Vlad the Hungarian? The Romanian/Hungarian vampire debate
Through the centuries, debate has been raging about who can lay claim to the origins of the legendary vampire. Many claim that it is the Romanian people who have sole claim to the title. Others say that it is Hungarian mythology that gave birth to the blood sucking creatures that still haunt our dreams.
Popular belief tends to shift most of the ownership to Romania. However, in the eyes of my Hungarian relatives, vampires were strictly non fiction. These stories had been passed down through Hungarian families for generations.
My belief is that both countries can claim vampires as their own. Keep in mind I write this from my own knowledge of Magyar history, and if I’ve made any factual errors, please feel free to correct them via comment.
As most people know, Romanian and Hungarian histories intersect. It is this fact that has caused confusion about the vampire legend, or more specifically, the history of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) and his bloody reign of terror. Vlad’s father, Vlad II was the appointed governor of Transylvania, and his family was in contest for the control of Walachia. Walachia and Transylvania today are considered part of Romania, but there has been a feud throughout history as to where Transylvania did or should lie.
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The Romanians assert that they are the descendants of Latin-speaking Dacian peasants who remained in Transylvania after the Roman exodus, and of Slavs who lived in Transylvania’s secluded valleys, forests, and mountains, and survived there during the tumult of the Dark Ages. Romanian historians explain the absence of hard evidence for their claims by pointing out that the region lacked organized administration until the twelfth century and by positing that the Mongols destroyed any existing records when they plundered the area in 1241. Hungarians assert, among other things, that the Roman population quit Dacia completely in 271, that the Romans could not have made a lasting impression on Transylvania’s aboriginal population in only two centuries, and that Transylvania’s Romanians descended from Balkan nomads who crossed northward over the Danube in the thirteenth century and flowed into Transylvania in any significant numbers only after Hungary opened its borders to foreigners.
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So here we find the source of the feud. Neither side seems willing to concede Transylvania’s origins, and Transylvania lies at the crux of the vampire birth story. Let’s continue with my abbreviated understanding of Vlad Tepes’ history.
Vlad II joined the Order of the Dragon to fight the Turks. Because of this connection, he became known as Dracal, which means “Dragon”. His son took the name Draculea, meaning “son of the dragon”. Vlad Draculea’s lust for blood became legendary, and spawned a supernatural mythology that eventually inspired Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.
15th Century Wax Seal of the Order of the Dragon
Paramount among the exploits of Vlad III that secured his place in history as the father of vampires, was his affinity for impaling his victims. In fact, Tepes, which means “impaler”, was a name granted to him after his death. It is a moniker rather than a surname, contrary to popular belief.
Vlad III held a grudge against the land owning aristocrats of the region, as a result of the murder of his father and older brother. In 1459, Vlad III held an Easter feast, inviting all of these wealthy foes, and at it’s conclusion, had them all arrested. The older men and their wives were impaled on stakes throughout the town. The awful deed was carried out by skewering the unfortunates on stakes that entered through the buttocks and exited through the mouth. The stakes were often lubricated and sanded smooth, so that death was slow and torturous, sometimes taking days. The younger (and luckier) of the group were sentenced to labor, put to work building the castle which would later be known as Castle Dracula.
Aristocrats were not the only targets of Vlad’s ire. He positively detested what he considered sexual deviants. For example, adulterers were flayed, with their bodies and skins being posted on separate poles. He took those who were physically burdensome or financially impaired to a pyre, burning them alive.
Here is where the tenuous history comes into play. Vlad won favor with the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus. With his support, Vlad III invaded the Turkish lands along the Danube. This angered the Sultan, prompting Turkish armies to take Walachia’s capital, forcing Vlad to go into hiding under the protection of the Hungarian King. In 1476, in cooperation with Transylvania and Moldavia, Vlad reclaimed Walachia, but this victory was very short lived. Vlad was later captured and killed by the Turks, and the Sultan had his body symbolically displayed on a stake.
Now, Walachia is part of Moldavia, also known as “the borderlands”. Transylvania and Romania were all once a part of one larger Kingdom of Hungary. Romania did not get control of Transylvania from the Austria-Hungary Empire until after World War I. Although Vlad III did work in conjunction with King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, Corvinus was later persuaded to imprison Vlad III at Visigrad, a Castle near Budapest.
