Transylvanian school of witchcraft and wizardry

The 19th century Scottish author Emily Gerard collected local legends about a school of black magic high in the mountains of Transylvania.

Bâlea Lake waterfall
Jopsens, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Emily Gerard was a prominent author and reviewer in the 19th century British literary scene. Then she married an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer and moved to Transylvania (at the time a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). There, she spent her time collecting local legends and folklore, which she compiled into an essay titled “Transylvanian Superstitions.”

This essay, published in a British literary magazine in 1885, is credited as a major source for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This paragraph in particular outlines many of the vampire myths that Stoker picked up in his fiction:

More decidedly evil, however, is the vampire, or nosferatu, in whom every Roumenian peasant believes as firmly as he does in heaven or hell. There are two sorts of vampires – living and dead. The living vampire is in general the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate persons, but even a flawless pedigree will not ensure anyone against the intrusion of a vampire into his family vault, since every person killed by a nosferatu becomes likewise a vampire after death, and will continue to suck the blood of other innocent people till the spirit has been exorcised, either by opening the grave of the person suspected and driving a stake through the corpse, or firing a pistol shot into the coffin. In very obstinate cases it is further recommended to cut off the head and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing the ashes over the grave.

“Transylvanian Superstitions”

Interesting though this is (coffin-shooting!), there’s another part of the essay that I think deserves some attention. Gerard wrote about a secret school of the dark arts, the Scholomance. It involves literal deals with the devil, dragons, and weather magic.

The school took ten students at a time. They studied underground – reputedly never seeing the light of day for seven years. The curriculum was spell craft, animal communication, and all the hidden knowledge of the natural world. The teacher was the Devil (a lot of Transylvanian superstitions involved the Devil). At the end of the seven years he extracted his price: one of the ten students would become a Solomonar, a weather-wizard in the Devil’s service.

This weather-wizard was responsible for storms. In some accounts (such as Gerard’s) he flew on a dragon and sends thunder down amongst the frightened populace. In between bouts of bad weather, this dragon – and, presumably, the Solomonar too – slept underneath a lake high in the mountains of Transylvania.

Anyone disturbing the dragon’s lake – say, by skipping stones across the surface – risked being struck down by lightning:

A small lake, immeasurably deep, lying high up among the mountains to the south of Hermanstadt, is supposed to be the cauldron where is brewed the thunder, and in fair weather the dragon sleeps beneath the waters. Roumenian peasants anxiously warn the traveller to beware of throwing a stone into this lake lest it should wake the dragon and provoke a thunderstorm. It is, however, no mere superstition that in summer there occur almost daily thunderstorms at this spot, about the hour of midday, and numerous cairns of stones round the shores attest the fact that many people have here found their death by lightning. On this account the place is shunned, and no Roumenians will venture to rest here at the hour of noon.

“Transylvanian Superstitions”

In modern Romania, the best candidate for this location is Bâlea Lake in the Southern Carpathian Mountains. The photo above is a cascade that plunges down to its ice waters. Today there’s a cute ski chalet on its shores, but I think the dragon must still lurk underneath: in 1977 twenty-three people were buried by an avalanche right beside the lake.

[Thanks to Ian J.]

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