Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Historical and mythological interference- Dracula

rrDracula - as perceived and promoted in tourist brochures today - is the result of legendary yet, genuine historical facts of Vlad the Impaler's reign, as recounted by revisionist historians, interspersed and dramatically accentuated by the Irishman Bram Stoker's 1897 fictional character, Dracula.
The truth about Wallachia's ruler, Vlad the Impaler (1456-1462, 1476) is known from countless academic papers written by both Romanian and foreign historiographers. Brave and fair, benevolent with decent people while ruthless with lawbreakers, Vlad the Impaler is convinced that only strong leadership can maintain internal order and thus allow him to mount a strong defence against external peril. This vision is admirably encompassed in his letter to the people of Brasov, on the 10th of September 1456. In it he says: "When a man or lord is strong and powerful he can make peace whichever way he wishes yet, when he is weak, someone stronger will come onto him and submit him to his mercy."Thus, Vlad the Impaler resorts to an authoritarian style of leadership by imposing honesty and hard work as virtues to be had; dishonesty (thievery) and sloth were punished harshly by impaling - a practice which was to make him infamous. Every single one of those who chose not to observe the laws or the freedom of the country - regardless of whether they were Transylvanian traders, Turkish soldiers or local landowners (boyars) - would receive this punishment if they were found guilty of any such crimes. Such abominable punishment can be understood in the context of the times when punishments such as crucifixion, or being burnt at the stake were an all too common occurrence.
A quite conclusive episode that proves his unflinching desire to strengthen central authority in the face of rulers becoming mere tools in the hands of various boyar interest groups is the one mentioned in the German chronicles. Here, Vlad summons around 500 boyars to accuse them of bearing responsibility for the disastrous state of the country. Before saying, "the responsibility was borne by your shameful disunity" he asked them how many reigns they had lived under. As most had lived under an average of seven, this was to be their last one as Vlad understood that this occurrence owed a lot to their devious intrigues so he impaled every single one of them. Another unforgiving deed of his rather cruel reign was the revenge of his father and brother's killing right on Easter Day when he proceeded to impale the entire elderly population of Targoviste while sparing the younger ones only to condemn them to hard labour to erect the Poienari citadel. Alexandru Vlahuta best illustrates the cruelty with which he punished his adversaries, in a book called "From our Past". In it, he recalls an episode when one of Wallachia's royal claimants, who went by the name of Dan, is chastised for nurturing sedition: "he (Vlad) catches young Dan and, in order that he is cured of his yearning to rule, he lays him between torches that were lit on the margins of a hole in the ground that was big enough to fit him, gets priests to say prayers and wailers to wail him, and then he chops his head of and tosses his body in the eternal resting place."2
The same author recalls the cruelty with which he punishes the people of Brasov for disobedience and for having given his adversaries shelter: "he overruns the Barsa County, plunders and sets fire to its villages and to the Brasov citadel, and there, in a bay of blood pouring out of bodies that were put to the stake and much wailing of these unfortunates that were struggling to die, Vlad sits happy at the top of the table and enjoys himself with his most valiant soldiers whose hand trembles each time they raise their glass for at such a feast, in such a place, and with such a lord at the top of the table, each drink could be their last". There are many legends asserting his unequivocal dislike for half-truths and lies. One of those recounts how a trader on his way to trading his goods asked for his protection. Vlad had told him to leave his dray under the open skies for he should fear no thieves. Yet, the next morning, the trader finds his 160 gold pieces missing and he tells Vlad about this. Upon hearing this, Vlad sends his men to find the thief, which they do and the thief is immediately caught and quickly impaled. Vlad then summons the trader to give him the money back and slips in an extra gold piece. The trader counts the money and finds the extra coin and tells Vlad about this. Vlad spares his life for his honesty, as he would have impaled him too had he not told him the truth.
Another legend, which denotes Vlad's preoccupation for eradicating thievery, tells the story of a golden cup left at a faraway fountain, in the middle of a forest, which nobody dared steal even long after Vlad the Impaler had passed away.
The end result of such drastic measures was that Vlad managed to quell the utter chaos gripping the country and reinstated much needed order and discipline instead. "A stranger to pity and forgiveness - says the historian A.D.Xenopol - he puts his dreadful temper in the service of his country and, as soon as he cleanses it from internal ills, he proceeds to redress the downfall of the country"4.
