On Vampires, Ghouls and Witches

As a child, I liked to believe that I had a particular connection to the Dracula myth. My grandmother was from a town called Tusnád, now Tușnad, Harghita Prefecture, Romania. It lies about 70 km north from Brașov (called Brasó in Hungarian), and 100 km from Castelul Bran, erstwhile castle of the now infamous Vlad Țepeș, or Vlad the Impaler, of Dracula fame. Maybe it was all a product of the mid-90s craze over Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – my sister promptly purchased blue sunglasses because of Gary Oldman’s specs – but it certainly wasn’t born from anything in the family. My grandmother’s stories tended to focus on an inn that her family ran in the region and the town’s pre-World War I multilingual and multi-ethnic make-up rather than blood lust. Horror stories were my father’s preserve, which he did well with the few Baba Yaga tales he told us, and the descriptions of the old witch’s cottage surrounded by a fence made of the bones of her young victims. But the vampire fascination stuck, and right up to this day I still enjoy a good horror tale.

            As I grew older, I learned of just how deeply the European fascination with Dracula and all manner of Eastern ghouls and devils was imbued with the same Orientalist spirit found in my own discipline of Turcology. Orientalism – the ideology described by Said in his seminal work of the same title – helped build an interest in real-world figures transmuted into demons; in the evil-saturated folk literatures of exotic peoples. It assisted in the development of a broad cannon of Gothic and other fiction romanticizing the irrational, anti-materialist East. Much of this was produced by Western European writers and scholars who. Motivated by a sense of intellectual and occasionally racial superiority, they aimed to interpret the imaginary East for their Western audiences. A smaller subset, however, came from those working on the fringes of the European core, and was motivated in part by a desire for connection with the Other. Hungarians, speakers of a Uralic language unrelated to that of their Indo-European neighbours, produced a prodigious number of Orientalists. Over the course of the 19th century, more than a few of them sought to uncover the deep, organic connections between their “Asiatic” nation and the Turanic peoples of the Eurasian landmass. Many of these were Hungarian Jews, some from Transylvania, just like my grandmother. Linguists, folklorists, adventurers, cartographers, historians and ethnographers produced reams of work on Turkic, Tungusic, Tibetan, Mongolic and Finno-Ugric communities. They increased greatly European understanding of the communities that they studied, all while bolstering the nomadic, Asiatic credo of the Magyars, and those who hoped to be considered Magyar. Among their tools for doing so was the compilation of folk literature and music, crucial tools in the development of Slavic and Magyar nationalism, and a burgeoning aspect of 19th century Turcology.

            Kúnos Ignácz was one of the most prominent members of this group of Hungarian scholars of Turkic and “Turanic” peoples. A linguist and collector of Turkish folk tales and myths, his works were valuable components in the growth of Turkic studies in Europe, adding to the prodigious collecting of other Eastern European scholars such as Radlov. In 1889, he published his Török Népmesék, a collection of Turkic folk tales that he translated himself into Hungarian. The work contained a foreword by Vámbéry Ármin, the Hungarian-Jewish scholar and traveller who was a monumental figure in Central European Oriental Studies. Vámbéry’s contribution leaves no doubt about the influence of German, English or French concepts of the Orient upon Hungarian scholars of the period. But Kúnos’ combined interest in Hungarian, Mordvinian and general Uralistic issues shows how, unlike their Western European counterparts, Hungarian Turcologists worked in a sphere that included, rather than excluded, the Self.

            The Török Népmesék featured a number of folk stories incorporating some element of the supernatural, including witches and giants or devils (ördög in the original Hungarian, translated from the Persian-derived dev, often used as a “giant” in Turkish). One particular tale, beginning on page 64, featured both and was appropriately titled “The Horse-Giant and the Witch” (“A ló-dev es a boszorkány”). Another, called “The Wind-Giant” (“A szél-dev”), is filled with examples of mythical beasts and the cruel depredations of very human (and very royal) actors. Unlike the romantic heights of Bram Stoker or Lord Byron, or the gruesome detail of Vlad Țepeș’ historical record, these tales are sanitized, rationalized, and – in spite of Vámbéry’s laudation of their value vis-à-vis “classical” Oriental literature – streamlined in order to have them fit the categories of Western Oriental scholarship. In spite of the Hungarian Scholars’ interest in the Other as a component of the Self, it seems as though we need to turn to Turkic authors themselves to find rawer forms of expression unadulterated by the expectations and preconceptions of Orientalists.

