Heritage, (no)borders

Ottoman Vampires and Magic Letters

Marinos Sariyannis on the transcultural supernatural

Talismanic shirt with inscriptions of Names of God, Qur’anic verses, and several surahs.
Turkey, 16th century
TXT 463 / The Khalili Collection

Shifting borders between the natural and the supernatural, between the explainable and unexplainable, continue to excite human minds and challenge the rationality of Modernity. Historian Sergei Zotov spoke with Marinos Sariyannis, a major specialist in the Ottoman Empire, about the miraculous and marvellous in the numerous intertwining Muslim, Christian, and Jewish cultures of the region. 

Sergei Zotov: You are dealing withdealing withSince 2018, Marinos Sariyannis has been the Principal Investigator of the project GHOST—Geographies and Histories of the Ottoman Supernatural Tradition: Exploring Magic, the Marvelous, and the Strange in Ottoman Mentalities. You may read more about it here. an amazing topic—the supernatural in Ottoman culture. It will be interesting for us to speak with you about your project and the boundaries that existed between natural and supernatural phenomena in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the difference between the supernatural in the West and the East. The current issue of EastEast is dedicated to borders. We understand borders in a broader sense: borders between nationalities, borders between natural and supernatural beings and events, even borders in modern academia. What kind of borders are important for your research?

Marinos Sariyannis: If we think of the cosmos as a continuum, we can imagine invisible borders separating the natural from the supernatural. In fact, there are always multiple borders: you have a border dividing the natural from the supernatural which means the divine, or the miraculous, or dividing what can be explained, predicted, and/or controlled from what cannot, and so forth. Something that cannot be understood by the human mind might sometimes coincide with what we define as the supernatural or inexplicable, because there are always things that a given culture cannot understand. These borders are shifting through time, as society or a given social or cultural group may include more and more segments of reality into nature, i.e. into explicable and understandable procedures, making the supernatural sphere smaller. For instance, if we accept Max Weber’s much debated idea of the “disenchantment of the worlddisenchantment of the worldThe process of demythologization of collective consciousness, which turned European history towards what is called a rational and secular worldview.,” then you have a kind of border that has been constantly pushed away: a culture could gradually understand a bigger and bigger part of reality, which means the events are understood as natural, as explicable, and as something that is obeying laws. For some people, the world gets more and more enchanted; for others it gets disenchanted—in this sense the idea of borders has a lot to do with our project.

SZ:When you started working on this topic, what ideas inspired you to enter such a broad field?

MS:The idea to study the supernatural came, I suppose, from a very common interest everybody has for the occult, the paranormal, and all sorts of such legends. I was fascinated by the idea to research not so much the occult sciences and beliefs in paranormal events themselves, but rather the way scholarly and religious elites (but also other literate urban strata) viewed such phenomena: did they accept them casually or did they seek to explain them? And if the latter, how? The first impulse would be to follow the “Enlightenment” model or perhaps Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world”, i.e., the process through which a society gradually rejects supernatural explanations and moves toward more rational and, let’s say, secular worldviews. Of course, we have to consider that no society (our own included) moves along a unilinear process of disenchantment: whereas some of its segments may “secularize” or “rationalize” larger and larger parts of the reality, others may wish to bring back supernatural explanations for more and more phenomena. By asking our questions in terms of social history, such topics may provide us with important insights from an unexpected angle.

SZ:Could you briefly tell our readers about the most interesting cases you are researching—like the one with vampiric fetvafetvaIn Islamic law, a fetvâ (Ottoman Turkish) or fatwā (Arabic, “a decision given by a mufti”) is a nonbinding legal opinion provided by a qualified jurist.

