On a grey and rainy Winter day in January 2019, I sat down for lunch with Doctor Tuomas Hovi, lecturer on Folkloristics at the University of Turku.
Over some pizza, we discussed Tuomas’ specialties: notorious Romanian ruler Vlad the Impaler and his role in the vampire mythos, as well as current issues in Folkloristics.
Below is my interview with him.
Thank you Tuomas for sharing your time and expertise!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
Tuomas Hovi, currently a lecturer on Folkloristics at the University of Turku. Finished my doctoral dissertation in 2014; the dissertation deals with “Dracula tourism” in Romania. In other words, it analyzes how history, fiction and tradition are utilised to promote tourism to an area, in this case to Romania.
Through this research into dark tourism, I found the character of Vlad the Impaler, and became interested in that as well.
How did you become interested in folkloristics?
Humanistic subjects and history have always intrigued me. My original plan was to study comparative religion and become a teacher, but folkloristics got a hold of me, and I stayed.
For those who don’t know, what is folkloristics?
In a nutshell: it’s an area of scientific inquiry that studies oral traditions. It falls under the category of cultural studies, and it’s origins in Finland are in the study of the Kalevala, our great national epic that was collected from legends and stories.
Nowadays, the element of oral traditions no longer plays such a big role, as these days tradition is largely transmitted through, for example, the Internet. But the focus is the same: the study of traditions, legends, folkloric tales, et cetera; the sources have just become more digital.
We study everything from thousand-year-old poems to old legends to Internet memes, and everything in between.
What kinds of folklore does our current day world give birth to?
Interestingly enough, many contemporary folkloric materials have their basis in tradition – they just take on a more modern form. A long time ago, stories were transmitted from storyteller to storyteller; as technology developed, folkloric stories took on the form of “copies”, meaning the material was transmitted from computer to computer. Stories generated on, say, Facebook are a good example of this.
Is the process that creates folklore beyond the control of an individual or a group, or is it possible to intentionally generate folklore and put it out there?
It is possible to create it. In the study of traditions, there used to be a paradigm that said “it has to be old and anonymous to be authentic”, but of course this is not true. Myths and folklore can come out of anywhere!
In our contemporary world, folklore is transmitted quickly and widely, due to the effectiveness of modern technology. People often don’t even think of something as tradition or folklore, but from the point of view of folkloristics, it can be viewed as folkloric material for us to study. Rumors, stereotypes – these are all part of our field of study.
Does a nation need myths? And if so, what do you we need them for?
It seems like a nation does indeed need myths, considering how actively they are upheld within nation states. For example, myths are used to create the concept of national “characteristics”, the idea that there’s a group that shares a common beginning and a common set of traits. In this sense, myths can be used for a bad purpose, as fuel for racism and xenophobia towards people not associated with the mythological “story” of a specific nation.
Give us an example of a modern folkloric incident!
As you know, there was a terror attack here in Turku in August 2017. [Guy stabbed several people in a frenzy in downtown Turku, killing two and wounding many others. The attack was a jihadi terror strike. -admin] When it happened, I happened to be on my Facebook, and noticed someone commenting on the attack.
The attack was obviously devastating and horrible, but as a folklorist, it was interesting to observe the narrative of the events take on all kinds of forms on the Internet, in real-time no less. First it was 6 attacks all happening at once, then it was 3 attacks, then 2, et cetera. According to these Internet rumors, basically the entire county was getting stabbed at the same time. Later it turned out it was just one lunatic with a knife.
Another interesting example would be the famous photo of a police officer spraying mace in the faces of demonstrators in the US. This picture quickly became a meme, and it took on all sorts of connotations, all directed at critisizing the absurd, brutal nature of the police attack on civilians.
(the incident is known as the “UC Davis pepper spray incident”)
Let’s step into conspiracy theory territory for a while. If you think about something like the spread of memes and other modern folklore, do you see any bigger “invisible hand” at play in it? In other words, do you think there are intelligence agencies out there directing the creation and flow of these memes for political ends?
Nowadays, it’s relatively easy to influence people, and it would be naive to think that intelligence agencies and governments wouldn’t use the various methods made possible by the Internet to influence the public. But as for the extent to which this happens, I can’t say, really. I’m sure on some level, it happens all the time.
Goold old-fashioned propaganda?
Exactly. After all, why wouldn’t they use these methods to their advantage?
If you want to enact a coup d’etat in a South American country, it’s a good idea to start the process by spreading a rumor that the president of the country is stealing from the national bank, or something like that.
What’s the connection between political populism and folklore?
