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With Stake and Spade – introduction and excerpts

Illustrations: JULIA MIRNY

Vampirism and Upiórism

If one were to weigh up the greatest Slavic contribution to global culture, vampires would certainly be a contender. Along with the ideas and myths that surround them, they have been used all over the world in every possible field from science to entertainment, including commercially. The modern-day vampire, however, is a construct uprooted from the original source material, which, incidentally, was rather sparse. If the literary trail were to be followed, it would prove that the entire stereotypical image of vampires from the nineteenth century right up until today was based on a few official reports and some accounts from travellers. It was gradually enriched by successive themes and underwent further metamorphoses, interpretations, and reinterpretations to swell from a local folk belief into a truly cosmopolitan figure. The fact that vampires are called “vampires” is to a large extent coincidental. Had it not been for the “Year Without a Summer” and the famed meeting of young English writers in the villa by Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and John William Polidori wrote The Vampyre, literature and the pop culture that followed would have been deprived of one of the most iconic figures in horror fiction. Thanks to Polidori’s story, published in 1819, vampires acquired a form inspired by Lord Byron – that of the demonic, mysterious, bloodsucking aristocrat. While this figure and its later incarnations were conquering refined and popular literature, as well as the theatre stage, the original, archaic belief in vampires persisted among the common folk for decades. However, the bulk of the ethnographic accounts, press reports, and even court records concerning them is not to be found somewhere in Transylvania (where pop culture would place it because of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Greece (where Byron first heard of them), or Southern Slavdom (which gave us the word “vampire” in reports from Habsburg officials) but in sources from Poland. Yet it would be incorrect to call these beliefs “Polish” since they were held by all the ethnic groups inhabiting a state that vanished from the world map in the late eighteenth century.

The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth – that grand project of modern political thinking, a sweeping, multicultural state that encompassed parts of present-day Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, where various ethnic groups coexisted and cultural influences intermingled – ceased to exist in 1795. Citizens and residents of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth reacted in radically different ways to being stripped of their sovereignty and partitioned three times in a row by the three neighbouring empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria: from armed combat and hasty reforms to indifference, collaboration, and attempts to adjust to the new realities. The fall of the commonwealth coincided with the heyday of its Enlightenment, several decades late. One of its achievements was the conviction that folk superstitions had been vanquished – and one in particular, regarded as the most dangerous and outrageous of all.

The enlightened were confident that they had overcome the belief in a creature more shocking to people from all walks of life than the Devil, hell, or even God. Laymen, clerics, closet atheists, deists, Cartesians, Voltaireans, bishops, and ex-Jesuits alike all fought against it. Armed with scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments, their dissertations, sermons, epigrams, and plays scoffed at this superstition, making a laughingstock of those who believed in it and portraying them as proverbial unenlightened lowbrow characters.

This creature that united the sharpest minds and pens during Poland’s Age of Reason was the upiór – a corpse that rose from its grave to attack people and cattle, kill its relatives or drink their blood, spread plague, and upset the order of the world by dint of its very existence. Upiórs were the embodiment of chaos, and believing in them was considered scandalous by theologians and ridiculous by philosophers.

The eighteenth-century battle of enlightened Poles against the belief in upiórs coincided with the west European fascination with vampires. Arguably, upiórs may have failed to acquire worldwide notoriety because they were treated as a local issue, a symptom of general ignorance that proved a need for progressive reforms and education. However, as it transpires, before the word “vampire” made its first appearance in west European writings, upiórs were already being discussed by erudite Parisians and described by medics in Padua, while Jesuit theologians pondered their nature.

All this material, from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries in chronological order, gives a glimpse of many primeval aspects of the belief in vampires, undistorted by academic debates and literary metamorphoses. The picture that emerges is so characteristic and distinct from the contemporary concept of vampirism that it could be more aptly termed “upiórism”.

What Is an Upiór?

