A Transylvanian in Ireland: Dracula’s Celtic Roots

So, What’s In A Name?

Sometimes, what was an odd bit of cultural theorizing becomes mainstream; C.K., or common knowledge as it’s known in academic circles.

A recent example: the notion that Mary Magdalene, companion of Jesus Christ, was in reality his wife, and carried his unborn child to France. This was originally theorized in 1982’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln). However, it was Dan Brown’s 2003 Da Vinci Code which took that idea and and slapped the collective conscious with the notion, and its very human implications.

The same holds for one Count Dracula – researchers came along with an oblique theory, and in time, it became the Gospel Truth. This was the case with historian’s Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally’s 1972 book In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires.

Their argument, which hadn’t been publicly made up until that point, was that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was obviously directly inspired by Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula.

Now, this makes sense on the surface. However, how much did Stoker actually know about Vlad III?

Not much, it would seem.

According to Stoker’s own (extensive) book notes, his primary inspiration was 1) Emily Gerard’s article about Transylvanian superstitions (published in 1885) and William Wilkinson’s book, Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them, published in 1820.

From here, he glossed a few things. Transylvania had vampires, some Wallachians were descendants of Attila the Hun, and according to Stoker’s research, Dracula meant Devil.

If you know anything about Vampire lore, you know that Stoker was wrong on that final claim, which of course is his titular anti-hero’s name. Dracula means Son of the Dragon, a Knightly Order that Vlad’s father had been a member of. Likewise, if Stoker was familiar with the real Vlad III, why not revel in the historical figure’s recorded cruelty? You don’t earn the nickname the Impaler by handing out Halloween treats…

To quote Elizabeth Miller, Dracula scholar and former literature professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland:

First of all, Stoker did not get any information about vampires firsthand in Transylvania. He never went there; in fact, it  was not even his original intention to have his vampire come from Transylvania. Secondly, he did not base his vampire story on legends connected with the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. Not only […] did Stoker know little about Vlad, there was (in spite of numerous outrageous claims to the contrary) never any association of Vlad with vampires, either during his own lifetime or in the intervening years between his death and the writing of Dracula.

Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

So let’s lay that one to rest: Stoker came across a title, thought it was cool (Definitely cooler than his character’s original name, Count Wampyr), and the rest is bloody history.

But where then did he get his real inspiration from?

Patrick Weston Joyce’s 1879 work, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, might hold the answer…

Enter Abhartach, the magic wielding, blood sucking, dwarf Chieftain:

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It is very curious that, in some parts of the country, the people still retain a dim traditional memory of this mode of sepulture, and of the superstition connected with it.

There is a place in the parish of Errigal in Londonderry, called Slaghtaverty, but it ought to have been called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of a man named Abhartach [Avartagh], who was, it seems, a dwarf.

This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Finn Mac Cumhail.

He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever.

And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country.

The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on the earth.

The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.

*

“The grave of the earliest recorded vampire, in Garvagh, Co Derry today.” –@pgmmcauley

Whether Stoker every made it to County Derry, Garvagh specifically, is unknown. However, there the laght lies, to this very day, where it is ironically known as the Giant’s Grave (fit for a Vampire Dwarf, one assumes).

Growing up in Ireland, being friends with Oscar Wilde’s mother, who he visited in Dublin growing up, Stoker was more than likely exposed to Irish folktales…but Joyce’s written version glosses over a few terrible details…

For one, the Druid priest (or Christian monk, variant dependent) names what Abhartach has become: a neamh-mairbh, literally the walking dead.

Second, his instructions for killing the vampire included making a sword from a yew tree – the mythology of which deserves its own post – more that later.

Finally, there’s the blood.

According to Joyce, on his first resurrection, he was “more cruel and vigorous than ever“. When he is un-deaded for the second time, “he spreads terror“.

Being a folk tale, we can turn to oral variants for clarification, which spell out the ghastly truth: Abhartach demanded that his vassals slit their wrists and offer their blood to him in a communal bowl, which hastened his regeneration.

Abhartach, the Evil Dwarf Magician, was also a Vampire.

Or maybe more importantly, the Vampire. This at least is author Bob Curran’s take on the matter, who, along with the aforementioned Elizabeth Miller, offer two fascinating approaches on Irish culture and Bram Stoker, respectively.

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So, what’s in a name?

The Take Away?

Would a Vampire by Any Other Name Bite as Deep?

Dracula is a better name than Abhartach, which in turn completely kills Count Wampyre.

So yes, Bram nailed it.

Even if Stoker didn’t know squat about Vlad, he did know a good name when he came across one…

That’s a notion that all creative writers can probably sink their teeth into…

Afterthoughts

Obviously, Stoker had other influences; vampires were already a pop culture sensation before he wrote Dracula.

To wit:

Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood was a gothic horror story that ran from 1845–1847 as a series of penny dreadfuls, fifty years before Dracula. As far as names go, my ranking goes Dracula>Abhartach>Wampyre>Varney..

Next, there’s Carmilla, sweet, sweet Carmilla:

Carmilla is an 1872 Gothic novella by Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu, predating Dracula (1897) by 26 years. It’s also as overtly sapphic as a novella from a century and a half ago could be. There is definitely a hint of meter between the two names, Dracula and Carmilla, but in the end, I’m going with Bram on this. So my final Name’s round looks like this:

  • Count Dracula
  • Carmilla
  • Abhartach
  • Count Wampyre
  • Varney the Vampyre

So, the final, final take-away? As the bard quipped, a Rose by any other name might smell as sweet…

Well, to paraphrase the Man In Black:.

Just don’t name your Vampire Varney, okay?

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