Vlad the Impaler
A warning to students using this article as a source: there is some dispute about the views expressed in here. You should make sure you read the comments to get a flavour of the argument. If you feel you need to disagree, please feel free to leave a comment.
The Golden Cup
I guess most of you will have heard of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, also known as Vlad Tepes. One of his titles was Dracula, and he was probably the original for the central character in Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name. He must have been one of the most evil people ever to have existed.
He is Romania’s most famous historical figure.
“Tepes” means “Impaler”. He got his name because impaling was his preferred method of execution. This is how it was done. The victim had his legs yanked apart, by horses attached to ropes, and then a sharpened stake about the size of a fist was inserted between the buttocks, up the anus. The stake was greased with pig-fat to allow ease of inserting, and to stop the body shock that might cause the victim to die too quickly. It was then pushed carefully through the body parallel with the spine so as not to puncture or damage any of the major organs. The impaled person was then lifted above the ground and staked into position where he would die slowly, probably over several days. Sometimes the stake was only partially inserted so that the force of gravity could be allowed to do its work, driving the stake through the body millimetre by millimetre, as the body slowly grazed its way down the stake, until it emerged out of the body, through the mouth or the upper chest cavity, and the victim died in writhing agony.
That “pig-fat” detail is particularly telling. It shows the care that Vlad took not to damage anything too much at first, so as to prolong the process. Greasing up the stake obviously eased the insertion somewhat, allowing for a more leisurely death.
This must be the most horrific death ever devised by anybody, worse than crucifixion even. It’s not only that the person dies slowly, in great agony. What is worse is the idea that the person has this alien object, this stake with its rough bark and splinters, running through their body, which they can feel from the inside, and that they will drift in and out of consciousness, always returning to this awful sensation, always awakening to the full horror of their predicament, with death as the only solace.
Imagine it, to wake from the restful state of sleep, emerging from that blissful unconsciousness, into this: this knowledge, this terror, this pain, this stench, this awful realisation, with this alien object rubbing up against your inner organs, your heart and lungs and liver, knowing that you must soon be dead, that these will be the only sensations left to you before you exit this world.
The peculiar thing is that the Romanian people are proud of him. He is seen as a great patriot in that he defeated the Ottoman Turks, and attained a brief independence for Wallachia, where he ruled. It probably helps that his main victims were Turks, Saxons and Hungarians, but he was not averse to staking up a few Romanians too, when he was in the mood. And indeed, there is a weird kind of moral certainty about him, an insistence on fair trade and honesty and an imposition, by these gruesome punishments, of a strict moral and legal code. Not many people were willing to break the law under Vlad’s watchful regime.
There is one story which perhaps gives you the psychology of all of this. It is that Vlad left a golden cup in the central square of Tirgoviste, the capital, and so feared was he, so far did his rule extend, that that cup remained untouched throughout his reign. No one dared steal it. And you can imagine this, too: the extent of Vlad’s all-encompassing control, reaching into every home, every heart, every mind, in the form of a golden cup, symbol of his reign, which no one dares to touch. This, it seems to me, is true psychopathic terror. You can imagine the satisfaction he would feel, even in the confines of his remote castle, to know that this cup was there, accessible, but unmolested, in a public place. That cup would have been like an eye in every citizen’s heart. Every time people passed it, they would know. Vlad is there. He is watching. He knows what we think.
The name “Dracula” is from “Drac” meaning dragon; “ul” is the definite article, and the “a” ending means “son of”. So Dracula means, “the son of the dragon”. The Dragon is a reference to membership of the Order of the Dragon, to which his father belonged, and Vlad’s coinage had a dragon on the reverse.
It is also a Romanian vernacular term meaning devil or demon, which is appropriate enough too for Vlad.
As to whether he was ever a vampire as such, this is a matter of speculation. What is true, certainly, is that he drew special pleasure from the suffering of his victims, that he would happily dine amongst fields of the dead and dying and that, perhaps, this was a source of psychic strength to him. Is it possible to drink the suffering of the dying, to suck up the agony of their souls, knowing you are the creator of their torture, their unbelievable pain? Maybe. Maybe Vlad was some form of a psychic vampire.
