Countess Dracula: In League With Witches?

As long as there have been stories, tales of female vampires have captured the popular imagination.  Hebrew scriptures claim Lilith and her daughters lived on the blood of babies, and in the Greco-Roman mythology the followers of Hecate were also said to feast on children.  But the Guinness World Record for a woman serial killer is held by a documented historical figure – the wealthy Hungarian noble, Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614).  She is said to have tortured and killed around 600 peasant girls in order to bathe in their virgin blood, believing this was the fountain of youth that would keep her beautiful. The maidens were lured to her castle with promises of well-paid work, only to be beaten, burned, mutilated, frozen, starved, or stabbed to death.

Countess

Bathory is also known as Countess Dracula, partly because her atrocities are often compared with Vlad the Impaler’s reign of terror – a fellow Transylvanian murderer.  Bram Stoker used Bathory’s royal Hungarian connection for his Count, and made Dracula appear younger each time he feasted on human blood.

According to some sources Bathory, betrothed at age 10, married a lesser nobleman when she reached 15 years old.  In the meantime, however, she was impregnated by a castle servant and secretly gave birth to a daughter.  The child was never heard of again – and the lover was castrated before being fed to a pack of dogs.  She was married for 29 years, and during that time had several other children.

Bathory is thought to have suffered from violent seizures in early childhood, which may have aroused the first suspicions that she was “possessed by demons.”  Her husband spent a lot of time at war.  During his absence a manservant called Thorko apparently introduced her to the occult and several of her companions were rumored to be witches, sorcerers, seers, wizards, and cunning folk.  Four of these people were accomplices in her bloody crimes and when she was finally brought to justice, two were burned at the stake, one was beheaded and burned, and a last was imprisoned.  Because of her royal status Bathory could not be executed, so she was incarcerated in her castle for the remaining few years of her life.

Legend has likely embellished the horrors of Countess Dracula.  And whether she was dangerously vain, mentally unstable, or killed maidens simply for sadistic pleasure, we will never know.  But this was the era of witch hunting — and Bathory was a rich, powerful widow who triggered a lot of political envy and resentment — so she was a natural target for the ambitious men around her.  We cannot deny the fact that royal ladies have been known to torture and kill.  But when one of the charges against this noblewoman claims she cast a magic spell to summon ninety cats to torment her enemies . . . perhaps she is not quite as guilty as we have been led to believe!

Vampires: The Devil’s Minions

Eve

The vampire is one of the archetypal embodiments of evil.  These cursed, damned creatures are claimed by Satan, and act as his followers to lure human souls away from God.  For that reason they cannot tolerate any reminders of what they have lost – crucifixes, holy water, rosaries, consecrated ground – and are forced to wander in the dark realm of night alongside the dead and undead.  Traditionally thought to be the reanimated evil souls of witches, suicides, and malevolent spirits, these corpses prey on the living in search of gratification and blood.  So how did this weird form of demonic possession becomes so sexy in the popular imagination?

Our literary fascination goes back the nineteenth century when Gothic horror writers began exploring the vampire myth.  Perhaps the most influential book was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which has since defined the legend for many generations.  Having spent seven years exploring Transylvanian folklore, Stoker based his demonic character on Vlad the Impaler (Vlad II, Dracula of Wallachia) who killed 40,000 – 100,000 enemies by impaling them on wooden poles – providing us with the method of ending a vampire’s reign by driving a wooden stake through the heart.  Vlad’s other atrocities included roasting children and serving them to their mothers, burning entire villages to the ground, and making men eat the severed breasts of their women.  Interestingly, the name Dracul can mean both dragon and devil.  But Stoker’s villain is much more attractive and sophisticated.  His Dracula is a worldly aristocratic count who skillfully stalks and seduces his prey.

During the twentieth century, the TV show Dark Shadows featured a sympathetic monster called Barnabas (1967).  In Interview With A Vampire Anne Rice introduced the sensual character, Lestat (1976).  And before long the disgusting blood-sucking creature of nightmares turned into a metaphor for redemption.  If the sad, lost vampire can be saved – by love or compassion – surely there is hope for everyone!   This also seems to be the  hook in books like the Twilight series.

Today the vampire has become a sex symbol, the hero of YA fiction and cable TV.  But this is not a modern phenomenon.  Ever since Eve was tricked in the Garden of Eden, the devil has been portrayed as being both attractive and seductive.  He does not lure Eve into temptation in human form – he chooses to appear as the phallic snake, a reminder that woman is lustful and open to the sins of the flesh.

When Eve eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she dooms the human race to mortality, and in aligning herself with Satan she becomes the prototype witch.  But as European mythology made evil the polar opposite to good, it seems the devil came up with an intriguing alternative.  Instead of God’s promise of eternal life, Satan offers immortality on earth through becoming one of his minions.  Vampirism is an attractive solution to the Christian rigors of heaven or the painful tortures of hell.  And so, I would argue, the Dracula myth was born.

