Thursday, 27 December 2012

Vampires in Serbia: unraveling fact from myth about Sava Savanović

I've only ever published two guest blog entries. The first was by Jane, a University of Texas at Austin student studying under noted vampire scholar, Thomas J. Garza (parts one and two). This is the second.

I was recently contacted by James M. B. Lyon–a political analyst with a Ph.D. in Balkan History from UCLA–asking if I'd be interested in reading and reviewing his 2012 novel, Kiss of the butterfly.

I don't usually read vampire novels as they're generally beyond the scope of what I cover on this blog. However, I was prepared to make an exception primarily because his work was favourably reviewed by Magia Postuma's Niels K. Petersen:
The backdrop of Serbia on the brink of war, the minutiae of history, geography and customs, combined with a well-crafted mix of fact in fiction in the findings of Steven’s vampire research makes it a fascinating read as well.
Lyon's novel is deeply rooted in Balkan vampire lore, even disclosing sources in his 'historical note' (pp. 376–8) that few writers of vampire non-fiction would even be aware of. What I'm saying is, when it comes to vampires, this guy knows his stuff. 

During our correspondence, I asked Lyon if he'd be interested in submitting a guest blog entry. He happily obliged with an article concerning recent news coverage of the Sava Savanović case in Serbia.1 What makes his contribution distinct from the usual news coverage, is that he was there.

In late November 2012, a story began to spread that the legendary Serbian vampire Sava Savanović was on the loose in the small mountain village of Zarožje. According to media reports, the watermill that Sava haunted had collapsed, the local villagers were in fear that Sava would seek a new home, the municipal council had issued an official warning telling people to put garlic and hawthorn branches above their doors, and the local price of garlic had skyrocketed.

The watermill at the bottom of the ravine, taken from the road on the hillside above.

Major international media began to carry the story: first the Austrian Times, then the Daily Mail, then AP, ABC News, AFP, the Guardian, Hindustan Times, Fox News, the Sun, Straits Times, Huffington Post, Yahoo, even National Geographic wrote a piece (poorly researched and written) about Sava. Although the Sava Savanović story was trending and generating substantial interest, after several days it was pushed off the front pages by news of the Royal Pregnancy.

The legend of the vampire Sava Savanović is well-known throughout the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo), due to a cult horror film from 1973 called Leptirica (Female Butterfly), and a novel by the Serbian author Milovan Glišić -- After Ninety Years – that was published in 1880, about 17 years before Bram Stoker's Dracula. Sava was said to haunt the local watermill, a trait common to vampires in Balkan folklore. And as is also common among many Balkan vampires, Sava not only drank blood, but also smothered/suffocated people to death.

On 8 December, I visited the Serbian village of Zarožje with a documentary camera crew and spoke with a number of villagers and visited the watermill that Sava Savanović is alleged to have haunted.

Zarožje is an isolated area located in the mountains of western Serbia between Valjevo and Bajina Bašta. It is not a typical village, but rather a series of homes spread along the mountainside. According to local residents, the first road to run through the area – connecting Bajina Bašta to Valjevo – was constructed in 1977, and electricity was strung to the village one year later, in 1978.

The watermill, taken from the stream bed, from the upstream side.

We drove to Zarožje through steady snowfall, and we were forced to leave our vehicle at a gas station on the main road, due to icy conditions on the steep, 4 kilometer side-road that led down the mountain to the watermill (doesn't that sound like the start of a good horror flick?). Along the way, we stopped most everyone we came across and asked their thoughts about the mill's collapse and the Sava Savanović legend. Some people laughed it off and said it was just an effort by Miodrag Vujetić, a local member of the Bajina Bašta Municipal Assembly (not mayor, as incorrectly reported in most media) to increase local tourism and drum up business for his gas station and restaurant on the main road (where we left our vehicle). Others mumbled uncertainly that it was nonsense. Yet others said they believed that Sava was still around. One man turned pale and ran away when we asked him about Sava. Some of the homes had garlic and hawthorn branches above the doorways to ward of vampires, and a couple of villagers actually carried garlic in their pockets. We asked everyone we met if they would spend the night in the old watermill. All said “no”. When we saw the actual physical state of the watermill, I understood that fear was not the only possible factor to motivate a negative response.