But here is the story that most betrays the full horror of Vlad’s peculiar form of vampirism. It was not only that he liked to eat amongst the dead and the dying, or that he appeared to enjoy the suffering of his victims. There is one other detail which brings to light the full extent of Vlad’s ripe insanity. You see he didn’t like to eat alone. He liked to have someone to talk to as he ate. Maybe he distrusted his ministers. Maybe he knew that they were afraid of him and that he was unlikely to hear the truth from their lips. He had no friends. Thus he was in the habit of having someone impaled directly in front of his dinner table, so that he could talk to them as he ate and they were dying.
SO THAT HE COULD TALK TO THEM!
AS THEY WERE DYING!
And you have to wonder, also, what those conversations must have been like. Vlad there, at table, tucking into his meat and drink, pulling the flesh from the bone with greasy fingers, while his helpless victim is perched in front of him, impaled like a kebab on a stick, moaning in grief and pain: what possible conversations could they have had?
So many were his victims that it was doubtful he would know immediately who it was in front of him. Or perhaps, being a precise sort of a ruler, he would have asked his henchmen to find out the name of the person beforehand. Perhaps he would also know the crime. So he could begin the conversation either by asking the name of the victim, or by addressing him by name. Either way, there would be a grim kind of intimacy in his tone, almost a note of concern.
Maybe he would enquire after the person’s health?
“I hope you have learned your lesson,” he might say, as if the whole gruesome business was really just the equivalent of a smart smack across the thighs: as if impaling people had a purpose beyond the sense of power it gave him.
He might ask after the victim’s wife and children. What were their names? What were their hobbies? Did they enjoy sports?
Perhaps he would philosophise with his unwilling guest, pondering the meaning of life.
“You know, I was just thinking the other day how short life is really. You live, you die, and then it’s all over. I wonder what it all can mean?”
Of course the beauty of such conversation is that the other person wouldn’t really be able to answer back. He might give out the occasional groan, the odd croak. Certainly little more than animal noises. But then, I imagine, Vlad would have to acknowledge such sounds. After all, what’s the point of a one-sided conversation?
“Good point,” he might say after one guttural bellow of anguish. “Yes, I too believe that life has some meaning, some purpose. As for myself,” he might add, while picking his teeth after his meal, “I think that my purpose is to bring moral certainty to the world. Yes it is a harsh punishment I have inflicted upon you, but think of it this way: you are acting as a lesson for the whole country, and by your death I have brought honesty and moral integrity back into our small state of Wallachia, for who, now, will do as you have done? Who, now will cheat the foreign merchant of his gold or beg or take money from the widow-woman? Who will be slack or lazy in his work, or shirk his duty? You see what good you have done by your death? You have made our world a better place.”
And on and on like this, expounding his philosophy at great length, before, finally, wiping his hands on a cloth and taking his leave.
“Yes, thank you for an interesting and stimulating debate. There is much to ponder here, I think. And now I will leave you to your death. God have mercy upon your soul!”
Bran Castle, Transylvania
Actually, on reflection, I think that Vlad would know precisely who his victim was. He would have the details of their crimes before him, on parchment, to be read out to them, to remind them of why they were there. He demanded that his people be honest and hard working. Merchants who cheated their customers sometimes found themselves mounted on a stake besides members of the lower orders.
As I say, Romanians regard Vlad as a culture hero. They have a sort of admiration for the character, for his decisiveness, and for his energy in action. Talk to a Romanian about Vlad and you will often hear the phrase, “yes, but in the context of the time”: meaning that the age in which he lived was brutal. And yet it is a measure of Vlad’s extreme brutality that, even in the context of the time, when violence and murder abounded, and where vicious punishments were the norm, the particular horror of Vlad the Impaler was recognised by everyone.
