The Origin of Vampires in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia

Most people would be aware of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. A smaller, but still significant portion may know about Vlad Țepeș, the Wallachian ruler who bore the nickname the Impaler, and the name Dracula. Transilvania is often associated with vampires due to this fact. However, is the modern lore we associate with vampires really Romanian? Let’s find out.

The origin of vampires, or vampyrs

The idea of an evil creature that rose from the dead to haunt the living isn’t something unique in the human imagination. However, the specific mythology of today – blood drinking, shapeshifting, bite transformation, protection with crucifixes, holy water, garlic, and staking the vampire’s heart are all from South-Eastern Europe.

The word vampire originates from the South-Slavic word „вампир“ or "vampyr."  This word was first popularized in the Western mind after Austria took control over some Serbian provinces. Austrian officials noted that the locals had an odd custom on driving stakes through the hearts of evil or wicked people. Vampyrs were then Westernized into vampires. The word “vampyr” is virtually identical in all South-Slavic languages, so it’s hard to determine its exact origin. Other Slav countries (Russia, Slovenia, Czechia, Ukraine, and Belarus) have the similar sounding word “upir,” which may even be closer to the origins of the Slav word.

Bulgaria has about 100 reported tombs of “vampires”, meaning deceased people who had stakes driven through their chests. This wasn’t done in order to kill the vampire, but to pin it to the grave, thus preventing it from rising and doing evil deeds to the living. The quantity of graves found in Bulgaria is greater than in any other country, including Romania and its area of Transylvania, the supposed homeland of the vampires.

Transylvania and the Vampires

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was heavily influenced by Emily Gerard who wrote a book on Transylvanian folklore. It's undeniable that the Transylvanian folklore was instrumental in the modern vampire myth. Romania itself was influenced by Slavic culture, borrowing many words and following Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which initially spread in Old Church Slavonic/ Old Bulgarian.

The cool-sounding name “Dracula” further Romanianized the issue by naming the most famous vampire after a Wallachian ruler, a region that would later be part of Romania. In today’s Romanian language, dracul means devil, but its original meaning was closer to “dragon.” The historical Vlad the Impaler got his name from his father, Vlad Dracul, meaning that “Dracula” translates to “son of the dragon.” Slavs, in general, refer to dragons as “zmei”  while Romanians use "zmeu."

In conclusion

The usual mythology surrounding vampires was certainly popularized by the Dracula novel, but the oral nature of the folklore on which the work was based makes it harder to determine its exact origin.

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Alex Dimchev

Alex Dimchev is a writer, editor, and weapons master for

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