His deeds attracted much ill feeling from his contemporaries. Thus, he was prone to defamation and accusations of secret deals with the Ottomans against the interests of his country - falsehoods that eventually led to his imprisonment by King Matias Corvin. As time went on, his cruel features became associated with those of the vampire Dracula. The so-called Dracula myth has its origins in Vlad Basarab, the father of the future king Vlad the Impaler - Dracula becoming member of the Order of the Dragon, on the 8th of February 1431. Incidentally, this Order was a very exclusive club with a select membership numbering only monarchs, or heirs to the throne. The cape, which Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg himself bestows on his shoulders, was tied at the front with a golden collar and a medallion in the shape of a dragon. Upon becoming king of Wallachia, Vlad Basarab proceeds to use the image of the dragon not only on his personal seal but also on the coins minted during his reign. This is the reason why his contemporaries calling him Vlad Dracul i.e. Vlad the Devil while the rest of his family as well as his ancestors were called Draculesti i.e. Devilish. His second born, also called Vlad, who was to rule Wallachia between 1456 and 1462 was called by the Turks, Seitanoglu i.e. the Devil's Son or, Kaziklu i.e. the one who impales - after the usual punishment to wrongdoers.
The nickname Dracula - which his adversaries use when referring to him - suffers distortions, as it is associated with a sign of the link with the Devil himself. The link Dracula-Devil comes to being used by the Saxons of Transylvania as well, who were hostile to the great King as recounted in the "German Stories about King Dracula." After the First Edition from 1488, this representation of a unimaginably cruel, blood thirsty king becomes ever more gruesome - like the scene depicted in one of the thirty odd representations in the seventeenth century in which he is portrayed as having lunch among many bodies of impaled boyars.
Gradually, Vlad's public image shifts from that of a ruthless ruler who was merciless with lawbreakers to that of a vampire. This owes much to speculations about some sort of a blood tie with Countess Elisabeth Bathory. Since HRT was some five centuries away, one of the Countess' middle of the sixteenth century pastimes in her Czech mansion was reputedly to bathe in maiden's blood in order that she could preserve her youthful looks - hence, the reason for her contemporaries believing this was but a family trait. Seventeenth century chronicles collected by Austrian soldiers from Western Wallachia and Transylvania recount popular beliefs about ghosts. In their reports dating from the period between 1718 and 1739, there is mention of a local custom of digging up bodies of people who were suspected to have been ghosts during their lifetime and subsequently stabbing them through the heart with a wooden stake. Their endeavours were rewarded with a burst of thick, black blood that proved their suspicions to be well founded. Bar for the stench, this practice is mentioned in Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula. Such military reports continue to stoke up the fires of an image of Transylvania being a somewhat supernatural place for the Undead, living in ruined castles that are permanently haunted by evil spirits, ghosts and vampires.
In 1897, the famous fictional character Dracula comes to (after-) life in London, out of the Irishman Bram Stoker's pen - a novel considered by Oscar Wilde to be one of the best novel of all times. Yet, according to Stoker's own admission, neither Transylvania nor Dracula have any historical value for Romania as he had used both the place as well as the name only because of the fame they enjoyed at the time, which was but a useful tool in creating a semblance of credibility to a fictional story.
The relationship between Bram Stoker's fictional character and king Vlad the Impaler is the one suggested by the author himself: "there was indeed a king Dracula who earned his name fighting against the Ottoman's, over the great river, right on the border with the Ottoman Empire". Stoker believes Vlad was no ordinary man since "for centuries, he was spoken of as one of the shrewdest, cunning and bravest son's of his country lying beyond the forests, whose quick spirit and iron will still fight from beyond the grave." This is the point at which the author introduces popular beliefs about ghosts that continue to wander long after the body is gone: "The Un-dead i.e. ghost, vampires etc. suffer the curse of immortality - says Bram Stoker - they pass from age to age without ageing, making more victims and enhancing the ills of the world-". Moreover, Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania and only used some maps given by England's libraries to conjure up his vampire-tale. The main character, Dracula, a Szeckler count that lived in a decayed Castle, in the Bargaului Pass, slept during the day-time in a burial vault, and only came out at night as a vampire who possessed a supernatural yet, malefic force that was put in the service of the Devil. He is visited here by Jonathan Harker, secretary to an English lawyer who came to perfect with count Dracula the purchasing of a property near London. Upon becoming a prisoner, Jonathan Harker goes through a series of dreadful mishaps. Managing somehow to get back to London, he convinces a group of acquaintances to follow him to the Bargaului Pass to kill the vampire count, which they manage to do in front of his Castle by stabbing his heart out with a dagger.