Populism employs myths and tales that are widely recognized – after all, populism doesn’t work unless people are able to comprehend the message. So it’s a good idea for populists to refer to these common myths in influencing the public.
Nationalism, for example, often employs folklore and mythology in creating consensus: there’s some mythical “beginning” and “national character” that determine our fate as a nation, and we must therefore close out all “outsiders” from this story of our country, et cetera. Finnish nationalism often employs stories and imagery from our national epic, the Kalevala, for this purpose. The irony is that most of the nationalists who do so have never even read the Kalevala.
Have folklorists ever done a test where they’ve intentionally tried to create folklore for the purpose of understanding how it works?
Decades ago, a Finn living in the US as a migrant had a problem with the Irish worship of Saint Patrick, and the associated “Saint Patrick’s Day”, so as a joke, he created the myth of a Finnish historical hero named “Saint Urho”. There was no “Saint Urho”, but the tradition took on a life, and some Finns in the US began to celebrate “Saint Urho’s Day” regularly.
This is a prime example of how you can pull a “tradition” out of thin air and establish it, at least to some extent.
How did you become interested in Vlad Tepes and vampires?
Purely by accident. I’d like to be able to say something like “ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by him”, but it’s not true.
My dad was Professor of History here at the University of Turku, and he had a work trip to Romania. He asked me if I wanted to join him, and because I needed a subject for a presentation at a seminar at the university, I decided to join him. I read a lot of travel guides concerning Romania, and that’s where I found this historical character called Vlad Tepes, and the whole Dracula lore surrounding his persona.
We went to Romania, and happened to visit a town where Vlad had lived and ruled. I visited the places related to Vlad’s story, and found myself becoming more and more interested in the subject matter.
Ultimately, I ended up doing not just that seminar presentation on Vlad, but also my Master’s Thesis and my Doctoral Dissertation. I also later wrote a book about Vlad for the general public.
Speaking of the Dracula mythos, how did Vlad and Dracula become merged in fiction?
Author Bram Stoker originally intended to set his novel Dracula to Austria. But because there was another book about vampires already set there, he decided to move the setting somewhere else.
He read about Transylvania somewhere, and decided that the landscape and culture of that area fit this horror story perfectly. Doing further background research, he came across a book by William Wilkinson. The book says that the word “Dracula” was used to refer to both Vlad Tepes and his father. “Dracula” means “the Devil” in Romanian, and it was used in the horror stories describing Vlad’s cruelty. Stoker decided that that would be the perfect name for the vampire character in his novel.
Later on, researchers have kind of “discovered” the connection of that word “Dracula” to the real Vlad Tepes, and as a result, the connection has become blown out of proportion. Vlad was a ruler in Transylvania during a bloody period of time, and Dracula drinks blood in Transylvania in the novel, so people want to find a deeper meaning.
But the fact of the matter is that there really is no deep connection between Vlad the man and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Vlad was not really the inspiration for the character at all. Stoker just found that word “Dracula” in a book, and it enticed his imagination; he wasn’t that interested in Vlad.
Frankly, if Stoker had not come across that word “Dracula” in that book, Vlad would most likely have been forgotten to the dusty pages of history. He was not all that different a ruler in his time.
(first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula)
Did Stoker ever visit Romania?
Not. He constructed the Transylvania of his book purely through research and imagination.
Speaking of the folkloric character of the vampire, where does it come from? Is it possible to trace it back to some sort of a first mention of vampires in literature or oral traditions?
You can’t really trace it that accurately. Characters like vampires have existed in folklore for ages, stories about dark beings that suck lifeblood out of humans for their own gain.
The specific archetype of the vampire, made famous by popular culture, has its roots in Eastern European folklore, in the oral traditions that were recorded onto written form around the 1700s and 1800s.
The real-life background of these tales is probably rooted in the lack of knowledge about human anatomy at the time. For example, when a grave has been dug up, people have believed that the buried person’s fingernails have grown after death (they haven’t – the flesh has simply receded, exposing more of the nail), or that the bodies have tried to communicate (human bodies release gases after death, which create sounds, et cetera). Also, blood is released in the body after death, and this blood comes out through the mouth, which may have led to the belief that the exhumed body has sucked blood from a living person.
So these observations of exhumed bodies may have led to situations where people have tried to explain normal post mortem changes in bodies by employing these folkloric tales.
The vampire archetype lives on and on and on – it just takes on new forms according to the culture and beliefs of a particular time and place. Why is that? What intrigues people about the character?
