The 1922 silent German film “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” is recognized as the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. In 1979, Werner Herzog wrote and directed “Nosferatu the Vampyre.” While the vampire resides in the Transylvania area of Romania, some characters living near the castle speak Polish. This could be an Easter egg referencing the fact that, although the legend was forever linked to Romania by Stoker’s novel, the country of Poland may have the richest history of vampire legends ... and real vampires. That connection rose up again recently as archeologists digging in a 17th century cemetery uncovered the remains of a woman buried in one of the traditional ways to bury an alleged vampire – with a scythe blade positioned over her throat to behead her if she attempted to rise out of her grave. The skeleton may have been from what locals believed to have been a rich and powerful vampire because those who buried her employed a second, less used vampire prevention device – a padlock around her big toe. Who was this feared female ‘vampire’ and why does Poland seem to have so many of them?
“The sickle was placed around the neck, and if the deceased tried to stand up ... his head would be cut automatically." (Google translation)
Professor Dariusz Poliński and a team of archeologists from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland told Glodni Wiedzy (in Polish)they discovered the skeletal remains of a woman in a 17th century cemetery in the village of Pien in southeastern Poland. (Pien is nearer to Lviv in western Ukraine than it is to Krakow, the closest major city in Poland.) While the report doesn’t say if the team was specifically searching for suspected vampires, the 17th century was a popular time in Polish history for vampire myths. (More on that later.) The scythe – a sharp, long-bladed, long-handled hand tool used to cut down wide swaths of hay or wheat for harvesting – was found first as it was still solidly positioned blade down above the neck of the corpse. (Photos can be seen here.) As they continued digging, they exposed the skull, which had a silk hat on it. that indicated the woman had a high social status while she was alive. However, the next feature exposed may hint at why she was considered to be a vampire – a protruding tooth.
“Cholera epidemics that swept across much of Eastern Europe during the 17th century may provide one alternate explanation as to the reason behind these apotropaic mortuary customs, as the first person to die from an infectious disease outbreak was presumed more likely to return from the dead as a vampire.”
A 2014 study in PLOS One looked at the various ways Poles of the 17th century buried those they feared would rise up from the dead as vampires during a time when so many were dying from the misunderstood disease of cholera. The researchers studied the remains of six people buried among many others in a cemetery in northwestern Poland – they were all found with scythes across their necks or bodies or large rocks placed under their chins to keep them from rising. The researchers focused on radiogenic strontium isotope ratios in their teeth and determined that these were locals – not foreigners who may have been suspected of vampirism because they were strangers in a strange land.
“Some of them had to have been perceptible during his lifetime, such as crowding and distortion of his front teeth. While pathologies would not necessarily have been unusual in that time and place, Lewandowska suspects that people with visible, unsightly anomalies would have been considered misfits, potentially imbued with evil.”
Archeologist Dr. Jadwiga Lewandowska of the Museum of the Dobrzyń Land in Rypin was digging in the small village of Stary Rypin which was once called Starorypin Prywatny and known to be the earliest source of vampire tales in Poland, dating back to the 11th century. Lewandowska uncovered corpses buried in a vampire manner with birth deformities like misshapen teeth. That could have been the reason why the wealthy woman in Pien was considered to be a vampire. However, those in village breying her seemed to have feared more and added some extra protection. In another cemetery in Poland where vampire burials were found in 2016, the corpses were buried face down, had their knees broken, had their heads cut off, and one had a piercing trough their spine to keep them pinned in their grave. In other cemeteries, corpses were found with a crucifix or coin in their mouths or a bag of poppyseeds in their grave – it was believed the vampire would have to count all of the poppyseeds before arising from the dead. If the suspicion of vampirism happened after the body had been buried, they were occasionally dug up, had a nail driven into their skulls or were beheaded and had their heads placed between their feet. However, the woman in Pien had something very unusual attached to her corpse to prevent her return as a vampire.
“Polinsky also noted that the dead woman had a padlock around her finger, further supporting the theory that everything was done to prevent her "returning to the world of the living".”
According to Haaretz, padlocking a corpse by their toe or leg or finger was extremely rare in Christian burials, but common in Jewish ones – however, the padlocks were placed alongside the corpse, not on it, as a symbolic protection. Since this was a Christian cemetery and there were no records of a Jewish community in Stary Rypin at that time, it can be assumed the padlock was another means of keeping the vampire in the ground. Perhaps because the woman was wealthy and of a higher class, the locals gave her some respect by not desecrating her remains with decapitation or amputations.
Poland in its various forms long a major center of the Slavic world where the vampire legends began as ways to explain mysterious deaths due to unknown diseases, or to deal with people with deformities both physical and mental. It is good to know we’re beyond those kinds of beliefs today.