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Prescientific Death Rites, Vampires, and the Human Soul

Prescientific Death Rites, Vampires, and the Human Soul
© Photograph by Sazhrah Gutierrez

Whatever our religious beliefs, we effectively defer to scientific medicine when it asserts this fundamental moment. Before the medicalisation of death gained its ascendancy, however, very different ideas prevailed. For much of history, death was often a surprisingly extended process. During this process, the central entity was not the body, but the soul. At the same time, the soul itself could often behave rather like a body. It was a physical thing, which in part obeyed physical laws. Where do vampires fit into this prescientific form of death? As readers will be aware, vampires as we now know them to inhabit a curious space between the living and the dead. Once, that space itself was quite commonly accepted by those confronting death and burial. And it was during this liminal period of early — or gradual — the death that vampirism could occur. Let us now look, then, at some of the surprising ways in which body and soul could behave in such contexts.

It is early morning in the Greek mountain village of Ambéli. In a hushed but crowded room, lit by candles and heavy with the shared breath of a dozen weary people, a corpse is being watched over by friends and kin. Blinking sleepily, an elderly man pours coffee and passes it over to another watcher. As the two hands meet briefly in exchanging the cup, an electric charge of horror suddenly galvanises the somnolent gathering. There is a gasp; the cup falls; steaming liquid runs down the floor beneath the corpse. The terror and awe of this moment now make the earlier death itself seem all but trivial. All those present fervently believe that the corpse is vulnerable, between death and burial, to possession by an evil spirit. Among various taboos prompted by this fear, a prohibition holds that nothing must pass over the dead body. The corpse has been fatally and irrevocably possessed; the deceased is now held to be a vampire.

This scenario is based on beliefs recorded by Juliet du Boulay, an anthropologist working less than forty years ago, on the island of Evia in the early 1970s. Central to the cosmic trauma of such a moment are two fundamental religious beliefs. One: the soul is an entity, and is potentially vulnerable in the way that other material entities are. Two: the soul does not necessarily leave the body at the moment that modern science would judge to be that of medical death. With Ambéli (Juliet du Boulay’s pseudonym for the village) we are in the realms of folklore or popular culture. But in earlier centuries the educated could also hold similar beliefs.

Take, for example, the kiss of death. This did not always have the negative associations that now surround the phrase. In the period before they converted to Christianity, some Romans accepted a kind of spiritual recycling by way of the afterlife. At what was judged to be the moment of death, a friend or relative put their lips to those of the dying. In this context, the “kiss of death” was a means by which the living could receive and conserve the vital force of the deceased, more or less eating their soul. Much later, around 1600, Sir Walter Ralegh noted that the dying commonly turned up their eyes in their very last moments. Why? Because Walter Raleigh argued, a spirit located in the brain could plausibly leave via the eyes (often termed “the windows of the soul”) as well as through the mouth. In those cases, the moment of death is relatively well defined. But in both instances, death is chiefly understood with reference not to a mechanistic (or scientific) body, but to the soul. And souls, it seems, could be surprisingly capricious in their behaviour. For example, Walter Raleigh’s contemporary, John Donne, was disturbed by those oddly vigorous execution victims, seen still moving limbs in the moments after decapitation. If the soul had fled, whence all this animation? Yet more dramatically, at least two “execution victims” of the early-modern period actually revived — one temporarily, the other completely — under the anatomist’s knife. Later, as Jan Bondeson has shown, eighteenth-century anxiety about accidental live burials grew so widespread and acute that the “dead” were burned or punctured in sensitive places to test for residual life.

One especially prevalent belief held that all souls hovered about the bodies of their “dead” owners for three days. After this time, the soul decided that the body was really dead, and abandoned it. In many cases, a body will begin to display visible (or olfactory) signs of decay at the end of that three-day span. This three-day period of liminal death seems to have been widely acknowledged across continents and cultures. At times the span was stretched slightly to cover the whole period between first death and burial. At others, it was clipped down to the very first hours after death. Elizabeth Warner tells of how, in Russia’s Vologda province in the 1970s, ritual keening must not begin too soon after death, for it was possible to “howl back” the deceased. Earlier in the twentieth-century, Agnes Murgoci studied Romanian customs and documented how “the dead person is either carried uncovered to church, or holes are made in the coffin, so that he may see and hear what is going on”. Here, like Tom Sawyer, one can indeed attend one’s own funeral (and from the comfort of one’s own coffin). But by that stage, the watching corpse was safe from metaphysical attack.