Good question; I don’t really know. One reason is probably the fact that the character is open for different kinds of interpretations and variations – it can be shaped into all kinds of forms. There are the shockingly evil and malevolent vampires that just want your blood and want you dead, but then there are also these benevolent vampires like the ones in the Twilight series.
If you compare the vampire character to, for example, the zombie, the vampire is still closer to a standard human form: the intellect is still functioning, the vampire still has feelings, et cetera, whereas the zombie just walks around catatonically, looking for someone to eat.
(Actor Robert Pattinson portrayed the vampire character Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga)
Personally, I think part of the appeal of characters like vampires is in the fact that they supply a kind of subconscious hope of a life after death.
Indeed! Life goes on eternally for the vampire, but it takes on a different form, and you have to pay a price for that eternal life, and so on and so forth.
VLAD THE IMPALER
Was Vlad really as cruel a ruler as the stories make him out to be?
It’s hard in 2019 to say whether someone who lived hundreds of years ago was cruel or not, especially as societies in general were more cruel back then. But all in all, he was not as cruel as he has been made out to be; a large portion of his reputation comes from exaggerations made by his enemies.
For example, according to some German biographies of him, Vlad had over 100 000 people killed during his time. If you think about Wallachia in the 1400s, having 100 000 people killed over there at that time just is not a realistic estimate at all.
So, especially the numbers of people he had killed and the way he ordered the executions to be carried out have been grossly exaggerated.
Having said that, though, I do have to add that he most likely earned the name “Vlad the Implaler” – he did have people impaled. But we have to remember that impaling was not something Vlad thought up – the practice had existed long before he came along, and was in general use during Vlad’s time. Vlad took up the method from Transylvania’s Germans, who used the method before him.
Some questions about individual notorious stories about Vlad. Is it true that Vlad had guests who were diplomats from some other country, and one of them refused to take off his hat in Vlad’s castle, so Vlad had one of his soldiers nail the hat into the guest’s head?
Whether this story is true or not, I can’t say, but there is a version of this tale told by Russians, Germans and Romanians, so there probably was some kind of a truthful incident that led to this story being told.
As the original story goes, Vlad had dignitaries from the Ottoman Empire visiting him. These dignitaries refused to take off their hats, as they only took them off in the presence of their own ruler, so Vlad had their hats nailed to their heads. The German variation of the tale states that the visitors were representatives of Hungary.
Soon after this incident, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire ordered an attack on Wallachia, which again reinforces the idea that something like that really did happen.
Another story. Vlad dipped his bread into a bowl of blood and ate it.
That story is not true. The reason a story like that spread was due to an error in the translation of a poem. The original poem talks about Vlad washing his hands in blood, but a translation of that poem incorrectly makes it read that Vlad ate his breakfast in the midst of dead bodies, and dipped his bread in their blood.
American researchers Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu wrote an influential book about Vlad and the Dracula mythos entitled In Search of Dracula (1972) That book espouses the version that Vlad drank blood, because it strengthens the authors’ thesis that Vlad and the Dracula character share common traits. The book was a bestseller, so it spread some misinformation to a wide audience.
There are a lot of good things about that book, but it also makes a lot of errors, and tries desperately to draw a “=” sign between Vlad and the Dracula vampire character. It also lacks a list of sources, which makes it difficult to assess the reliability of its findings.
What about the story of the “forest of the impaled”, where Vlad supposedly had an entire “forest” made of severed heads impaled on sticks to keep away an invasion attempt by the Ottomans?
There are descriptions of this incident in various sources from Vlad’s time, including from the Ottomans themselves. A historian at the time also described this event. So, again, there probably is some truth to the tale.
As the story goes, Vlad attacked areas along the Danube River and northern Bulgaria, and had 20 000 people killed; he himself wrote the King of Hungary and mentioned that number. The forest of the impaled may have been made from the heads of these people.
This morbid forest stood outside the entry to Vlad’s city to warn the Turks, who would be using that route if they tried to come to Vlad’s kingdom.
The forest of the implaed was a psychological operation, and there were two points to it. The first was to shock the potential invaders with the sight of all these heads on poles. The message was “This is what I am capable of, so stay away.”
The second was to threaten the invading Turks that Vlad would tear their heads off, which meant they would not be buried into sacred soil with their bodies intact, and their souls would not go to heaven.
And the Night Attack of Targoviste – did it happen?
Yes, it did.
The background went like this: the Sultan’s (of the Ottoman Empire) army was much bigger than Vlad’s, so Vlad had to resort to guerrilla tactics, psychological warface, et cetera. And one of these guerrilla operations was an attack on the Ottoman army’s camp in the middle of the night, with the intention of killing the Sultan himself.
