Vampire lore reaches back more than a millennium, to the first known written reference to the undead bloodsuckers in an Old Russian religious text. And Dracula scholar Edward G. Petitt doesn’t think our interest in them will ever die. “That fascination is rooted in our anxiety over death,” he says. “And vampires are tied up in the way we relate to each other and how we relate to each other in intimate ways.” These five favorite Atlas Obscura stories show the evolution of the vampire—through history and literature, yes, but also through tales of fraud, conspiracy, and even mathematics.
The vampire myth was born out of disease, demons, and discord.
As a professor of Slavic studies who has taught a course on vampires called “Dracula” for more than a decade, author Stanley Stepanic has always been fascinated by the vampire’s popularity, considering its origins—as a demonic creature strongly associated with disease.
A warped version of the vetala may have been an inspiration for modern vampire stories.
As 11th-century legend goes, the vetala is a ghoulish trickster of varying description that haunts cemeteries and forests, hanging upside down from trees and waiting for humans to play pranks on. It existed in Indian lore, at least until 19th-century British explorer Richard Burton brought the story of the vetala to Western audiences. He chose to describe the creature as a “vampire” instead of a “spirit.” The rest is history.
The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia holds Bram Stoker’s notes on his now-famous novel about the fanged among us. They reveal that the author considered giving his main character the ability to “give no shadow,” to “see in the dark,” and to have “the power of getting big and small.”
Can a modern fraud protect you from a centuries-old threat?
Around 1970, when movies and television series starring Dracula helped revive interest in Eastern Europe’s ancient bloodthirsty undead, dealers started catering to the burgeoning market for antiques related to vampires. Worn wooden boxes full of tarnished weapons, said to kill or at least gross out vampires, surfaced widely at auctions. The only problem: Historians have debunked them as hoaxes.
A surprisingly large number of academic studies—as in, more than none—have applied mathematical modeling to the concept of human-vampire coexistence. We have 165 days—or a lifetime, if we can make peace with the bloodthirsty among us.
Conservative men online are mad about a lot of things right now: Black people getting cast as mermaids. Black people getting cast as mythical elves. And now, a Black woman playing a crystal flute owned by dead slave-owning president James Madison on stage—while twerking, bedazzled, and pantsless—has simply sent them…
Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves that Madison owned more than 100 slaves and originated the Three-Fifths Compromise that refused to recognize Black Americans as whole people. Lizzo does not owe him the respect of wearing pants to play his instrument 2 centuries later, my guys—and I’d bet my life that none of you had even heard of this fucking flute (which, of course, was returned safely to the Library after Lizzo’s show) before she came out and played it.
This is the dumbest non-controversy ever. Please consider being angry about literally anything else.
And in this one, she explains why she thinks people are responding to the character, pointing out that not only are the videos giving white people the terminology to use to as allies at work, but other people like it because “there’s something healing about seeing a white southern lady who’s standing up for them.”
@AskAManager this TikTok made me think of you and how you give people workplace tools—she’s equipping people with language and approaches to combat racism in the workplace. https://t.co/ZvSxXXekeb
Well it’s been an incredibly normal month to live in the United Kingdom. So normal, in fact, that I have mostly been gawping, horrified, as the most normal things possible unfurled about me like some sort of noxious algae bloom. As people queued up over-night in a very normal way, and people holding signs that said “Not My King” were threatened with arrest even more normally, I have been at times equally amazed and disgusted. Overall, however, the entire period has been instructive to me, as someone who works on propaganda and imperialism.
I have read and worked extensively on the measures that dynasties take in order to prove their “right” to rule, as well as the establishing the intended recipient of said right. It turns out that all these same propaganda tactics that Charles IV implemented when he needed to establish the Luxembourg dynasty in fourteenth century Prague were alive and well in THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2022 in London, and boy oh boy did I ever have to learn about it. So now you do. Sucked in.
One of the things that dynasties have to do in order to be allowed, accepted, or even tolerated, is they have to convince people that all of this is inevitable and that they, for some reason, have a right to rule everyone below them. This can be done in any number of ways and sometimes it is more urgent than others. See, when Charles IV (1316-1378) came to power in Prague he had an issue – no one liked his dad. His father, John of Luxembourg (1296-1346) had taken over Bohemia by marrying his mother, Eliška Přemyslovna (1292-1330) after her brother, the former King Wenceslaus III (1289-1306) died without heir, extinguishing the Přemyslid dynasty who had been ruling since the ninth century. In swooped John, who quickly set about draining the kingdom of all the money he could while dicking about at various tournaments in Europe.
