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Dracula Legend


Throughout time, Romanian folklore has inspired a number of stories and fairy tales with fabulous characters and imaginary worlds, charged with significations and teachings. The people’s imagination and the events taking place on the alleys of the villages and at the helm of the state have given birth to tales which combine reality and the fantastic, with good triumphing over evil each time. Brave lads, emperors’ sons, Prince Charmings, common people, Ileana Cosânzeana-like fairies, witches, and seven headed dragons, all of these magical creatures lead a continuous, adventurous fight, insatiably savored by the reader.

Vlad the ImpalerSome stories contain more historical truth than the others, and being told so many times has turned them into genuine legends of the Romanian people. They evoke real facts, which in time have been distorted or confused with other events, so the listener has to solve the mysteries and untangle the complicated threads of these events. This is also the case of Dracula’s legend around which an aura of mysticism has been created due to the numerous writings and movies which depict Dracula as a merciless, bloodthirsty vampire. In reality, the story of Count Vlad is entirely different than that described by Bram Stocker in his novel, 'Dracula'. Hence, here is the history of Å¢epeÅŸ’s life, one of Walachia’s greatest rulers.

Prince Ţepeş, a Merciless Ruler

Vlad Tepes was born in a noble family, his predecessors being one by one princes of Wallachia, a region situated at the south of the Carpathians. Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ’ father was held in high regards by the king of Hungary, Sigismund of Luxemburg, who named him Knight of the Order of the Dragon, a group of European noblemen of the highest rank who wanted to protect Christianity from the Ottoman threat. The symbol of this order was a golden medallion representing a curling dragon. In Latin, 'draco' means 'dragon', but in Romanian, the Latin word resembles ‘devil’. As the membership to his order was passed from father to son, Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ got the name 'Vlad Dracul' or 'Dracula', which means both 'the dragon bearer' and ' the son of the devil'.

From a frail age, Vlad was caught in the whirl of fights over power in this region between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empire. At the age of eleven, he and his brother, Radu, were taken hostage to the sultan’s court as guarantee for their father’s remaining on the throne. As a hostage, Vlad nurtured an immense hatred against the Turks, while Radu became close to the sultan.

Bran CastleIn 1448, after his father’s death, Vlad becomes Prince of Wallachia, a title which he has to defend against his rivals. It took the brave ruler eight years to gain control over the Targoviste citadel. Finally, there he was on the throne, with a brave desire to save Christianity from the Turkish yoke. Before starting an ample attack against the sultan, Vlad wanted his country to be well governed, rich, with a well organized army and allies ready to jump in and help in case of danger. First, he impaled the great boyars whom he suspected of plotting against him. But before we find out how justice was established in Wallachia, we must tell you more about the impaling method, this cruel practice which brought the Prince the name Å¢epeÅŸ (in Romanian ‘Å£eapÓ‘’ means ‘stake’), that made him famous all over the country  and throughout Europe.

Impaling was the most dreadful torture method used to get confessions out of someone or to end a man’s life, similar to the practice of burning people at the stakes. The stake was a big pole, taller than a man’s height, with a sharp end; it was used to pierce a man’s belly through the back, coming out through the throat or mouth. Then it was stuck into the ground, and the sufferer’s arms and head would hang. The purpose of the punishment was to provoke an unendurable physical pain and to delay the death of the victim. The condemned either died of hunger, thirst, or attacked by ravens. The image was so frightening for the onlookers, that no one wanted to break the law in Å¢epeÅŸ’ country.

