Sunday 30 November 2014

Victims of Religion in Poland

30–39 year old female with a sickle placed across her neck.
PLOS ONE: Apotropaic Practices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials in Post-Medieval Poland

Ignorant superstitions are often a cause as well as an effect of religious bigotry. These can and often do provide an excuse for human rights abuses and victimisation of people who are a little bit different to the cultural norm, whether in personality, physical or mental disability or even race, skin colour or ethnic origin.

Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, has a long history of superstitious belief in 'unclean' spirits re-entering a dead body and reanimating it. This superstition, underpinned by the religious idea of a soul or some form of magical other being who lives in our bodies and gives it 'life' is not, as some might think, a biblical or Quranic idea but one which was known to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

In a paper published on PLOS One a few days ago, the authors showed how this superstition in 17th–18th century Poland probably led to people being stigmatized as people likely to 'come back' as vampires either because of the manner of their living or the manner of their death.


Apotropaic observances-traditional practices intended to prevent evil-were not uncommon in post-medieval Poland, and included specific treatment of the dead for those considered at risk for becoming vampires. Excavations at the Drawsko 1 cemetery (17th–18th c. AD) have revealed multiple examples (n = 6) of such deviant burials amidst hundreds of normative interments. While historic records describe the many potential reasons why some were more susceptible to vampirism than others, no study has attempted to discern differences in social identity between individuals within standard and deviant burials using biogeochemical analyses of human skeletal remains. The hypothesis that the individuals selected for apotropaic burial rites were non-local immigrants whose geographic origins differed from the local community was tested using radiogenic strontium isotope ratios from archaeological dental enamel. 87Sr/86Sr ratios ( = 0.7112±0.0006, 1σ) from the permanent molars of 60 individuals reflect a predominantly local population, with all individuals interred as potential vampires exhibiting local strontium isotope ratios. These data indicate that those targeted for apotropaic practices were not migrants to the region, but instead, represented local individuals whose social identity or manner of death marked them with suspicion in some other way. Cholera epidemics that swept across much of Eastern Europe during the 17th century may provide one alternate explanation as to the reason behind these apotropaic mortuary customs, as the first person to die from an infectious disease outbreak was presumed more likely to return from the dead as a vampire.

The authors, by way of introduction, outlined the following about superstitions in Poland and how Roman Catholicism may have tolerated it in order to promote acceptance of Catholicism.

In Polish folklore, the soul and the body are distinct entities that separate upon a person’s death. Souls, the majority of which are harmless, leave the body and continue to inhabit the earth for 40 days after death. However, a small minority of these souls were seen as a direct threat to the living and at risk of becoming a vampire, particularly those who were marginalized in life for having an unusual physical appearance, practicing witchcraft, perishing first during an epidemic, committing suicide, being unbaptized or born out of wedlock, or being an outsider to the community.

In order to prevent the soul of the deceased from reanimating a corpse as a vampire, specific burial rites were undertaken. These burial customs are identifiable in the archaeological record, enabling researchers to distinguish vampire burials from the general populous. The inclusion of apotropaics, or grave goods that prevent evil or barricade an individual within the grave, is one of the most common anti-vampiristic methods employed. For example, the inclusion of sharp instruments such as sickles or scythes placed over the neck and abdomen was believed to destroy the physical body if a vampire attempted to rise from the grave.

While vampire folklore originated as part of pagan religious traditions across Eastern Europe, the adoption of Roman Catholicism in the 10th century did not curb belief in vampires throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods. To promote the acceptance of Catholicism, early medieval Christianity may have syncretistically incorporated pagan beliefs – including ancestor worship and a belief in vampirism – although there is much debate regarding the degree of assimilation of these pagan traditions.

45–49 year old female with a stone placed directly on top of her throat.
They go on to point out that, although Catholic 'tolerance' for these non-Catholic beliefs and practices ebbed during the 17th and 18th centuries when legislation prevented non-Catholics from reaching certain positions in government and made renunciation of Catholicism illegal, a period of turbulence during the Reformation period in Poland may have allowed these practices to continue with Catholic priests allowing 'pagan' burial rites in Christian cemeteries because they felt continuation of these superstitions actually enhanced the Catholic Church's authority and adherence to Church dogma.

It has usually been assumed that these burials were most likely those of outsiders living in the isolated community and that not being local was regarded as grounds for suspicion and a definite indicator of an 'unclean' spirit. However, analysis of the ratios of radioactive isotopes of strontium in the enamel on the teeth of these individuals showed they were local people too. The authors suggest that the large of these burials in this location might well be associated with a cholera outbreak where it was assumed that the first few to die must have 'unclean' spirits to die suddenly of this mysterious illness. Many more would have suffered the same stigma because of their behaviour or physical appearance or even their mental health.

In other words, these people were stigmatized as evil not because of something they had done but because of the easy answer provided by religious dogma to something people didn't understand, and they were encouraged and tolerated in that bigotry by the Catholic priest because it benefitted them to allow it. Religion didn't provide people with truth but with prejudice, and a prejudice that did harm to innocent people by people who had been mislead by religious clerics to do that harm believing it was good.

None of this dogma, and none of the easy answers provided by it, gave any hope of understanding cholera let alone of preventing and curing it. That tooks science.

Of course the Catholic Church would have been in no position to counter this superstition even if it wanted to because it too subscribes to the evidence-free belief in a soul, in evil spirits and in resurrection from the dead, and it too provides easy answers with little regard to the real truth just so long as it conforms to official dogma. In fact, at least so far as this basic belief set is concerned, Christianity is almost indistinguishable from the beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Just as in earlier times, these primitive superstitions provide an excuse to do harm by those who know it's a load of bull and a reason to do harm believing it's good by those too stupid, too lazy or too afraid to have worked it out yet.

*Published under terms of Creative Commons Attribution License.

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