Academic journal article Journal of Slavic Linguistics

The Word Vampire: Its Slavonic Form and Origin

Academic journal article Journal of Slavic Linguistics

The Word Vampire: Its Slavonic Form and Origin

Article excerpt

Abstract. After an examination of some of the historical and linguistic background to the word vampire, including its links with the purity of the earth, a new etymology is proposed for the word based on Common Slavonic borrowing from Dacian Latin and interborrowing of words within the Balkan Sprachbund.


It would be as well from the start to establish and maintain a clear distinction between the word vampire, which is generally held to be Slavonic in origin, and the popular concept of what is now called vampirism, which in one form or another has an ancient history, going back to Assyria, Babylonia and beyond. Belief in the vampire in Slavonic legend is ultimately linked with spirits of the dead. Among the Slavs the spirits of the dead were not only venerated but also feared, especially the spirits of the so-called "unclean" dead, who had died a premature and unnatural death. (1) It was believed that they thirsted for the things they had lost and so tried to return to life, to the potential danger of the living. In investigating the origin of the word, one must disentangle this original belief from the later accretions of vampirism, especially the blood-drinking aspects (see Vaillant 1931: 675-676). The vampire can be the ghost of a dead person (cf. one of its many Serbo-Croat names, ljugat < Albanian lugat 'specter, ghost'); in parts of the Balkans it is called ten(j)ac and appears as a shadow. Or it can be a living corpse animated by either its own or an evil spirit, especially among the Bulgarians, where it is also called plat(en)ik < plat 'body' (Moszynski 1934, cited in Perkowski 1976: 180). In the Slav world these beliefs belong mainly to the Balkans and Ukraine but exist also as far west as Kashubia in northern Poland, whence they were imported to Canada (see Perkowski 1976: 189-190).

If Poles call the vampire upior (with various dialectal forms, e.g., wypior), apparently a borrowing from Ukrainian with -io- by false association with pioro 'feather' (Bruckner 1934: 279, 1957: 594; cf. Old Polish upierz), Kashubians have opi [= uopi], upi [= uupi], lopi, lupi (with genitive opego, etc.), and also regionally hapi, ropi, uepi/uepi, (po)lap, nelap upor, upon (Moszynski 1934: 666; Perkowski 1976: 190; Sychta 1967-III: 332). The other West Slavonic names are Czech and Slovak upir. In East Slavonic there are Russian upyr' (dialectally upir', obyr'), Belarusian upyr, upir (dialectally upar, vupar), and Ukrainian upyr, dialectal opyr (genitive upyrja, opyrja), vopyr and vepyr (the last two similar to some Bulgarian forms noted below, an effect doubtless due to the important contribution of the Balkan population in southern Russia, see Vaillant 1931: 673), and also vampyr, vampir, the European form which occurs in virtually all Slavonic languages: Russian and Belarusian vampir, Czech vampyr, Slovak vampir, Polish wampir, Upper and Lower Sorbian wampir, and among South Slavonic languages Serbo-Croat vampir (dialectally lampir, lampijer), Slovene and Macedonian vampir, and Bulgarian vampir(in), dialectally vapir, vapir, vepir(in), ljapir. The Serbo-Croat is a variant of an older upir, to judge by the seventeenth-century form upirina cited from Palmotic by Vaillant (1931: 674), who is inclined to see it as evidence for a word upirin, parallel to Bulgarian vampirin:

Posred kopna, posred mora              On land and sea, all there
sve sto je vrazieh grdobstina,         is of the devil's monsters,
pustolovic, uzma, mora,                intriguers, ghosts, night-
[v]ukodlaka, upirina.                  mares, werewolves, vampires.

The point is important because it is in South Slavonic that the European word is thought to have originated and passed to the rest of the Balkans and the Slav world, and eventually to western Europe, where it became associated with a much distorted view of the vampire; cf. German Vampir (earlier Vampyr, Vampyer, Vampyres, Wampieren), Danish/Swedish vampyr, Dutch vampir, French vampire, Italian/Spanish/Portuguese vampiro. …

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