Vampires, Witches and the Walking Dead in Ottoman Lands

On the Night of Karakoncolos, the obur would awaken to feast on human blood. Relatives of the victim would urgently seek out a village elder with expertise in finding the creatures. They then would go to the grave from whence the obur had emerged and exhume the body, its eyes bloodshot from feeding. A stake would then be driven through the corpse, breaking the spell and freeing the victim from certain death. For, if the village expert failed to find the obur, the victim’s health would be sure to worsen, until their untimely death. Sometimes, to ensure that the obur would not return to prey on another soul, its body would be thrown onto a pyre and burned.

The above except is lifted neither from the blurb of a Victorian penny dreadful, nor some gruesome Hollywood B-movie. Rather, it forms just one of many fantastical reports from Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi, on one of his expeditions around the empire in the 17th century.

And it is far from the only record proving a whole host of ghoulish characters from the pantheon of modern horror were no stranger to the subjects of the House of Osman.

Of these, none has had quite so much of an enduring impact as that of the vampire, as demonstrated in a recent work by Turkish historian Salim Fikret Kırgi. An impressive compilation of the earliest Islamic sources on the phenomenon, “Ottoman Vampires: Legend, Impact, Response” contrasts the modern myth with the original legend, exhuming the remains of an almost entirely forgotten terror that cast fear across the land.

However, if the notion of a Muslim context for these fanged foes seems at odds with modern preconceptions, it is little wonder. The popularization of vampire lore owes heavily to the works of modern cinema, largely based on gothic novels such as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” – which, themselves, only appeared toward the end of the Victorian era. Meanwhile, a cursory glance at the earliest recorded Western sources on the subject shows little to predate the mid-17th century.

Such sources mostly comprise of patchy, second-hand accounts from Christian missionaries, who sought to frame local superstitions in the context of a wider “culture war” between Protestants and Catholics, in order to shore up their respective theological supremacy. However, this ignores a wealth of Islamic accounts, which emerge almost immediately alongside the advent of Ottoman power in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region in the 16th century. 

The Akhlaq of Vampire Slaying

As uncovered in “Ottoman Vampires,” remarkably, the earliest of these appear in the form of a number of fatwas issued during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Of the thousands of edicts issued by the sultan’s Sheikh-ul Islam Mehmed Ebussuud Efendi, three seem to validate reports of the reanimation of corpses by “evil spirits” – with the provision that this phenomenon only appeared to afflict the empire’s non-Muslim subjects.

The thrust of the fatwas was to stress the impermissibility of burning the bodies of the accursed, in line with fundamental Islamic teachings forbidding the fiery desecration of the dead. This, in itself, gives a clear indication that authorities were nervously seeking guidance on whether to aid and abet in the practice most favored by the local Orthodox populace in dealing with the scourge – namely, a stake to the heart and a bonfire finale.

The fatwa seems to have endured until pressure started to take on a political dimension. Terror began to spread among entire communities of Christians and Muslims alike – the latter settled in newly-gained territories in order to further Islamic influence in the farthest corners of the empire.

Fears that these subjects might vote with their feet and flee the curse risked rolling back years of population policies, causing a major strain on security and resources – to the extent that the question was put back to the courts only decades later. In a sign of the desperation authorities were experiencing to counter these mounting fears, the Sheikh-ul Islam finally acceded: “God forbid, if signs of the possession of an evil spirit have been determined, there is no obstacle to burning” – on the provision that the desecration of Muslim corpses should remain strictly forbidden.

Although this interdiction would remain on the books, by the 1700s, authorities appeared so spooked that a policy of “whatever it takes” was inscribed in law. For, amid a growing number of cases of vampirism striking with little regard for religious divisions, it was declared that no cards could be taken off the table in order to, according to one jurist, “placate the ignorant superstitions of the public.”

Lost in Translation

Despite their attempts to retain calm (and with it, control), it would take a plague of more conventional terrors to eventually unseat the Ottomans from the region – and with it, all memory of their juristic battles with the undead. Yet, after having struck such a terrifying chord, it is hard to fathom why vampirism is today seen as so alien from any conception of Islamic folklore, whether in modern Turkey or among European Muslim communities in general.

To find out why, I asked the author of “Ottoman Vampires: Legend, Impact and Response,” Salim Fikret Kırgi, himself. Like any good historian, Kırgi points to a number of factors – the first of which pertains to the plethora of terms used to describe the phenomenon. Kırgi is at pains not to understate the challenge this factor represents to researchers, explaining:

We’re talking about a plurality of pre-modern beliefs among dozens of ethnic and linguistic groups across the breadth of Eastern Europe. If one community labels [vampires] one thing, their neighbors label them another – and that’s assuming they offer a name at all.

Furthermore, many of the terms used prove almost counterintuitive to the modern mind. These include the Balkan term, “vrykolakas,” which, linguistically speaking, appears closer in meaning to “werewolf,” while the most common term in Turkish sources from the period is “cadı,” which, to any modern reader, would simply indicate a “witch” in the traditional sense. As Ottoman sources usually use the latter term, this presents an evident problem for historians unaware of the extremely flexible nature of supernatural terms in pre-modern times.

The best literary example of this comes from Çelebi, once again, when describing an incident he claims to have witnessed on a stop-off along the Caucuses in the year 1666. Note his use of the term obur, in his description of the sensational scene of a celestial battle that took place in the night skies above a Circassian village.

