A Vroucolacan exhumed in the presence of M. de Tournefort
By Augustine Calmet
Monsieur Pitton de Tournefort relates the manner in which they exhumed a pretended vroucolaca, in the Isle of Micon, where he was on the 1st of January, 1701. These are his own words: “We saw a very different scene, (in the same Isle of Micon,) on the occasion of one of those dead people, whom they believe to return to earth after their interment. This one, whose history we shall relate, was a peasant of Micon, naturally sullen and quarrelsome; which is a circumstance to be remarked relatively to such subjects; he was killed in the country, no one knows when, or by whom. Two days after he had been inhumed in a chapel in the town, it was rumored that he was seen by night walking very fast; that he came into the house, overturning the furniture, extinguishing the lamps, throwing his arms around persons from behind, and playing a thousand sly tricks.
“At first people only laughed at it; but the affair began to be serious, when the most respectable people in the place began to complain: the priests even owned the fact, and doubtless they had their reasons. People did not fail to have masses said; nevertheless the peasant continued to lead the same life without correcting himself. After several assemblies of the principal men of the city, with priests and monks, it was concluded that they must, according to some ancient ceremonial, await the expiration of nine days after burial.
“On the tenth day a mass was said in the chapel where the corpse lay, in order to expel the demon which they believed to have enclosed himself therein. This body was taken up after mass, and they began to set about tearing out his heart; the butcher of the town, who was old, and very awkward, began by opening the belly instead of the breast; he felt for a long time in the entrails without finding what he sought. At last some one told him that he must pierce the diaphragm; then the heart was torn out, to the admiration of all present. The corpse, however, gave out such a bad smell, that they were obliged to burn incense; but the vapor, mixed with the exhalations of the carrion, only augmented the stink, and began to heat the brain of these poor people.
“Their imagination, struck with the spectacle, was full of visions; some one thought proper to say that a thick smoke came from this body. We dared not say that it was the vapor of the incense. They only exclaimed “Vroucolacas,” in the chapel, and in the square before it. (This is the name which they give to these pretended Revenans.) The rumor spread and was bellowed in the street, and the noise seemed likely to shake the vaulted roof of the chapel. Several present affirmed that the blood of this wretched man was quite vermilion; the butcher swore that the body was still quite warm; whence it was concluded that the dead man was very wrong not to be quite dead, or, to express myself better, to suffer himself to be reanimated by the devil. This is precisely the idea of a vroucolaca; and they made this name resound in an astonishing manner. At this time there entered a crowd of people, who protested aloud that they clearly perceived this body was not stiff when they brought it from the country to the church to bury it, and that consequently it was a true vroucolaca; this was the chorus.
“I have no doubt that they would have maintained it did not stink, if we had not been present; so stupefied were these poor people with the circumstance, and infatuated with the idea of the return of the dead. For ourselves, who got next to the corpse in order to make our observations exactly, we were ready to die from the offensive odor which proceeded from it. When they asked us what we thought of this dead man, we replied that we believed him thoroughly dead; but as we wished to cure, or at least not to irritate their stricken fancy, we represented to them that it was not surprising if the butcher had perceived some heat in searching amidst entrails which were decaying; neither was it extraordinary that some vapor had proceeded from them; since such will issue from a dunghill that is stirred up; as for this pretended red blood, it still might be seen on the butcher’s hands that it was only a very fetid mud.
“After all these arguments, they bethought themselves of going to the marine, and burning the heart of the dead man, who in spite of this execution was less docile, and made more noise than before. They accused him of beating people by night, of breaking open the doors and even terraces, of breaking windows, tearing clothes, and emptying jugs and bottles. He was a very thirsty dead man; I believe he only spared the consul’s house, where I was lodged. In the mean time I never saw anything so pitiable as the state of this island.
“Everybody seemed to have lost their senses. The most sensible people appeared as frenzied as the others; it was a veritable brain fever, as dangerous as any mania or madness. Whole families were seen to forsake their houses, and coming from the ends of the town, bring their flock beds to the market-place to pass the night there. Every one complained of some new insult; you heard nothing but lamentations at night-fall; and the most sensible people went into the country.
