Nachzehrer – folklore

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A nachzehrer is a form of vampire found in Germanic and Polish regions including Silesia and Bavaria, which also exhibits behaviour displayed by ghouls. The name translates as “after (nach) living off (zehre)” likely alluding to their living after death or living off humans after death in addition to the choice of “nach” for “after” which is similar to “nacht” (“night”).

The nachzehrer was also prominent in the folklore of the northern regions of Germany and the word was also used to describe a similar creature of the Kashubes of Northern Poland; Kashubes are also referred to as Pomeranians and are descended from Slavic tribes found in Poland before what being inhabited by people referred by typically as Poles. Though officially a vampire, they are also similar to ghouls, and in many ways different from either undead; it quite clearly differs hugely from the slightly more noble or dashingly suave vampires popularised in fiction. The nachzehrer is not a blood-sucker, but like a ghoul, rather consumes already dead bodies.

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A nachzehrer is created most commonly after suicide, though sometimes from an accidental death. According to German lore, a person does not become a nachzehrer from being bitten or scratched; the transformation happens after death and is not communicable. Nachzehrers are also related to sickness and disease. If a large group of people died of the plague, the first person to have died is believed to be a nachzehrer.

Detail of 'Cave Necrophagoi in Sepulchris' by Liv Rainey-Smith
Detail of ‘Cave Necrophagoi in Sepulchris’ by Liv Rainey-Smith

Typically, a nachzehrer devours its family members upon waking. It has also been said that they devour their own bodies, including their funeral shrouds, and the more of themselves they eat, the more of their family they physically drain. It is not unlikely that the idea of the dead eating themselves might have risen from bodies in open graves who had been partly eaten by scavengers such as rats.

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The nachzehrer was similar to the Slavic vampire in that it was known to be a recently deceased person who returned from the grave to attack family and village acquaintances. Some Kashubes believed that the nachzehrer would leave its grave, shape-shifting into the form of a pig, then paying a visit to their family members to feast on their blood.

Other animal shenanigans are involved in a popular nachzeher hobby of plaiting cow’s tails together, leading to plague and disease. In addition, the nachzehrer was able to ascend to a church belfry to ring the bells, bringing death to anyone who hears them. Another lesser known ability of the nachzehrer is the power it had to bring death by causing its shadow to fall upon someone. Those hunting the nachzehrer in the graveyard would listen for grunting sounds that it would make while it munched on its grave clothes.

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It usually originated from an unusual death such as a person who died by suicide or accident. They were also associated with epidemic sickness, such as whenever a group of people died from the same disease, the person who died first was labeled to be the cause of the group’s death. Another belief was that if a person’s name was not removed from his burial clothing, that person would be a candidate for becoming a nachzehrer. A child born with a caul (a piece of the amniotic sac) will turn into a nachzehrer upon death.

Such a belief was found even in the Republic of Venice, where the body of a woman, with a brick in her mouth, was recently discovered in a mass grave of plague-dead people. As well as bricks and stones, spikes have also been found in corpses’ mouths, achieving the same result.

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The official killing myth says you can kill a nachzehrer by placing a coin in its mouth, and then chopping off its head. It can be discerned from this that a mere coin in the mouth may result in paralysis as some myths say that a stake through a vampires heart does. It is essential to bury all dead with a cross next to their grave; as with other vampires and ghouls, seeds or rice are scattered to distract rising corpses. Those buried who are suspected of future nachzehrer activity have their necks broken prior to burial. On occasion, graves are opened to check for movement – any signs of clothing being eaten or other tell-tale signs may see the corpse having the heart and lungs removed to be burned, preventing them receiving their supernatural sustenance. Though it would perhaps seem odd to put flowers in a corpses’ mouth, this is fiercely discouraged as the tasty morsels may tempt the corpse to seek out other more fleshy snacks.

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It is characteristic of a nachzehrer to lie in its grave with its thumb in its opposite hand, and its left eye open.

Daz Lawrence

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6 Comments on “Nachzehrer – folklore”

  1. Hello,I ran across your article on Pinterest on a Danse Macabre theme I was on,and see a work by Liv Rainey-Smith( the grave diggers image). Could you please attribute the image so other readers will know who created it?Thanks!

  2. Thank you for such an interesting article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I wonder whether “Dracula” came from “dracul” or vice versa?

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