Once a year, the Night of Karakoncolos occurs, in which Circassian and Abkhazian oburs take to the skies in a great battle. The Abkhazian oburs, riding tree trunks, pots, wheel barrels, chimneys and other items, flew up against the Circassian oburs astride the carcasses of cattle and camels, armed with snakes in their hands. The battle lasted around six hours, causing a deafening cacophony and leading to a hail of rugs, pots, doors and other assorted items, followed by the limbs of horses, men and other beasts to crash to the ground. Several among both the Circassian and Abkhasian oburs fell to the ground grasping onto each other for dear life, before the former killed two Abkhazians by sucking their blood and throwing their remains into the flames. With the cry of the cockerel, daylight broke and the oburs fled.

Contrast this description of the obur with that of the excerpt at the very beginning of this article – also from Çelebi – and we have two entirely different forms of creature: the former, a blend of vampire and walking dead, and the latter, a flying witch. Thus, one can appreciate how easily the as-yet ill-defined vampire could slip through the grasp of historians of the period.

A Foreign Threat

Like any historian who has pored over Çelebi’s “Seyahatname,” Kırgi freely concedes that the traveler often fell prey to the temptations of any writer worth his salt, embellishing tales, claiming to have personally witnessed phenomena conveyed to him first-hand and letting literary flights of fancy stir his records.

For Kırgi, however, the text is nonetheless important as a cultural artifact, attesting to the norms of the period, in that: “It shows reports of such phenomenon were clearly not considered ‘foreign’ In any sense of the word.” 

This takes us to the main thrust of Kırgi’s explanation for the historical loss of vampire lore in Islamic history, in that, from its very beginning, it was framed as a foreign threat and that this view has been imbibed by the custodians of Ottoman heritage ever since.

For the historian, this is a view that needs to be revisited: “The central claim of the book is that the vampire phenomenon was a belief that was shared among the Ottoman Empires’ various religious and ethnic groups – to the extent that it spread further due to these groups’ interactions, making it – at the very least – not as foreign as it appears today.”

Recalling the developing nature of fatwas on the phenomenon, Kırgi continues:

In the region we are dealing with, most of the Muslims were converts, who retained certain superstitions or old family beliefs. In that sense, it’s not so easy to suddenly lose one’s fear of vampires. That said, whether Christian or Muslim – or even among the pagan Circassians, who lived in the mountains – one comes across various accounts that show vampires being perceived of as a general threat going beyond religion.

Finding Muslim Meaning

On the point of religion, it would be difficult to take in all this new information without comparing it to the rather standardized set of responses Muslims today are asked to choose from when indulging in questions of the supernatural. For starters, what does it tell us that Islamic jurists at the time refused to simply dismiss these reports as the work of jinn. Furthermore, what does it say that a new category was almost opened up to accommodate this phenomenon?

For Kırgi, the answer to this question is staring us in the face in the form of the very fatwas themselves:

“A process unfolded, picking up speed from the 16th century and continuing up to Turkey’s Republican period, which saw a centralisation of Sunni dogma and a distancing from more heterodox identities stemming from folk beliefs. In this, lies the answer to your question. These fatwas on vampires were issued around the start of this process, as the muftis began trying to deal with – and domesticize – folk beliefs.

“With that in mind, it would be an exaggeration to say this created a new category for vampires, as such – but it can be said that authorities, as they came to address various ‘objectionable’ folk beliefs, often benefited from couching them in religiously permissible language. Greek Orthodox and Catholic authorities seem to have struck a similar attitude at the time.

“The result of this process is that today, when explaining now-normalized elements of the fantastical, explanations such as jinns or evil spirits are the first to come to hand.”

The Vampiric ‘Other’

The centralization of Sunni-Muslim orthodoxy described in “Ottoman Vampires” was sealed with the collapse of the empire and declaration of the Turkish Republic, which entirely subordinated all religious theory under that of a laicist state that would use the shared Muslim identity of its subjects as a building block in the formation of a new, national identity. This new identity would define itself against the kind of heterodoxy and blurring of identities that characterized the empire upon whose ashes it was founded – and whose institutions, beliefs and lore became the scapegoat for its demise.

The irony of Turkey’s “othering” of legends and folklore in order to shore up its national identity against foreign foes and past defeats should not be lost on Western readers.

The fables and myths of Ottoman lands filtered into the wider European imagination through the scope of Orientalism, which pointed to the mystery and savagery of the East as proof of the civilizational supremacy of the rising imperial powers – initially, over Muslim nations, but later over emerging Slavic ones, emboldened in their wake.

Yet, the exploitation of vampire lore did not stop here. Over the same period, their legend was widely appropriated to add color to long-established anti-Semitic tropes, by which European Jews were accused of preying on the blood of Christian children. Meanwhile, countless pages have been filled regarding Bram Stoker’s use of the oppressive nature of “Dracula” as a symbol of the widening public backlash against his sexuality in late Victorian England. In the meantime, Marx, among others, found in the legend an apt metaphor for capital, which, “vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”

Indeed, whether due to the mystery, malice or malignment it represents, it seems the vampire legend is one that will continue to feed off contemporary culture, eventually outliving us all. What new research brought to light by the Ottoman records on these wicked creatures suggests, however, is that it will take more than either a crucifix or an ayat to dispel the fear it inspires.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Picture from Rythik on Unsplash

Liam Murray

Liam Murray is a writer, translator and longtime denizen of Istanbul, who has had poetry and articles published in various journals and news sites, including the Daily Sabah and Bosphorus Review of Books.

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