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11 Jan 13

Serbia Milks its Bloody Vampire Legends

While most Westerners associate vampires with Bram Stoker and Transylvania, Serbia has its own vampire traditions, which canny tour operators aim to capitalise on.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade
Road to Zarozje. | Photo by Darko Vojinovic/AP

A bare-necked visitor to Serbia should think twice before simply shrugging off vampire stories as plain folk superstition.

Ask any old woman, passer-by or village school kid and they will confirm that some evil people do not easily part with their souls and return to their bodies, rising from their graves to drink the blood of cattle, or even people.

While folk in these villages for centuries took care of their vampires by burning them and impaling them on hawthorn stakes, they also take other precautionary measures.

These include wearing garlic necklaces, as some bloodthirsty beasts take the forms of innocent moths, or are invisible.

Villagers from Zarozje in western Serbia, the dwelling place of legendary vampire Sava Savanovic, know best how to live with this threat.

According to legend, when Sava was pierced by a wooden stake a moth flew out of his mouth that the villagers couldn’t catch and it kept killing people and sucking their blood.

Recently, when Sava’s old watermill collapsed, people reported seeing the well-known figure’s ghost in pursuit of a new home.

One local official advised people to put garlic on their doors and arm themselves with hawthorns and crosses.

“Vampires exist, everybody knows it. They wander from place to place looking for victims,” he said to local newspapers in November.

Woe if Sava returns:

The house of Sava Savanovic, according to local legends. | Photo by Darko Vojinovic/AP

To calm the outraged vampire - and give cultural tourism a healthy boost - villagers plan to rebuild the old mill, which has attracted tens of thousands of visitors over the years, to hear vampire stories as well as enjoy the countryside.

Legend has it that no one can spend a night in the watermill and wake up alive the following morning. 

Villagers were once afraid to grind their grain overnight until the legendary young Strahinja came armed with rifles and knives and scared the vampire off.

The mill featured in story “90 years on”, by Milovan Glisic, on the basis of which a 1973 cult movie called “Leptirica” (“Female Butterfly”) was filmed. The book and film deal with the dark secret of the village and Serbia’s best-known vampire.

Today the village has an interesting-sounding tourist offer, which includes a tour under the name “Anti-stress weekend with Sava Savanovic”.

This humorous and lively tour is guided by a man who looks like the vampire Sava and includes visits to Zarozje and the old watermill, doing gymnastics in the open air and exploring dishes and drinks concealed under comic vampire names.

All guests get a garlic necklace to wear at all times. Meals are also full of it, so organisers say that guests will be stinky and safe for at least two weeks after the visit.

The tour includes a visit to Valjevo and its old Tesnjar Bazaar, as well as the Petnica Cave, where guests are taught the basics of rock climbing and bat-like hanging.

Serbia, vampire cradle?

Road to village Zarozje. | Photo by Darko Vojinovic/AP

Most westerners connect vampires with Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, whose patronymic name was Dracula, probably because his family belonged to the Order of the Dragon founded in 1408 by King Sigismund of Hungary. 

Count Dracula, the anti-hero of Bram Stoker’s celebrated 1897 novel, was indeed inspired by the legend of “Vlad the Impaler”, but the word “vampire”, according to some scientists, actually comes from Serbia.

The idea probably dates back to the pre-Christian era among the Slavs, who customarily burned their dead and who believed that if all the rituals were not followed the deceased person might rise from the grave and start killing the living. The Slavs called this un-dead creature an upir.

Fascination with vampires among the Serbs grew under Stefan Dušan in the 14th century, whose constitution, known as Dusan’s Code, banned the burning of dead bodies as well as removing corpses from graves and using magic.

People increasingly saw vampires everywhere. Usually it was some evil deceased person, but one could also become a vampire if an animal (usually a cat) passed across his or her grave.

These Serbian vampires did not look like the lean, pale creatures of Hollywood legend. They were fat, filled with a jelly-like substance, occasionally turning into wolves or dogs. They might also become small and go through walls.

Serbian vampires reached wider attention after 1725, when a local named Petar Blagojevic died and was reported to have started killing villagers from Kisiljevo, near Pozarevac, one by one.

After a team of doctors was sent from Vienna to investigate, Blagojevic’s intact body was found with traces of blood on his teeth.

When a German magazine, the Vossiche Zeitung, wrote about this sensation it spread a chill down the spine of Europe. According to some sources the English word “vampire” appeared soon after, in the Oxford dictionary in 1734.

After 1725 the attacks increased. A report from an Austrian commissioner from that year writes about a soldier called Arnod Paule (probably Arnaut Pavle), who saw and killed a vampire on his way home from Greece. A day after returning home he fell from a great height and died.

Shortly after he was buried, people started seeing him and then mysteriously dying. Because of this his grave was opened and burnt, but it didn’t help.

In 1731 more people died mysteriously in a small town that an Austrian commissioner called Meduegia, which is probably a village of a similar name near the town of Svilajnac.

All these events made the vampire traditions of Serbia even stronger, making them part of folklore and, today, a kind of local brand.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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