During the eighteenth-century battle against the belief in upiórs, its leading polemicist, the Catholic priest Jan Bohomolec, provided this pithy definition:

It is commonly believed that upiórs are bodies of the dead that have been in some way revived, so to speak. Without awaiting the general resurrection, they rise prematurely from their coffins and leave their graves to raid houses, strangling whomsoever they can, and, if unable to defeat someone, will wrestle with them, murder them, suck their blood, or climb onto altars, bleed on them, break candles, and commit numerous other indecencies and murders.

He added that people believed upiórs to be the work of Satan, giving rise to a stereotype that is found in academic studies to this day. Originally, upiórs were simply walking corpses, dead bodies animated by some demonic force. Indeed, we find statements by early ecclesiastical writers who affirmed that the Devil was responsible for upiórish activity. Numerous scholars of Old Polish culture and popular beliefs continue in the same vein, examining upiórs in demonological terms. When one is familiar with the ethnographic material, however, it turns out that the common folk saw things differently: an upiór was a person. This creature that terrorised the awestricken folk was one of their own: “An upiór is a person endowed with a double life”, “a person born with their teeth”, “a dead person condemned to eternal damnation”, someone with two souls or two hearts. Even though many reports mentioned people dying and turning into upiórs, it was also possible to be one while alive, and many telltale signs were visible right from birth, to which we shall return below.

If one takes a taxonomical look at upiórs, there appear to have been local varieties in the lands of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, each named differently, with slight variations in nature and behaviour. To the east (currently the Polish–Ukrainian and Polish–Belarusian borderlands, and further on into the Ruthenian lands of Podilia, Volhynia, Pokuttya, and Polesie) lay the realm of the upiór (alternatively: upir, upier, upyr, opyr, wupar, wpyr, wypiór, or łupior). In Świętokrzyskie Province and Mazovia, it gradually gave way to the strzyga, also found in Little Poland Province and Silesia, although its relative the strzygoń was more common thereabouts. To the west and north, Greater Poland Province and Pomerania (inhabited by Kashubians) were the domain of the wieszcz and wieszczy. There were also many circuitous, euphemistic descriptions of people simply “walking” or even “running” after death, “causing mischief”, “frightening people”, or “rising from the grave”. Moreover, the terminology was often used loosely, for once the word “upiór” had entered the language of science and literature, it became dominant and superseded the regional terms. Interestingly, out of all these names, “wieszczy” is the only word of Slavic origin.


In modern-day Polish, the word “wieszcz” most commonly conjures up the school definition of the leading Romantic poets. The word means an inspired bard, one who knows, a soothsayer, or even a sorcerer (the root “wie-” means “know” in Polish). In the late Middle Ages, the feminine form “wieszczyca” implied a witch, but at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it also meant a corpse that could come back from the grave. Ethnographic materials confirm a belief in wieszczys in Greater Poland Province, but the majority of sources, even some from the late twentieth century, concern Pomerania and the Kashubian community. The Kashubians have managed to preserve their unique culture, language, and beliefs to this day. They were even strong enough to survive distant migration. In the late 1960s, Jan L. Perkowski, then a young Slavist and later one of the foremost researchers of vampirism, studied the folklore of Kashubian settlers who had lived in Ontario for a century and discovered that their beliefs were still alive and perfectly consistent with accounts recorded in Pomerania almost a hundred years previously. Dead wieszczys were believed to attack their nearest and dearest first, causing them to die one after another. To be rendered harmless, the corpse had to be dug up, its head chopped off, and a little of its blood then collected, which, when consumed, would protect the family from the restless dead. Wieszczys were usually recognisable as soon as they were born, one infallible sign being if a child was born with a caul on its head. In such cases, an apotropaic method was applied: the scrap of amniotic membrane was most often kept; when the child was seven years old, it would be given the ashes of the burnt caul to consume.