MS:I think the whole topic is quite interesting! Most of us don’t have to believe in such things in order to become fascinated with stories of the supernatural or the paranormal. Descriptions of miraculous and marvellous phenomena have a fairy-tale quality that is always enjoyable. If I were to choose, my favorite would be perhaps a set of ghost stories invented (probably) by the late sixteenth-century poet, Mustafa b. Mehmed Cinānī. They combine cases of jinn possession with souls of the dead returning either to implore for prayers or to tyrannize the living: souls of dead people return to enter a moribund person’s body and tell their troubles through his voice; a maid in Peloponnese gets raped by her deceased master, and two neighbours chase the ghost away using an iron skewer. These ghost stories are mostly set in the Balkans, whereas it seems that jinn interventions were a more common phenomena in Anatolian and Arab populations. Again Cinānī relates stories of a Persian-speaking jinn who possesses a concubine in Cairo, or of jinn throwing stones upon a house, or of a jinn inhabiting the right thigh of a little girl, offering advice to those who ask.

Of course another text containing fascinating stories is Evliya Çelebi’s late seventeenth-century travelogue: spiritual armies made of dead martyrs’ souls, armies of plague made of jinn, sultans whose soul exits their body to eat during the Ramadan feast, Bulgarian witches who turn into hens. Of special interest is Evliya’s description of a “witches’ Sabbath” in Dagestan: he claims that he had been an eye-witness to a fight between the obur of the Circassian and the Abkhazian tribes. As he explains, these obur are the sorcerers of these tribes and they fight in the air, mounting dead horses, ship masts, and house utensils. He then further describes them as drinking people’s blood to live longer, and indeed, obur is the Turkic (but also Old East Slavic, hence the Russian “упырь”, upir) form of vampir or vampire. 

From Marinos Sariyannis’ article “Studying Ottoman views of the supernatural: the state-of-the-art and a research agenda”:

 “The few instances of vampire traditions recorded in Ottoman sources are clearly related to Balkan folklore and have gained a certain visibility in modern research, albeit limited. These sources consist mainly of a series of fetvas, issued by the chief mufti Ebussuud in the mid-sixteenth century, which answer to some cases of corpses “becoming alive in the grave.” Ebussuud answers that if this is true, it is caused by God’s sacred will. There is a saying that “the wicked souls attach themselves to the corpses of those who while living were connected to them in their morals and practice, using [these corpses] as instruments for evil actions.” This is not improbable for the divine power. 

In another fetva, referring specifically to a Christian vampire near Salonica, the mufti suggests that its head should be cut off and thrown near its feet, or else, the corpse must be exhumed and cremated. It is interesting to note that these fetvas must have been quite famous, since their content is reproduced in a similar case in Thrace in 1701, whereas also Cinani uses it in narrating a ghost story.”


SZ:The topics of your articles are vampires and ghosts, magic, and talismans, which are quite unexpected for the history of the Ottoman Empire. Were they present not only in texts but also in visual culture?

MS:As far as I know, there are few illustrations in magical texts, save at least one manual with instructions on conjuring angels and jinn which has a series of depictions of these creatures, each one with their magic seal and chant. Actually, Ottoman magic tradition was overwhelmingly dominated by lettrism, i.e., the belief that Arabic letters were an integral part of the structure of the cosmos, corresponding to planets, angels, and a series of homologous hierarchies of metals, plants, colors etc. Thus, most of the magic visuals were charms and talismans in the form of a series of letters in various forms and shapes, first and foremost in magic squares. Of course, more than anything a talisman is a material object. Perhaps the most well-known visual product of Islamic and particularly Ottoman magic is the so-called talismanic shirt: shirts with a surface that is full of letters, symbols, and chants were supposed to have prophylactic powers, especially in battles, and a rich collection can be found in the Topkapı palace library.

Talismanic shirt with Qur’anic verses, prayers, invocations to God, depictions of the Masjid al-Haram at Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque at Medina. Turkey, 17th century

Kent Antiques, TXT 545 / Khalili Collections

SZ:Could we say that in the Ottoman Empire there was some kind of qabalah in regard to the use of letters for magical purposes?

MS:Yes. The power of Arabic letters was taken very seriously: the Quran was considered as something written in the heavens, so the letters themselves were also not just a human invention. Each letter had a special meaning and a special connection with the governing planets, elements, and so on. That is why they produced multiple magical squares as a kind of talismanic magic. These were things that were very common, like a piece of paper with elaborate shapes full of letters in them. And if one wore a special shirt with magical letters, it protected the body in battle, for instance. It was sultans in particular who would order such things for themselves.