Then there is the entirely seperate issue of Countess Elizabeth Bathory (in Hungarian, Báthory Erzsébet). Elizabeth’s legacy as the bloody Countess of Hungary, is in my view an even more compelling piece of history that presses forward the Hungarian claim to the vampire legend. Bathory’s ancestor Stephan Bathory had fought alongside Vlad Dracula in one of his many successful attempts to reclaim the Wallachian throne. The Bathory family was one of the most prominent protestant families in all of Hungary. Although history shows that Bathory relatives became cardinals, prime ministers, and kings, legend has cast many of her family members as occultists and deviants; dabbling in the black arts, diabolism, and rampant promiscuity.
At age 15, Elizabeth married Count Ferencz Nadasdy, who carried his bride away to Castle Csejthe, in his northern Hungarian territory deep in the Carpathian Mountains. Elizabeth provided the Count with an heir, after which he abandoned her and fled for the battlefield, returning only occasionally to sire more children. During her time alone in the castle, Elizabeth took many lovers, and gained a reputation as a cruel mistress, often mistreating slaves and beating young maidens who reportedly threatened her with their beauty. The superstitious peasants from the lands surrounding the castle quickly began to speak of Elizabeth’s evil deeds, and she, like Vlad before her, began to have supernatural aspects attributed to her nature.
Ruins of Castle Csejthe or more commonly “Cachtice Castle”
Although Elizabeth was renouned for her incomparable beauty, with age her lovely appearance began to fade. As this evident decline in her facade became apparent to Elizabeth, she became even more cruel. Legend has it that she began to ritualistically torture female servants, beating them and imprisoning them in her dungeon. After her husband’s death, she sent her children away to relatives, freeing her to continue her reign of terror on the innocent women of the region. Now in her 40’s, Elizabeth became obsessed with regaining her youth. One day, in a terrible fit of rage, Bathory struck a young female servant, causing her mouth and nose to bleed. Upon wiping away the blood, she became convinced that the skin beneath the blood had become smoother and more youthful. Thus began her 10 year killing spree of maidens, whose blood she drained into a basin where she would bathe.
As the supply of peasant girls began to dwindle, Bathory devised a plan to have the daughters of Aristocrats sent to the castle for lessons in ettiquete. These girls often met the same fate as their peasant counterparts, and Elizabeth’s obsession was sated once again. Of course, while it is one thing for peasants to go missing, it is another thing entirely for the noble daughters of the elite to vanish, and Elizabeth’s carelessness eventually caught up with her. Especially since it is said that rather than burying the blood drained corpses of her victims, she simply had her henchmen cast their bodies to the wolves. With evidence laying about, Elizabeth was surely destined to be caught.
Which is exactly what happened as news of her alleged exploits reached King Mattias II, who ordered an investigation into Bathory’s deeds. In their search of the area, soldiers came upon a pile of dead or dying women near Castle Csejthe, who had obviously been cruelly tortured and drained of blood. More bodies were found in and around the castle. Elizabeth and her helpers were all arrested. All but one of her accomplices were tried and executed. However, Elizabeth would not stand trial. Under Hungarian law it was illegal to try or condemn a citizen of noble birth. To circumvent this inconvenient law, Bathory was sealed inside a tower of Castle Csejthe, as a result of being suspected of killing roughly 600 young women. She stayed there until she died 4 years later, never once speaking a word of remorse.
Clearly, those who would say that the Hungarian people have a history devoid of the vampire are sorely mistaken. The truth is, vampires existed in local legends long before Vlad, Elizabeth, or any other famous account. Vampires were part of the Eastern European lore from antiquity, and will remain a part of the Hungarian and Romanian traditions for centuries to come.
The verdict: Because of the intersection between the histories and legends of Hungary and Romania, it is impossible to decipher the exact origin of the blood thirsty vampire of legend and myth. But, to say that one has more claim to the mythology than the other is very inappropriate. Perhaps the real question is, Why would anyone fight over such a gruesome history?
(As I stated, most of the retelling of the stories of Vlad III and Elizabeth Bathory come from my own memory of the stories. I wanted to present them exactly as I’ve always interpreted them, thus some dates and names may be slightly off. As both stories have become so clouded by myth and superstition over time, I thought it would be appropriate to tell their stories from my own deep love and fascination of Magyar tradition, unaided by Wikipedia or some other online source. My apologies if I missed anything major.)