Wednesday, April 21, 2021

With Stake and Spade: Vampiric Diversity in Poland – review

Author: Łukasz Kozak

Translator: Mark Bence

First published: 2020

The blurb: Everyone has heard of vampires, but few know about upiórs, strzygas, strzygońs, and wieszczys. Yet sources from Poland and the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth offer a wealth of fascinating material to discover Slavic beliefs in the living dead, which later became a universal myth known the world over. This book contains a small but representative selection of 80 texts spanning almost 500 years, ranging from scholarly works and religious treatises to official documents, ethnographic essays, and press reports on true events.

The review: I was lucky enough to win this volume in a competition. We are firmly in the realm of the folkloric vampire, and the Polish variants of the restless dead as listed in the blurb. The introduction to the book looks into the four types to offer an overview but the main event is a reproduction of various documents (be it passages from books, manuscripts, newspaper reports etc) which mention the walking dead. Each entry is referenced to the appropriate source document, which is essential, though an index may have been a useful addition.

There are some really interesting moments within the texts. The idea of who might become the restless dead and the aspects and habits are fairly interchangeable between the types but – remembering that I primarily look at the vampire in a media sense – what I found interesting was some of the tropes that came up that are not commonly known as being folkloric and more a media invention.

So, several entries spoke about the vampire returning to the coffin/grave at cock crow and some suggested that at the point of cock crow an exposed corpse would die – not too unusual from a media point of view, the idea that the restless dead return to an inanimate state at daybreak can be found in the Vampire and the Devil’s Son (1852), to offer an early fictional example. However, there were several entries that suggested that the vampire would be reduced to tar on the cock crow – and this brings the trope of death by daylight to mind and is fascinating to find a folkloric variant. Another fascinating entry dating to 1873 highlighted a conflation of vampire (in the form of upiór) and werewolf, to quote: “After his death, he was thought to have become a werewolf, who left his resting place at night to wander about the village, visiting houses and terrifying God’s folk, like an omen of the plague…

Most fascinating was the following entry from the Gazeta Polska, dated 1871, which said about criminals who are insufficiently punished when alive who will “turn their bodies into so-called “strzygas” or “upiórs (which the populace imagine in the form of bats) that emerge from their graves at midnight”. This is a pre-Stoker and folkloric association of bat and vampire and is, from my point of view, rather exciting.

The main event is presented as is, and so there is no analysis just presentation of the entries – so for a more casual reader this may make the volume less engaging, though it is an invaluable source for researchers (be that of the vampire or Polish folklore generally). The volume uses high grade, thick paper stock. I will quickly mention the graphic (almost pop) art, in orange, purple and lilac that appears within volume as well as adorning the cover - not my cup of tea, I’m afraid, however it is very striking and makes this volume stand out against its academic fellows. 9 out of 10.

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