Hungry Enough to Eat His Own Arm: The Nachzehrer

Photo courtesy of Guliolopez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Welcome to our first full moon MONSTER MEET, and to the 11th post on this site! Now that we’ve covered some creatures that you’ve probably never heard of, I’d like to celebrate this occasion by discussing a variation on a more traditional monster: the vampire.

Meet the nachzehrer, whose name roughly translates to “after devourer” and who has had people pooping themselves for centuries. Though often classified as vampire, the nachzehrer bears little resemblance to the wealthy, well-dressed, highly sexualized characters we know and love/throw up over today.  Some argue that it might better be called a ghoul or revenant, but I’d like to stick with the term “vampire” for now, if only as an educational tool–we are so removed from what vampires meant to us originally; it might be nice to remember what terrified us all those years ago.  

To begin with the simplest definition, the nachzehrer is a German revenant born of a person who committed suicide or died a particularly nasty accidental death. It should be noted that “accidental death,” in this case, even extends to dying of a plague: rumor had it that after his burial, the first victim of disease would wake up underground and begin his hellish life anew, bringing sickness, rot, and death to the community he left behind. In general, this was the the nachzehrer’s purpose: to destroy its family and the people it had known best. And what a comprehensive job it would do!

After opening its eyes to dirt and worms, the first thing a newly minted nachzehrer did was to writhe until it could get its mouth close enough to begin chewing off and eating its burial clothes. Once those were disposed of, it would move on to savagely devour chunks of its own flesh. The more it ate, the sicker its family became. So voracious was in the nachzehrer in its task that people told tales of walking through an empty, quiet graveyard, only to hear grunting and snuffling noises coming from under the ground as the creature tore against muscle and tendons. One can only assume that any listener would have done well to turn and run; once the nachzehrer ate enough of itself, it would move on to the bodies around it, and then–in some versions of the legend–to physically devour what family it had left alive. At any rate, it was not something you wanted to run into once it climbed out of the grave.

Once it was out, the legends diverge as to where and how the nachzehrer went about its business. Some said that it transformed into a pig to attack its family, biting them and snorting up their blood with its squishy, piggy snout. Others told of how it would dart up into the church tower to ring the bells; if you heard them ring, you would die (in this case, I suppose the best advice for people at the time would be not only “ask not for whom the bell tolls” but “worry deeply about who tolls the bell.”). Less common stories warned against letting the nachzehrer’ shadow touch you–if it did, you would drop dead (though, as mentioned above, if the creature was close enough to cast a shadow on you in the first place, you were probably dead, anyway). Unlike other vampires, the nachzehrer “disease” was not communicable if it bit you and you escaped, but also unlike other vampires, the nachzehrer was not interested in reproducing so much as it was mindless, merciless destruction.  

If you’re thinking that this sounds like a nightmare people would try to avoid, you’re correct. Villagers took many measures to try and avoid the creation of nachzehrer, from cutting the nametags off of burial clothes (it was rumored that leaving the deceased’s name on their cloth might bring them back to life), to shoving coins and even bricks into the mouths of their loved ones before burying them deep underground. But these precautions were not always enough, and when they failed, the creature had to be hunted and killed in order to keep it from destroying entire neighborhoods. The only way to manage this was by somehow getting a coin inside its mouth (this was said to render the nachzehrer immobile), and then beheading it. Never mind how difficult this would be were the challenger to catch the revenant outside its grave; even when under the ground, the nachzehrer never really slept. Villagers would dig up suspected trouble-makers only to find the corpse flush with blood, dirt collecting in its self-inflicted wounds. It was said to always rest with its left eye wide open, thumb cradled in its opposite hand.

It seems that legends of the nachzehrer are a thing of the past; I was unable to find any modern tales of the creature, though that’s not to say they couldn’t exist. As with other vampires, some attribute the old stories of flushed corpses and the spread of disease to our predecessors’ poor understanding of the processes of decay and communications of viruses and bacteria. The chunks missing from the nachzehrer’s clothes and flesh might be explained away by rats; the sightings of the creature as a pig or in the bell tower might come from mere uneducated fancy.

They might. Or, we might be so afraid of possibility of the nachzehrer that we’ve hurried to explain it away.  

Happy blood moon, everyone.

Have you ever been hungry enough to eat your own clothing? Do you think the nachzehrer is actually a form of retribution for all those excessive bacon-eaters out there? Share your story in the comments below.

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