A deep-seated belief in vampires was widespread throughout Bulgaria and its neighboring countries during the Middle Ages. In fact, the word “vampire” is actually derived from the original Slavic term “opyrb” or “opir.”
Appearing completely normal, a vampire would arrive at a town and live apparently harmless amongst the townsfolk, going so far as to marry non-vampires and even fathering perfectly normal children. At night, they would wander the land in search of blood. These vagabond vampires could be destroyed simply with a stake through the heart.
According to local legend, it was believed that a vampire was actually the lost soul of a thief or outlaw who had died in the forests or mountains, and whose corpse had been eaten by wolves or other wild scavengers.
It was believed during the Middle Ages that such a soul would not be allowed to enter heaven or hell and would remain on earth haunting the place where it was killed, strangling and drinking the blood of anyone with whom it came into contact. It was also strongly believed any corpse jumped over by a cat before burial could potentially become a vampire.
During the first forty days after burial, the bones of a would-be vampire would turn to gelatin, and the vampire would be bound to perform acts of mischief at night like scattering items in people’s homes, releasing animals from pens and even suffocating innocent passersby. However, during the first forty days, the vampire could be destroyed by a Vampiridzhija – a professional vampire hunter capable of seeing a vampire, and the vampire could fall victim to a wolf and be devoured. It was not invincible.
If not destroyed during those first forty days, then the vampire would develop a strong skeleton and become a very dangerous foe.
There were different kinds of vampires in Slavic lore. For example, the unexplained deaths of cattle or other livestock were often used as proof that a different kind of vampire, widely known in Bulgaria as a Ustrel, was nearby. The Ustrel were the spirits of children who had been born on a Saturday but had died before receiving a baptism.
Nine days after its burial, a Ustrel would climb out of the ground and attack sheep, cattle or passersby by draining their blood. It lived only by the rule of returning to its grave before dawn.
A village would have to go through a ritual known as “lighting of a needfire” to kill a Ustrel. This would involve extinguishing all fire in the town on a Saturday morning and rounding up all the cattle and sheep into a large open space. The animals were then marched to the nearest crossroads where two bonfires would have been built and lit by a new fire. By herding the animals between the fires, the vampire would become stranded at the crossroads where wolves, who played a large part in Bulgarian tradition themselves, would devour it. Then safe from the Ustrel, someone took a flame from the burning bonfires and used it to relight all the household fires in the village.
Vanessa A. Ryan is a writer/actor in Southern California
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