We asked about the alleged rise in garlic prices, and everyone said it was nonsense. The reason was simple: everyone grows their own garlic and has put away large quantities for the winter. When we asked about an official warning from the Bajina Bašta municipality, everyone laughed it off and said that the municipality had issued no such warning.

As we headed down the road toward the watermill, one villager ran out of his home and offered us a hawthorn wood stake for protection. When we finally got down the mountainside to the mill, we discovered that the roof had indeed collapsed inward, that one of the walls was bulging outwards, there was no longer a water wheel, and all that was left were the stone foundation, and three and a half walls. Inside, there were two sets of millstones, both exposed to the elements.

A close-up of the exterior of the watermill. The collapsed roof and bulging wall are clearly visible, and snow is inside.

We interviewed the mill's owner, Slobodan Jagodić, a very warm and open-hearted man, who invited us into his home, where he and his wife showered us with traditional Serbian hospitality, consisting of homemade šljivovica (plum brandy), bread, young cheese, and pihtija (pig-brains jello). Slobodan told us that after 1978, the watermill had fallen into disuse, as villagers purchased electric mills, and he had not maintained it. I taped over an hour of conversation with Slobodan, who told us the details of the Sava Savanović legend as told in Zarožje. I should note that their home had garlic and hawthorn above the door.

The interior of the watermill. Two sets of millstones are clearly visible, one in the foreground (bottom left) on the floor, the other in the back (center right), standing on its side.

Later on, we interviewed Municipal Assembly member Vujetić, who confirmed to us that no official warning had been issued, but that he, as a concerned local citizen, was urging people to take measures to protect themselves. He showed us some garlic he was carrying in his pocket and even obliged us by eating a clove of raw garlic. He came across as an effective chamber-of-commerce style spokesman, who is doing everything he can to boost the local tourism industry.

James Lyon standing in front of the watermill, taken from the downstream side.

Before I recount Slobodan Jagodić’s version of the Sava Savanović legend, permit me to share with you an old Serbian folk saying:

“Neither am I lying to you,
Nor am I telling you the truth.
He who lied was the one who told me.”

“Нити лажем
нити истину кажем.
Онај лаже који ми каже”

Slobodan told me that he heard the story from his grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather, and that no one knows for certain when it all took place, but that is was at least three hundred years ago.

As with any good vampire tale, the story of Sava Savanović involves love. Local lore holds that Sava never married, and that in his later years when he had become rather ugly, he fell in love with a much younger girl who spurned his advances. One day while she was tending sheep, he once again proposed to her, but she again declined, and turned her back on him. Angered at this, he pulled out his pistol and shot her in the back, killing her. Unbeknown to Sava, his brother Stanko had suspected he was up to no good and had followed him. When Sava shot the girl, Stanko jumped out of the bushes and tried to apprehend him. The noise of the gunshot attracted shepherds, who saw the two men fighting and assumed it was a traveler being attacked by a bandit. When Stanko saw the shepherds, he feared trouble, so he ran off towards the forest, leaving Sava. The shepherds thought Stanko was the guilty party and shot at him with their rifles, killing him. When the local villagers realized what had actually happened, they beat Sava to death with hoes and mattocks and buried him near the scene of the murder, as they did not wish to have a murderer buried in the local cemetery. Shortly thereafter, rumors began to circulate that Sava was seen wandering about in the village in the evenings and had become a vampire.

