On Dracula and Dionysus
TV Guide’s Matt Roush called NBC’s Dracula “the worst Dracula ever,” which is something of a stretch for anyone who has ever seen the 2006 BBC TV-movie in which the vampire becomes a symbol for syphilis and only religious puritanism can stop the sexually-transmitted scourge. However, the new series (a co-production with Britain’s Sky Living) certainly ranks among the most oddball interpretations of Dracula I’ve yet seen—and I’ve seen Dracula 2000 (2001) in which the count is “really” Judas Iscariot.
In this interpretation Dracula isn’t much of a Gothic horror but rather can best be described, in one’s best TV announcer voice, this way: “Nikola Tesla is Jay Gatsby in The Count of Monte Cristo.” The story finds Dracula masquerading as Alexander Grayson, apparently the ancestor of Batman’s sidekick, given his acrobatic martial arts skills, a European count pretending to be a British man pretending to be an American industrialist in order to enact an elaborate revenge fantasy on the organization that stopped his reign of terror in the Middle Ages. Borrowing the love story (not found in Stoker) from the 1979 and 1992 movie versions of Dracula, Grayson of course falls in love with Mina Murray, once more the reincarnation (or at least doppelganger) of his long dead bride.
The noble vampire is, in this telling, our hero, for he plans to stop a cabal of industrialists from monopolizing fossil fuels to dominate the corporate culture of the upcoming twentieth century and thus—well, I’m not sure. Are we to take that as a victory for the proletariat or a reactionary strike against the bourgeoisie by the decaying, literally parasitic remnants of the aristocracy?
The production details also bother me. Grayson wears a wristwatch, something worn only by women before the First World War and almost unheard of at all before 1900; the newspapers and signage use typefaces and spacing not typical of Victorian times; some of the women’s gowns expose both cleavage and their backs, which was not done in the Victorian era (it was one or the other, not both).
Too talky and too clunky, this Dracula might just as well have been a period drama without the vampires; it carries nothing from Stoker’s novel than some names; it is the stepchild of the cinematic Dracula, not the literary one, and seems to know nothing of its source material or the legends and folklore that stands behind that.
However, it is interesting to stop and consider how it is that the literary Dracula, who is explicitly likened to the Devil in Bram Stoker, became godfather to a race of offspring who are, for all intents and purposes, pagan gods come to earth to mate with our women, like Apollo and Dionysus.
In Dracula, Stoker makes very plain that his vampire is meant to be read as the Devil. He attends the Scholomance, the Devil’s own diabolical school, and he speaks in the borrowed words of the Devil himself. When he comes to Renfield in the insane asylum, Dracula says to him “All these lives will I give you, ay, and many more and greater, through countless ages, if you will fall down and worship me!” This is nearly word for word what the Devil says to Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4:9: “And [the devil] saith unto him [Jesus], All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Thus is Dracula also held in check by the power of the crucifix and of communion wafers. Oh, and he also goes by the alias Count de Ville in London; even some literary scholars miss the joke: Count Devil. (Surprisingly few noticed the Matthew 4:9 passage either.)
Stoker’s Dracula, however, is not merely the Devil, though he functions as one. He also drags with him the weight of his literary origins. I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to acknowledge that Dracula owes a debt to Lord Ruthven, the title monster of John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), the vampire story given birth on the same dark and stormy night in 1816 as Frankenstein. Polidori modeled the aristocratic but dangerous vampire Lord Ruthven on Lord Byron, who had a romantic attraction to the glories of Greece and Rome. Thus does Ruthven go to Rome and to Greece, and in so doing connects the vampire to the mythology and folklore of Greece, where the main character is explicitly seeking out the antiquities of that land and investigating mythological allusions in Pausanias’ Description of Greece.
However Polidori’s vampire, while theoretically derived from the folklore revenant who returns from the grave to suck the breath from the living, was in fact much more closely related to the pagan gods of Greece than to the sad, miserable creatures of folklore. Consider the description the terrified Greek peasants give in the story. They tell the main character that the vampires gather in a sacred grove, the kind of place where the Greek gods once played amidst sylvan delight: “They described it as the resort of the vampyres in their nocturnal orgies, and denounced the most heavy evils as impending upon him who dared to cross their path.” This can be nothing more than the warning the ancient Greeks gave about the power of the gods. Artemis kills Actaeon for transgressing against her; Hera destroys Pelias for violating her sanctuary; a mere glimpse of Zeus in his glory turns Semele to dust; Apollo kills Trophonius after the latter builds the former’s temple, spawning the phrase “those whom the gods love die young.”
But above all the vampire is Dionysus, the very god who conducts woodland orgies with his maenads and who is most wild and violent in his punishment of those who cross him. His followers, in their insane ecstasies, drink the blood of their victims and consecrate it to the god—not unlike the three wives of Dracula who menace Jonathan Harker in Castle Dracula. And of course the Greeks considered wine to be the equivalent of blood (as do Christians), a suitable substitute for blood-hungry revenants when visiting the underworld, so Dionysus as wine-god is nearly indistinguishable from the aristocratic vampire who reigns by blood. Both god and vampire were said to come from the mysterious east, from the wild and savage borderlands beyond the safety of civilization.
