Hello everyone, and welcome to LukeLore. A quick deep dive into a folklore topic, where I share some of the stories from around the world that have piqued my interest. Happy New Year everyone! Time to launch ourselves into 2023, and see what wonders it may hold. I don’t have a wider theme in mind for LukeLore like The Pagan Wheel of the Year we ran across 2022, but there’s always something new to see and do. I’ll be popping up at assorted locations around the world, revisiting old favourite themes, finding new areas of folklore to explore, and bringing on more guests this year. This episode we’re having a look at some notorious figures of history. When I first sat down to this episode, I just expected to just have some enjoy looking at some creepy castles, find fun legends to talk about, and call it a simple topic to start the year easy. What I instead appear to have done is find two very strange historical figures who may have inspired modern horror creations to some extent, who have then further gone on to be folded into these stories retroactively influencing their own mytholgies. It became a very strange journey into modern folklore, with weird pop culture feedback loops scooping these figures back up and adding to their story via literature then cinema. So, starting the year biting off more than I can chew. Pretty on brand, really. SECTION BREAK – First Stop: Transylvania Well… Modern day Romania. Transylvania is a region slap bang in the middle of Romania, being of huge cultural and historical significance. Pop culture further West has the place pegged as somewhere spooky and gothic, but while there’s plenty of gothic architecture over that way what made the region so important was how it was a major trade and transport route that was easily defensible. The Carpathian and Apuseni mountains make natural borders, from which human made fortifications got liberally plonked in and around. Having a key natural fortress full of supplementary artificial fortresses made the region a key conflict zone going back at least as far as the Dacian Kingdom spanning a hundred or so years either side of zero on the modern calendars. The region changed hands a lot in the good 2000 years of bloody warfare such a strategically important chunk of geography represented, which in turn gave rise to historical infamous heroes and villains (generally both being the same person depending on which side you get your stories from). This leads us to a somewhat notorious figure: Vlad the Impaler. Known as the inspiration for Dracula, it’s fairer to say he was partially ONE inspiration. As much as some more modern stories shrug, say “whatever”, and claim he literally is Dracula for some additional dramatic weight to a story Vlad III was a complex figure. He more than earned his moniker of “The Tmpaler” due to making people kebabs being his favourite form of execution that would then conveniently double up as a warning to his enemies. This in no small part led to said enemies calling him bloodthirsty, yet as brutal as he may have been he’s also a local hero for defending the land against the Ottoman Empire. Dracula, now, is firmly held in the global cultural consciousness as the iconic vampire. Back in the 1400s it had a simpler meaning as the Son of Vlad Dracul. This did still add to the local folklore Bram Stoker plundered, however, since Vlad Dracul translates to Vlad the Dragon. Dracula being The Son of the Dragon, which is why Vlad III made use of the name, in addition to their being a knightly Order of the Dragon it handily tied into. Quite rightly sounding badass now even as then, it had some slightly evil connotations from the name alone, let alone every would-be invader writing snotty histories about him after being repelled. Unconventional tactics really helped build up the legend of Dracula the historic figure. Apparently there were local stories of Vlad the Impaler transforming into bats that Stoker found while constructing the modern vampire. How these stories are theorised to have begun is, frankly, brilliant. The tale is supposed to have come from routed enemy forces attacked by frenzied bats at sundown, that went on to be claimed to be the supernatural forces of Vlad III personally led by him in transformed murderbat mode. What’s supposed to have actually happened is pretty damn impressive. Knowing they were against superior numbers determined to enter in open warfare, Vlad Dracula had his men and servants go into local caves and round up a load of bats that were known to be rabid. Then, at sundown, with the setting sun behind them, they unleashed the diseased bats on the enemy camp. Angry photosensitive rabid bats swarmed towards the enemy encampment, scaring and in some cases potentially infecting the enemy who were already wary of the tales of the Order of the Dragon. That was some truly outside of the box thinking for when you have both a rabid bat problem, AND a superstitious invader problem. Put them both together with some geographical convenience, and let the two problems partially resolve each other. I can’t help