When the word “upiór” reached Kashubia, it transformed into “łepi”, “łopi”, “òpi”, and the derivative “niełap” and “połap”. These descriptions were mostly used synonymously with wieszczy but occasionally to differentiate between two types of people: one reputed to have been born with a caul, the other with their teeth. Cases of suspect corpses being decapitated were so frequent that the press often carried reports of people who ended up in court, accused of desecrating graves and mutilating bodies. The area inhabited by Kashubians had been under German rule for years, and some of those cases found their way into classic German literature on the subject of vampirism. So it was with the legendary Kashubian noble Wolszlegier (von Wollschläger) family and the posthumous tribulations of Franciszek Pobłocki (Franz von Poblotzki). It is worth including the Pobłocki family’s story, as in many respects it is a perfect illustration of the belief in and fear of wieszczys, their destructive activities toward close family members, and methods of staying out of harm’s way.

Pobłocki was a landowner from the village of Kętrzyno and came from a noble but not particularly wealthy family. He lived with his wife, Józefina, and they had two sons, Antoni and Józef, and a daughter, Antonina. He fell ill with consumption, wasted away from the disease on 5 May 1870, and was buried at the cemetery in nearby Rozłazino, where he had been the sexton. His son Antoni soon developed galloping consumption and died thirteen days after his father. Then his wife and daughter also fell sick, and the remaining family members began to feel weak and strangely fearful. The Pobłockis conferred, became convinced that Franciszek had been a wieszczy, and then also began to suspect Antoni. Józef hired two workers from the neighbourhood, and Antonina persuaded one of them, Jan Dzięcielski, to behead her brother’s corpse and collect some of his blood. Antoni was to be buried next to his father’s grave, and the funeral was set for 22 February.

The day before the ceremony, Józef appeared in Rozłazino with the workers, carrying spades and hoes. Young Pobłocki bribed the gravedigger to dig a new grave right beside his father’s, so he could easily reach the coffin containing Franciszek’s body. The gravedigger agreed, for the sake of saving the family from wieszczys, but he soon changed his mind and confessed it all to the priest, Wojciech Block, who ordered him to dig a grave for Antoni as far away from Franciszek as possible. He found Józef, who had gone to drink at the tavern with the workers, told him off for his ungodly plans, and banned him from entering the cemetery until his brother’s funeral. In addition, he asked the organist and the village watchman to keep a lookout in the cemetery that night, but these guards let him down: one dozed off, and the other saw nothing. However, the owner of the tavern near the cemetery was awoken by the hollow sound of frozen sods of earth dropping onto a coffin lid. He looked out of the window and, thinking someone was robbing a grave, shouted at the three men working frenziedly. Hearing this, the men quickly tidied up the grave and ran away.

The next day, Father Block found out about the night’s events and immediately ordered that Franciszek’s grave be dug up and the coffin opened. The corpse’s head had been severed and lay at his feet, its ruddy face turned toward the bottom of the coffin. There was no trace of blood – clearly the men had painstakingly collected the drops that seeped out of the frozen body. A hoe lay beside the grave, abandoned in haste. The gravedigger recognised it as belonging to one of the workers who had accompanied Józef. The priest buried Antoni, giving an impassioned sermon against believing in wieszczys, then informed the authorities about the desecrated grave.

Meanwhile, the Pobłocki family shared out the collected blood and mixed it into beverages. All who drank it felt relieved and were restored to health, except for Józefina. She could not bring herself to drink blood squeezed from the corpses of her husband and son and died on 28 February after a brief illness. To the family, this was proof that their actions had been justified. But the prosecutors wasted no time, and Father Block gave abundant evidence, wishing to see the culprits punished as an example to his flock. In October, the district court in Lębork (Lauenburg) sentenced Józef Pobłocki and Jan Dzięcielski to four months’ imprisonment and their assistant to six weeks. The accused could not accept this verdict – after all, they had mutilated dead bodies to save the living – hence they appealed to a higher court. Their plea was examined by the court in Koszalin (Köslin), which, finding no malicious intent in the men’s actions, overturned the verdict. The prosecutors refused to admit defeat and requested a retrial. In Lębork, although the judge acknowledged the extenuating circumstances, the original sentence was upheld. The Pobłockis pursued their legal battle, and a second appeal saw them acquitted once again. Eventually, the case ended up before the Prussian Supreme Tribunal in Berlin, and the events that ought to have remained a family secret were written up in the European press.