SZ:I remember a description of a miracle from one of the articles: “a mosque where no spider can be found.” Why is this a miracle and how does the Islamic culture perceive the miraculous—is there anything that is different from the European perception?

MS:Premodern Islamic theology (and its Christian counterpart as well) makes a distinction between miracles and marvels. The former are acts of God breaking the customary course of natural events, granted by God to prophets and saints as a sign of His grace and as a way to persuade people of their mission. The latter are events and phenomena that cannot be grasped by the human intellect, at least not by that of common people, even though they belong to the usual course of nature, what we now would call paranormal activity, for instance. These marvels and wonders, known in medieval Europe through collections of mirabiliamirabiliaBooks on miraculous events, phenomena, and inventions., were termed as “preternatural” in the scholastic philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and as aja’ib and ghara’ib in Islamic cosmographies. These were wonders of the world, acts attributed to the jinn, and of course shifting ways of interpreting natural phenomena, since meteorological events or marvels such as the construction of beehives by bees belonged to this category. For some authors, even magic belonged to such kinds of marvels, since it is nothing but the manipulation of secret hierarchies in nature. Thus, a talismanic property of a place, like this mosque without spiders, can be considered a marvel—not a miracle, which would be an unrepeatable act by a prophet or a saint.

SZ:Many supernatural themes came to Europe through Arabic science. Can we talk about the examples of the uniquely Ottoman “supernatural,” which is not as popular as the Arabic one?

MS:It seems there are not so many examples of “original” Ottoman specimens of the supernatural. Ottomans mainly followed and developed the traditions already existing before them: in magic, for instance, they were practising mainly the so-called science of letters, based on the sacred value and structural function of Arabic letters within the cosmos, a tradition whose theory and practice had already been developed by scholars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Ottomans did not produce any major theoretical work in this respect, but examples of the practical application of this theory abound, from full-fledged efforts to predict the future history of the dynasty and the state by the letters of the first chapter of the Quran, to small-scale techniques to predict the prevalence of one among two contenders for a post based on the letters of their name. Whereas these traditions remained very much alive throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in vernacular culture, it is perhaps an Ottoman peculiarity that scholarly culture moved away from these theories, first by adopting a more “natural magic” approach (i.e., one based on hierarchies and correspondences of planets, flora, and fauna), especially by focusing on astrology, and then by gradually ignoring magic and occult sciences wholesale, at least in certain social strata that seem to have adopted a much more “materialist” or at least “disenchanted” world vision. 

Pages from the Imperial Ottoman Calendar made for Sultan Abdulmecid I, drafted by Mehmet Sadullah. Turkey, 1844

SZ:Was there an evolution in understanding supernatural phenomena in the Ottoman Empire? Was it connected to religion? 

MS:Yes, you see a kind of a fundamentalist movement dominating the intellectual life of the Empire throughout the seventeenth century, the Kadızadelis, and so one might imagine that it contributed to an even stronger presence of the supernatural, but in fact the opposite is the case. Their main opponents were the Sufi sheikhs, some dervish fraternities, and these claimed authority by visions from God and miraculous acts. Fundamentalist preachers responded to this in a way very similar to the Protestant reaction to Catholicism and catholic mystical tradition, by “pushing” the supernatural away. They said there were no miracles, all the miracles were done during the Prophet period. Now one does not need miracles, they said, because there is a sharia and this is the only way to God. 

SZ:However, the object of your research, “the supernatural in the Ottoman Empire,” seems to be completely unique, not present in European or even in Islamicate cultures. How do you cope with this methodologically?