Who does not want to overcome death and live forever?  Most of us have a secret craving for love, immortality, power, and freedom.    The vampire realm requires an initial sacrifice of blood to the master, but thereafter there are no punishments or rules, no aging and pain, no guilt or taboos.  Surrendering to the darkness is erotic, exciting, mysterious, and adventurous.  The vampire remains suspended in time and the lustful soul is free to roam at will.

As modern day religion and morality changes with the times, so does our perception of good and evil.  It is only natural that our mythology alters too.  Few people would have found Bela Lugosi’s demonic Dracula very attractive:

Bela

But True Blood’s Eric Northman is a whole different beast!

Vampire

Sources:

Wikipedia: “Dracula” – “Vampire” – “Vlad the Impaler”

Dawidziak, David.  “When Did Vampires Turn From Monsters To Sex Symbols?”

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Penguin, 1990.


Rasputin: Devil or Saint?

Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a complex Russian cunning man, sometimes called a monk, yet also described as a demon.  Why is he still such a fascinating figure?

Rasputin

Born a Siberian peasant, Rasputin rose to fame as a mystical faith healer to Tsar Nicholas II and his family.  His name, however, is often associated with trickery, debauchery, and the lust for power.

Following the death of his two young sons, Rasputin claimed to see a holy vision that led him to become a religious wanderer.  In 1907 he was summoned to the royal palace to attend Alexei – heir to the throne – who secretly suffered from hemophilia.  Although traditional medicine could do nothing for him,  Rasputin healed the young man with special prayers (and possibly his own herbal remedy), offering the Tsar and his wife their first glimpse of hope for their son’s future.

At a time when most of educated Europe was interested in mysticism Rasputin claimed to have access to the spirit world.  This – and his sway over the royal family – earned him many critics, some of whom claimed he was the Tsarina’s lover.  The newspapers of the day continually hounded him, yet by 1914 he was a firm influential force in Russian politics.

Multiple assassination attempts were made on the cunning man’s life.  One the first occasion he was stabbed.  But the night his enemies finally murdered him, Rasputin was poisoned with cyanide, shot three times at close range, bludgeoned with a shoe, and dumped in an icy river.

Scholarship suggests Rasputin was not a saint – he was never ordained in any religious order.  Rather, he was a charismatic personality with hypnotic eyes, who clarified the scriptures and made them accessible to everyone.  Most likely he was a herbalist and a gifted faith healer.  But his strong male appetite for power, fame, sex, and entertainment ultimately led to his downfall.

At the end of the day Rasputin was human, and like all of us he had both good and bad qualities.  Yet the widespread public fascination he evoked (and continues to evoke) suggests he may have been one of the first modern pop-culture icons.

Perhaps that is why his fame has stood the test of time.  Rasputin was the undisputed paparazzi star of his era!

Medea

One of Hecate’s most famous priestesses is the Greek princess, witch, and enchantress called Medea.

XIR182676 Jason and Medea, 1759 (oil on canvas) by Loo, Carle van (1705-65); 63x79 cm; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Pau, France; (add.info.: murdered her own children when Jason left her;); Giraudon; French, out of copyright  Medea – the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis – was born divine, with the gift of prophecy.  Her aunt was the same Circe who turned Odysseus’ men into swine.  Unlike other deities, however, she is not portrayed as a benevolent mother figure.  Rather, Medea seems to have always glowed in the popular imagination as a jealous wife who avenged herself on the man who betrayed her.  She is a murderess – but not without cause.  And even when portrayed as a vicious scorned woman, Medea retains her celestial strength and dignity.

Medea helps the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece because she falls in love with him at first sight.  She pledges her magical assistance on the condition that he takes her away from her father’s tight grip and agrees to marry her.  To aid their escape from Colchis, Medea kills her brother and scatters his body parts into the sea, a ruse that buys time because the father has to locate all the parts for a proper burial.  The couple live happily together for ten years and have several children, possibly five sons and a daughter.

According to Euripides’ Medea, Jason finally leaves his enchanting wife for a young maid called Glauce, King Creon’s daughter.  Medea’s anguish turns to spite, and using her herbal lore the witch sends a poisoned gift to the palace that murders both the new bride-to-be and her father.  Not content with this, however, the distraught mother butchers two of her own sons – Mermeros and Pheres – to ensure that Jason feels the same hurt and loss that was inflicted on her.  Calling on supernatural aid, she then escapes from Corinth in a cart drawn by dragons, sent from her grandfather Helios.

Some time later Medea remarries the aging King Aegeus, promising to restore his vitality so that she can give him another child to accompany his lone son Theseus.  They do have a baby together, but Aegeus catches Medea in the act of trying to poison Theseus in order to assure her own son’s place on the throne.  She is driven away, leaving behind only her reputation as an evil sorceress.