Similar newspaper stories appeared throughout the following decades, and, thanks to the work of one of the leading researchers of Kashubian culture, Jan Perszon, we know that belief in wieszczys persisted until almost the end of the twentieth century.


The word “upiór” (just like the related “vampire”) is an etymological conundrum. From the eighteenth century onward, numerous solutions were proposed, the majority of which were highly unconvincing. The most likely hypothesis is that the word originated in Turkic languages that influenced Eastern Slavdom in mediaeval times. In the beliefs of the Volga Tatars, we find an ubyr character that resembles the upiór in many ways and might be its distant ancestor, or at least a fragment of the same primeval belief system. If this theory is correct, then, as the linguist Kamil Stachowski suggested, the name derives from a root related to sucking, so upiór would have originally meant “one who sucks”. This does not necessarily imply sucking blood, which immediately springs to mind from contemporary pop-culture vampire imagery. It is highly probable that upiórs initially sucked not blood but … milk, so they may be regarded in the context of the “milk-stealing witchcraft” recorded across Europe and in parts of Asia. In many accounts, upiórs attacked not just people but also (and sometimes especially) cattle. For ancient societies that depended on cattle, their animals were the crux of their existence and prosperity. Therefore, witches and sorcerers capable of stealing milk from cows were seen as a threat more terrible than other supernatural forces. According to the Tatar beliefs, an ubyr was someone who, while alive, had a second soul that could steal milk in a supernatural way by sucking it from other people’s animals and who after death would rise from the grave to pester the living. So, this character was a fusion of sorcerers, witches, and the living dead. Moreover, most sources contain no mention whatsoever of upiórs drinking human blood.

Although the etymology of the word “upiór” remains dubious, we do know that it came into Polish usage from Ukraine. Both the French diplomat Pierre des Noyers, in a letter from 1659, and the Polish Jesuit Jerzy Gengell, in a work published in 1716, stressed that “upiór” was a Ruthenian word. It entered the Polish language in the seventeenth century but only became widespread a century later, which saw a veritable plague of upiórism. Notably, Gengell put forward a fantastic etymology that persisted for many years: in his opinion, the word “upiór” was derived from “pióro” (feather), a notion that misled numerous subsequent researchers.

Most material on upiórs came from parts of modern-day Ukraine and the Polish–Ukrainian borderlands. When Ukraine lay within the borders of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Old Polish authors found it to be a place filled with miracles, magic, and curiosities, among which corpses rising from the grave occupied a key position. Between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, one discovers all manner of sources on the subject, from fairy tales, ethnographic interviews, mentions in chronicles, and travellers’ reports to court records and press articles on exhumations and mutilated corpses. Upiórs were believed to have the power to cause a variety of catastrophes: natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and, above all, human and cattle plagues. Consequently, suspected walking dead were hunted down either spontaneously and secretly or openly with the local authorities’ blessing.

The Ukrainian upiór was by far the most dangerous of the undead and fuelled a general fear that bordered on mass hysteria. These corpses did not even have to leave their graves in order to rain down death and disaster on the local community. They had the ability to transform into animals, chiefly white or red dogs, pigs, and horses. Many sources underlined that they would not only “dusić” (i.e., literally “strangle”, or infect with plague, or simply kill) people and cattle but would also drink their blood. Much like the strzygońs of Little Poland Province, Ukrainian upiórs occasionally got into fights with peasants, visited their own widows, and could sire children. The deceased’s sexual appetite was sometimes emphasised and compared to “the advances of a drunken farmhand”.

In eastern parts of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the belief in upiórs and a ubiquitous fear of them were so commonplace and well documented in the eighteenth century that they provoked strong reactions from enlightened critics of folk superstitions. As the Romantic writers drifted toward folklore, the upiór became one of the principal literary figures, as well as the most commonly used Polish word for a living corpse. The first Polish translations of Polidori’s The Vampyre were all titled Upiór for a reason.