He was, in general, hated, and the Czechs referred to him as “John the foreigner” or “the Foreign King”. This was bad. It was the sort of bad that made John’s wife decide to lead a rebellion against her husband and try to put a seven year old Charles (who was then known as Wenceslaus, or Vaclav, like a good little Czech) on the throne. John found out, imprisoned his wife, and sent Charles off to be raised at the French court where he picked up the name and also a bunch of high-fallutin’ ways. He never saw his mother again.
All of this meant that by the time Charles reached majority and returned to the Czech lands people weren’t exactly excited to see him. What differentiated him from any other foreigner? What right did he have to rule them?
The thing about Charles, unlike his father, was that he was a) smart, and b) actually was extremely down to Czech. So when his dad snuffed it and it was time for his coronation he went out of his way to connect himself to the Czech lands by calling on religious tradition, namely the cult of his ancestor the Good King (St) Wenceslaus. (I know you know the song.) Wenceslaus was, and indeed is, the patron saint of Bohemia, and Charles wanted to make it clear that while he was stuck with his garbage dad’s last name, he shared the same Přemyslid blood as St Wenceslaus himself.
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So what did he do? He planned some parties. For his coronation as the King of Bohemia in 1347 he had the crown of St Wenceslas refashioned for use during the ceremony. He also straight up rewrote said coronation ceremony, allegedly after rooting around to go find old Přemyslid coronation rites to model it on. Then he threw a big parade that led from Vyšehrad castle, the legendary home of the Přemyslids in the south of Prague, through town, across the bridge, and up to the Prague castle. In the castle grounds was also the cathedral of St Vitus and St Wenceslaus which Charles was having rebuilt. There, he had the crown placed on the head of a statue of St Wencelaus, establishing a physical connection between himself and his saintly ancestor. Everything about this was thought out to make it clear that he was Czech, understood Czech tradition, and should be understood as the rightful heir to the throne.
Of course here in London this month no one was doubting that Queen Elizabeth or her son the now King Charles III were English when everything went down. However, there’s a reason for that – it’s because they already did all of that management a couple generations back. In 1917 the current House of Windsor came into being because it was deemed that their original name the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It didn’t matter how mad Queen Victoria was for Prince Albert, the fact that Britain was at war with Germany meant that the name had got to go. So the very English Windsor was brought in to assuage any fears, with George V declaring that, “Now, therefore, We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all the descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor…”.
So then, there has to be some sort of confection of a connection to a specific place on the part of ruling families. Even if you have already got your foot in the door, the glaringly obvious fact that a bunch of inbred people taking part in a ridiculous game of pass the parcel to rule sometimes just die out, or marry their cousins and take a new name, calls into question the legitimacy of the entire charade. As a result, there needs to be some kind of charm offensive to make sure that this is accepted. It is one thing for a king to proclaim his “Royal Will and Authority” but there needs to be a bit of myth-making behind that in order for people to let you grind them under your heel.
Now this is all as may be, but even when particular monarchs like Charles IV or Elizabeth II were well liked and long lived, the question of succession will still be there. Because it doesn’t matter how good you were at the whole convincing people it is totally chill and also natural that you rule them thing, you will, eventually, die. And it would be an awful thing for all that property, power, and money to not go to your family or whatever.
Charles IV did all sorts of stuff to make sure that his son Wenceslaus (1361-1419) would inherit after him, and not just the crown of Bohemia, but the Holy Roman imperial crown. To do this he made all of the imperial electors promise that Wenceslaus was their guy, tried to get the then Pope Gregory XI to affirm that he would defo do that (it didn’t go well), and eventually even got him crowned King of the Romans. That’s pretty good going.
Meanwhile back in Prague, Charles made it clear that Wenceslaus was the King in waiting prior to his death in a number of ways. But my favourite way is probably when he did it with very cool artworks. Check out this masterpiece by Master Theoderic of Prague.
Up the top here you can see that Charles is kneeling on the left in front of the Virgin Mary. Standing behind him is St Wenceslaus. (Subtle!) On the other side of Mary is Wenceslaus, who has St Sigismund standing behind him. Charles was super into the cult of Sigismund, to the point that his other fail son was named for the saint, and this makes a clear connection between the dynasty and the saint. Here Charles is making it clear that there is a line between him and his son. If you accept that he is in his position as King because God wants him to be there (as does his holy ancestor St Wenceslaus) then you need to also accept that you have Wenceslaus coming down the pipeline afterwards.
