Bavaria, Bhoot, Burial, Cannibal, Corpse, death, Ferryman, funeral, Germany, Ghoul, Ghul, Grave Goods, Kashubes, Nachzehrer, Obolus, Plague, Poland, Revenant, Sacred Contagion, Silesia, Taxes, Vampire
I resent vampires, particularly the modern ones that look like they belong in a boy band or just stepped off the fashion runway. Nothing that dead has any business being that pretty. I already have to compete with all the other living males for the attentions of the ladies (or gentlemen if one is thusly inclined. The living dead as represented in modern media appear to have no hang-ups about sexual orientation either, which makes a blood-sucking corpse more enlightened than say, Texas). It simply seems unfair. Vampires can party all night. The older I get, the earlier I go to bed. They have eternal youth. My hair is starting to go grey. With wise long-term investments and savvy, but discrete accountants, all these modern vampires seem to be rolling in the dough, whereas I am forced to work for a living. And then there’s the certain suave, “devil-may-care” attitude among the vampiric set, as well as the hint of predatory danger and the intimacy of the neck-bite. I’ve got to admit. It’s a slick evolutionary move, that is, making dinner feel sexy before you eat it. Sort of like petting the cow before you make it into a leather jacket. The cow probably thinks you really like her, and is no doubt shocked to be flayed and tanned. Remarkable how civilization inverts our innate fears of predation and turns adaptive terror into a turn-on. Robert Pattison, Alexander Skaarsgard, Katherine Deneuve, or Deborah Ann Woll comes to your door with every intention of an evening of exsanguination and you swoon. Nobody in their right mind would gush “The tiger thinks I’m special” before it had you for lunch. Germany has had its moments of crazy, but they do seem to understand the necessity of a monster being monstrous, rather than boyfriend material, and for that reason, we should really spend some time getting to know Germany’s traditional folk version of the vampire, the Nachzehrer, who will decidedly not be the romantic lead coming to theaters near you.
Roughly translated from German, Nachzehrer means, “After Devourer”, and mostly appears in Silesia and Bavaria, with a close relative among the mythological monsters of the Kashubes of Northern Poland (a people also referred to as Pomeranians, a medieval Slavic ethnic group that arrived in Poland before the Poles, and the fact that Poland is not called Kashubia has to irritate them a little bit, but is balanced by the relative dearth of “Kashubian” jokes, outside of Poland, at least). Bless his lack of soul, the Nachzehrer takes his monsterhood seriously, and wouldn’t be caught dead, so to speak, in a cape and fancy clothes wandering about European capitals in the lamplit glow, lurking around the castle, acting all suave and debonair while spreading his charm among the aristocrats and looking for some supple, well-perfumed flesh to suck upon. Nachzerher is a working man’s vampire. In fact his primary sartorial concern is to steal the clothes from his neighboring corpses (since he lives in a coffin in a graveyard, sort of the Down and Out in Bavaria version of Dracula) in order to eat them as a complementary side dish, while making an entrée of the donating corpse’s flesh, followed by slaughtering his family for dessert, and presumably eating their flesh as well (though some traditions maintain that when not gnawing on himself, he is busy devouring the life energy of his family members – which has resulted in an association of outbreaks of certain sorts of wasting diseases within family groups to the machinations of a related Nachzerer). In point of fact, the Nachzerher has just as much in common with the flesh-eating Arabic ghūl (ghoul) as he does with his upper class cousin the vampire. As observed by Richard Gottlieb of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, “The Nachzehrer, a North German species of revenant, does not just attack the living. Instead, just as he gnaws of his own dead flesh, he also eats from the clothing and the flesh of neighboring corpses” (Gottlieb, 1991, p41). Forget the dainty bloodletting of those effete Eastern European vampires, the Nachzehrer literally makes use of all the resources available to him, eating his own dead flesh, the dead flesh of those around him, as well as the flesh or life force of his immediate family, to which presumably he has relatively quick access. One has to appreciate his efficiency, although he does seem to lack a certain appreciation for the concept of renewable resources.