MS:This is not exactly a very new object. The study of occultism and of all kinds of arcana in medieval and early modern Europe has been going on for decades. It is also a very common field concerning the Islamicate cultures. The topic of Islamic occultism gets more powerful these days because there it is kind of fashionable in academia. But very little has been written on this subject in the case of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps because it has been considered, more than any other early modern Islamic empire, as a kind of decline of the Islamic world. That is why many aspects of the culture of the Ottoman Empire are still quite unknown. Perhaps there are a few more works on astrology but that is almost all. So yes, this is a kind of unexplored land we are following. I began this project because I found some references to vampires and ghosts in Turkish sources, and of course they fascinated me as they would fascinate everybody, and then I discovered that they were unknown in modern scholarship. Some popular beliefs about vampires, especially in Greece and Bulgaria, are well known: that you should cut their head off or burn their bodies or put a stake on their chest. There is nothing really new about the vampires in the Ottoman sources, but what is really interesting from my point of view—the view of an initial social historian who tries to be a cultural historian—is how this folk tradition could be directly connected with the Islamic religion. So it is interesting to see how the religious authorities and religious scholars were dealing with these beliefs. The denying of these beliefs started quite late, so even in eighteenth-century France, for instance, there were books discussing vampirism from a theological, Christian Catholic point of view.

The seventy Greek scholars struck dead by the curse of Hermes. Manuscript by Nizami Ganjavi. Iran, 16th century
W.610.338B / The Walters Art Museum

SZ:This leads us to the next question: how did Ottomans see these supernatural phenomena, these beliefs, how were they explaining them?

MS:Actually what is problematic with all this, with the ghosts and vampires, is that from a religious point of view a person who comes to life after death in whatever form breaks the law of God and because of this it cannot be seen as something but only evil. It is really problematic, it is challenging from a theological point of view, so there were a lot of explanations. And in the Ottoman case, there was attribution to jinns or to some other kind of spirits. The development of such beliefs led to the shift in people’s understanding of the supernatural in their everyday life.

Top: Talismanic shirt with Jawshan Kabir prayer and Qur’anic verses. You may read the complete description of the object here. North India or the Deccan, 17th–18th century

Bottom (left): Talismanic shirt on green ground. India, late 18th–19th century, or earlier

Bottom (right): Talismanic shirt with prayers giving the names of the twelve imams. You may read the complete description of the object here. North India or the Deccan, 17th–18th century

Kent Antiques, TXT 574 / Khalili Collections

SZ:We are talking about the Ottomans—but who were they? After all, we are talking about not only Turks but all the “citizens” of the Ottoman Empire: Slavs, Jews, Armenians. Are the supernatural narratives that you are studying in any way related to the territory or culture of the Russian Empire?

MS:You are absolutely right, and I strongly believe that Christian, Jewish, and other non-Muslim cultures of the Ottoman Empire have to be considered part and parcel of the Ottoman culture. Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Arabs, Bulgarians, and Serbs made up a large part of its population. My own specialization and that of the majority of our team is the Ottoman Turkish-speaking, Muslim community, but we are trying hard to take into account the interdependencies and influences between the ethnoreligious communities, especially since Greek Phanariot scholars seem to have played a major role as channels of cultural transfer in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. Also, our team includes a PhD student researching esoteric beliefs and occultist treatises among this Phanariot community. Concerning the second part of your question, again, this Phanariot culture had close ties with the Russian Empire, partly due to their relation with the Patriarchate and partly due to merchant ties and the Greek diaspora in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and the Crimea. On the other hand, I already mentioned Evliya Çelebi’s fascinating account of the Circassian traditions on sorcery and vampirism; it is interesting to note that the term obur for vampire (a term of uncertain origin, closely related to the East Slavic languages) has also been recorded in Anatolia, in places where Circassian refugees settled after the Russian-Ottoman wars in Caucasus.

From Marinos Sariyannis’ article “Of Ottoman ghosts, vampires and sorcerers: an old discussion disinterred”:

An extremely interesting description by Evliya Çelebi (1611–1684) concerns a sort of “witches’ Sabbath” in the Obur mountains, between Circassia and Abkhazia in the Caucasus. He claims to have been an eye-witness to a fight between the oburs of the Circassian and the Abkhazian tribes, which took place in 1666 (in fact, Evliya gives the exact date: 20 Şevval 1076, which corresponds to April 24th or 25th). Oburs, he explains, are the wizards and sorcerers of these tribes (oburları, ya’ni sehhâr ve sehereleri... obur demek sehhâr câzûlara derlermiş); the Abkhazian ones started the attack, flying upon every kind of house utensils, while their Circassian counterparts were flying on dead horses and ship masts, armed with snakes and heads of various animals (human included). The fierce battle lasted for six hours, until the cocks crowed. The next day, Evliya and his companions visited the battlefield and found it full of every conceivable utensil, corpses of various animals, corpses of dead people out of their graves, and so on. This, reminiscent of European descriptions as it may be, might be little more than an entertaining story; or else, it could reflect actual shamanistic beliefs, enhancing thus the much debated thesis by Carlo Ginzburg on the folklore and shamanistic background of the Sabbath descriptions.

