Confronting the Evil Dead: Terrifying Ancient Beliefs Still Alive in Present-Day Romania – Part I
Romanian folklore records two atypical versions of the western vampire. These are the strigoi and the moroi which, even though they resemble the western image of the vampire, are very different from it.
The Romanian tradition makes a clear distinction between the good dead and the evil dead. The good dead are beings whose souls cross over without problems into the superior spheres of the world beyond; while the evil dead cannot find peace after death and thus return to haunt their relatives in the form of strigoi or moroi.
Life Between the World of the Living and the World Beyond
According to some old European legends, the crow is the one that leads the souls of the dead to the world beyond, and when a deceased had very important unfinished business, it is said that the crow can offer a second chance in the form of a small amount of time for him to return and solve his issues - in order to be able to enter the world of the dead at peace and without regret.
However, regarding those who commit suicide, it is said that they do not leave immediately for the world of the dead, and remain stuck between worlds exactly for the duration of time until they were initially destined to die.
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The work “Emblemata Horatiana” contains an engraving which shows a scared Death after having committed a mistake by taking the life of a person whose time had not yet come. Thus, the soul of the respective person had to haunt, being stuck between life and death until the moment he or she was truly destined to die.
Titlepage of the Emblemata Horatiana by Otto van Veen, published in Antwerp in 1607 by Hieronymus Verdussen (Public Domain)
All these situations present examples of bad death: people who did not die at peace, people who died with important unfinished business, people who committed suicide, and people who died before their time.
To these examples, according to the folkloric tradition, one can add those born on certain unfavorable moments, those with certain professions (such as blacksmiths or woodcutters), profaners, outcasts, those who die before their time runs out, those with a strong will for revenge, those buried without a proper funeral service, those buried in a place which they do not like, those buried with an inappropriate cerement (wax cloth for wrapping a corpse) - when a dead person was cried over for too long, the tears of the loved ones made the cerement wet and this fact prevented the dead from crossing over in peace, and finally, those who die in sin.
It is said that these impure dead are highly predisposed to becoming strigoi, thus joining the Infernal Procession (“Alaiul Iadului” in Romanian). In turn, good death occurs at the right time and those who have led a moral life have nothing to fear. Thus, according to the folkloric tradition, crossing over into the world beyond depends on the way of life.
The Romanian tradition states that the following can also become strigoi: the dead over whose body an animal has jumped (especially a cat), those who have swallowed their umbilical cord, those born with hair, those who cried in the womb, those born with a tail, children who have not been baptized, and those who are the seventh child.
Le Vampire, engraving by R. de Moraine (Public Domain)
The Afterlife Community
In the past, there was no doubt about the fact that the dead continued their lives after death. From folkloric and mythological sources, it appears that the dead enjoy activities and hobbies similar to those of the living. They love and try to protect their loved ones, they defend their belongings, they go for walks, they dance the “Danse Macabre” in cemeteries, they protect their graves and punish profaners, they send messages to the living, they take part in masses organized by dead priests and sometimes they even work.
Some accounts actually speak about the dead drinking, eating, and being intimate with their lovers as well. Because the dead sometimes cannot quickly break their ties with life even though it is over, in some areas the living used to leave food and drink for the dead to find while visiting their old house. Similarly, money placed in a bag in the casket, in the mouth, or on the eyes of the dead during the funeral is used by the deceased in the world beyond - where he or she can spend it.
Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre in Tallinn (Public Domain)
According to legends, the dead have a real community where they live their “after life”. A large number of texts supports the idea that the dead must not be disturbed. When they are upset, they are no longer favorable and their vengeance can be terrible. The strigoi return from the grave in their own bodies. They are not mere ghosts or ghouls, but dead returning temporarily to their bodies, reanimating and using them to achieve their goals.
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Types of Strigoi
According to legends, there are different types of strigoi. The first of these is the one who calls. Unlike a vampire, the strigoi does not kill by biting and drinking the blood of the victim. As it always concerns bodily appearances, the strigoi who call cry out the name of the one they want to kill. Should the person respond to the call, then he or she will die shortly. For this reason, in some countries, there is the custom of individuals not answering the first time they are called considering that the dead can only call out once.
Another type of strigoi, similar to the caller, is the one who knocks. This one does not call out to the one it wants to kill, but it shows up at the door and knocks. Again, the deceased can only knock on the door once, so if the person does not answer, he or she is saved. In turn, should he respond by asking who is at the door or by actually opening the door, again, the person is to die shortly.
Christopher Lee portrayed Count Dracula in the celebrated Hammer Horror series of films, starting with Dracula in 1958. (Public Domain)
The visitor is the one exiting his grave at night and appearing unannounced in someone’s house - terrifying those present and causing the death of the host. The hungry one is the one who devours people. They often have to consume a certain type of victims, usually young and beautiful women, in order to prolong their existence.
The nonicide is the strigoi who causes the death of nine of its close relatives, after which his killer cravings are satisfied permanently. The heavy one is the type of strigoi which is stuck in a certain place (usually in a forest or on the edge of a flowing river) which he cannot leave unless he climbs on the back of a living person. Of course, soon after carrying the heavy one, the respective person’s state of health will begin to deteriorate and the individual will die of a sort of disease with symptoms of physical exhaustion.
Painting: The ghost of Banquo. (Public Domain)
The nightmare attacks people while they sleep, suffocating them. As his name suggests, the strangler strangles his victims killing them. Sometimes, he can also strangle the stomach or crush the bodies of his victims.
Another very interesting type of strigoi is the one who chews. This refers to the dead buried with an improper cerement or whose cerement enters in his mouth. Thus, the deceased begins to chew the respective cerement and, each day until the cerement is completely consumed, a close relative dies. He can be stopped if people realize what is going on, dig him up, remove the cerement from his mouth and cut off his head.
Lastly, there are also strigoi who can change their form, being able to assume the form of a dog, horse, goat, raven or fire ball. In this shape, he can plunge towards the victim with a big weight which can induce weakness and suffocation, causing death.
Artwork based on Sheridan le Fanu's ‘Carmilla’, an early influential work of vampire literature. (Public Domain)
Featured image: A vampire, often likened to the Romanian ‘strigoi’. (Public Domain)
By Valda Roric
Valda Roric – “Supernatural in the Land of Count Dracula”
A. Murgoci, “The Vampire in Roumania”, Folklore 14 (1926)
Claude Lecouteux – “The Secret History of Vampires – Their Multiple Forms and Hidden Purposes”