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Emily Gerard's

Transylvanian Superstitions

This first selection is a choice excerpt from the 1885 essay "Transylvanian Superstitions" by Emily Gerard. This essay is widely held to have provided key inspiration to Bram Stoker while creating the novel Dracula.

But nowhere does the inherent superstition of the Roumenian peasant find stronger expression than in his mourning and funeral ceremonies, which are based upon a totally original conception of death. Among the various omens of approaching death are the ungrounded barking of a dog or the crowing of a black hen. The influence of the latter may, however, be annulled and the catastrophe averted if the bird be put in a sack and carried thrice round the house. Roots dug up from the churchyard on Good Friday are to be given to people in danger of death. If, however, this and other remedies fail to save the doomed man, then he must have a burning candle put into his hand; for it is considered to be the greatest of all misfortunes if a man die without a candle a favour the Roumenian durst not refuse to his most deadly enemy. The corpse must be washed immediately after death, and the dirt, if necessary, scraped off with knives, because the dead man is more likely to find favour with God if he appear before Him in a clean state. Then he is attired in his best clothes, in doing which great care must be taken not to tie anything in a knot, for that would disturb his rest; likewise, he must not be allowed to carry away any particle of iron about his dress (such as buttons, boot nails, &c.), for this would assuredly prevent him from reaching Paradise, the road to which is long, and is, moreover, divided off by several tolls or ferries.

To enable the soul to pass through these a piece of money must be laid in the hand, under the pillow, or beueath the tongue of the corpse. In the neighbourhood of Fogaras, where the ferries or toll-bars are supposed to amount to twenty-five, the hair of the defunct is divided into as many plaits, and a piece of money secured in each. Likewise, a small provision of needles, pins, thread, &c., are put into the coffin to enable the pilgrim to repair any damage his clothes may receive on the way.

The mourning songs, called Bocete, usually performed by paid mourners, are directly addressed to the corpse and sung into his ear on either side. This is the last attempt made by the survivors to wake the dead man to life, by reminding him of all he is leaving, and urging him to make a final effort to arouse his dormant faculties the thought which underlies all these proceedings being, that the dead man hears and sees ail that goes on around him, and that it only requires the determined effort of a strong will in order to restore elasticity to the stiffened limbs, and cause the torpid blood to flow again within the veins.

In many places two openings, corresponding to the ears of the deceased, are cut out in the wood of the coffin to enable him to hear the songs of mourning which are sung on either side of him as he is carried to the grave.

This singing into the ears has passed into a proverb, and when the Roumenian says, i-a-cantat la wechia (he has sung into his ears), it is tantamount to saying that prayer and admonition have been used in vain. The Pomana, or funeral feast, is invariably held after the funeral, for much of the peace of the defunct depends upon the strict observance of this ceremony. At this banquet all the favourite dishes of the dead man are served, and each guest receives a cake (colac) and a jug (ulcior), also a wax candle, in his memory. Similar Pomanas are repeated after a fortnight, six weeks, and on each anniversary for the next seven years; also, whenever the defunct has appeared in dream to any member of the family, this likewise calls for another Pomana; and when these conditions are not exactly complied with, the soul thus neglected is apt to wander complaining about the earth, and cannot find rest. These restless spirits, called Strigoi, are not malicious, but their appearance bodes no good, and may be regarded as omens of sickness or misfortune. More decidedly evil, however, is the vampire, or nosferatu, in whom every Roumenian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell.

There are two sorts of vampires living and dead. The living vampire is in general the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons, but even a flawless pedigree will not ensure anyone against the intrusion of a vampire into his family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent people till the spirit has been exorcised, either by opening the grave of the person suspected and driving a stake through the corpse, or firing a pistol shot into the coffin. In very obstinate cases it is further recommended to cut off the head and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing the ashes over the grave. That such remedies are often resorted to, even in our enlightened days, is a well-attested fact, and there are probably few Roumenian villages where such has not taken place within the memory of the inhabitants.

First cousin to the vampire, the long exploded were-wolf of the Germans is here to be found, lingering yet under the name of the Prikolitsch. Sometimes it is a dog instead of a wolf, whose form a man has taken either voluntarily or as penance for his sins. In one of the villages a story is still told (and believed) of such a man, who driving home from church on Sunday with his wife, suddenly felt that the time for his transformation had come. He therefore gave over the reins to her, and stepped aside into the bushes, where, murmuring the mystic formula, he turned three somersaults over a ditch. Soon after this the woman, waiting in vain for her husband, was attacked by a furious dog, which rushed, barking, out of the bushes and succeeded in biting her severely, as well as tearing her dress. When, an hour later, this woman reached home alone she was met by her husband, who advanced smiling to meet her, but between his teeth she caught sight of the shreds of her dress which had been bitten out by the dog, and the horror of the discovery caused her to faint away.

Another man used gravely to assert that for more than five years he had gone about in the form of a wolf, leading on a troop of these animals, until a hunter, in striking off his head, restored him to his natural shape. A French traveller relates an instance of a harmless botanist who, while collecting herbs on a hillside in a crouching attitude, was observed by some peasants at a distance and taken for a wolf. Before they had time to reach him, however, he had risen to his feet and disclosed himself in the form of a man; but this, in the minds of the Roumenians, who now regarded him as an aggravated case of wolf, was but additional motive for attacking him. They were quite sure that he must be a Prikolitsch, for only such could change his shape in such an unaccountable manner, and in another minute they were all in full cry after the wretched victim of science, who might have fared badly indeed, had he not happened to gain a carriage on the high road before his pursuers came up.