            Contemporary scholarship helps point us in the right direction, while also putting the ambiguous nature of these narratives into the limelight. Many of us mere mortal readers might enjoy the frisson of terror that travels down our spine whenever a filmic Dracula steps onto the stage. Others, however, find pre-modern tales of vampires, witches and the supernatural to be rich with information about the social, political, spiritual and creative histories of times past. Over the past decade, several academics in Turkey have begun to unpick the vampire and its relevance to historical and contemporary Turkish literature and society. In a 2011 piece in Milli Folklor, Başak Öztürk Bitik did just this by focusing on the supernatural elements in Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatname (available in the original Ottoman on archive.org). Bitik explored the exoticist imagery and political and ideological narratives packed into Çelebi’s seminal travelogue, relying on the previous scholarship of Stefanos Yerasimos, Louis Bacqué-Grammont, Zeyneb Aycibin and Robert Dankoff. The work – famous among both Islamic and Christian scholars as a chronicle of the peoples and lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa – provides us with all the same excitement as Jonathan Harker’s account of his travels into Transylvania. It’s hard to tell exactly what Çelebi’s intentions were, but the inclusion of a variety of ghostly, supernatural tales – including those about vampires in Circassian and Adyghe regions of the Caucasus – undoubtedly functioned to titillate, in addition to educate.

            That’s not the only point of convergence between Evliya Çelebi and Bram Stoker, though. For both men, the setting of these dark and gruesome stories was in regions of emerging interest and importance for their audiences. For 17th century Ottomans, the northern Caucasus was a newly conquered region, one with wild landscapes and unfamiliar languages and peoples. For late Victorian Britons, likewise, the Balkans and Carpathians were better known for Gladstone’s anti-Muslim propaganda based on their Christian residents, rather than local histories or cultural production. As Yerasimos and Bitik both argue, these lands lost in the mists of the Metropolis’ ignorance provided ample fodder as prosceniums upon which British or Ottoman readers could let their imaginations run wild. Stoker and Çelebi were describing real belief systems held by established cultural groups, but the sensationalization of this material was born entirely of their own ambition and desires.

            A 2018 publication by Salim Fikret Kırgi, entitled Osmanlı Vampirler: Söylenceler: Etkiler, Tepkiler (Ottoman Vampires: Myths, Influence, Reaction) takes this problem three steps further. Not only does Kırgi question the motives and veracity of the chroniclers, he also links them to broader socio-cultural trends and traits, and to folklore from across the Ottoman lands. In doing so, he tracks out a fascinating story of change and adaptation. Vampires were known to both Christian and Muslim Ottoman communities, especially in the Balkans, western Anatolia, Crimea and the Caucasus. Vampires and similar beliefs migrated along with communities, the reason that Kırgi posits for the appearance of witch and vampire tales in Crimea that bear striking resemblance to their Circassian counterparts. The presence of vampires in Anatolia resulted in the promulgation of fetava in the 16th century, bringing vampiric folklore and belief into contact with Islamic jurisprudence. And even more fascinating, prior to the sanitizing effect of Western Europeans’ 18th century interest in the region, Balkan (particularly Albanian and Greek) vampires had an added ethnic and religious component. Questions about the who could stave off or slay the undead depended on who was telling the story, and the faith (in life, of course) of the blood drinker. Research on such topics continues to be conducted, particularly with the publication this year of the monograph Türk Kültüründe Vampirler(Vampires in Turkish Culture), written by Seçkin Sarpkaya of Ege University and Mehmet Berk Yaltırık of Trakya University.

            Is titillation, then, the best that we can hope for from such tales? After all, Evliya Çelebi and Bram Stoker both wrote in the hope of entertaining their readers. In both Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the growth and circulation of vampire tales of a distinctly high literary style. Undoubtedly, pervasive Romanticism, coupled with an interest in folk literature for political as well as cultural reasons, helped buoy their popularity. Given the research conducted by Bitik, Kırgi, Sarpkaya, Yaltırık and others, it would be exceptionally dangerous for us to read these texts, or similar ones, uncritically, without an eye to how their contents were massaged and manipulated for popular consumption. Nonetheless, they do still activate something in each of us, just as they did in my 9-year old self. Then, as now, they help satisfy my desire to be afraid, to suspend rationality, and to give in to the belief that some things cannot be explained through the banality of scientific cause and effect. Most of all, though, these stories speak to our wish to be entertained through appeal to as many emotions – pleasant or otherwise – as possible. It’s like enjoying both the trick and the treat on offer each and every Halloween.

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