Nachzehrers: The Shroud Eating Vampires of Germanic Folklore
The nachzehrer, also known as a shroud eater, is a type of German vampire which features prominently in the folklore of Germany’s northern region. According to legend, it needed to devour both its burial shroud and body in order to survive. The word nach may be translated into English as ‘after’, whilst zehrer may be translated as ‘living off’. This combination of words alludes to what the nachzehrer is believed to be, i.e. a creature that lives after death, or a being that lives off humans even after its death. Apart from northern Germany, tales of the nachzehrer / creatures similar to it are said to exist in the folklore of Silesia and Bavaria, as well as amongst the Kashubians of northern Poland.
Becoming a Nachzehrer
According to folklore, the most common way that people become nachzehrers is when they commit suicide. It is also believed that, occasionally, this creature is created when a person dies accidentally. Yet another version of the tale associates the nachzehrer with sickness and disease. According to this tale, when a large number of people die as a result of a plague, the first person to have succumbed to it would be transformed into a nachzehrer.
Once a dead person becomes a nachzehrer, it is believed that it would begin eating its own burial shroud. Once this item is completely consumed, it would then eat its own flesh. According to one version of the story, it is during this time that members of the deceased person’s family would begin to weaken physically, as the nachzehrer is feeding on their life force. Alternatively, it is believed that the nachzehrer would only commence feasting on its family once it has finished eating itself.
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It has been suggested that the idea of a corpse eating itself may not be as farfetched as it seems at first glance. If a body were to be left in an open grave, it is not unlikely that scavengers would eat its flesh. If people had not seen the scavengers (or were unaware that scavengers exist), it is possible that they would have speculated that the corpses were eating themselves when they came across partially eaten bodies.
Skeleton in the vampire grave of Sozopol, on display at the National History Museum in Sofia. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Killing a Nachzehrer
It seems that the nachzehrer can be easily identified. According to tradition, a nachzehrer lies in its coffin in a rather peculiar manner – one of its thumbs would be held in the other hand, and its left eye would always be opened. In addition, the nachzehrer is believed to be a rather noisy creature, and the noise that it makes whilst eating its burial shroud / body can be heard by people passing by its grave. Once a nachzehrer is found, it can be destroyed.
Artwork based on Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla, an early influential work of vampire literature. ( Public Domain )
The most common way to get rid of a nachzehrer is to have it decapitated. Alternatively, one could take precautions to ensure that the deceased do not turn into this creature in the first place or if the transformation is inevitable, to stop it from gaining strength. The solution to this problem seems to have been pretty simple. Since the nachzehrer need to devour its shroud and body in order to survive, one could stop it from doing so by placing a stone in the dead person’s mouth, or by driving spikes into his / her mouth. In some extreme cases, the body is even decapitated.
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Bat or Pig?
Although the nachzehrer is commonly considered to be a type of vampire, the two creatures are quite different, as the previous paragraphs have shown. The nachzehrer may be said to be similar to vampires as both are undead, and need to feed on the living in order to survive. Nevertheless, the feeding habits of both creatures are different. Additionally, whilst vampires are commonly believed to be able to turn others into vampires by their bites, the nachzehrers are not able to turn others into their own. Whilst vampires are traditionally believed to be able to turn into bats, the nachzehrers are believed, in some tales, to have the ability of transforming themselves into pigs. Lastly, it has been claimed that the nachzehrer would go to a church and rings the bells. Anyone who hears the ringing of these bells are said to die shortly after.