We do not require to go far for the explanation of the extraordinary tenacity of life of the were-wolf legend in a country like Transylvania, where real wolves still abound. Every winter here brings fresh proof of the boldness and cunning of these terrible animals, whose attacks on flocks and farms are often conducted with a skill which would do honour to a human intellect. Sometimes a whole village is kept in trepidation for weeks together by some particularly audacious leader of a flock of wolves, to whom the peasants not unnaturally attribute a more than animal nature, and one may safely prophesy that so long as the real wolf continues to haunt the Transylvanian forests, so long will his spectre brother survive in the minds of the inhabitants.

From Transylvanian Superstitions, Emily Gerard. Published in The Nineteenth Century magazine, pages 128-144, 1885.

To feed the curiosity of wider readers, Madame Gerard's writings were also syndicated in a leading periodical, Blackwood's Edinburg Magazine, in 1888. This selection addresses both vampires and werewolves in Transylvania.

Most persons who know anything of the Roumanians will turn with curiosity to what Maame Gerard has to say about the ghastly vampire superstition, and wil be rewarded with an interesting recital of the present condition of the popular belief. In the nosferatu or vampire every Roumanian peasnat, to this day, is a firm believer, and doubtless much of his cumbrous funeral ceremonial is intended to prevent the dead from entering upon evil courses after their burial. This terrible plague of vampirism is as contagious as the small-pox. Let a vampire once get out of his grave and suck the blood of an innocent person, that person is at once inoculated, and only waits for his death and burial to break out for the gratification of his unclean tastes, and to propagate the plague in fresh quarters. A village where vampirism was prevalent on a large scale, must have enjoyed the same cheerful sense of security as a district feels when it lies in the path of an advancing wave of cholera. The common remedy is to open the grave of the vampire and drive a stake through the body, which, we have been told, is always fresh, plump, and in good condition, or, in cases of extreme obstinancy in this reprehensible practice, to "cut off the head and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic; or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing the ashes over the grave." Less irreclaimable vampires may be settled by firing a pistol-shot into the coffin, or even by walking round the grave smoking, on the anniversary of the vampire's death. A thorny sprig of wild-rose laid across the coffin is also of service. Madame Gerard says nothing about the intense panics which vampirism is said to have periodically caused in Transylvania as in Hungary; and what is more to be regretted, she does not satisfy our curiosity as to how living vampires succeed in carrying on their operations.

Before we leave the vampires, we must give Madame Gerard's experience of an allied superstition, and return again to the Saxons, who had brought their believe in werewolves with them from the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic. The superstition still flourishes in the Land beyond the Forest, as is testified by the narrow escape which a botanist recently had in being shot for a werewolf while engaged in his avocations in the forest. Nor is the testimony of werewolves themselves wanting; for one man deponed "that for several years he had gone about in the form of a wolf, leading on a troop of these animals, till a hunter, in striking off his head, restored him to his natural shape." The Flemish Wier, "Piscinarius," in the curious book, 'De Praestgiis Daemonum,' tells an almost similar story which he heard from the hero of it at Padua in 1541. Madame Gerard was less fortunate in her attempt to "interview" an actual werewolf.

"I once inquired of an old Saxon woman whom I had visited with a view to extracting various pieces of superstitious information, whether she had ever come across a prikolitsch herself.

"'Bless you!' she said, 'when I was young there was no village without two or three of them at least, but now there seem to be fewer.'

"'So there is no prikolitsch in this village?' I asked, feeling particularly anxious to make the acquaintance of a real live werewolf.

"'No,' she answered doubtfully - 'not that I know of for certain, though of course there is no saying with those Roumanians. But close by here in the next street, round the corner, there lives the widow of a prikolitsch whom I knew. She is still a young woman, and lost her husband five or six years ago. In ordinary life he was a quiet enough fellow, rather weak and sickly-looking; but sometimes he used to disappear for a week or ten days at a time, and though his wife tried to deceive people by telling them that her husband was lying drunk in the loft, of course we knew better, for those were the times when he used to be away wolving in the mountains.'

"Thinking that the relict of a werewolf was the next best thing to the werewolf himself, I determined on paying my respects to the interesting widow; but on reaching her house the door was closed, and I had the cruel disappointment of learning that Madame Prikolitsch was not at home."

Time does not seem to alter the appearance of the breed, for we may recall Altomari's description of them in the latter part of the sixteenth century - "ulcerata crura, sitis ipsis adest inmodica, pallidi, lingua sicca," - which corresponds in a way to the "weak and sickly-looking" condition of Madame Gerard's friend who went "a-wolfing."

From Blackwood's Edinburg magazine, Volume 43, January-June 1888, "The Land beyond the Forest" from "The Land beyond the Forest. Facts, Figures and Fancies from Transylvania. By E. Gerard. Two Volumes. William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London: 1888.

Emily Garard composed her influential essays on Transylvanian folklore while living in the town of Temesvar, Romania. Her husband, Chevalier Miecislas de Laszowski was an Austo-Hungarian cavalry officer stationed there in the 1880s. Her accounts recieved wide readership through their inclusion in major magazines of the era.

It has been suggested that Gerard may have accidentally created the word 'Nosferatu' by mistaking the word "nesuferit," meaning 'plague-some,' for one of the may regional words used to describe vampires. Alternately, Florescu/McNally suggest that it derives from the old Romanian 'necuratul,' which describes the devil.