Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Was Dracula inspired by a Celtic tyrant?

Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of the most enduring work of gothic fiction and a personal favourite, but current research suggests that the famous vampire may have had his roots firmly in Celtic Ireland.

If you were to venture to Glenullin in Co Londonderry, you may come across a tomb called Slaghtaverty Dolmen, or 'The Giant's Grave'- a grave with an intriguing and bloody tale.

According to local legend, the tomb is home to a cruel tyrant called Abhartach, a chieftain who demanded a bowl of blood from each of his subjects which he would guzzle down to quench his ravenous thirst.

There are a number of different versions of his story - including one where Abhartach was a magical dwarf, although also a cruel tyrant.

From The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places comes this chilling description:

"There is a place in the parish of Errigal in Derry, called Slaghtaverty, but it ought to have been called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of the abhartach [avartagh] or dwarf (see p. 61, supra). This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me."

In other versions of the tale the chief who slew Abhartach is called Cathrain and in others he is called Cathan. It's likely that the name Cathrain came later, as instead of consulting a druid as Cumhail did, he spoke with a Christian saint. 

Dr Bob Curran, a folklorist who studies the legend says that the later version also contains the method of killing Abhartach: "Slay him with a sword made of yew wood, bury him upside down, put thorns round him and put a massive stone on the top to keep him from rising."

Now, we can see this as a relatively familiar way of killing off a vampire, particularly the wooden sword or 'stake'.

Curran himself has suggested that Bram Stoker, a native Irishman, used the legend of Abhartach as inspiration for Dracula. This is obviously different to the common theory that Dracula was modelled on Vlad the Impaler, which is a tenuous one at best considering that the only book Stoker read on Vlad was one that didn't cover the atrocities committed by him.

Personally, there is good evidence to support Curran's theory that Dracula is Abhartach, particular from the latter tales.

Resources: UTV (2013), Celtic Vampire 'Inspired by Dracula'

Joyce, Patrick (1875). The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places. Internet Archive: McGlashan & Gill. p. 319.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Folklore Review - an upcoming newsletter from Midnight Folklore

This is something I've been playing around with for a while, but I think this year is the year I launch The Folklore Review - a quarterly newsletter delving into the world of folklore including submissions from anyone with an interest in the field.

The publication will contain analysis, commentary and news on world folklore, and I want your help, dear readers. Each issue will be themed and I will be taking submissions from anyone interested in getting their articles published.

Watch this space to find out more about the first edition of The Folklore Review and how you can get involved.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The folklore of the internet

Folklore is often seen as something that deals with the past - the way groups of people used to be. Most people don't see folklore as the evolving being it is, something that becomes obvious when you look at the folklore of the internet.

Folklorists have only relatively recently begun to pay attention to cyberethnography, but they have found that there's a veritable treasure trove waiting to be studied on the internet. It's something that's invisible to people who don't study folklore and anthropology, but the internet is filled to the brim with folklore. Even more interestingly, the development of traditions tied to the internet is far quicker than it is in the physical world.

Communities are everywhere on the web. If you can think of it, there's a community for it, from message boards to blogs to SubReddits. Both within and without these communities traditions, artifacts, images, jokes and stories are created, just as they would do within physical communities. Whereas once tales would be spun in the tavern, now it's done via a message board.

Leeroy Jenkins

One of the best places to look for folklore is the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game). These games best mimic real-world interactions, as you can see representations of physical beings and live out a life as if you would in a physical community. As with a physical community, MMORPGs develop their own legends, language and culture.

One of the more popular tales came out of World of Warcraft, a MMORPG based in a fantasy setting. This tale involves a character called Leeroy Jenkins, who appeared in a 2005 video on a Warcraft movies fansite. The video saw a guild of characters together discussing plans to take on a particularly dangerous part of the game. Suddenly, a character, Leeroy Jenkins, who has missed the meeting decides to run in head first, ultimately leading to the party being slaughtered.

The video went viral, and soon Blizzard, the developer of WoW, embraced Leeroy Jenkins as a character, making reference to him in the game, and creating a trading card and gaming miniature of Jenkins. Leeroy Jenkins has become part of the game's culture, an almost legendary (if tragic) figure unique to WoW.


Leeroy Jenkins eventually became a meme - known throughout the internet as someone who went into a dangerous situation without thinking of the consequences. Memes are another large part of internet folklore - part joke, part cultural artwork - they are some of the most transient fixtures of the cyber landscape.

 The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book 'The Selfish Gene', in which he described them as "small units of culture, analogous to genes, which flow from person to person by copying or imitation.” This is folklore distilled into a nice little nutshell. Jokes, images, videos and texts created by folk and spread, copied and enhanced over time. Memes are a fantastic example of the way the internet has sped up the folklore process, as memes are created on a frequent basis and as they are on the internet they can spread incredibly quickly. 

These are just a couple of examples as to why the internet is such a fertile ground for folklore study. There is so much more I could talk about, such as recipe sharing, cyber aliases, email hoaxes and more, so I may touch on those in another post.


Thursday, 16 May 2013

I'm a skeptic, but I adore the magic of folklore

Folklore can be pretty fantastical - after all, it often deals with beliefs and traditions dating back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Within folk texts we find strange monsters, literal ghosts, buried treasure, magic and more. All of this gives us a great insight into how certain groups of people used to and, in some cases, still function.

Some folklore enthusiasts take it one step further and tend towards believing some of the things that they study - whether that's dowsing, time displacement or cryptids. I'm not one of these people. I'm what you might identify as a skeptic, someone who only believes something when presented with sufficient evidence. The scientific method is my constant companion and aids my view of the world, a world where there are a lot of strange things to believe.

So what draws me to folklore - something that tends towards the irrational? To me, folklore provides the world with magic- not real magic with spells and such - but it provides a way to view the world through a different lens. I don't need or want the magic to be real, I think there's enough wonder in the universe without having to invoke mysticism, but at the same time I'm fascinated by people's beliefs in strange and bizarre things. There probably isn't an abominable snowman, but researching yeti myths throughout the world is as exciting to me as learning about exoplanets and quantum physics. We can determine so much about humanity from the study of folklore - specifically about the human part. In history we learn about the big events and figures, but in folklore we glimpse the real lives of real, everyday people - their beliefs and values.

Folklore is magic. Spells may not be real and spirits may not exist - but in the field of folklore these things come to life.