The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Vampire’ grave shows 17th-century fear of women who ‘didn’t fit in’

The remains of a female “vampire” with a sickle across her throat are seen on Aug. 30 after they were unearthed at an archaeological site in a 17th-century cemetery in Bydgoszcz, Poland. (Courtesy of Mirosław Blicharski)

A sharp sickle was placed across her neck, ready to decapitate her should she jolt awake after death, and a padlock was put around her big toe.

That’s what scientists found when they excavated the corpse of a woman they believe was suspected of being a vampire in 17th-century Poland.

The unnamed woman — thought to be young and of a high social class, given that she was buried in a silk scarf — was probably accused of being supernatural because she stood out, experts said. A large protruding tooth may provide some clues.

A professor from Poland’s Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun said burials involving a sickle are extremely unusual. Archaeologists from the university made the discovery in the southern village of Pien in the Eastern European nation last month and published their findings this week.

“Ways to protect against the return of the dead include cutting off the head or legs, placing the deceased face down to bite into the ground, burning them and smashing them with a stone,” Dariusz Polinski, who led the research team, told The Washington Post. Instead, in this case, a sharp scythe is “not laid flat but placed on the neck in such a way that if the deceased had tried to get up, most likely the head would have been cut off or injured.”

The woman’s exhumed remains are now being studied by Polinski’s team.

Her burial reveals “paranoia” and “fear” around vampires — and the “gender politics” at the time, Stacey Abbott, author of “Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century,” told The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Charges of being vampires were often made against people who “didn’t fit in,” Abbott said. “Anxiety about vampires came from people being different,” as was often the case in witchcraft accusations, she added.

The woman may have been singled out for her gender, a physical deformity or any social anomaly considered “immoral,” Abbott said, as people sought “a supernatural explanation” for those they perceived as outcasts.

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It is not unusual for “vampiric graves” to be found on roadsides or crossroads, said Bethan Briggs-Miller, a British folklorist and paranormal historian. This is because the deceased were not permitted to be buried close to others or in consecrated ground and cemeteries. The suspected individuals would often be buried with chains or multiple stakes driven through their bodies. Others found in such graves may have died by suicide.

The fear was that they could “have wandered the earth and risen from the grave,” she said.

Women were “very susceptible” to retaliation for any kind of accusation or anomaly — from refusing to marry, having a miscarriage or even not menstruating, said Briggs-Miller, co-host of the “Eerie Essex” podcast. That her clothes indicate a high social status proves that such accusations of vampirism “affected women from all stations,” she said. It was “all part of this demonizing of women that took place for a long time.”

“If you stood out in any way, similar to the witch trials, to be slightly different created the same sort of hysteria,” she continued. “It would have been a case of accuse first, otherwise you’d be accused yourself.”

Despite the 17th-century medical community’s relative lack of scientific knowledge about communicable diseases or mental health, the burials were performed with a great degree of “pragmatism” to prevent the dead from rising from the grave, Abbott said. “Coming back as a vampire was a fate worse than death.”

Accusations of vampirism were common across Europe at the time, especially in what are now Serbia, Romania, Greece and Italy, she said. The church and other authorities were “systematic” in investigating and exhuming bodies and hunting for evidence of vampirism, which could include a lack of decomposition, red cheeks, blood in the mouth or swollen corpses.

“In some respects, these were very superstitious beliefs,” but the investigative methods “were very scientific,” Abbott said.

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The myth of vampires has evolved over the centuries; some historians trace their origins back to biblical references to Lilith, an apparently demonic wife of Adam who preyed on the weak and young. Others cite the ancient Greek myth of Lamia, a blood-lusting daemon who also fed off children. The stories are common across the world, sliding on a scale between zombies and transformative bats, but they generally have some elements in common, experts say, such as an association with blood, feasting on the living and being contagious.

Vampires have long fascinated the modern imagination, from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” to the television hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the “Twilight” romance novels and movies and the popular children’s animation “Hotel Transylvania.”

“We are naturally drawn to dark stories,” Briggs-Miller told The Post, explaining the centuries-old interest in vampires.

For Abbott, our fascination has transformed over time. “As we shift and change and our fears change, vampires often come to embody different things,” she said. Originally linked to religion and fear, they are now given a “more sympathetic” treatment representing “groups that have been oppressed,” and we wish them happy endings rather than death. “We like them,” she added.

They also allow the living to ponder the “perennial question” of life after death, said Abbott, stoking a morbid curiosity that continues to draw in readers, historians and the public — not just on Halloween.

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But European historian and professor Martyn Rady told The Post on Wednesday that “there is nothing at all odd in this discovery.” The use of a sickle across the neck was “pretty tame,” he added.

“This is not a vampire, but a revenant. All cultures have a belief in the ‘undead,’ ” he explained, describing them generally as “people that have led violent lives or died violently or have not been buried with the proper funeral rites.”

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In some parts of Europe, “bodies may be cut in two down the middle, or the head sliced off, or a stake driven through the corpse to pin it down,” he continued. “In Chinese accounts, one way to keep the corpse immobile is to bury it with rice, since the undead like nothing better than to count rice grains,” he said. Similar accounts have been found in Europe, with seeds being sprinkled inside graves for suspected vampires to count until the sun comes up.

“There is, incidentally, nothing odd in the revenant being a woman,” Rady said of the Polish case. “Quite why the locals feared the woman might become undead is unknown: possibly, something as simple as dying violently by falling off a cart.”

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