35. Tadeusz Jerzy Stecki, Wołyń pod względem statystycznym, historycznym i archeologicznym, vol. 1 (Lwów, 1864), pp. 90–91.

Volhynia, Ukraine

Upiór has the same meaning in Volhynia as everywhere else: it is a corpse that rises from the grave at night and sucks people’s blood as they slumber. According to popular belief, they can be identified while still alive, for they normally have red faces and look as if they are blushing. After their death and burial, they arise at midnight and walk around outside the windows of houses. Such upiórs are afraid of iron, which is why broken needles (protyr) are usually stuck into the window frames. Another method to stop an upiór from rising is to hammer a cross fashioned from aspen wood into its grave and sprinkle poppy seed on it, with the words “You may arise once you have picked up all the poppy seed”. Like viburnum wood, aspen must have had mythological significance, and the tree was presumably dedicated to some deity or other, yet people know nothing of this nowadays and merely affirm that Judas hanged himself from an aspen tree, which is why its leaves always shake, even when there is no wind. This tale has clearly been distorted and was concocted much later, because Judas is a figure of the Christian era. Aspen has another function among the populace – for example, it is said that if a wid’ma (witch) is stealing milk from cows, you must hammer aspen stakes into your threshold. The wid’ma will then appear and implore you to stop because it hurts her. It is also said that an aspen stake must be hammered into a hanged man’s grave to prevent him from rising.

47. Oskar Kolberg, Chełmskie. Obraz etnograficzny, vol. 2 (Kraków, 1891), p. 141.

Modryniec (currently in Lublin Province)

Based on information gathered in the village by Maria Hemplówna.

Suicides, especially those who have hanged themselves, should have aspen stakes driven into their throats before they are buried, to prevent their souls from walking the earth in their bodies as upiórs. And walk they will, since, being the property of the devil, the souls of such people (who were acquainted with the devil while still alive, and who were buried at a crossroads with no religious ceremony or holy water) cannot enter heaven and must roam around the area near their graves at night. To prevent them from roaming around and frightening people, they must be confined within their bodies, for which aspen stakes are highly effective. Additionally, one should sprinkle poppy seed into a suicide’s coffin (or under one of their armpits), so that, as they awaken to leave their grave, they have enough (seeds) to keep them counting one by one until daybreak. However, if there are fewer poppy seeds than it can count in a night, it will inevitably arise to frighten people once it has finished counting in the small hours (before cockcrow).

92. The Case of Dettlaff’s Mother, 1913

Puck, Pomerania Province

Górnoślązak: codzienne pismo illustrowane poświęcone sprawom ludu polskiego na Śląsku, no. 234 (8 October 1913), p. 6.

Gdańsk. Dreadful Superstition before the Court

Some time ago, we reported on a terrible superstition carried out illicitly on Midsummer Night in Puck cemetery. The case was brought before the criminal court in Gdańsk on Tuesday. In the dock were the workers Jan Dettlaff and Jan Formela from Połchowo, and Antoni and Bernard Mudlaff from Puck. This is what occurred: In October 1910, Jan Dettlaff’s mother died and was buried at the cemetery in Puck. Subsequently, four of Dettlaff’s brothers and two sisters died, apparently of consumption. The wife of one of his brothers also died, one married sister had consumption, and another sister also fell ill. Dettlaff’s father was told that his wife’s death was causing the demise of others, so to prevent any further victims, he should dig up her grave between 12 and 1 o’clock on Midsummer Night, sever her head, and place it between her feet. Despite believing in this foolish nonsense, his father had no desire to do it himself, so he persuaded the two Mudlaffs from Puck to do it, promising to pay them 100 marks, which they never received. On the night of 23 June, Jan Dettlaff, his brother-in-law Formela, and the two Mudlaffs set off for the cemetery and dug up the grave. Bernard Mudlaff chopped off the corpse’s head with a spade, placed it between her feet, and then the grave was filled in sloppily. Assuming that the accused had acted out of ignorance and a lack of education, the court gave them rather mild punishments: Bernard Mudlaff was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment, and the other defendants to one month each.