but think that the brutality of Vlad III was at least in part tactical theatre. The reputation he built being the first line of deterrence. It doesn’t mean turning his enemies into bloody Keep Off My Lawn signs wasn’t inhumane or a war crime, but in dark brutal times he was taking impressive steps to defend the area. Although please do bear in mind the war crimes stuff before giving him too much credit. There is, for example, the time he was asked to settle a dispute between Wallachia Voivode and Transylvanian Saxons. It went something along the lines of the severing of the Gordian Knot, only instead of a sword there was fire, and instead of a rope knot puzzle there was suburbs full of civilians that were annoying him. Asking actual Dracula to come mediate a dispute feels like a Monkey Paw wish. The good news is that the dispute has been buried! The bad news is that over one hundred bystanders are now also buried. Between Vlad III’s personal legends, and the region’s strong local folklore about the more traditionally ghoul-like vampires of Slavic traditions, Bram Stoker made a killing with research for his horror serial villain. The amount of weight all these legends brought to the literary Dracula made for a full on icon that is a huge part of the zeitgeist today some 120 years later, I doubt it would be possible to erase the idea of Count Dracula the vampire with anything short of total societal collapse. (although it should be pointed out that Stoker did not actually go to Transylvania himself, and mostly did his research comfortably from England) All of which means that there’s now a vampire’s castle as a tourist destination in Romania, with Bran Castle. The name is simple enough. “Bran” means gate, and this was a fortress plonked on top of a steep cliff overlooking nearby hills. Its main purpose was to manage trade coming through the area, although it was a key defensive position that doesn’t appear to have ever actually fallen to any invaders. Not to say it hasn’t needed extensive renovations over the centuries from no small amount of neglect in upkeep, losing its roofing to a storm that seemed to have a personal grudge against Bran Castle in 1617, and that one time the defenders blew themselves up for no specific reason in 1593. Pro tip, don’t half arse your safety precautions in a military powder mill. After a good 500 year run of strategic importance, Bran Castle got sidelined into an administrative seat because the border of Transylvania was moved in 1836. At this point, Bran Castle was a victim of its own success as the gate in the mountains and got left behind as the country expanded. What followed was disrepair and decay up to 1918. In the end foresters, woodsmen, and forest inspectors were using it as a base of operations. Times changing again gave the castle a new lease of life however. Transylvania became a part of Greater Romania, the castle was offered to Queen Maria, and a restoration project led to it being a royal summer residence. The twentieth century proceeded to be weird with a heart being interred at the chapel (yes, just the heart), a hospital dedicated to said heart looking after wartime soldiers, royalty being chased out by a regime change to communism, more ruin and restoration, the modern Bran Castle being a museum by the 90s, and the royal descendants making a comeback the start of the 21st century. Bran Castle being a tourist spot is what it is best known for now. As a museum it preserves royal heritage, medieval customs, and demonstrates the local Ethnography from over the centuries. More than just the castle, traditional wooden buildings surround the fort as a historically preserved village. It honestly looks fascinating! There are multiple options for tours to book of the castle, including one that challenges you to Brave The Dracula Experience. One small problem here, however. While Vlad III was active in the area, he was actually one of the invaders! This appears to be the castle Bram Stoker used for his story, but as I noted before he never actually went to Romania. He appears to have just described a painting of the castle on a cliff to make his Castle Dracula. Vlad Tepes ended up in there for two months of capture at one point, but he never seemed to have been an owner. Both Bran Castle and Vlad III were key defenders of the region, but everything was both bigger and smaller back then. Bigger world, smaller factions. The Gate and The Impaler weren’t as linked as modern tourism would suggest. Poenari Citadel is what you want for the actual Castle Dracula. Different part of modern Romania, not actually in Transylvania, a little less of a beauty spot. It’s likewise situated high on a cliff, which seemed to be a pretty good defensive move, and is a much more severe stone fort than the gothically picturesque Bran Castle. The difference between being a summer retreat and a ruined fort, really. Although this may well better suit the vibe of a vampire’s castle. Three earthquakes spaced out across the 20th century have shaken chunks of Poenari Citadel off into the river below