In Ambéli and other vampire cultures, this was not the case even after burial. A secondary period of transition is also acknowledged in prescientific death rites. This is a span of forty days. That longer period could be benign. In Russian folk belief, notes Elizabeth Warner, the soul was held, in the form of a bird or a little person, to linger for forty days on earth, “carried by an angel around all those places where it has committed some sin in order to pray for forgiveness”. Forgiveness, however, was not readily accorded to vampires. Often held to become possessed when in their coffins (and vulnerable for up to forty days after death) these hungry demons were hunted and annihilated with impressive rigour. Juliet du Boulay tells of villagers pouring a mixture of oil and vinegar through a hole in the coffin. After this, the soul was held to have actually been destroyed. In one case a Greek man began stirring in his open coffin. The villagers, far from jubilant, quickly stoned the “vampire” to death.

For such cultures, the distinction between physical and metaphysical was a porous one. The soul was a very definite thing, and was a dominant agent in the sphere of death. As Juliet du Boulay notes, the Greek word “commonly used for the act of dying” was xepsycháo, meaning to “un-soul”’ (compare our own “expire”). As such, it was potentially subject to the hazards of the material world, rather than guaranteed an automatic and safe passage to heaven or hell. However fiercely scientific or agnostic we may be, we all still register a kind of liminal death-period if anyone close to us passes away. Psychologically, they are still alive; the first days or weeks of reaction are ones of shock and unreality. We still think (sometimes speak) of them in the present tense. Older customs could be seen as setting a firmer, more absolute metaphysical stamp on that vital period of transition. In each case, the living feels responsibility for the dead — directing this responsibility at the soul or the memory of the deceased.

For a long time, the reality of the soul was attested in various ways shortly before or at death. In the medieval period, for example, demons were imagined to hover greedily around the deathbed, waiting to snatch a soul as it left the body. Compare, similarly, the medieval “weighing of souls”. Reflected in numerous surviving pictures and carvings, this critical act was performed by Saint Michael. The balance held by Saint Michael might contain a soul in one pan, and a devil in the other. Sometimes another devil pulls down on his colleague’s pan, and occasionally the Virgin Mary herself stands by the human soul (depicted as a little person) laying her hand on the scale, literally “tipping the balance” by way of intercession for one of humanity’s spiritual lightweights.

With the Reformation, such beliefs were largely eroded from Christianity. Yet the weighing of the soul crept back, curiously, just around one hundred years ago. Weighing bodies before and after death with a beam scale in 1907, the United States of America physician Duncan MacDougall claimed to register a consistent loss of weight in the latter cases: each corpse, he believed, had shed precisely twenty-one grams. Looking at Duncan MacDougall’s “scientific validation” of the soul in broader historical context, we notice two interesting ironies. First, where it was critical to the Catholic belief that souls had different weights, reflecting individual virtues and life histories, Duncan MacDougall asserted a universally standard measure for all souls, good or bad, young or old. Second, Duncan MacDougall used the single medical event now generally accepted as “death”. Perhaps Duncan MacDougall was being a little too hasty. Would he have noticed a further loss of weight if he had waited three days, when the soul itself confirmed the death, and flitted off accordingly to its new home?

There again — over in rural Greece, villagers would never have allowed the doctor to pass scales or anything else across a vulnerable corpse. Nor would they have needed the methods of science to reassure them as to the soul’s existence. In vampire territory, the soul was all too real, and all too dangerous. At times the hardest thing was not to prove its existence, but to be sure of its destruction. As for attending their own funerals: it seems that vampires often did in rural Greece or Russia. But, unlike Tom and Huck, they were rather less likely to be welcome dinner guests if they announced their unexpected return.

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