Poienari fortressGradually, Vlad got rid of the boyar enemies, beggars and thieves; he fortified the strongholds, consolidated the army and brought in new weaponry. Another one of the ruler’s measures was directed against the Saxon merchants in Transylvania who sold goods retail in the country, depriving Romanian merchants of their share of the gain. It is presumed that the Saxon merchants who disobeyed Vlad’s measures were impaled. During his six years of reign, Å¢epeÅŸ punished the inhabitants of Brasov and Sibiu for supporting another person to the throne. In 1462, Vlad is betrayed by his brother and imprisoned for 12 years by the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus. Å¢epeÅŸ becomes one last time the ruler of Wallachia, but dies shortly after during a Turkish invasion (1476). Some legends say he was defeated by his enemies in battle, some say he was murdered by the Wallachian boyars, or mistaken by his soldiers for a Turkish commander. The head of the prince was sent to Constantinople to eliminate any doubt concerning his death, and his body was supposedly buried at the Snagov Monastery, though it was never found.

Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ – the Man and His Great Love, the Beautiful Katharina    

KatharinaThe redoubtable Ţepeş was an extremely complex character, known for his qualities of leading the country. A good strategist and extremely brave, he never hesitated in confronting the Turks, even when his army was obviously outnumbered. Harsh, ruthless and intransigent, Vlad was respected by his people and supported by his army in battle. His virtues were shadowed by his excessive cruelty, behind which however there lay a spirit of justice and fairness. Ţepeş hated lying, cowardice, robbery and betrayal so much that no one could escape his punishment; neither the boyars, nor the priests or the monks could redeem their mistakes. They were so frightened by the voivode that golden cups could be left at the fountains and no one would touch them.

A story less known about Vlad Ţepeş is the one speaking of his human, romantic nature and his love relationship with the Saxon Katharina Siegel. The daughter of a weaver from Corona (nowadays, Brasov), Katharina stood by the prince for twenty years, giving him five children. When she met Vlad, the seventeen year old girl was struggling to pull a sledge of viands and the brave lad passing by gave her a hand. Ţepeş instantly fell in love with her, forgetting about his other amorous adventures and trying everything to seduce her.

In 1459, when the prince punished the Saxon merchants of Brasov, the merchants’ wives caught the girl, tied her to the pillory and cut her braids. In order to save the young girl from the fury of the Saxon women, Å¢epeÅŸ had to release the merchants. Vlad very much wanted to marry Katharina, so he asked the pope to annul the marriage to his first wife, Anastasia. The two never got to officialize their relationship, as the ruler was imprisoned by king Matthias Corvinus. Katharina remained faithful to Vlad throughout all his imprisonment and after his death she retreated at a monastery. Although mostly portrayed as a bloodthirsty tyrant, it seems Å¢epeÅŸ was equally animated by human feelings, falling irredeemably in love with the beautiful Katharina.

SighisoaraVlad Ţepeş in the Chronicles of the Time

Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ’ fame has startled the imagination of many writers, giving birth to frightening stories, even during the prince’s life. Because he had chosen enemies from among the boyars and the Saxons, Å¢epeÅŸ became the leading character of exaggerated legends, portraying him as an evil villain. At the same time printing press had appeared, so the manuscripts about the voivoide quickly traveled round the country and Europe.

The German narratives and the Ottoman chronicles mainly outline the negative features, presenting a cruel, merciless, sly, even irrational ruler. A former janissary of the Ottoman army recounted how, on the 1462 campaign, Ţepeş ordered that the noses of all captive Turks be cut and sent to king Matthias Corvinus, as a proof of his success. Another janissary said that the ruler ordered that the fortress be surrounded by two sets of fences and that the empty space between them be filled with impaled Moldavians, Hungarians and Wallachians. And not just this: people would hang from the branches of the trees with the voivode ordering that those who dared take down the bodies should be hanged instead.

SighisoaraThe Saxons' legends were inspired by the voivode's devastating incursions in Transylvania, where he had burnt churches and impaled men, women and children. The events of the time became the subject of widely spread legends. For example, it is said that some emissaries of the sultan came to see the voivode. In front of him, they took off their turbans, but not the caps they were wearing underneath.  Then the ruler ordered that their caps be nailed to their heads so that they never take them down.

