st. At the time, the vampirism was fully embedded into Serbian folklore with numerous Slavic legends and the old village stories from centuries before especially during harsh times of Turkish occupation. In the aftermath with consent of authorities they stabbed the Petar's heart with a hawthorn and burned the body.

Petar's case was by no means an isolated phenomenon of vampirism in Serbia. Only one year after, in different village, about hundred kilometers to the south, a man called Arnaut Pavle came with even more colorful story. He was known rebellion against Ottoman empire who had escaped to the village from the Turkish-controlled part of Serbia where he had been plagued by a vampire by his own claims. Allegedly, he had cured himself by eating soil from the vampire's grave and smearing himself with his blood.

Unfortunately he died soon after during summer labor - he broke his neck in a fall from a hay wagon. In the following weeks, four people claimed to be plagued by him and died short after. Similarly to Petar, after the villagers opened his grave, they saw his body unchanged with the same vampire characteristics. The story said when they drove a stake through his heart, he released a frightful shriek as if he was alive. They cut off his head, burnt the whole body and performed the same procedure with four victims as well to prevent them from becoming vampires as well.

The most respected Serbian philologist and linguist, Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, one of the most important reformers of the modern Serbian language did a thorough inquiries of the old tales and in his ethnographic research "Belief in things that do not exist" mentioned vampires as dead people with devilish spirits who enter and revive them after 40 days if their souls are not accepted in the afterlife. The tales indeed contain instructions of how to deal with undecomposed bodies if found in graves, especially those swollen and reddened by what seemed to be human blood. In those illiterate era of the middle age when lots of legends and stories in fact survived merely in oral form and transferred from generation to generation only as bedtime stories and never written down there is no doubt that colorful fiction is always inevitable part added to real historical events. More or less, even today, everything in life and death not fully understandable receives fictitious and mysterious additions especially from religion and vivid human imagination.

Almost three centuries before, back then in the 18th century, little was known about what happens to the body after death. Postmortem purge fluid is one of them. In modern forensics it is a natural byproduct of decomposition, a reddish blood-like fluid, that may or may not exude from the oral and nasal passages after death. Burial in physical environment (temperature, moisture and soil properties) with high deficiency in oxygen often resulted in slow microbial growth and therefore slow decomposition itself. The body condition is also the factor in the process as well as the nature of the microbial community itself. If we implement all the scientific and medical knowledge of today it is much easier to separate fiction from what really happened in the middle ages. Today we even know great deal about clinical vampirism known as Renfield syndrome which in psychiatric literature is defined as an obsession with drinking blood and several medical publications are actively concerning clinical vampirism in scientific literature as well as in forensic psychiatry.

However, on the other side of the science, fiction had its own evolution in past centuries and vampires received the great portion in written horror stories and movies as well. The word itself in the literature was derived in the early 18th century from the Serbian 'vampir' (Serbian Cyrillic: 'вампир') but it's usage in Serbian folklore is much older. Almost all the old cultures encountered vampirism in one way or another especially in the old Slavic paganism. There was also beings known as 'lamia/empusa' in old Greek/Roman mythology with shape-shifting blood-sucking vampiress, 'baobhan sith' - a female blood sucking fairy in old Scottish tales and many others.

Horror fiction with vampires in fore/background is not actually my top notch genre but from time to time some extraordinary work emerges among all the mediocrities and 'Constantine's Crossing' by Dejan Stojiljković is just that. The novel is following a main character just before the end of the second world war in occupied Serbia. Almost all the action is in my own town where I am living ever since my birth and the main premise summarize the Nazis in a search for the great secret of Constantine the Great, who was the best known man ever born in this neighborhood in the late 3rd century AD. The author is also native to the town of Niš known by the name of Naissus in Constantine's time. What is the best about the book is that Dejan Stojiljković is perfectly embedded the horror plot into real historical events and people and perhaps the only downside of the novel is that it is too short for that many characters involved but nevertheless it was by far the best horror novel I read in a while. The accompanying graphic novel is amazing as well and I warmly recommend both. Bellow in the ref section there are more stories related to Naissus, Constantine and WW2 in this parts that could help with understanding the background better.

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