Tuesday 21st September – As we left the battlements of Bran Castle with their commanding views of the Gorge below and what would have been Wallachia in Dracula’s time; we entered a couple of small rooms that appeared to be dedicated to more of the local folklore.
The rooms covered around seven creatures from Transylvania folklore providing an interesting overview of some stories that were familiar to us, but where their names were new. These included the Strigoi, the Lele, the Pricolici and Solomonari. There were others, but I feel these four can help a great deal with the picture I wish to share with you regarding the genesis of Count Dracula and how these folklore stories may fit into the work of Stoker.
When you begin to read about these various characters in Romanian folklore, there is an understanding of how Stoker may have borrowed various parts of their stories to help build his version of Dracula. Of course there was the real Dracula himself, but we can touch on that a little later perhaps.
Before I wade in and discuss these Romanian folklore creatures I would like to make it clear that I a simply briefly outlining them in order to show the relationship to Stoker’s character. It’s simply an attempt to bring the two together, but will no doubt not do the Romanian folklore the justice it deserves. Still I will try my hardest.
If you’ve never heard of the Strigoi before then don’t worry neither had I when I stood in Castle Bran reading about them. However, it provides our first links to the vampire concept that Stoker may have drawn upon when build Count Dracula’s back story. Oddly this strange entity may have actually given birth to the Vampire and the Werewolf. Like our modern day understanding of the vampire, the Strigoi is an undead creature with a thirst for blood and can also shape shift into any animal. Something which immediately draws a great similarity with our understanding of vampires. The only difference these days is that we more often associate Dracula with an undead entity that turns into a Bat. However this is not the case with the Strigoi.
Speaking to our guide and reading on regarding the Strigoi, there were several other old traditions that would bring us to some of Stoker’s story. For example, Strigoi were said to be restless family members of village members that would not remain in the graves. As such they would rise up from their grave and attack people. In order to identify the Strigoi sleeping in their grave during the day, the locals would attempt to jump a horse over the grave to test to see if the occupant was a Strigoi. There are slight variations to this act of course, which include the use of a virgin riding the horse or the horse itself being a virgin. If the horse (I think a dog was also mentioned too) refused to jump over the grave then it contained a Strigoi. The method for resolving this would be to dig up the coffin and cut the heart out, then burn the body, mix the ashes with water and drink it. Other stories would speak of the iconic stake through the naval or heart too. However, this would often be more related to ensuring that the Strigoi remained in the coffin and could not get out.
You’ve probably noticed already one or two of the classic points related to vampire stories; a thirst for blood, the ability to change shape, the fact that they sleep in their coffins during the day, burning of the body, and the stake through the heart. This provides us with a direct link between Stoker’s idea for the vampire Dracula and the Romanian folklore that most likely inspired it.
Whilst our next creature of Romanian Folklore may not be quite as obvious when it comes to the relationship to Stokers Dracula, I feel its at least an excellent example of how we often find similar stories across the world. Personally, as I begin to explore more of the world I am looking forward to discovering more of these supernatural beings.
The Lele (Ielele) was one creature that caught my eye straight away, as I recognised it from Greek mythology. These magical beautiful women that are often found deep in the forest, sometimes near areas of water like waterfalls, tend to dance naked and are said to be irresistible to men. Sound familiar? They were to me and straight away I recognised them as being similar to the Sirens found in Greek mythology. Whilst they sound harmless enough, beautiful naked women dancing in the depths of the forest, how could that be dangerous? Well its said that those that stumble upon them are seduced and disappear forever, never to be seen again.
Interestingly this also reminded me of some stories relating to fairies that I have heard over the years. Although, if memory serves me well, the fairies would steal children I think! One for the comments section below I am sure.
Whilst thinking about these odd creatures, originally I could not think of a relation to the Dracula stories at all. However, after changing my perspective I recalled that in many films and stories related to vampires or Dracula, there have often been women that would perform a role similar to the Lele. Sometimes referred to as the brides of Dracula, these women would attempt to seduce the hero into joining them.
Pricolici are up next and probably a relatively easy connection to make. These undead creatures are said to always take the form of a giant wolf and as such are probably associated with the werewolf, which often makes an appearance in many vampire stories. They are said to be murderous, violent, evil men that have returned from the grave to continue harming the living. However, it is pretty easy to assume why such a creature may exist in Romanian folklore when you realise that the country has a large population of wolves in the wild.
The final creature from Romanian folklore that I am going to touch on here is the Solomonari, said to be a kind of wizard that rides a dragon, and causes dramatic changes in the weather. They are often described as having red hair, being tall, wearing white robes, but looking more like beggars than perhaps expensive attire.
They are said to be the students of the devil, as such they are a committed servant to his command and have been taught in a school that is located somewhere underground. It is in this underground school that the Solomonari must avoid the Sun’s rays whilst they learn for around 7 years. Perhaps its this part of the description that Stoker brought to his Dracula and as such the Sun became an enemy of the vampire. Something that truly pushes a creature of the undead into the darkness of the night, where we often associate the work of evil being conducted and well away from the bright pure light of the day.
Hopefully with these few Romanian folklore stories I have managed to outline some of the elements that we may have all become familiar with as common traits of Stokers character Dracula. This is not to undermine what Stoker done, but more so to commend it as brilliant story writing. He took the folklore of Romanian and built a frightening character that was so well constructed that it became almost believable. So, much so that some even questioned if Dracula was a real person existing in Transylvania, perhaps in a castle situated in some dark mountain pass.
The truth was actually more frightening than Stokers story, as Dracula was once a real person that not only existed in Romania, but led armies that brutally killed across the land. Vanquishing enemies that attempted to take his land for themselves, but equally ensuring his subjects remained loyal in the most blood thirsty manner imaginable.
Next time I will explore some of the facts of the true Dracula – Vlad Tepes – The Impaler.