In Germany, though the more horrible forms of the superstition are rare, the ‘Nachzehrer’ is much dreaded. Even in various Protestant regions it is thought safest that a cross should be set beside every grave to impede any demonic propensities that may take possession of the person interred; and where food is not still buried with the corpse to assuage any pangs of hunger that may arise, a few grains of corn or rice are scattered upon it in reminiscence of the old custom. In Diesdorf it is believed that if money is not placed in the dead person’s mouth at burial, or his name not cut from his shirt, he is likely to become a Nachzehrer, and that the ghost will come forth in the form of a pig. It is considered a sure preventative of such a result to break the neck of the dead body. On one occasion, it is there related, several persons of one family having died, the suspected corpse was exhumed, and found to have eaten up its own grave-clothes. Dr. Dyer, an eminent physician of Chicago, Illinois, told me (1875) that a case occurred in that city within his personal knowledge, where the body of a woman who had died of consumption was taken out of the grave and the lungs burned, under a belief that she was drawing after her into the grave some of her surviving relatives. In 1874, according to the Providence Journal, in the village of Peacedale, Rhode Island, U.S., Mr. William Rose dug up the body of his own daughter, and burned her heart, under the belief that she was wasting away the lives of other members of his family (Conway, 1879, p52).
Depending on how you feel about being a vampire, the good news is that the Nachzehrer just plain kills you. None of this nonsense about turning you into a vampire and spending a consequence-free eternity of bloodlust and high-living together. No sense of romance in this fellow. A Nachzehrer is held to be created when someone commits suicide or through a particularly gruesome accidental death, or when proper funerary rituals are not observed – the appropriate rituals varying rather widely from burying the corpse with food, placing a coin in a dead persons mouth, or removing names from the clothing that an individual was to be buried in. And then there is the problem with flowers.
Flowers, says a common German saying, must in no case be laid on the mouth of a corpse, since the dead man may chew them, which would make him a ‘Nachzehrer,’ or one who draws his relatives to the grave after him (Thistlton-Dyer, 1889, p278).
The Nachzehrer would seem to represent the sociological incarnation of the dark side of sacred contagion, that is the notion that spiritual uncleanliness (as distinguished from bad personal hygiene) can infect those who come into contact with it. Sociologist Emile Durkheim was talking about totemic animals, but remarked, “A sacred character is to a high degree contagious; it therefore spreads out from the totemic being to everything that is closely or remotely connected with it. The religious sentiments inspired by the animal are communicated to the substances upon which it is nourished and which serve to make or remake its flesh and blood, to the things that resemble it, and to the different beings with which it has constant relations” (Durkheim, 1915, p222). Death is a universally sacred moment, and thus the message is clear. Don’t mess it up. Or risk getting some of that sacred nastiness on those who were near and dear to the departed. In truth, as mortal creatures, we really don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about corpses. Well most of us at any rate, which of course also suggests the psychological impetus behind the modern mythology of the pretty dead, for as 21st century humans, with our slightly less nasty, brutish, and short life spans we are more distantly acquainted with death on a day to day basis than say an Ancient Mesopotamian, Aztec sacrificial candidate, or Medieval European peasant. We also have those obnoxious scientists telling us the soul doesn’t exist, as well as inventing Rogaine, Viagra, Botox, and embalming. A rotting corpse is a fairly good candidate for a vehicle of sacred contagion what with all the smelliness, bloating, and decay, that is, if someone dies unnaturally, one might reasonably assume that a certain amount of the spiritual “uncleanliness” that led to their untimely demise might rub off on those who they were in close contact with in life. This of course, explains a great deal about why so many cultures inter the deceased with what anthropologists call “grave goods”. This has more often than not been interpreted as a sign of respect, or the honoring of the big chief, but since even the relatively destitute (which most humans have been for most of human history, although most of them couldn’t write so we’re more likely to hear about how awesome it was to be king) also had rituals involving sending somebody off to meet their maker with a handful of supplies, we can probably conclude that the general purpose of burying people with stuff is to ensure that they don’t have a good reason to come back. Some scholars have drawn a direct connection between the fare paid to the ferryman in Greek mythology, and determined that the coin in the mouth of the Nachzehrer is simply a remnant of this practice, commenting, “The Greeks used to put a small piece of money, an obolus, into the mouth of the dead, wherewith the ghost might pay its fare to the Stygian ferryman. The very same practice prevailed generally in Germany, and is still continued in Altmark and Havelland. The pretext now assigned for it is that it may prevent the corpse from returning as a Nachzehrer—a kind of vampire peculiar to Germany” (Kelly, 1863, p121). The practice of sending the dead off with a first class ticket appears cross-culturally particularly among the higher stratums of society, and while the underclass may be travelling economy (buried with a coin in the mouth), rather than a set of gold dinnerware and some sacrificed servants, the motive appears to be similar.
