It’s a bright August morning, and I’ve just begun driving around this achingly scenic part of central Romania, where the green hills are dotted with giant conical haystacks. As I make my way from one hamlet to another, occasionally stopping to peek inside magnificent 13th-century churches that once doubled as citadels, the welcome is not exactly warm. Pretty much everyone I pass—farmers weeding their fields by hand, groups of kids playing by the roadside, stooped women in head scarves carrying bags of tomatoes—sizes me up with a severe, wary look that seems to be some kind of Transylvanian Death Stare. Granted, whenever I pause to speak with anyone, the stern facade crumbles quickly; one young guy in a tracksuit cheerfully shows me how to scale a stone wall so that I can look around an abandoned medieval rectory. But in the next village, the intense glowers begin anew.
We are in The Clearing. The trees stop in a uniform oval where nothing grows and where, since official records began, nothing has grown. “Once when I came here,” says Alex, our guide, “I found 60 people from Bucharest trying to open a gate into another dimension.”
I set a significant scene in Daughters of Shadow and Blood here.
Romanian friends told us this area of medieval villages and fortified churches had little to do with the fiction of “Dracula,” yet the night was turning into a vampirish cliché. In his 1897 novel, the Irish writer Bram Stoker described the Carpathian pass as “an imaginative whirlpool” where every known superstition gathered. I saw how he might get that idea.
Prince Charles has a fistful of royal titles, starting with Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, but until now, heir to Vlad the Impaler, better known as the inspiration for Dracula, has not been one of them.
Nighttime in Transylvania is as atmospherically spooky as you would hope it would be. During the winter, a thick, low-lying mist covers thick forests of pine trees and firs. Above the fog, you can see the silhouetted turrets and spires of ancient castles and fortified churches. Many of the old homes there still burn wood fires, adding to the smoky air, while the towns are filled with gothic and baroque buildings that were once beautiful, but are now marked by peeling paint and crumbling facades.
We all know about vampires and werewolves, or at least we think we do. The legends and myths that inspired these monsters are sometimes surprisingly different, but no less chilling. In this series of posts, Monster Monday, we’ll investigate the monsters that have informed our modern notions, as well as some lesser known monsters. Today, we talk about the Turul.
A Turul is a legendary creature from Hungarian folklore, usually depicted as a large black falcon. It is a divine messenger and perches on top of the Tree of Life. It represents power and strength and is seen as a protector of the Hungarian people.
It was a symbol of the Árpád dynasty of kings because there is a legend that a Turul appeared to the mother of the first Árpád king and told her she would bear a long line of great rulers. Hungarians also use the Turul to signify their kinship to the Huns and their famous leader Attila, who was said to be descended from a Turul. There are several legends about a Turul leading the Hungarian people to the area of present-day Hungary, reconquering a portion of Attila’s empire. Often a Turul is depicted wearing Attila’s crown and carrying Attila’s flaming sword in its talons.
A Turul is still used in the coats of arms of several Hungarian government offices and the Hungarian Army, as well as the coat of arms of Transylvania.
The name Transylvania literally means “the land beyond the forest.” The Romanian name is Ardeal, and the Hungarian name is Erdély. In German, it is known and Siebenbürgen, which literally means “seven fortresses,” referring to the seven fortified towns founded by German immingrants to the region in the Middle Ages.
Though it was made famous by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula, Transylvania is an area rich in history and has long been a crossroads for different cultures, a fact represented in the coat of arms.
The black bird in the upper portion of of the coat of arms is often mistaken for an eagle or even a raven, but it is actually a turul, a mythical falcon from Hungarian legend. It represents the Hungarian nobles who ruled Transylvania for several centuries. The sun and moon represent the Szeklers. The Szeklers speak Hungarian, but they are a distinct ethnic group. The seven red towers on the lower part of the coat of arms represents the seven cities of the German immigrants, who are commonly refered to as Transylvanian Saxons. Because Transylvania is now part of the modern state of Romania, these cities are normally referred to by their Romanian names, but sometimes the German names are used. The seven cities are (with German names in parentheses): Braşov (Kronstadt), Sighişoara (Schäßburg), Mediaş (Mediasch), Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Sebeş (Mühlbach), Bistriţa (Bistritz), and Cluj (Klausenburg).
Sighişoara is significant because it is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula, Bram Stoker’s real-life inspiration for the vampire.
Interestingly enough, the Romanians, who have been the majority of Transylvania’s population for much of its history, are not represented in the coat of arms.