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Getting Vampirism wrong

By Blog Admin, on 4 September 2013

Johann Christian Harenberg. Some Contemporary and Christian Considerations on Vampires or the Blood-Sucking Dead, Wolfenbüttel, 1733

Johann Christian Harenberg.
Some Contemporary and Christian
Considerations on Vampires or
the Blood-Sucking Dead,
Wolfenbüttel 1733.
Via Wikimedia Commons

Vampires continue to fascinate us, but the legends have strayed a long way from their original meaning, argues Professor Martyn Rady.

The latest commentary on ‘vampires’ In Poland and Bulgaria (summarized in The Guardian, 16 July 2013), which are respectively some decapitated skeletons and staked corpses, shows the problem with studies of vampirism today. Any undead person, or person who is thought to be still walking when they were previously buried, is considered a vampire. These creatures are not automatically, however, vampires; they are merely revenants or returners.

All cultures have believed that the dead may on occasions return to life, but that is not to say the returned will share the characteristics of the vampire. The Greek revenant or vrykolakas might thus return to this world in order to help with the ploughing or other household chores. The West African demon who hides in trees ready to rip out with his long tongue the innards of the unwary traveller, may feast on the living, but he was never human and thus had never experienced mortal death. Both are, however, frequently described as vampires, along with such other supernatural manifestations as ghouls, strigoi or screech-witches, and cannibalistic shape-changers.

The origins of this confusion lie with Augustus Montague Summers (1880–1948). Summers was a pretend priest, notorious exhibitionist, and associate of Aleister Crowley, which is never a good sign. He made his money writing superficially learned books on the supernatural. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) lumps together a range of revenant stories, together with examples of creatures feasting on the living, and posits a single category of malevolence, which he calls vampirism. The book was a best-seller and Summers rewrote it under several different titles.

We need to pin the vampire down, or else like Summers we will render every evil object a vampire. To be a vampire requires three things: (a) revenance, to be returned from the dead, (b) a proclivity or even physical requirement to feast on the living, and (c) contagion, the ability to infect others with the disease of vampirism. These are necessary conditions. Nothing less will do.

Once we have established the conditions, the provenance follows. Vampires originate in Serbia. The original name, which is upir, is Slavonic and means a demon. In Serbia, however, vulgar traditions of Orthodox Christianity established for the first time the combination of the three features that we have determined. Possibly, this had something to do with beliefs in ‘slow death’, whereby the spirit leaves the body over a period of weeks; possibly, it was related to practices of ritual exhumation; possibly, it was synthetic of Christianity and other traditions. (more…)

Russia for the Russians – a putative policy

By Blog Admin, on 11 April 2013

RM12-112

Photo: RiMarkin via Flikr. License CC BY-SA 3.0

There have been tensions between native Russians and ethnic minorities since the Tartar Yoke of the 13th century. Successive rulers either tried to keep an uneasy peace or fanned the flames of division. Frederica Prina discusses the Russian government’s latest strategies for creating an identity that embraces all of Russia’s citizens. 

One would not normally, perhaps, describe the President of Russia as ‘anti-Russian,’ but this is how not a few people described him, waving their banners, on the annual ‘Russian March’ that took place on National Unity Day, 4 November 2012. Some 6,000 Russian nationalists, from Moderate to Far Right, gathered in central Moscow. Alexander Belov, the leader of the (banned) ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’, was cheered when he called President Putin an, ‘Enemy.’ In what way, an enemy, on National Unity Day?

Taken to extremes, Russian nationalists would like to keep Russia only for the Russians; they think that the Russian Government has not done enough to establish a Russian nation state. Given Russia’s turbulent history, as a multi-ethnic Romanov empire and a multi-ethnic Soviet Union, such caution is understandable. In the same way that creating a Russian citizen out of an ethnic imperial melting pot defeated many a Romanov, so the Soviets, while they aimed for the creation of a homo sovieticus (whose ethnic consciousness would be overridden by Communism), settled for managing the ethnic diversity they had inherited.

Ethnic diversity management

What we might call ‘ethnic diversity management’ was incorporated into Soviet policy. It included the establishment of titular republics (Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia…) where ethnic minorities were temporarily ‘assigned’ until, that is, they became model Soviet citizens. The American sociologist Rogers Brubaker described it as an, ‘irony of history’ that what should have been a temporary arrangement, however, turned into the consolidation of ethnic differences. And what of the Russians in the USSR? How were they assigned? That was never determined, perhaps because it was not thought necessary, or could it have been that the Soviets thought that it was much too difficult to define ‘Russianness?’ One might say that there was a marginalisation even at the Russian centre of the USSR; and that marginalisation included Russian Orthodoxy, hitherto a bastion of Russian national identity.

Thus it was that, during the Soviet period, a citizen of the USSR was neither wholly ethnic, nor wholly Soviet. The national consciousness of the USSR’s many ethnic groups was never extinguished; and historic Russian identity – whatever had survived the Romanovs – was an ill-defined concept.  (more…)

Pussy Riot: what the Church really said – and what others made of it

By Blog Admin, on 9 November 2012

The Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the Pussy Riot case has been more complex than many realise, argues Katja Richters

Pussy Riot at Lobnoye Mesto on Red Square in Moscow - Denis Bochkarev

Pussy Riot on Red Square Photo: Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia

Since the beginning of the year, much has been said and written about the members of Pussy Riot who were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ after having performed a so-called punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in central Moscow. Their trial was generally seen as politically motivated and Amnesty International declared the accused prisoners of conscience. In August 2012, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but Samutsevich’s prison term was later suspended upon appeal.

 As their ‘crime’ was committed inside one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most high-profile cathedrals the Church and its official representatives were dragged into the debate. Questions about the Orthodox hierarchy’s take on the matter and its relationship with the state were widely discussed in both Russian and international media. They were reinforced by the indictment and the verdict which highlighted the damage that the punk prayer had allegedly caused amongst the Orthodox.

 One line of reporting suggested that the Church had adopted a very strict attitude towards the incident. Given the obviously offensive and arguably blasphemous lyrics contained in the punk prayer, these reports are quite credible. But they only tell half of the story. In fact, it was mainly one cleric, the Church’s head of the Department for Relations with Society, Vsevolod Chaplin, who took a particularly tough approach to the case. (more…)