Sources:

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Medea” at http://www.britannica.com/topic/Medea-Greek-mythology

Euripides, Medea and Other Plays (New York: Penguin, 1963)

Greek Mythology Link, “Medea” at http://www.maicar.com/GML/Medea.html

Theatrehistory.com, “Medea” at http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/bates018.html

Wikipedia, “Medea” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medea

Witchcraftandwitches.com, “Medea” at http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/witches_medea.html

Picture: Jason and Medea by Carle van Loo (1705-65)

Kali

Kali is the Hindu goddess of death.  Her name comes from Kalam and means black or dark in color.  She is associated with time, change, power, war, blackness, destruction, evil, and violence. In mythology, she is the consort of Shiva, and a ferocious slayer of demons.  But Kali is also a most ambiguous deity.

Kali Many followers perceive this goddess as the Supreme Mistress of the Universe because she was created first – out of the blackness – before the rest of time began.  Therefore she is the highest reality and the greatest force.  And because Kali brings death, she serves as the vehicle to human salvation.

Others view Kali as the benevolent Mother.  She is the Ultimate Being and those who worship at her feet become her children.  Yet she is a fearsome sight to behold.  The goddess is usually portrayed as a naked blue woman with four arms, a sword, skull jewelry, matted hair, blood-shot eyes and a drooping tongue.  She feeds off human flesh and blood, holds a severed head, and has Shiva laid flat at her feet.  She is often accompanied by snakes and jackals.  Kali is a far-remove from the Christian image of the beautiful, meek Holy Mother!

Perhaps because of these ambiguities, some Hindus fear Kali as the Dark Goddess and have turned her into a witch.  Her followers are called Daayans – and many unfortunate women are currently being actively persecuted in certain regions of India today.  You can read some of their harrowing stories here:

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/06/magazine-meet-indian-women-hunted-witches-150603092941061.html

“The infinite is always mysteriously dark”  (Sri Ramakrishna).

 

Sources:

Wikipedia: “Kali” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kali

“Kali: The Dark Mother” at http://hinduism.about.com/od/hindugoddesses/a/makali.htm

“Mother Goddess As Kali” at http://www.exoticindiaart.com/kali.htm

Hecate

Hecate

How did the Greek goddess, who once blessed Athenian homes, change from being the protective “Mother of Angels”  into Shakespeare’s grand witch, the medieval “Queen of Ghosts”?

Hecate was a pre-Olympian earth spirit and the counterpart of the Roman Goddess Trivia.  Her name suggests “The Distant One”  because she was a liminal deity who stood at the threshold of other worlds.  For this reason she was often depicted at the crossroads holding torches (to light the way), keys (to open doors), or accompanied by daggers and serpents (to protect the entrance).  Legends claims that Hecate embraced solitude.  And like the moon she came and went through the nighttime, appearing and disappearing at will.

According to Hesiod, Hecate was the only child of Perses and Asteria.  She was a virgin who remained unmarried, kept safe under the protection of Zeus.  Aeschylus described her as a great goddess who ruled over the earth, sea, and sky.  She was responsible for storms, yet she also looked after women in childbirth.  Some mythologies present Hecate as a triple goddess with three heads who could see in all directions.  Her wisdom extended into the past, present, and future – and also into the mystical realms of the sleeping and the dead.  In this way Hecate became associated with those who live on the margins of society, and those who wander in the spectral space between life and death.

Hecate’s reputation started declining when Sophocles and Euripides made her the mistress of magic.  Thereafter, she was aligned with ghosts and herbal lore – perhaps as the result of helping Demeter in her search for Persephone in Hades.

But on the cusp of the Dark Ages, Christian Romans began persecuting pagans, demolishing temples and statues, and destroying all symbols of female power, intellect, and influence.  Hecate suffered in this purge and was turned from a goddess into a witch.  From that time on she was cast as the “she-dog” or “bitch,” and was portrayed with either a polecat or canine familiar spirit, a sign that she was in league with demons.  Her herbal lore focused on poisons and she became associated with garlic, yew leaves, and cypress trees – common symbols of death and the underworld.  And then she began demanding blood.

Shakespeare put Hecate in command of the three Weird Sisters from Macbeth.   This cemented her popular medieval image as the evil sorceress famed for human sacrifice, who gave birth to Medea and Circe.  And that was where she remained – far removed from the “Mother of Angels.”

But modern Wiccans have reclaimed this goddess as a symbol of female emancipation.  Hecate is now called upon for wisdom, protection, power, prophecy, and guidance in the world beyond.

And so, ironically, it appears that the Bard’s words have finally come true:

“Witchcraft celebrates Pale Hecate’s offerings” (Macbeth 2:1).

 

Picture: Campamento Mestizo

Power

“Is it not glorious to ride on the wind –

to mount the stars –

to kiss the moon through the dark rolling clouds . . .

Witch

She loathed her own form and her own species –

earth was too narrow for her desires.”

(John Roby: Lancashire Myths and Legends)