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The Birth of Dracula: The Origins of the European Vampire Myth

Updated on September 1, 2014

This article will show the various sources which informed Bram Stoker's use of the vampire myth, and which ultimately culminated in the titular Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Dracula is himself a shape- and identity-shifting character, which is reflected by the fluid nature of the development of the vampire myth. In fact, the Dracula myth shows a clear movement away from the disgusting corpses of Old England, and a movement towards the aristocratic, highly sexualized vampire emerging in the Victorian Era.

"Ugly" Vampires

“Vampires,” says Clive Leatherdale, one of the foremost Dracula scholars, “are more usually depicted as lean, gaunt, hollow-eyed and with scabs on their arms and legs…the nails will be long and crooked, the hair long, unkempt, and matted,” and that many are said to shed old skin in the same way that reptiles do. The handsome, intelligent, and aristocratic vampire is “the product of the literary imagination, not traditional folklore. As Dracula has become the quintessential idea of the vampire, it is interesting to note what sort of folklore material Stoker was drawing from and deviating from.

Werewolves

One of the most important books on vampire mythology is, oddly enough, a book on werewolves. Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves was a source for research which Bram Stoker himself used when writing Dracula.

It is strange that in a novel about vampires that Dracula is identified with shapeshifting into a wolf – with being a werewolf. This identification is furthered by Jonathan Harker’s early descriptions of the Count as having long, sharp canine teeth, “extremely pointed” ears, and hands which are “broad, with squat fingers,” with hairy palms, and nails sharpened to points. All of these characteristics are indicators of a wolf, and by extension, a werewolf. Complicating matters is Jonathan Harker’s translation confusion over whether “vrolok” and “vlkoslak” mean either werewolf or vampire in Transylvanian folklore, a question which is never answered in Stoker's novel. As well, The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould, one of Stoker’s sources, notes that werewolves, like vampires, also crave blood to survive. Finally, Dracula himself famously says that the wolves are “children of the night”. Who but a father, who but a wolf himself, would refer to wolves as children?

An image of a warrior and a berserker.
An image of a warrior and a berserker. | Source

Icelandic Berserkers

Van Helsing, the man tasked with hunting down and destroying Dracula, also mentions the “berserker Icelander” amidst his catalogue of countries and peoples who have mythologically had vampires. This is not the first mention in the novel of berserkers, though it is the most obvious. In fact, the escaped wolf from the Zoological Gardens was from Norway – thus, he is Icelandic - and was named Bersiker, and obvious homage to berserkers themselves. Here we have a connectionbetween berserkers and vampires. A berserker was a Norse warrior who wore the skin of a wolf – or bear – and fought viciously in battle, and, according to Scandinavian folklore, could turn into a wolf or bear at will (Baring-Gould 36-7). Again, we see the connection between Dracula and shapeshifters, yet it goes deeper than just this.

Berserkers were notorious for challenging poor farmers to duels, and being highly skilled combatants, they rarely lost. Having defeated a farmer, the berserker could then legally have his way with the man’s wife (37) – much like the warlike Count, who boasts of his prowess in battle, and violates both Lucy and Mina. Finally, berserkers often attended feasts uninvited, where they arbitrarily broke the spines of legitimately invited revellers (38). Here again Dracula is connection to the berserker, for when the Count infiltrates the mental asylum to feast upon Mina, Renfield - a legitimate inmate - grapples with the Count, who proceeds to break Renfield’s spine and paralyze him.

Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was one of the inspirations behind Count Dracula.
Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was one of the inspirations behind Count Dracula. | Source

Vlad Tepes

In terms of specifics, there is Vlad the Impaler. Vlad's real name was Vlad Tepes, and he was a Prince – or "Voivod" – of Wallachia, not a Transylvanian Count. Stoker likely did not know much about Vlad Tepes, but he did hear his title, Dracula, meaning, “son of Dracul”. Dracul roughly translates into “dragon,” a title derived from the Order of the Dragon, a semi-monastic warrior society designed to fight the Turks, and to which both Vlad Tepes and his father belonged.