Another tale says that Å¢epeÅŸ once met a peasant who was wearing a dirty and torn out shirt. The prince asked him if he had a wife and if he had sowed flax that year, and the man answered that he had a wife and also plenty of flax. Then the prince went to the peasant’s house and, wanting to punish the man’s wife, he cut off her hands and impaled her. It is also said that during Å¢epeÅŸ’ second rule, he wanted to get rid of the beggars, thieves, the sick and the old. So he called them all into a house where he had laid tables with copious meals. After the feast, he burnt the house down, indifferent to the shouts coming from inside.

Bucharest Old Princely CourtThe same punishment was assigned to messengers who weren’t dressed properly or couldn’t answer Å¢epeÅŸ’ questions. None of these legends however portrays Dracula the vampire the way Bram Stocker did in the novel by the same name. After hearing about a Romanian ruler called Dracula from a Hungarian professor, the author created a mystical and sinister character. He lived in a castle in Transylvania and at nightfall he turned into a vampire, sucking people’s blood. The victims in their turn became vampires obeying the count’s order. The modern story distorts the nature of the medieval character, speculating the public’s appetite for horror stories. In the history of the Romanian people, Å¢epeÅŸ remains a genuine dispenser of justice, a brave patriot.

Tracing Dracula’s Footsteps

Bran CastleThe tourists who come to Romania and who are attracted to Dracula’s myth usually head to the Bran Castle, where they expect to find a frightening, dark place, haunted by ghosts. Indeed, the palace evokes a fascinating medieval atmosphere, as Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ spent part of his imprisonment years that he was sentenced to by king Matthias Corvinus. At Bran, the first who raised a fortification were the Teuton knights, then the citizens of Brasov raised a stone fortress on the same spot. The resemblance with the dwelling place of the vampire-count in Bram Stocker’s novel has turned Bran Castle into the main tourist attraction for those wanting to trace Dracula’s footsteps.

Such an itinerary should absolutely include Sighisoara citadel, the place where Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ’ father had lived and where the prince was presumably born. One of the most beautiful medieval cities in Europe, Sighisoara impresses with the architectural richness of the old houses and towers. On the narrow streets you will discover new stories about the fearsome voivode who terrified the Saxons in Transylvania.

Targoviste was the capital of Wallachia during Vlad Å¢epeÅŸ’ rule. It is said that at the prince’s court he would host great feasts at the end of which he would impale his enemy boyars. One can also visit Chindiei Tower here, where the ruler’s weaponry is displayed.

Targoviste Old Princely CourtOn the Transfagarasan, along a route full of adrenaline and spectacular sceneries, you will see the Poienari fortress, where Å¢epeÅŸ found his last refuge, before leaving for Transylvania. Legends say that in the 15th century, when the fortification was rebuilt, the prince wanted to take revenge on the boyars of Targoviste, who were guilty of his brother’s death, Mircea. Some he killed in his characteristic manner, others he condemned to build the walls and many of them died on the slopes of the mountain. Don’t be discouraged by the 1480 steps to the fortress, for the panorama opening over the Fagaras Mountains and Argesului Valley is entirely worth the effort.

Bucharest is another place where Å¢epeÅŸ left his mark. In the center of the city you can visit the ruins of the Prince’s Court built in the 15th century, nowadays known as Curtea Veche Palace. According to legends, prisoners were held in the underground cellars. Near the city, you will find the Snagov Monastery, the place where the ruler was buried. Although his remains were never found, the halidom keeps the memory of brave Å¢epeÅŸ alive.

A hero driven by the fight for justice, a ruler decided to free the people from the Turkish yoke, one of the cruelest rulers that the Romanian Principalities have ever had, a ruthless bloodthirsty despot, the vampire-count veiled in mystery, this is how Å¢epeÅŸ, dubbed Dracula, is known in Romania and abroad. A dispenser of justice often invoked by the Romanians and a mysterious character intriguing the foreigners, Å¢epeÅŸ remains one of the most controversial historical figures. Official documents and the folks’ tales have blended so much throughout time that no one can say exactly how many of the legends woven around him are true and how many are myths.

[An article written by Andreea Bertea]