The vampire killed people in Zarojže for years and years and no one knew who the vampire was, so they couldn’t find his grave and kill him. There was a young man from the village of Ovčinje named Strahinja, and there was a wealthy farmer in Zarojže with a very beautiful daughter named Radojka. Strahinja fell in love with Radojka, but he was very poor, and her father was strong and powerful and wouldn’t let his daughter marry Strahinja, even though Radojka loved him. So Strahinja thought about what he could do, and one day he came to Zarožje and asked the people to let him be the miller for one night in the watermill. They didn’t want to let him, because anyone who spent the night in the watermill was killed. At the urging of Radojka’s father – who thought it would be a good way to get rid of this unwanted suitor – the villagers permitted Strahinja to spend the night at the watermill.

Strahinja came to the mill before dark, took a tree stump and some bags and wrapped them in a blanket and put them next to the fire so that it would look as though he were asleep. Strahinja then hid up in the rafters of the mill and watched. The mill was grinding away, when suddenly, in the middle of the night, the door of the mill opened all by itself and a large, horrible man appeared in front of the doorway and entered the mill. As he entered, he spoke out loud to himself saying “a good dinner for me”. Watching this, Strahinja was overcome with fear. The vampire bent over to suck the blood of the sleeping man and discovered it was a tree stump, not a person. Then he exclaimed loudly “Since I became Sava Savanović, I have never gone without dinner, but tonight I’ve gone without dinner”.

From his perch in the rafterss, Strahinja shot at the vampire with his rifle, and Sava disappeared. Strahinja then came down and continued to mill grain throughout the night. In the morning, the entire village came down to the watermill, expecting to find Strahinja dead. Instead, they found Strahinja sitting on the doorstep of the mill, smiling. Radojka’s father asked him how he survived, and asked if he had learned the vampire’s name. Strahinja told him that the vampire’s name was Sava Savanović. Since Strahinja had saved the village from the vampire, Radojka’s father gave him permission to marry his daughter.

But because the vampire was so old, no one in the village knew where Sava’s grave was -- not even the very oldest people -- so they had no way of killing him. There was an old grandmother in Ovčinje named Mirjana, and the villagers went and asked her what to do. But Mirjana was hard of hearing, so the person with the loudest voice shouted at her. She told them that the vampire’s grave was in a crooked ravine, under a spreading Elm tree, but that they wouldn’t be able to find it on their own.

Mirjana told them to take a black stallion without any marks and follow it, and they would find the vampire’s grave at the spot where the stallion starts to dig with its hooves. She told them to take a sharpened hawthorn stake, lots of garlic, and a priest with holy water. They did as Mirjana instructed and followed the black stallion, until the horse started to whiny and dig with its hooves, and then they began to dig and did, until they came to a coffin.

After they had raised the vampire Sava’s coffin from the grave, the bravest man in the village wielded the sharpened hawthorn stake. The villagers pried open the coffin, while the stake-wielder and the priest stood by. As they opened the coffin, they found Sava lying there, with one eye open and the other eye closed. All the villagers shook with fear, but the brave man lunged and drove the stake through the vampire’s chest. Then the priest started forward to pour holy water on the vampire, but he slipped and spilled it onto the earth. Just then, a large butterfly flew from out of Sava’s lips and he was never seen again.

After that, Sava did not appear to bother anyone for a while, but even so, no one dared spend the night in the watermill. Some time later, a butterfly began troubling people, particularly babies and small children, and even though the villagers had women-conjurors protect the children, some of the children died. It is felt that Sava lives on in the shape of a butterfly, and that he continues to haunt the mill.

Thus ends Slobodan Jagodic’s tale.

I'd like to thank James for taking the time to write and submit his excellent contribution to this blog. Very informative; very insightful. 

Lyon's debunking of the Zarožje vampire scare is echoed by Moonlight's 'An accurate reporting on the Serbian government issuing a vampire warning'.

You can buy Lyon's novel, Kiss of the butterfly (2012), on Amazon for US$3.99–but you'll need a Kindle (or to download a free app) to read it, as it's not available in print form. Yet. It's a great read. If you're into vampire lore, you'll want to add it to your collection.

1. J Lyon, 'Re: Visiting Zarožje and Kisiljevo‏', email, Wednesday, 26 December 2012 3:55:13 AM. The photos–all under James Lyon's copyright–were sent separately.

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