it, but it sullenly clings on refusing to be fully destroyed. People who have stayed in the ruins overnight claim it is alarmingly cold compared to the outdoor temperatures, there’s an eerie smell of rotten flowers, bizarre nightmares are very likely should you manage to sleep, and there are reports of feeling watched along with being bitten. Being bitten is interesting here… Are people going in primed to expect vampires and having a hysterical response? Or are the Strigoi of myth out and about in the night looking to give dumb tourists a nibble? Still, consider this the Castle Dracula disambiguation you never knew you needed. Bran Castle: Pleasant tourist spot. Poenari Citadel: Suspected Strigoi haunt the very earth wants to smite. SECTION BREAK – From vampire to mad scientist There’s another famous literary gothic castle you can head over to enjoy for a holiday at, and that’s Burg Frankenstein. A hilltop castle in the Odenwald. A whole load of evocative sounding names to modern horror sensibilities, which are ultimately pretty basic in the original German. Burg means castle, Wald is woods, and Frankenstein means Stone of the Franks. Don’t let that get in the way of a good story, however! This is THE Castle Frankenstein. It’s supposed to have been the direct influence on Mary Shelley, at least to the extent of giving a name and a setting for The Modern Prometheus. There’s even some appropriately dark history there. There may have been a real life inspiration for the mad scientist Frankenstein of the novel… Johan Konrad Dippel. Dippel was born at Bran Frankenstein, which is a good start for the legend, and he would go on to become appropriately notorious. Starting out as a Theologian of enough note to still have some surviving treatise within the field, he also promptly managed to accumulate enemies and ultimately get imprisoned for heresy. Being neither a biblical scholar nor an attempted cult leader turned out so good for him, but he managed to pick up a new calling at some point around his seven year prison sentence. That of alchemy! Obsessing with the components of animals holding alchemical secrets, Johann picked up the worrying descriptor of “avid dissector”. He makes a series of wild claims in his alchemical paper ‘Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh’ that included such claims as demon exorcising potions and the elixir of life being created from boiling up assorted bits of dead animals. The supposed elixir of life he named after himself as “Dippel’s Oil”, which he promptly tried to use to buy Castle Frankenstein. Alas, the owners at the time did not believe his new invention was in fact the key to immortality, and he was told to bugger off. It’s easy to joke about Johann’s supposedly magic carrion milkshakes, which is why I won’t stop doing it, but his efforts in alchemical experimentation did however have some unexpected pay offs. Emphasis on the unexpected, as while working with the pigment maker Diesbach they attempted to mix “Dippel’s oil” with potassium carbonate to make a new red die, and instead managed to concoct the shade Prussian Blue. So nothing went as expected, but still did get results. Yet Dippel turned to a far darker and less respectable art after his foray into alchemy… Becoming a science based physician! Well, “ish”. He also thought you could use a funnel to transfer souls. But despite taking quite the winding route to get here by arguing with the church and trying to find the fountain of youth via ground up squirrels, Johann was quite the cutting edge mind for his times. His reputation as an “avid dissector” comes back into play, as he had quite the fascination with human cadavers. Not too controversial among modern medical students, this gets a little dicier when you’re a self taught amateur at the turn of the 18th century who isn’t too picky about how donated the body may or may not be. This did not do his eccentric reputation much good, and you can see the IRL Frankenstein parallels beginning to rear their ugly head. As unsavoury as it may be not only to us, but to any of the contemporary villages Dippel popped up in looking for test corpses, this was a path to discovering how bodies actually worked. Not the soul funnel thing though. Tendons and the suchlike. This isn’t even everything! Johann Konrad Dippel was such a notorious figure he was banned from multiple countries, and had to flee at least one with the law in hot pursuit after killing another man in a duel. He’s like the swashbuckling real life mad scientist inspiration for Viktor Frankenstein! Well, maybe. Mary Shelley was supposed to have been near the castle at times in her youth, and there may be a one or two steps removed bits of tale gathering from the Brothers Grimm, but there’s no direct journaling from Shelley that make any detailed mention of the castle nor any related stories. Locals will insist there is a connection, but how much of this is modern pop culture influencing the storytelling of the region? There’s a Burg Frankenstein right there, along with a dodgy alchemist who according to