However, there is another Romanian translation of Dracula, and that is “Devil”. in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing later acknowledges this idea when he notes that the “devil-begotten Hun[s]” had vampires, and Dracula himself boasts of being a descendent of Attila the Hun himself. This title of “Devil” was the reason why Stoker changed the name of his titular character from his original name, Count Wampyr, to Count Dracula. However, Stoker’s knowledge of Vlad Tepes ends there. What he did not know was that Tepes was in the most literal sense, according to folklore and a few monastery manuscripts at least, a devil incarnate. Aside from the countless individuals who Tepes impaled on spikes, the Prince committed a number of other cruelties. One tale tells of how he cut off a woman’s hands for failing to mend her husband’s ripped shirt, after which he impaled her. Another tells of how Dracula invited all of the sick, poor, and elderly in his in a city to an elaborate banquet. There he fed them and gave them wine, offered them freedom from their earthly sufferings, and proceeded to burn the building down with them inside.

Even when he was imprisoned, he continued his cruelty from his cell, catching rats and birds and impaling them. Each of these has correlations in the novel, from Dracula’s violence towards women, to his “freeing” of each victim from earthly care through death, to Renfield’s zoophagous inclinations in the insane asylum.

Elizabeth Bathory

Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves provided for Stoker a number of qualities which he used in creating the Count, yet none more so than the passage describing Elizabeth Bathory. A Hungarian countess, Bathory sought to “regain her lost youth and beauty” (Baring-Gould 142). After one of her maids was injured and bled on Bathory’s face, folklore tells us that Bathory was more beautiful wherever the blood had touched her. Discovering a morbid sort of fountain of youth, Bathory murdered and bled more than six hundred and fifty young women, whose blood she then either consumed or bathed in, each time apparently regaining some of her lost youth and beauty.

Countess Bathory's actions set the stage for Stoker's Count Dracula. Both consume the blood of others, and are made more youthful by the transfer. Dracula initially appears as an older gentleman with white hair, yet after drinking blood he appears younger with darker hair. This does not last for long though, as later in the novel he is described by the nameless wolf keeper as having a few white hairs.

Source

Varney the Vampire

The transformation of vampire from graveyard dwelling ghoul to aristocratic romantic draws most of all from a cheap serialized story from the mid-nineteenth century called, oddly enough, Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood. This story, which in its collected version eventually ended up being over a thousand pages long, was the first instance where the vampire as we know it today emerged. He has the two large fangs, leaves the two fang marks on his victim’s necks, and can hypnotize his victims with his eyes. He was also the first vampire to be a sexual object, combining for the first time the concept of vampirism and sex, mixing blood and death with sexuality and life. This in turn opens the door for Dracula and his daughters to being highly sexualized objects, playing off of Victorian fears of racial and sexual purity.

Conclusion

So, to conclude, Dracula was the Voivod of a Romanian state, is cousin to the werewolf and the Norse warrior, was partly inspired by a vain woman who bathed in the blood of murdered women, and his forefather was a cheap serialized villain. He comes not from any single mind, or from any single myth, but rather through a conglomeration of many different myths and sources.


Questions? Comments? Let us know in the comments below!

And if you haven't read it yet, you owe it to yourself to read Dracula, in all of its Gothic glory.

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 4 years ago from Australia

      Thank you, really interesting following the evolution of the vampire myth

    • Argonaut Jess profile image

      Jessica Salmon 4 years ago from Newcastle Upon Tyne

      fascinating!! Think you have convinced me to read Dracula now. Wealth of information!

    • profile image

      Ausseye 4 years ago

      Hi GrinningAtUs: Stimulating read, alas all a myth as I know Dracula to be real and have DNA links …….as have many Transylvanian stock, as you say he was highly sexed. The good old days are gone and so we keep a low profile, and there is a law against cruelty to women. There’s also a good deal of OHS and red tape that causes our blood program to be somewhat curtailed , how would you like it if you were fined just being you?? My coughing goes on in an endless fashion, and we will get our way, we’ve become less physical and more scientific…education and all that…pandemics our new game and Dracula Bug is his name.

      Loved the read and the hub was way too informative, had to put some mystery back and give it a new twist.

    • keelymahaffey profile image

      Keely Mahaffey 4 years ago from Maine

      *intrigued* I've done some light research on Vlad Tepes in relation to Bram Stoker's Dracula, but I didn't know about all these other inspirations. Thanks for the interesting read :).

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      This was an interesting read. I have never been a Dracula fan and never understood the attraction to any vampire related book...the Twilight series amazed me and kudos to the writer who generated a success, awesome to her. The origin of the myth, however, is an interesting subject. Good job.

    • Anna Haven profile image

      Anna Haven 4 years ago from Scotland

      Very interesting, lots of information and revelations.