All Dracula characters are but the authors' figment of imagination yet, Count Dracula's deeds and his grand finale death have a basis in popular superstitions about ghosts that were mentioned by reputed folklore gatherers such as I. A. Candrea. The reputed scholar argues that "all day, the ghost minds his own business like the rest of the people do yet, as night falls and he falls asleep, his soul comes out to meet other ghosts leaving his body lying in bed as if he was dead. The souls of these ghosts [-] kill children to suck their blood [-]." He goes on to say that "when one of these presumed ghosts dies it is customary that a red hot rod is pierced through his heart to prevent its soul from ever coming out of the grave to torment innocent people by night." According to popular beliefs, the bat - an animal that lives in caves by day - is also considered to be a vampire for it comes out of its day time resting-place at night, to suck the blood of innocent people by biting them by the neck. In the South and Central America, vampires are but a species of large bats that feed on the blood of birds and mammals caught unawares. In the Odyssey, Homer identifies the bat with the soul of dead people - hence the not so far - fetched chance for this to be but another after-life apparition.
Nowadays, the image of Dracula as the incarnation of King Vlad the Impaler as it was penned in a xylography, in The German Stories about King Dracula published in Nurnberg, in 1488, is the ubiquitous commercial of a vampire that has lost any historical sense it may have had and looks like Bella Lugosi of Nosferatu (In the film Nosferatu, such as it is called the victim of the un-dead i.e. the ghost, who also becomes a ghost). The only purpose this image serves is one that gives a welcome boost to the tourist industry in the Bran area.

Dracula and the village of Bran

Thus, the Bran castle - better known as Dracula's Castle - is one of the most valuable architectural monuments that also had precise military and economic functions - which are extensively presented by the scholar Ioan Prahoveanu in his work, The Bran Castle. The link made by the vampire-seeking tourist between this castle and King Vlad the Impaler owes a lot to the fact that the Castle of Bran was situated on the Bran Pass, which separated Saxon of Transylvania traders from the Wallachian trade fairs where they could sell their goods. Stories of cruel punishments applied to smugglers abound hence the relationship with the Castle of Bran officials may have been a little strained at times.
Yet, whether Vlad the Impaler really ruled over the Castle of Bran is a moot point for there exists no written evidence to support this claim. Apart from administrative documents there is really very little in terms of the political and military events of the time. One thing is certain, though. In the autumn of 1462, the King of Hungary, Matei Corvin's army captures Vlad close to the Oratii Citadel, near Rucar - which is situated at about 25 kilometres from Bran - and imprisons him in the Bran Castle for almost two months. From here he will be moved to the Visegrad Citadel.
The belief in ghosts and other evil spirits is an essential component of popular mythology. Yet, beyond this imaginary universe populated with vampires and ghosts, tourists will find the peace and tranquillity of the peasant village of Bran. Here, in the bosom of the Carpathian Mountains, one can find legends that can rival the world's greatest legends such as the ones that Prometheus was chained in the Caucasus mountains because of his teaching humans to use the fire on the Bran Keys Rock or, the one according to which the Old Lady Dochia was turned to stone in the Bucegi mountains.
Many traditional customs are still alive in this area - including those with a legal character like, for instance, the oral communication of the village elders' decisions through the village or, sheep shearing with a twist i.e. keeping the sheep safe from evil spirits named "iele" etc. Moreover, the twelve-day cycle of the winter festivities that marks the burial of the old year and the beginning of the new one revolves around three main events: Christmas (the 25th of December), the New Year (the 1st of January) and Epiphany (the 6th of January). Every one of these events is marked by rituals, which follow old customs that gather together the entire community such as, Christmas carols, plugusorul and roscovaitul (New Year carols), traditional masked games as well as many other carols and customs that have the meaning of purifying the spirit of this place from evil spirits.
Traditional customs relating to death and marriage are must see events. Traditional dress and dances signify fertility and prosperity rituals that are particular to this region. Knitting, sheep shearing customs and last, but not least, traditional food are but some of the reasons that make travelling to this region a truly meaningful endeavour.

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