As you will already know if you read my last post, The Barbarian of Europe, the Eastern European peoples, who were once the Goths, carried their legacy of the ‘barbarians’ of Europe into the twentieth century through two world wars in a battle for survival which is, even today, not really won. This Gothic legacy is internationally celebrated at the start of the season of darkness, during October, and in some countries in November, as a time of feasting, and a time of fear. It is the season of Halloween, and it is almost upon us.
The ‘to die for’ Halloween party this October is the Whitby Goth weekend, which takes place in the village Bram Stoker made famous when he set part of his novel, Dracula, in the churchyard and surroundings of its famous Gothic Abbey. While he was holidaying at Whitby, Bram Stoker – already a great name for a Gothic novelist, discovered the abbey and churchyard, with its ruins and its bats, went to Whitby’s library and fell upon some books about Wallachia, present-day Romania, and Transylvania. Perhaps it was the architecture of the abbey he had just been visiting, which inspired him to dig up the past of the Goths, but whatever it was it opened a door on a history that had almost been forgotten. Now Stoker would immortalise it.
The Goths influenced our culture in many different ways. There is Gothic architecture, the music of The Doors and The Cure, black nail varnish, Gothic literary masterpieces such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and last but not least, the vampire. Perhaps Bram Stoker did not realise how his novel would strike such a chord in the minds of the public back in 1897 when it was published. His literary recreation of the vampire soon became fixed in the public mind as a paradigm of horror. But that was not really surprising, since it was, in reality, already there to begin with.
We first find the Goths emerging on the edges of Eastern Europe around the first century AD. They migrated from the Caucasus Mountains to the regions around the Black Sea, including present-day Romania, Bulgaria and parts of Greece. They were an Eastern Germanic tribe, but that did not mean they were German, or northern European.
Why their culture has such a deep connection with the vampire legend goes back to ancient beliefs that are all but lost to us. We can glimpse snatches here and there, in the folklore of the region and its pagan traditions, but the rest we have to guess at; we have to fathom the puzzle of the past; it does not always want to reveal itself. A novelist finds this easier than a historian, because a historian is restricted to facts, while a novelist has greater freedom to stitch a picture together using a mixture of myth, fact and folklore.
Some beliefs are particular to the people of the Black Sea region, where the Goths settled. They viewed the boundary between life and death very differently from us. Our views have been marked by Christianity; theirs have resisted it. Christianity claims that God is all powerful, but to the Goths, as to other pagan peoples of the region, it is not quite so simple as that. Their vision of the world was profoundly dualistic. In other words, they saw the world as being composed of light and dark, good and evil, with both holding equal sway. When you look at the contemporary Goth, you see a chalk-white face and blackened hair – dark and light together. Life and death also intermingled in the culture of the Goths, which is why the idea of resurrection, which lies at the foundation of the vampire myth, was once so readily accepted by them.
Like the Romans, whose history forms a part of theirs, the Goths did not convert easily to Christianity. And even when they did convert, the old practices never really died out. They still survive today, in a hidden folklore that has been thrust aside by new generations of forward-thinking Eastern Europeans. But one country that really celebrates them, is Britain.
The Goths appealed to northern Europeans; they still do. This is because they did something that made them the true heroes of the northern European hemisphere; they beat the Romans.
When the Huns came down to the country west of the Black Sea, where the Goths traditionally lived, and pushed them onto Roman territory, the Goths were humiliated, and hungry. The Romans did not welcome these migrants with open arms. They enslaved them like dogs, and the Goths took offence. They turned on the Roman army, took over Italy and sacked Rome. In the end, they delivered the fatal blow that would cause the Roman Empire to crumble. Ironically, though, it was the Goths who preserved what little would survive of Rome through the Dark Ages of Europe. Even today in Romania the Romanian language has a strong lexical connection with Latin.
But it was their victories over the legions of Rome, whom nobody had ever managed to conquer, that really set up their reputation as the bad boys of an emerging Europe. Rome was formidable. They were well armed, well supplied, well trained and well disciplined. Even present-day armies model themselves on Roman tactics and methods. So the fact that the Goths managed a breakthrough was nothing short of a miracle.
To the British tribes of the fourth century AD, the victories of the Goths meant an end to Roman domination and enslavement, which had been going on for hundreds of years. Perhaps that was why they gained such stature in our eyes, even then. It was the fearlessness of the Goths that made their reputation what it was, but it was the Irishman Bram Stoker who found, in the descendants of the Goths, the tale of the family who would come to incarnate the ultimate image of Goth as vampire: Dracul.
Come back in November when I’ll be wrestling with the beast in The Myth of Vampire, and how it has changed over time.