“Amidst such a general prepossession we made up our minds to say nothing; we should not only have been considered as absurd, but as infidels. How can you convince a whole people of error? Those who believed in their own minds that we had our doubts of the truth of the fact, came and reproached us for our incredulity, and pretended to prove that there were such things as vroucolacas, by some authority which they derived from Father Richard, a Jesuit missionary. It is Latin, said they, and consequently you ought to believe it. We should have done no good by denying this consequence. They every morning entertained us with the comedy of a faithful recital of all the new follies which had been committed by this bird of night; he was even accused of having committed the most abominable sins.
“The citizens who were most zealous for the public good believed that they had missed the most essential point of the ceremony. They said that the mass ought not to be celebrated until after the heart of this wretched man had been torn out; they affirmed that with that precaution they could not have failed to surprise the devil, and doubtless he would have taken care not to come back again; instead of which had they begun by saying mass, he would have had, said they, plenty of time to take flight, and to return afterwards at his leisure.
“After all these arguments they found themselves in the same embarrassment as the first day it began; they assembled night and morning; they reasoned upon it, made processions which lasted three days and three nights; they obliged the priests to fast; they were seen running about in the houses with the asperser or sprinkling brush in their hands, sprinkling holy water and washing the doors with it; they even filled the mouth of that poor vroucolaca with holy water. We so often told the administration of the town that in all Christendom people would not fail in such a case to watch by night, to observe all that was going forward in the town, that at last they arrested some vagabonds, who assuredly had a share in all these disturbances. Apparently they were not the principal authors of them, or they were too soon set at liberty; for two days after, to make themselves amends for the fast they had kept in prison, they began again to empty the stone bottles of wine belonging to those persons who were silly enough to forsake their houses at night. Thus, then, they were again obliged to have recourse to prayers.
“One day as certain orisons were being recited, after having stuck I know not how many naked swords upon the grave of this corpse, which was disinterred three or four times a day, according to the caprice of the first comer, an Albanian, who chanced to be at Mico accidentally, bethought himself of saying in a sententious tone, that it was very ridiculous to make use of the swords of Christians in such a case. Do you not see, blind as ye are, said he, that the hilt of these swords, forming a cross with the handle, prevents the devil from coming out of that body? why do you not rather make use of the sabers of the Turks? The advice of this clever man was of no use; the vroucolaca did not appear more tractable, and everybody was in a strange consternation; they no longer knew to which saint to pay their vows; when, with one voice, as if the signal word had been given, they began to shout in all parts of the town that they had waited too long: that the vroucolaca ought to be burnt altogether; that after that, they would defy the devil to return and ensconce himself there; that it would be better to have recourse to that extremity than to let the island be deserted. In fact, there were whole families who were packing up in the intention of retiring to Sira or Tina.
“So they carried the vroucolaca, by order of the administration, to the point of the Island of St. George, where they had prepared a great pile made up with a mixture of tow, for fear that wood, however dry it might be, would not burn quickly enough by itself. The remains of this unfortunate corpse were thrown upon it and consumed in a very little time; it was on the first day of January, 1701. We saw this fire as we returned from Delos: it might be called a real feu de joie; since then, there have been no more complaints against the vroucolaca. They contented themselves with saying that the devil had been properly caught that time, and they made up a song to turn him into ridicule.
“Throughout the Archipelago, the people are persuaded that it is only the Greeks of the Greek church whose corpses are reanimated by the devil. The inhabitants of the Isle of Santorin have great apprehensions of these bugbears; those of Maco, after their visions were dissipated, felt an equal fear of being punished by the Turks and by the Bishop of Tina. None of the papas would be present at St. George when this body was burned, lest the bishop should exact a sum of money for having disinterred and burned the dead body without his permission. As for the Turks, it is certain that at their first visit they did not fail to make the community of Maco pay the price of the blood of this poor devil, who in every way became the abomination and horror of his country. After this, must we not own that the Greeks of to-day are not great Greeks, and that there is only ignorance and superstition among them?”
So says Monsieur de Tournefort.
This is taken from Phantom World, originally published in 1850.