It was the late 1400s, and the printing press had just been invented. The story of Vlad appeared shortly after his death almost simultaneously in Germany and in Russia as a popular chapbook, and was read throughout Europe for the next sixty years or so. In this sense, Vlad was the original horror-comic character. The printed story was published with suitable woodcuts of people with oddly serene faces staked up in fields while butchers with knives and axes chopped up human remains and Vlad ate his lunch.
So it was in the beautiful mountains of Transylvania that Vlad’s victims had been staked, sometimes in their thousands, in huge displays of mass torture referred to as “the forests of the impaled.” Whole cities had been impaled just to teach some moral lesson.
And there were nice comic-horror touches too, to all this grim nastiness. Like the famous story of the guest at one of his mass stake-outs, who showed a certain prim disgust at having to eat amongst all the stench of decaying flesh. Vlad felt such sympathy for his sensitivities that he had him staked a little higher than all the rest - once he had been impaled for his impudence - so as not to offend the man’s delicate nose.
He clearly had a sense of humour.
When I first heard about Vlad I had a genuine feeling of horror and revulsion. I think it was the addition of the detail about the pig-fat that did it for me. I couldn’t help imagining the greased up stake entering my own nether regions, pushing up into my innards, being driven through my own body, and being lodged there amongst my own vital organs.
History, though, has a way of filtering out its own worst excesses. So Vlad’s tale comes to us via medieval chapbooks - popular horror stories of their day - through arcane vampire lore and 18th century vampire tales, to Bram Stoker, who used the name for his character and the location as a setting for his most famous book. And after this we have vampire films with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee in the starring role, or other famous actors playing the part, starting off as horror and ending as camp theatrics. And then we have all sorts of popular cultural accretions, vampire masks and vampire teeth and vampire cloaks as a bit of fun for Halloween. And then somehow, by some strange circular historical and cultural logic, all of this returns to the home of Vlad the Impaler himself, to Bran Castle in Transylvania, where there is a picturesque medieval castle which had little to do with Vlad when he was alive, but which was the location for the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Gary Oldman (one of the better excursions into the genre) and where there is a market selling all this Halloween tat, witch’s hats and devil’s horns, along with all the vampire gear, including two spectacularly badly translated pamphlets on Vlad, from which I got most of the previous information.
I mean: how do you account for this?
Poor Vlad must be turning in his grave (assuming he has a grave and isn’t actually one of the undead) to have his monstrous sadism turned into a parlour game for children.
Not that you can blame anyone for cashing in on the Dracula market.
It’s what I’m doing here.
More about Romania by CJ Stone
- Beyond The Forest: Journeys to the Heart of Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania is a country of miracles, of legends, of strange tales, full of mystery. CJ Stone discovers scepticism and the Milky Way and meets a statue of a multi-armed goddess-tree with a macabre tale attached.
- Bear Nation: Looking For Bear in Harghita County, Transylvania - Part 1
At one point he was struggling for a word. "This is not good for the bear... the bear..." He was trying to find a word to describe the family of bears as a whole, frustrated at his lack of English. He said: "This is not good for the bear nation."
- Borderlands: Bird Watching in Dobrogea, Romania
Dobrogea is a distinct region of Romania between the Danube and the Black Sea. CJ Stone goes in search of birds and memories while contemplating the mysteries of communism.
- Bear Stalking: hunting with a camera in Romania
There is now an alternative way to shoot bears. With bear stalking, the camera takes the place of the rifle, and the photograph takes the place of the trophy. And a picture of one of these magnificent creatures is an incredible prize.
- Landscape and Possession
It is a landscape without possession. The land doesn't appear to be owned by anyone. Perhaps it is the landscape that does the owning: perhaps it owns all the creatures, human and otherwise, who dwell within it.
- Ham and Chris in the Mountains of Harghita, Romania.
In memory of Ham: "one-third bear, one-third wolf, one third Scooby-doo on roller-skates"
© 2008 Christopher James Stone