And Wenceslaus did take over the crown after his father’s death. And he wasn’t very popular, and he was no match for the Hussites, but goddamn if his dad didn’t manage to sandwich him onto the throne. Before all of the previously unheard of and extremely cool revolts.
Here in the UK we have of course been primed to understand that Charles was meant to be king, but there have always been whispers, haven’t there? You know after the unpleasantness with Our Di maybe he would step back and it would go to William. Well, LOL absolutely not, these are monarchs we are talking about, and they do not care what you think about them. However, they also realise that you still need to get out in front of rumblings like this, lest people begin to ask why they exist in the twenty first century. This is why I toddled on down to the Royal Exchange the other day. I had a nice time seeing some dudes in silly livery carry a big old scepter, and then heard a bunch of trumpets. This was all fun and games in prep for the reading of the Proclamation of King Charles III which had previously been read at St James Palace, then Mansion House, and finally at the Royal Exchange.
In it, it was proclaimed that, “The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George is now, by the Death of our late Sovereign of Happy Memory, become our only lawful and rightful Liege Lord Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories, King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to whom we do acknowledge all Faith and Obedience with humble Affection”. And well, there it is. It was necessary to announce that because as the Queen had died the crown had “solely and rightfully come to The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George”, and then they all gave three cheers and yelled God Save the Queen.
I stopped having fun.
And here is the thing, none of this is any different to the medieval conception of monarchy. Charles is apparently the King “by the Grace of God”, because that’s just the way the supreme being wants it, I guess? God just simply loves for one family to have a bunch of untaxable land for some reason. And this, we are supposed to understand, is a “right” because this family has magic blood. I suppose that while I knew this on an intellectual level, I had always just read about it in an abstract way. Sure, there was a queen in the UK, but I always sorta thought of it as just a bit campy and neither here nor there. There’s something about having a man in livery tell you that the guy behind the tampax phone calls is a king “by right” in the twenty-first century that feels very bad! We are being handed a new ruler and have no say in that. Even more, the tampax phonecall guy is now the head of the Church of England. And while I get that the institution exists specifically because a dude was very horny and wanted a divorce, it still seems odd to keep … doing this. This is, of course, as it ever was, but it feels really seedy when we are supposed to have stuff like human rites and, IDK, taxation, now.
A thing that I am thinking about here, and clinging to if I am totally honest, is that for all of Charles’s machinations to get Wenceslaus on the throne, none of it went well. Wenceslaus was never crowned Emperor – he stalled at King of the Romans and the crown eventually went to his brother Sigismund. Simultaneously when the Hussites got themselves some wagons and a pretty good battle plan, he remained nominal king of Bohemia – but let’s just say the entire situation was curtailed. If these little wins were possible in the fourteenth century, when the odds were massively stacked in the favour of monarchs, then what might we achieve with a little ingenuity?
I don’t know, but we need a reason to be hopeful.
 Jiří Spěváček ‘Problémy královské moci v českých zemích a jejich evropské souvilosti’, in, Král diplomat, (Prague: Panorama, 1982); Jiří Spěváček, ‘Lucemburské konsepce českého státua jejich přemyslovské kořeny’, Sborník historický, 24 (1976), p. 16.  František Kavka, Život na Dvoře Karla IV (Prague: Apieron, 1993), p. 82; Spěváček, Historie života velkého vladaře, (Prague: Mláda Fronta, 1998), pp. 335–33.  No. 30186, The London Gazette. 17 July 1917, p. 7119; https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/30186/page/7119 , <Accessed 16 September 2022>.  Eleanor Janega, Jan Milíč of Kroměříž and Emperor Charles IV: Preaching, Power, and the Church of Prague, Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London).pp. 185-187. IDK what you want me to do. If you don’t want me to cite myself go write a better synopsis on this.  https://www.whitehorsedc.gov.uk/uncategorised/the-proclamation-of-king-charles-iii/ <Accessed 26 September 2022>.  Ibid.
“Pop star Lizzo this week got the opportunity to play a 200-year-old crystal flute that was once owned by President James Madison—and some conservatives are absolutely furious about it.” — Raw Story, 9/28/22
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I can’t believe they let Lizzo [play a flute owned by James Madison / twerk even though she’s not skinny / continue to exist as a Black woman].
I found this event [triggering / in violation of my need to only ever see thin white women on my timeline]. As someone who spends a fair bit of time yammering on about our nation’s heritage, it deeply offends me that [Lizzo seems to care about our nation’s heritage / a Black woman is now the Librarian of Congress].