I am not the only person to see this. Scholars like Matthew Beresford (From Demons to Dracula, 2008), Richard Daniel Lehan (The City in Literature, 1998), and John S. Bak (Postmodern Dracula, 2007) have seen pagan gods behind various interpretations of Dracula. After all, it’s probably worth noting that Dracula travels to England aboard the Demeter, named for the Greek earth goddess whose mystery rites promised eternal life after death. Like any educated Victorian, Stoker wasn’t ignorant of Greek myth.
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysus (hymn 7) presents a set of images that are indistinguishable from the magical feats performed by Stoker’s Dracula. The hymn discusses the god’s capture by pirates, and the scene is worthy of a horror novel in its potent imagery:
They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet: and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes. […] But soon strange things were seen among them. First of all sweet, fragrant wine ran streaming throughout all the black ship and a heavenly smell arose, so that all the seamen were seized with amazement when they saw it. And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands. When the pirates saw all this, then at last they bade the helmsman to put the ship to land. But the god changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, in the bows, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows.
Dracula can turn into a wolf; he commands all of the frightening animals. He controls fog and storms like Athena and Zeus. He is an alchemist and magician with powers like those of Dionysus. He is, like Dionysus, quick to anger but rewards his followers’ worldly goods. Most intriguingly, Dionysus is one of the few immortals to have died. Just as Dracula can be killed by a stake through the heart, Dionysus survived the Titans’ near-complete dismemberment and consumption of his body because his heart survived (Diodorus 5.75.4 with Damascius on Phaedo at 1.170). Death and resurrection made Dionysus immortal, and so too does it with Dracula.
Most interesting is that unbeknownst to Bram Stoker, Dionysus was identified with the obscure and ancient god Zagreus (whose death and resurrection became Dionysus’) and with Sabazios (as was Zeus), the horse-riding warrior god of the Thracians who battles the Dragon (dracul), from which the real-life Dracula took his name since the Order of the Dragon took its imagery from that of Sabazios by way of St. George. The Thracian Sabazios is sometimes also thought to be related to the Dacian Zalmoxis, the god who descended into the underworld and was reborn—and whose underground chamber filled with disciples I have previously demonstrated was the model for the actual folkloric Scholomance that Dracula attended!
I can’t prove it, but I have a feeling that Polidori had the Greek gods in mind in placing Lord Ruthven in Greece. Since it was a widespread Abrahamic belief that the pagan gods were actually demons and/or fallen angels (Psalm 96:5; Augustine, City of God 7.33; Qur’an 53, etc.), it’s no surprise that the Devil and his demons acquired the powers and traits of the Greco-Roman divinities. Thus, when Stoker made Dracula into the Devil, he unconsciously carried over the basic framework of the pagan gods to his new infernal creation. (Indeed, many scholars similarly suspect, but cannot prove, that Dionysus stands behind the medieval devil of witchcraft.) We, in our modern world, have dispensed largely with the moral horror Victorian readers saw in Dracula and have instead highlighted the buried layers of the pagan undertone, bringing to the surface the idea of the deity that marries a human bride, like Dionysus with Ariadne, making the bride into an immortal. In late versions of the Ariadne story, Dionysus in fact steals Ariadne from Theseus (Diodorus 4.61.5; Pausanias 1.20.3; 10.29.4) just as Dracula tries to take Mina from Jonathan.
It is therefore no surprise that as the twentieth century drew on, the vampire’s already-tenuous connection to the rotten risen corpse of folklore retreated before the underlying, more powerful demon-god. Today’s vampires, whether they be the immortal glitter-bombs of Twilight or the timeless, selfish demigods of True Blood (or the heartthrobs of the Vampire Diaries, or the almost literally godlike Originals) perform the functions of pagan deities—exercising capricious power, protecting their favorites, and seducing mortal women. Just as women wept for Tammuz, cried for Baldur, and screamed in ecstasy for Dionysus, the romantic vampires of fiction allow for that sort of contact with the imminent divine in a safe space, one otherwise occupied by ancient astronauts.
I hesitate to too sharply define a connection, but it seems that the desire to be raptured by aliens and lusting after glittery vampire-gods breaks down largely along gender lines, all the while fulfilling the same function, if in different forms. In very rough form, and derived largely from Western cultural assumptions, men look to the alien-gods the way a Greek hero looks to his patron god, as benefactor and personal savior, while women see the vampire-god as the idealized husband. This is not absolute; there are female ancient astronaut believers and male romantic vampire fans, but in terms of cultural narratives, they play on the stories we tell about idealized gender behavior.
