Bury the Sickle

Eric Lis

Historically, one of the best ways to get misidentified as a vampire may have been to die the wrong way.

Anthropologists believe that you can learn a lot about a society by the way that they bury people. Apotropaic funerary rites can be especially interesting, because they shed light on what a culture fears as much as what it believes. Apotropaism refers to using magic and ritual to ward off unwanted forces (Dungeons & Dragons calls this sort of magic "abjuration") and apotropaic burial is usually practiced to either protect dead bodies from evil spirits, or more rarely, to keep the dead from coming back. I found myself reading about this the other day and thereby came across a paper describing Polish anti-vampire apotropaic burial where the authors tried to determine why these individuals had been considered especially high risk to come back as vampires.

A number of different techniques were used to keep a body from rising as a vampire in Slavic history. Some of these were pretty concrete methods of stopping the body from rising, such as leaving a sickle blade sharp-side down on a body's neck so that it would decapitate itself if it tried to move. Others were weighted down with rocks, presumably to keep them from lunging at the living should their coffins be opened. Coins and medals, often bearing holy symbols, were thought to seal a grave, and in the Polish graves described in this study the image of Saint Benedict of Nursia seems to have been particularly common. Coins were sometimes just scattered in the coffin, but commonly were found lying under a corpse's tongue. Not uncommonly, bodies might be preventatively decapitated, dismembered, bound, or staked.

As a brief aside, I find it very interesting that Polish graves were found to be protected with images of Saint Benedict. Benedict is a protector of Europe in general but was largely an Italian figure, and I might have assumed that Polish citizens would have chosen a more local patron. Perhaps they chose Benedict for his patronages, which included protection against witchcraft as well as watching over civil engineers (I don't know if this included grave-diggers) and the dying. From a brief reading, I gather that a Saint Benedict Medal is seen as a sort of all-purpose evil-repellent, which makes as much sense to me as any other religious practice, I suppose.

A number of factors seemed to predict which graves would have special protections and wards. One popular theory has been that newcomers to a town were more likely to be viewed with suspicion and, on their deaths, buried in warded graves. Examination of some of the bones in prior studies had suggested that at least one of the "vampires" had a notably different skull than non-warded bodies and was likely therefore of a different ethnicity. By looking at the ratio of different isotopes of strontium in skeletons' teeth -- the article explains how and why this test can be used to assess whether a person was a local or had migrated from another land -- these authors found that all of the warded graves contained locals, not outsiders, or at least that they lived in the region of the graveyard during the childhood years when their teeth developed. The authors suggest that these individuals had been deemed to be high-risk of becoming undead due to having unusual causes of death. They hypothesize that the area had seen a series of cholera epidemics, and that people who died in the earliest stages of the outbreaks may have been seen as cursed or as having been killed by infectious undead. Unfortunately, the authors don't actually offer any evidence for or against this pet theory, leaving it in the realm of pure supposition, but it's a clever suggestion.

Despite the complete and utter lack of evidence for their theory, it's a tempting thought. Imagine a medieval village, where people don't really understand disease (sadly, this scenario hasn't changed very much in large parts of the world, but let's not dwell on that). One day, a cholera epidemic hits the village. Perhaps the first person to die is a traveler who brought it to town; his body gets unceremoniously dumped somewhere. Within a few days, other people in the village begin to fall in. They became pale and wan, have no energy, and their skin seems to hang on their bones. To the fearful peasant, this might indeed seem to have all the hallmarks of being drained by a vampire. When the first few people die, the villagers may or may not believe that there really is a monster in their midst, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and perhaps the loss of an old, blunted sickle blade is a small price to pay for a night's sleep without having to worry if your neighbour is stalking the countryside. In a variation of Pascal's Wager, even if a person is 99% sure that vampires aren't real, it might still feel worth the trouble to bury someone with a couple of wards in place. Of course, if the community genuinely does believe in vampires, or if there's an enthusiastic witch-hunter in their midst, the body count might just be beginning to climb exponentially, even before we take into account that another dozen people are probably still infected with cholera.

The "witch hunt" trope is one which sees a lot of use in medieval fantasy, and it's one which is particularly fun for us as storytellers because, after all, sometimes there really is a vampire or a werewolf or something else with big pointy teeth. Work like this can inform us as to how our ancestors really did try to stop the dead from rising as well as how they identified the people who were more likely to do so. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on January 24, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system