They didn’t manage to kill the Sultan, though, but they did inflict damage on the Ottoman army.
(“The Battle with Torches”, a depiction of the night attack by artist Theodor Aman)
Was Vlad a good army commander? Is it true that he led his troops from the front?
According to stories from that time yes, he did lead his troops from the front. He was extremely stricts about deserters, too, and punished them without mercy.
As for how good a commander he was, he did achieve successes in his attacks, and he knew how to wage psychological war against his enemies. So in a way you could say that he knew what he was doing, sure.
What was the popular opinion on Vlad during his time?
It probably depended on who you asked (laughs). Interestingly, Vlad’s reputation as a historical figure in today’s Romania is generally positive. He is seen as someone who defended the people against its enemies, and defended the common folks against the elites. He also represents, in the minds of many Romanians, someone who gave the same punishment for the same crime, regardless of whether you were a commoner or a member of some elite.
What did Vlad physically look like? Is there a description of him from his time?
There is. A messenger of a bishop named Nicholas of Modrussa met Vlad while he was imprisoned by the King of Hungary, and wrote a description.
Vlad had black hair reaching to his shoulders. Black mustache. Sharp nose. Not specifically tall, but not specifically short, either. Strong shoulders and neck.
How did Vlad’s “downward spiral” begin? When did it become clear that his days were numbered?
Vlad attacked the Sultan’s Ottoman Empire, and trusted that the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, would send his troops to help out in the war. The Pope at that time had given the King of Hungary money for a crusade against the Ottoman’s, so Vlad had reason to trust the Hungarian leader.
However, at the same time as Vlad was going to war, the King of Hungary was dealing with some internal political problems, and could not take part in this massive push against the Ottoman. So he used Vlad as a kind of “scapegoat” for copping out from the battle – he made it seem like he couldn’t take part in the war because Vlad was such an evil man that he didn’t want to fight alongside him.
This was the “beginning of the end” for Vlad.
Corvinus had Vlad arrested, and Vlad ended up spending at least 12 years as Hungary’s prisoner.
When the King of Hungary had visitors from the Ottoman Empire, he would sometimes bring Vlad out of his cell and show him to the Ottomans, to remind them that if they didn’t play ball, he would release Vlad.
He didn’t die in prison, though?
No, he did survive the imprisonment. And towards the end of the imprisonment, he may have been simply in a kind of “house arrest”.
He was ultimately released, and became the ruler of Wallachia once again. He didn’t live for very long after his release.
How did Vlad actually die?
The only thing we know for certain is that he died in battle. There are three possibilities:
- his own men, traitors, killed him
- assassins hired by his enemies killed him
- he died in a fair battle
We don’t know for certain who actually killed him.
He was most likely buried in one of two monasteries, but no one knows for sure which one. Both were monasteries he had supported during his lifetime.
Finally, some questions from my Instagram followers.
Is Vlad used as a tourist attraction in Romania?
Sure. There are the usual mugs and t-shirts with his face and/or name on them, and there are actual tourists who travel to the country just to go on the trail of Vlad and the vampire sagas, but their numbers are relatively small.
And of course many tourists who visit Romania in general will often visit Vlad’s castle.
(Castle Poenari, Vlad’s crib)
Are any Vlad’s personal artefacts on display anywhere?
I don’t think so, no. But there are documents he signed that are kept in national archives of Romania.
Is it true that there’s some kind of a blood connection between Vlad and the British Royal Family?
As far as I know, the answer is yes, there is some kind of a connection. However, the connection is not directly through Vlad, but through Vlad’s brother. The connection was made through marriage arrangements.
Are there any decent films about Vlad?
There is a Romanian film from the 1970s that is reasonably close to actual historical reality. That film is available on YouTube.
How is Vlad’s influence alive today? For example, do you think the very map of Europe would be different somehow had Vlad not existed?
I don’t think so, no. Wallachia was a reasonably unremarkable place at that time, so I doubt if his influence was that big, at least in the sense of influencing an entire continent.
What were the weapons of war in Vlad’s time?
Swords, daggers, cannons, bows, shields – that kind of armory.
And finally, my usual questions.
What are your top 3 films?
They vary, but since we’re on the topic, I’m gonna start with Dracula (1992).
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The Indiana Jones films
What are your top 3 books?
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Ryhmy ja Romppainen, by Armas J. Pulla [Finnish comedic novels set in the military. -admin]
What are your top 3 albums?
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Korn – Follow the Leader (1998)
Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)