10/26/2013 08:57:38 am
I'm a little disappointed; when you said “Nikola Tesla is Jay Gatsby in The Count of Monte Cristo,” I was hoping for a wealthy rum-runner seeking elaborate revenge while electricity shoots all over the place.
10/26/2013 03:38:16 pm
Now, that's something I'd pay to see!
10/26/2013 09:00:52 am
I like the analogy between Dracula and Dionysus, and would take it a bit further. How about Dracula and Jesus as the Christ? Perhaps the Gypsies, who had the legend originally, had a faction of disenfranchised, wandering, Jews among them (Gypsies=Jacobsies?). The connection between Satan and Dracula (the "dragon's seed") could still be made, as the Jews, it is thought, did not look kindly upon Jesus, who was picking off converts from Judaism (after all Satan was their tradition).
10/26/2013 09:28:21 am
Interesting. I knew about those characteristics of Dionysus but never made the connection to Stoker's Dracula.
10/27/2013 01:45:38 am
Forgive me if I am misinterpereting you, but this and your recent zombie posts baffle me. It seems as though you are taking to task modern incarnations of Dracula and Zombies for not respecting their origins, while admitting those origins are based on folklore itself basef on older folklore. As though the people of the past were allowed to modernize and reimagine the stories but if people do it today it is a negative thing.
10/27/2013 02:56:36 am
No, NBC's Dracula is crappy on its own merits. As a piece of art, I don't like it because it is poorly conceived and simply playing off the Dracula name.
10/27/2013 03:15:29 am
Ah alright then. I am curious what you think of ABC's Once Upon A Time then, compared to, say, Fox's Sleepy Hollow. The last 10 years or so not much has come out of Hollywood that isn't a reboot or reimagining. Some have done a much better job than others...
The Other J.
10/27/2013 07:39:51 am
Sleepy Hollow has done much more much better with its source material than OUAT.
10/27/2013 09:23:05 am
Other J., are they speaking Middle English, or are they speaking Elizabethan English? Elizabethan English still used some of the older pronouns like "thee" and "thou," particularly as formal speech, and Roanoke was formed during Shakespeare's lifetime, so if that's what they sound like, then it's Elizabethan English and consistent. If they sound more Chaucer-y, then you're right and it's Middle English. Not being one who watches either show, I can't say, so.
The Other J.
10/27/2013 09:43:14 am
In one episode, they encounter the lost colony of Roanoke, and they all speak Middle English. They can't understand the first boy they find, but Crane speaks Middle English, and is able to have a (subtitled) conversation with him.
10/27/2013 11:24:40 am
I haven't seen Once Upon a Time but I have and do watch Sleepy Hollow.
10/27/2013 01:07:47 pm
OUAT has some occasionally interesting ideas--making Peter Pan into the Pied Piper via the Pan pipes was resonant. But its execution is so clunky that it never really rises above the level of slightly perverted Disney fan fiction.
10/27/2013 11:23:44 pm
I only saw the first episode of Sleepy Hollow and it seemed too much like a Dresden/Buffy monster of the week show without any of the personal drama and relationships OUAT has. I think the acting on OUAT is significantly better and loved that Frankenstein's new name was Dr. Whale =p
The Other J.
10/28/2013 07:42:34 am
Ach, I didn't even make the connection between Crane and Rip Van Winkle -- I didn't see Crane as sleeping so long as I did him being transported or carried across some kind of time rift, kind of like the Roanoke Colony. But that makes sense.
The Other J.
10/27/2013 07:48:15 am
The dying and rising demon. This is my wine, shed for you.
10/27/2013 09:29:26 am
I actually disagree with the, ah, gender-biased observation. Basically, I don't think aliens vs. vampires has much of a distinction of draw for people, it's the underlying storylines that are the draw. Ancient aliens tends to be couched more in apocalyptic end times/"action movie" types of storylines (if you can call them that), while vampires tend to have more romance/relationship/emotional drama in. I would bet you ancient aliens would draw a lot more women if there was more romance and love-story stuff to it.
10/27/2013 01:18:16 pm
Gender divisions aren't inherent in the creatures. Stephenie Meyer wrote an alien romance (and "Roswell" was one, too), and vampires are obviously also horror monsters ("Let the Right One In," "30 Days of Night," etc.). I was restricting my comments to the specifically romantic version of the vampire.
10/27/2013 11:41:38 am
Writing as a girl, I can tell you I never understood the attraction to vampires....filthy blood-suckers that they are. I agree with Varika that it is the type of story that is emphasized in the tale told.
10/27/2013 01:38:31 pm
As much as I don't like to obsess on psychosexual readings of literature, it's hard not to say that the literary vampire was born of sex. From the poem "Leonora" to Lord Ruthven's cuckolding of Aubrey to Carmilla's lesbian affair, Dracula is perhaps the least explicitly sexual of the early literary vampires.
10/27/2013 10:27:08 pm
Waldemar Januszczak hosted a BBC4 programme called The Dark Ages that showed how artists had borrowed from the Greek gods of mythology to paint and sculpt images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and God.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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