Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality

An anthropological work of value, by Paul Barber

An anthropological work of value, by Paul Barber

Fascinating and unexpected; wholly original research; entirely free of fantasy but sympathetic to the human capacity for creating it. Nice clear prose, without padding. (This edition has a new preface.) I give it five stars because, apart from any other consideration, there is no book I know of that is even remotely like this. It is path-breaking and stands by itself.

Barber's book is a rational investigation into the claims made by Eastern European folklore -- its witnesses and spectators -- who often observed the processes of decay but did not understand what they were seeing and therefore came up with what seemed like plausible explanations for them. Barber expertly separates fact from folklore but also shows how they intertwine, in ways that uneducated locals were unaware of. Their account of the often bizarre mysteries of death makes sense when you understand, as Barber shows us, that they believed Nature to have will and personal agency. We moderns are still free to examine their accounts for truthful clues about the reality of nature contained within them.

I always enjoy learning new words, and this book taught me 'apotropaic', which means 'methods of turning evil away' -- see chapters 7 & 8. Many apotropaics were applied to decomposing bodies not properly settled in their graves, since the pre-scientific peoples were not familiar with the facts of decomposition (but only with rigor mortis, which they expected to last).