The Greeks early invented a traditional fare for the dead ferryman (the naufas), and an obolus was put into the mouth of the corpse to pay the passage. This custom existed in the Middle Ages in France and Germany, and bodies were found in a church-yard in France in 1630, with coins in the graves. The Chinese put a coin in the coffin, to pay the passage or fare of the corpse. The custom is not yet extinct in Burgundy, and in Altmark, Havelland, and other parts of Germany it also survives, although the coin is now a charm to keep away a vampire (Nachzehrer). In Markland, when several deaths occur in a family, it is because the penny was omitted in the case of the first one. Wallachians still put the obolus in the mouth of the corpse, and Baring Gould says a man was buried not long ago in Yorkshire, with a penny, a candle and a bottle of wine in his grave (Bassett, 1885, p330).
Similar echoes of this can be seen in India, where it is highly recommended that one provide for the dead, who if neglected will return to eat his friends out of hunger. This frankly, handily avoids the Greek sort of monetary transaction that required the dead to pay for their own passage to the afterlife, which ultimately just adds insult to injury. We all know that nothing is inevitable but death and taxes, but it sort of rubs it in your face, when death actually involves taxes.
It is the basis, too, of the Indian Bhoot,—the departed human soul for whose sustenance after death no provisions have been made, and whom hunger drives to devour his friends,—a superstition which gave its name to the province of Butan, once believed to be a region especially haunted by these famished fiends. These superstitions linger in Germany in the horror which the ignorant have of the Nachzehrer, the corpse which draws its relatives one after the other into the grave. When the cholera first appeared in East Prussia, it was believed by thousands to be the work of these bloodthirsty ghosts; and even now, when the members of a family die off quickly, one hears of bodies being dug up in the night, and wild rumors that some one of them is found plump and rosy, evidently through having absorbed the life of his or her kindred. Indeed, the cholera and all epidemic diseases have frequently given the world demons (MAP, 1871, p240).
Having sufficiently distanced ourselves from death, our depictions of the undead are increasingly oriented towards assuring ourselves that our final consignment as worm food is not a messy affair. These days, we’re fairly confident that undead monsters are hot and sparkly, when in fact, as Somerset Maugham cautioned us, “Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it”.
Bassett, Fletcher Stewart. Legends And Superstitions of the Sea And of Sailors In All Lands And At All Times. Chicago: Belford, Clarke & co., 1885.
Conway, Moncure Daniel, 1832-1907. Demonology and Devil-lore. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1879.
Durkheim, Émile, 1858-1917. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Macmillan company, 1915.
Gottlieb, Richard M. “The Vampire Legend and Some Applications to Psychology”. Folklore Forum 24:2, 1991, p41-53.
Thiselton-Dyer, Thomas Firminger, 1848-1928. The Folklore of Plants. London: Chatto & Windus, 1889.
Kelly, Walter Keating. Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.
Making of America Project (MAP). “Demons of the Shadow”. The Century: Popular Quarterly v5. New York: Scribner & Co., 1871. Also reproduced in Fraser’s Magazine v6 (1872) as “Demonology”.