OF DEVILS AND DEMONS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's vampires spring to life in the winter months

devils and demons.jpg

At midnight, there was a knock at the door. "Do you want a stale or a freshly baked loaf?" a voice asked from outside. Before she realised that she was talking to a vampire, the woman, who was alone in the house, answered: "Freshly baked." An hour later the intruder returned to the door. Only then did the young bride realise that it was unlocked. She managed to secure it a second before the vampire got in.

Watching as the monster tried to open the door, the woman was petrified. She heard it walking around the house. She heard footsteps on the roof. And then something fell down the chimney.

Bram Stoker's vampires can only enter somebody's house if they are invited, but their Bulgarian counterparts are less mannerly. They, along with many other demoniacal characters in Bulgarian folk mythology, are not fazed when confronted with holy water. Garlic has little effect on them. When it comes to a face-to-face conflict between people and the powers of darkness, the latter usually win.

If we travelled back in time, we would discover that traditional Bulgarian society was far from peaceful. And the reason for this was not simply due to complicated relations with the Ottoman Empire.

The demons of the netherworld stalked Bulgarians throughout their lives, waiting for an opportunity to vent their might and malice. Compared with them, the devils favoured by Christianity seem like harmless creatures.

A newborn child faced supernatural forces as early as the third night of his life, when the three orisnitsi, or fairies, appeared by his cradle. A slightly modified version of the old Greek goddesses of fate, they determined the child's destiny. Familiar with the centuries-long dealings between the rulers of Bulgaria and the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the parents resorted to an expedient which usually helped when dealing with the authorities: they offered a small present.

But the troubled lives of generations of Bulgarians proved that the fairies were not all that happy with the honey cake baked especially for them.

The same approach – with the same result – was used to try to placate the "Plague." This horrid hunchbacked crone with unkempt hair, considered to be God's messenger, relentlessly took her terrible toll, as is evident from the devastating plagues of 1812-14 and 1836-38.

Children who survived their encounter with Granny Plague or Granny Smallpox faced fresh perils. Powerful and amorous dragons would often kidnap the most beautiful maidens and take them to their caves, where they gave birth to handsome children with supernatural powers.

Young men were no safer either. Any time they went to the mountains, they ran the risk of running into samodivi, or wood nymphs. The least evil thing that these blonde winged creatures, with their see-through white shirts and rainbow-coloured waistbands, could do to the shepherds was to make them play their wooden flutes until they dropped.

If you're beginning to think that a couple of centuries ago you could hardly poke your nose out of the front door after midnight without stumbling across some evil spirit, spare a thought for those unfortunate enough to have to leave home on the "Dirty Days" – the period between Christmas Eve and Epiphany on 7 January.

At this most dangerous time of the year, when Jesus was a newborn baby, demons walked around undisturbed. If you were not careful, you could meet a karakondzhul. Appearing as a horse, dog or ram with a human head, he took his victim to a "karakondzhul's wedding" in a secluded place at the dead of night. There is scant information about this event, because those "invited" there seldom came back to tell the tale.

But sometimes even a relatively uneventful life – which you had lived without having your shadow immured in a building to give it strength or brodnitsi putting an evil spell on your cornfield – might end up with you turning into a vampire. Unlike Transylvania, where you had to be bitten by a vampire, just not being buried properly sufficed in Bulgaria. A long list of must-not-do's recommended that mourners refrain from crying too loudly unless they wanted to call the dead back. They also had to pour out any water there was in the house and cover all mirrors with a cloth, lest the departed soul remained in them. It was forbidden to pass any object over the dead body (Bulgarians still observe this) and a watch was kept it to prevent a cat or any other animal from jumping across it. In some regions, they even stuck a nail or a needle into the dead person's belly to make sure they would not turn into a vampire. If even one of these rules was not observed, the result was inevitable: the dead man would become a vampire.

In the first year of their existence vampires were incorporeal, although they did have the ability to strangle living relatives.

When this time was over, they acquired a human image and, despite having only a single nostril, they were attractive enough for girls to fancy them. But they were not kind to women: soon after marrying, they would try to eat their wife.

The only way to "kill" a vampire was to take him by surprise in his grave in broad daylight (you could find the place because of such telltale signs as a depression or a hole in the ground), surround it with thorns and set them on fire. Bulgarians believed that only sharp things could scare off the bloodsucking spirit.

Constantly engaged in a battle with the demons, Bulgarians in previous centuries found salvation in paganism rather than in Christianity and the Lord's Prayer. Only a cock's crow could drive away the evil spirits.

Those who were unlucky would not make it to cock crow. This is what happened to the woman from the Gotse Delchev area who was besieged by the vampire in her house.

She died of shock when she saw what had come down her chimney. The vampire had kept his word and brought her a "fresh loaf" – a corpse dug up from a fresh grave.

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