You might have noticed that there’s a bit of a vampire craze going around at the moment. They’ve been on TV for a while now – and they’ve been gaining popularity ever since Bram Stoker wrote a book and invented the ‘modern’ vampire we know and love today. It’s safe to say that the vampire we imagine today is very different to the ‘vampires’ imagined in Romanian folklore – and even more different to the actual person billed today as the ‘historical vampire’.
Stoker’s Count Dracula lived in Transylvania, now a province of Romania but once upon a time was a principality in its own right. When creating Dracula, Stoker drew inspiration from a well known historical figure that you may have heard of: Vlad Ţepeş, better known as Vlad the Impaler. He may also have been influenced by stories of the Hungarian countess Elisabeth Bathory [the one who apparently bathed in the blood of freshly killed virgins to maintain her youth], but it’s Vlad who the world thinks of when looking for the ‘historical’ vampire. Even the name of Stoker’s vampire, Dracula, comes from our old friend Vlad – Vlad was known not only as the Impaler but also as Vlad Dracula, ‘Son of the Dracul’ or dragon, a patronymic. His father was one of the Order of the Dragon, a Hungarian chivalric order for the nobility, and was known as ‘Dracul’.
So, a bit about Vlad III Ţepeş. Vlad was born in 1431 in the little town of Sighisoara, Transylvania, and spent most of his youth as a hostage in the Ottoman court to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Sultan, developing a deep hatred for the Turks that would be made evident much later on. In 1447, the Ottomans installed Vlad on the throne of Wallachia, but this was to be short-lived. Vlad retook Wallachia in 1456, sided with Hungary and did his very best to piss off the Turks – who laid claim to Wallachia.
Vlad completely rearranged Wallachia and its government, killing a bunch of nobles from the council and replacing them with people who would be loyal to him alone. He increased defenses, strengthened the economy and instituted strict punishments for crimes, resulting in a swift decrease in offenses such as robbery. He favoured Wallachian merchants in relation to trade, executing dishonest and mostly Saxon boyars using his favourite method – impalement. He refused to pay to the Turkish Sultan the ‘jizya’, or tax on non-Muslims, as this would indicate he accepted Ottoman sovereignty over Wallachia. He spent much of his time fighting the Ottomans, and it was his treatment of Turkish soldiers and his efforts at pushing back the Ottoman empire that earned him hero status in Romania. That’s right, the man remembered in the West as a brutal, bloodthirsty and heartless killer who delighted in watching his victims die slowly – over days – is remembered locally as a hero who defended their country and implemented laws that kept them safe. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, it’s just that it’s not often that you hear more of Vlad the Impaler than ‘he liked to kill people by shoving a sharpened stake up their rectum and out through their back without hitting any vital organs so that they took days to die in agony’. Apparently this was enough to keep the merchants honest and the thieves in an honest day’s work. I guess it’s important to remember that there are two sides to every story.
Romania has a long history of vampire-like creatures in its mythology, although they were far from the vampire we know today. I figured that, given that vampires seem to do more for tourism in Romania than anything else, I should do a little research on the Romanian vampire in folklore. Enter the Internet.
It turns out that Romanian folklore is saturated with various vampire-like legends. And, apparently, little old ME is at great risk of becoming a vampire after death. Why is this, you may ask? Because I have red hair, a sure sign of being either a witch or a vampire or, most likely both – depending on whether I’m alive or dead. However, the ‘vampires’ of Romanian mythology bear only a little relation to the vampires of today – the word ‘vampire’, being of Slavic rather than Romanian origins, does not even appear. Nor do the various supernatural beings associated with ‘vampires’ necessarily rely on blood drinking to survive. The names for the creatures we associate with vampires in Romanian mythology are strigoi and muroni, and these relate more to ghosts or simply the reanimated dead. Strigoi could send their souls out of the grave to act like ghosts or poltergeists, returning to their family and moving things around to get their attention. However, as they grew in strength they could also rise embodied to drain the blood of their victims – usually family members, neighbors or livestock. Muroni were shapeshifters who attacked their victims while in animal form – it could be a cat, dog, spider, bird or so on – leaving a blood-drained body without the ‘expected’ puncture wounds. Not all ‘vampires’ in Romanian folklore were interested in blood, either; as prevalent was the idea of ‘psychic’ vampirism, whereby the vampire would drain your energy or life essence instead of your blood.
Romanian folklore offers many ways for a person to become a vampire, and some people were at a much higher risk than others. Illegitimate children, babies born with a caul or a tail, people with red hair, the seventh son or seventh daughter were all basically destined to become a vampire after death. Witches and people who were excommunicated from the church, people who committed suicide or whose corpse was leaped over by a black cat were also considered guaranteed applicants. What was interesting however is that, contrary to our ‘modern’ mythology which says that a person can be turned into a vampire by a process of either biting or blood exchange, in Romanian folklore the person at risk – even the person bitten by a vampire – will not actually become a vampire until they have died. Being bitten would screw you over – but not until you’ve lived your life and died in the normal fashion. Precautions would then be taken to prevent your rise as an undead villain.
Precautions taken to protect oneself against vampires in Romanian folklore does bear similarities to the modern fictions. Then as today, garlic was considered to be the vampire’s enemy, and garlic could be strung above doors or windows, rubbed into the frames or carried on one’s person for protection. Most of the precautions taken related to either deceased individuals who were expected to become vampires because of the usual risk list, and thus actioned upon their burial, or to deceased individuals who were suspected to be vampires because of things like drained livestock and were subsequently disinterred for confirmation and/or further action. A wooden stake or iron nail impaled through either the heart or navel, going into the ground, was thought to prevent the body rising if it did become a vampire. Equally, a person at high risk could be buried face-down, be decapitated, have the stake through the heart, have a scythe buried just above the neck [so the vamp will decapitate himself for you], have spindles poking into the earth to pin him in the grave, have garlic pushed into his mouth or have grains of millet scattered around the grave – apparently vampires are a little bit OCD about counting things, and this will keep him or her busy until the locals can muster a team to kill it themselves.
If an already deceased person became suspected of being a damn vampire because of all sorts of suspicious things going on – from plague to livestock deaths to teacups being thrown around the house – the body would be exhumed and checked for the signs of being a vampire. These included the body being bloated, the face being flushed, evidence of blood around the mouth, not being decayed enough or the hair and nails appearing to have grown. All these can be easily explained by science, but where would be the fun in that? According to traditions, the deceased [suspect or not] would be disinterred after a period of years dependent upon age at death to check for signs of vampirism. If the bodies looked as they should – ie. pretty decayed or mostly skeletal, they were reburied. If, however, their flesh was preserved and the body whole, they were considered to be a vampire and dealt with in the normal way – a bit of violence, a big stake or an axe.
However, the single funniest thing that I found when doing my super-reliable Internet research about vampires in Romanian mythology was this tip: to escape being chased by a vampire, you should run up a hill backwards holding a lit candle and a turtle.
I think that calls for a massive WTF?!