Clearly this horrible event was a form of racial retribution. I know this because I believe life is a zero-sum game where [there are only winners and losers / only white people should put their lips on white people flutes / Lizzo should be as sad and lonely as my white nationalist substack subscribers].
Some people saw Lizzo playing James Madison’s flute and thought, Gee, what a nice thing that any normal person can enjoy. But this is the wrong reaction. Whenever anything happens in the world involving a prominent Black person, the correct thing to do is [immediately make it about myself / have a knee-jerk reaction I will never honestly explore / interpret it through my precious and lucrative lens of white grievance].
I don’t care if Lizzo is a [classically trained musician / popular and beloved artist / cultural icon]. Those things don’t matter to me, because when I look at Lizzo perform, all I can ever see is her [skin color / gender / body size], the three things that matter most to me when I judge a woman.
Speaking of which, what is a woman? Having given this question an unhealthy and inappropriate amount of thought, a woman is someone who should be [a virgin until she is married to a man / forced to give birth against her will / white if aquatic]. A woman is not someone who should [feel entitled to dress the way they want / dance the way they want / behave in ways that don’t please me personally].
I am absolutely qualified to make judgments on Lizzo’s performance, musical talent, and clothing choices because my only talent is [whining about white victimhood / obsessing about trans kids / podcasting about the scientific validity of Black mermaids].
James Madison is one of our most venerated forefathers, and in my anger over this Lizzo abomination, I’ve never once stopped to consider that President Madison [owned slaves / believed women didn’t deserve the right to vote / never once played his crystal flute]. And now that I’ve learned about the existence of this crystal flute, it seems very important to me that it should remain hidden away, just like [women who don’t conform to a Barbie standard of beauty / honest historical accounts about slavery and its enduring legacy / the truth behind my knee-jerk disgust response to Lizzo].
There are those who might take this event as an opportunity to celebrate the fact that Lizzo [actually cares about American history enough to tour the Library of Congress / is bringing welcome attention to the Library of Congress’s collection / is a multitalented artist and musician using her fame and powers for the good]. Me? I’m taking this opportunity to [embarrass myself, yet again, on Twitter / expose myself, yet again, as a petty and pathetic human being / enrich myself, yet again, off the dollars of people who still believe Trump “drained the swamp”].
At her Washington DC concert, Lizzo thanked the Library of Congress for preserving our history. She sparked international interest in its archival collection and inspired band kids everywhere to play their instruments with pride. What a sad episode for anyone who cares about this country. In fact, I feel quite ill. In a minute, I’m going to need [some smelling salts / to write yet another think piece about the catastrophe of wokeness / my comfort Confederate flag].
The Library of Congress should never allow someone like Lizzo to touch their archival instruments again. And that’s because [these instruments, which I’ve never given a thought to before today, are very important to me / Lizzo living her best life is something that makes me really mad / when I talk about our “heritage,” this is just code for “white people”].
A few months ago, András Koerner, the foremost expert on Hungarian Jewish culinary history—finally got to see the treasure he’d chased for years. At the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism, he beheld a 168-year-old book that, just a few years earlier, had been thought to have disappeared without a trace. Opened to its splotched first page, it was covered with Hebrew print and an illustration of women working over a countertop, one of them holding a pan over an open fire.
The pages ahead contained something that no Hebrew-lettered book before it ever had: recipes. This cookbook, published in 1854 in Budapest was 40 years older and of a completely different national origin than the book that historians had previously regarded as the first Hebrew-lettered cookbook.
“I don't want to exaggerate it, but at least within scholarly circles, it was a small sensation,” says Koerner, author of this year's Early Jewish Cookbooks.
Koerner, 81, grew up in a middle-class, Jewish neighborhood of Budapest after surviving the Nazi-occupied city’s ghetto. His quest to find the nearly 170-year-old book is part of a lifetime of connecting with his roots through food. In 2016, while doing research for his book Jewish Cuisine in Hungary, Koerner came across a reference to the 1854 cookbook in a bibliography.
The bibliography noted that no copy of the book survived. But Koerner didn’t give up, following a trail of clues to a xeroxed copy of the book in a library at Budapest’s Eötvös Lóránd University. Several years later, a friend located what was then the only known surviving copy of the book in an online catalog of Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, a collection at the University of Amsterdam. But Koerner only glimpsed it from afar via digital scans.