some stories may have even used lightning in his experiments on corpses! A detail which may seem to good to be true, and almost certainly is, as the idea of Frankenstein animating his monster with lightning comes from the movies and not from the novel. This may need more digging, but as a surface level skim it feels like we’re seeing living folklore in action here. Modern pop culture is bleeding into the historical narrative, the weight of a compelling narrative stretching from the present backwards. The better the story becomes, the more it gets repeated, the further it solidifies itself as A truth, if not THE truth. But there’s more folklore to be had that isn’t entangled with movies. Like a dragon! Quick tangent into this one, because dragons are cool: In the 1200s the village of Nieder-Beerbach was terrorised by a dragon that had taken up residence in the Bran Frankenstein garden near the castle’s well. At night this evil demonic lizard would creep into the town hunting the peasants while they slept, it especially had a taste for the innocence of youth. The dragon would break into houses to gobble up the local children, then return to its chosen garden to sleep lounging in the sun all day. Knowing where the monster slumbered didn’t help the villagers much, as you should definitely leave sleeping dragons to lie. This particular one could spit both fire and steam, and had a venomous sting in its winding tail. Plus, it’s a dragon. What are you going to do with the farming tools to hand? Polish its scales while it doesn’t even wake up as you hit it? Yet the terrified peasants were in luck, as a knight called Lord George rode into their town questing. The knight had a quest problem, the townsfolk had a dragon problem, and so Lord George takes the town’s offer to rest up and prepare for the battle ahead. The next day he fully armoured up and rode out to Bran Frankenstein, finding the dragon sunning itself where the villagers knew it was lurking but had been helpless to do anything about themselves. Lord George dismounted and attacked! The dragon awoke in a panic fighting for its life with tooth, claw, whiplike tail dripping with venom, and bellowing its mix of flames and scalding fumes. The battle went on for hours, the dragon an incredible foe but the pious knight equipped in both arms and determination to rise to the challenge. They fought without break until both were at the point of collapsing from exhaustion, the clash coming down to an endurance test. The fierce lizard was the first to waver, giving Lord George an opening to drive his sword into its belly up to the hilt. A killing blow! But even exhausted and mortally wounded, this was a dragon, and the knight was now too close. Flailing in its death throws the dragon coiled its tail around Lord George returning the gut wound in kind, impaling the knight on its barbed sting. Both died then and there, the knight at least victorious in death because the innocents were now safe. The townsfolk eventually mustered the courage to check on the battle, discovering the knight had triumphed for a terrible cost. They were so happy and relieved they wanted to ensure Lord George got given a resting place befitting a hero who had given their own life to vanquish evil, and they did their best to give him an incredible tomb at the Church of Nieder-Beerback in the valley to the East of Bran Frankenstein. That tomb is still there to this day, and the church can be visited so people may pay respects to Lord George for slaying a dragon. Honestly, I want to go visit this castle! As in, soon. It’s pretty exciting and not even that far from me. There’s a well established restaurant as a part of the modern tourist destination that does horror themed nights, there’s a big celebration at Halloween, you’ve got not only the folkloric hotspot of the Odenwald but also a Frankenstein forest. What’s not to love! Also, they have a fountain of youth hidden behind the castle’s herb garden, but it doesn’t look safe to mess with. Plus, if it’s anything to do with Johann’s animal based experiments, I don’t want to think what’s lurking in there. SECTION BREAK Well… That’s two places on my holiday wish list. As and when I manage to head over, I’ll grab some recording for extra content to go online. Given that we have such an open slate this year, definitely get in touch if you have any episode requests. Guests you think I should approach, old topics you would like to hear more about, or else suggestions for completely new ground to break. Anything goes this year, and I would love to hear more from listeners in general! LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production. If you do want to contact me there’s the show’s dedicated email firstname.lastname@example.org, and the general show email email@example.com. Both myself and the main show are really easy to find on Facebook and Twitter if you want to make day to day contact, as well as a very active Instagram account a lot of the community gets involved with. 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Goodbye for now.