“In this region there are Circassian wise old men who can discern an obur, i.e., who can tell a wizard (obur tanıtıcı ya’ni câdî sihirbâz bilici). The relatives of the dead give them money, and they go to the graves of recently deceased oburs to check the ground for signs that these latter ones went out of their tombs. And indeed, when the people gather and dig the grave, they see that [the obur’s] eyes are like cups full of blood, and that their face has become all red from the human blood they have drunk. Then they take the filthy corpse of the cursed obur out of the grave and they nail a wooden stake into his navel; with God’s help, the magic is thus destroyed. And the man whose blood the obur had been drinking is saved from death . . . But some people, even after having found the obur in his grave and nailed thus his corpse . . . take the filthy carcass, with the stake still in his navel, and burn it, lest another living obur enter the body”.

. . . Evliya goes on explaining that whenever someone suspects an obur of drinking his blood, these wise obur-tellers check the suspect’s eyes. If they are full of blood, the obur is bound in chains until he starts to confess: “Yes, it was me that drank So-and-So’s blood . . . When I was buried next to my obur grandfathers and my obur fathers, my body did not rot, and sometimes I flied to the skies to fight, and I did all this in order to live more (çok yaşamak içün etdim).”

Evliya adds that these oburs form a separate lineage (soy), refusing to enter into marital relations with the rest of the Circassians, and that most of these oburs live in the Moscovian, Cossack, Polish, and Czech lands.”

SZ:When I was writing a book on alchemy, I included a chapter on the Arab world, including some mention of the Turks—they were engaged in alchemy until the 20th century. To what extent are traditional “esoteric” practices still popular in the former Ottoman Empire? And what about modern ones—are there any specific Ottoman “New Age” practices?

MS:Unfortunately, this is a question that falls beyond my expertise. I know of a couple of manuals of demonic magic that are still circulating in Turkey, and also of (rather few) village “sorcerers” in Greece who claim to have acquired their knowledge from Muslim practitioners and use pseudo-Arabic characters as talismans and divinatory tools. Of course, folk esoteric practices, e.g., divination through palm reading (chiromancy) or coffee fortune telling are always alive in the modern folklore of all the countries in the region. In some places, as in the African coast or even in Greece, nowadays especially in Crete, which had a massive Muslim population until the 1912, in the villages you may find old sorcerers or people practicing medicine magic. They are claiming to have learned their craft from Muslims before they went away before the late 1920s or early 1930s. They are producing talismans with Arabic looking letters, imitations of Arabic, and so forth. Surely, there is a strong “New Age” influence in modern Islamic mysticism and, I suppose, practices of alchemy and of lettrist or astral magic must be very much alive in this context. There are a lot of cheap editions, translations of medieval Ottoman magic books. They are affordable and people can just learn this magic just like someone in Europe could buy some grimoiresgrimoiresBooks of magic spells. on Amazon.

Marinos Sariyannis
Historian, born in Athens. He has been working as a researcher at the Institute of Mediterranean Studies/FORTH since 2007, specializing in Ottoman social, cultural and intellectual history. Since 2018 he directs the project “GHOST — Geographies and Histories of the Ottoman Supernatural Tradition: Exploring Magic, the Marvelous, and the Strange in Ottoman Mentalities”, funded by the European Research Council (ERC Consolidator Grant). His monograph entitled A History of Ottoman Political Thought up to the Early Nineteenth Century was published in 2019.
Sergei Zotov
Historian, winner of the Enlightener Prize for his book The Suffering Middle Ages. Paradoxes of Christian Iconography, PhD student at the University of Warwick (UK) and Associate Research Fellow at the Duke Augustus Library (Germany).