The book, titled Nayes folshtendiges kokhbukh fir die yidishe kikhe: Ayn unentberlikhes handbukh fir yidishe froyen und tokhter nebst forshrift fon flaysh kosher makhen und khale nemen, iberhoypt iber raynlikhkayt und kashrut, or “A new and complete cookbook of the Jewish cuisine: An indispensable handbook for Jewish women and daughters, with instructions for koshering meat and separating challah, as well as for general cleanliness and kashrut,” is a surprising snapshot of a community in transition.
“It was like a microscopically minor scandal in the field,” Koerner jokes.
Koerner and other scholars had assumed that the book’s Hebrew letters spelled out words in Yiddish, which was widely spoken by European Jews in the 1800s and was typically written in Hebrew characters. But when Koerner asked a friend to translate the book into German, she returned with a revelation: The book was written in German, but spelled out in Hebrew letters. By printing the book in Judeo-German, as Hebrew-lettered German is called, its publisher aimed it at the newly emerging Hungarian Jewish middle class.
When Márkus Löwy, owner of the bookstore M.E Lowy’s Sohn (M.E. Löwy’s Son), published the cookbook, Hungary was exiting a period during which Habsburg, Hungarian, and municipal leaders participated in barring Jews from Hungarian cities, and the Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa subjected them to “tolerance taxes.” Law separated them from other Hungarians, and their traditions and Yiddish language isolated them further.
But in the mid-1800s, some Jews stepped away from their cloistered lives—and the Yiddish language that had narrated them. Beginning in the 1840s, the Hungarian Parliament granted Jews civil rights, including the right to own businesses and live in Hungarian cities, although they still were not permitted to own property there.
“By the middle of the 19th century,” Koerner says, “in Hungary there was a substantial [Jewish] middle class. And those were the people who purchased Jewish cookbooks.” A generally more rural, lower-income group of Jews had also settled in Hungary from Eastern Europe by then, but, Koerner says, “they could not have bought Jewish cookbooks, number one, because they did not have money for it…[Number two,] they would not have understood High German.”
At the same time, the Haskalah, also known as the Jewish Enlightenment, prompted a wave of reformist Jews to integrate into Hungarian society while retaining their religious traditions. “They started to imitate non-Jewish culture,” adopting the dress, education, and cuisine of their Christian counterparts, Koerner says.
Accordingly, Löwy’s 1854 cookbook is filled not with markedly Jewish recipes, but rather with kosher versions of fancy, Christian-Hungarian dishes, such as “Hungarian Goulash Meat,” “Root Vegetables in the Hungarian Way,” and “Soup Made of Fresh Cherries.” Koerner notes that the “Hungarian-Style Apple Cake,” which requires rolling out 25 loaves of dough and forming them into a layer cake, is exactly the type of elaborate Hungarian dish that a middle-class Jewish woman in 1854 might have admired.
Integrating into Hungary’s middle class meant speaking its dominant language and, eventually, abandoning Yiddish. But speaking German was one thing; reading it was another. “Even as late as 1870, only 75 percent of Jewish men and 58 percent of Jewish women could read and write in non-Hebrew characters in Budapest, the city with one of the highest levels of literacy among Hungarian Jewry,” Koerner writes in Early Jewish Cookbooks. During the 1700s and 1800s, publishers in Germany, Austria, and Hungary addressed this discrepancy by printing books in Judeo-German, transliterating German words with letters that Jews recognized from reading Hebrew and Yiddish books.
It's likely that Löwy published his 1854 cookbook with this in mind, marketing it to women who preferred to speak German but could not yet read it. He even chose a Hebrew font called vaybertaytsh, which was associated with women’s Yiddish devotional books, to appeal to potential female customers, Koerner believes.
But Löwy was late to the game. He published only one edition of the book that never quite caught on. Koerner believes Löwy’s would-be customers had already embraced reading German text by 1854. This, Koerner thinks, is why so few copies of the book exist today.
The book’s rarity makes it all the more precious. Just before Early Jewish Cookbooks was published earlier this year, Koerner’s friend alerted him to another physical copy of the cookbook that was available at a private auction. Koerner persuaded Hungary’s National Library to purchase it. Right now, the book is on display as part of an exhibit on Hungarian-Jewish cuisine at the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism that Koerner helped curate.
When Koerner was able to look at a physical copy of the book he had pursued for so long, it was an emotional experience. “It was wonderful. It was joyous,” he says. “And, honestly, if I want to brag, I was a little proud of it.”