In Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula, we encounter the memorable figure of the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Scholars were always at odds when it comes to identifying the real-life inspiration behind this particular character, but now a Polish journalist thinks he may have found the answer.
Bram Stoker's Van Helsing is supposedly Dutch (arriving in London via Amsterdam), but he speaks with what is apparently a thick German accent. One of the heroes of the book, Van Helsing's former student Steven Seward describes him as follows:
- He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day, and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind.
It so happens that this description perfectly matches the character and passions of Georg Andreas Helwing, an 18th century Lutheran pastor and a well-known botanist of his time who spent most of his life in Angerburg (today Węgorzewo, Poland). And it looks that pastor Helwing just like van Helsing had quite an experience with vampires.
Could this figure have given Stoker the idea of his famous vampire-slayer? Polish journalist and author Adam Węgłowski investigates this question in his newest book and he puts forth quite a few good arguments.
Helwig, Helwing, Helsing
Georg Andreas Helwing (also known as Helwig) was born on 14th December 1666 in Angerburg (pol. Węgobork, today Węgorzewo), a part of the Duchy of Prussia, which at the time of his birth was a fief of the Crown of Poland.
Just like Van Helsing who in his letters used a string of titles ''Abraham Van Helsing, M. D., D. Ph., D. Lit., etc., etc.'' (though it remains unclear what his actual scientific specialisation was) Helwing was also an extremely well-educated man of letters and a brilliant scientist. He studied philosophy and theology in Koenigsberg, and pursued his education in Wittenberg, Leipzig, Jena and Erfurt before embarking on a educational tour which took him to Venice and Leida. There, in van Helsing's homeland, he collaborated closely with the Dutch botanist Herman Boerhaave.
In 1691 he returned to his hometown, where soon after his father's death he became a pastor. In his pastoral occupations Helwing is said to have spoken Polish too, apart from the German which was his native tongue. During this time he was also active in the field of botanics, earning the nickname of Prussian Plinius. In the nearby Stulichy, he founded an experimental botanical garden, where he introduced many oriental plants from Smyrna and even India. He went on to discover numerous plants, one of them, Helwingia, is even named after him.
It is possible to browse through Helwing's herbarium here – it remains the oldest collection of plants found on Polish soil.
But Helwing was also a professed archaeologist, an explorer of the Prussian antiquities of the local area and the owner of a famous cabinet of curiosities. Last but not least, he was one of the first Europeans to gather an impressive collection of birds' eggs.
As Adam Węgłowski writes, in his penchant for the rational and scientific Helwing was the Van Helsing of his times. As a matter of fact, he may have been even more than that since, unlike van Helsing, Helwing didn't believe in vampires... But then how could he have been the prototype for Van Helsing, who was a professed vampire slayer?
Were-wolves, Were-bears and Upierze
G.A. Helwing was without a doubt an erudite and a scholar of his times. His writings, apart from thick scientific treatises on plants and minerals, include articles that bring a lot of stupendous information on topics ranging from beekeeping, fishing eels, catching moles, the origins of amber, the habits of pelicans, white magpies and sparrows, or even the musky smell of aurochs hair.
But he also covered monstrous topics: five-legged horses or two-headed calves, horrific animals and people, the cruelty of wolves and lycanthropy, werewolves and were-bears (the belief in the so-called niedźwiedziołaki, half man, half bear, was particularly popular in Poland and Lithuania). He also wrote on subject such as adders living in the hearts of wolves (but was skeptical about this possibility).
Węgłowski claims that one such article published in the German scientific magazine Breslauische Sammlungen von Natur- und Medizin- Geschichten might have actually inspired Stoker. Especially as it features real vampires, in their Polish version of Upierz.
In the beginning of 1722 Helwing published an article entitled Von dem Polnischen Upiertz oder sich selbst fressenden Todten und der darauf entstandenen Furcht von Pest und Vieh Sterben. In it he reports about a recent case of plague in the Polish Podole region and brings up a certain superstition shared by the locals:
“Upierz or uspierz is a name given to those dead bodies which eat themselves away in their graves. Once one of them starts to eat itself, this leads to a pest which doesn't stop until the corpse is decapitated.”
This leads him to a story of his own. Helwing recalls how in 1710, during the terrifying bubonic plague epidemic which decimated Prussia, the people of the village Harsz decided to dig out corpses in order to find an upierz, who they believed was the cause of the epidemic. However since they couldn't find one, they decided to make one... They lacerated one of the corpses so that it resembled an upierz in the process of eating itself away, and after singing songs for the dead, in a solemn atmosphere they chopped off the head using a spade. The body was then thrown back into the grave with a living dog.
Obviously, as Helwing reasonably observes, the plague didn't end. Actually of all the people who had taken part in this strange ritual, almost no-one stayed alive. The death toll in Harsz was 312 people, in Helwig's parish alone around 3,5 thousand people died, and the death toll in the whole Prussia is estimated at 250 thousand people. In the course of the epidemic Helwing lost his son, which Węgłowski takes to be another parallel with van Helsing. However he has never lost common sense and a sense of solidarity with the sick and dying.
As a doctor, he would attend the sick, using the root of angelica and wormwood as medicine. He also used alcohol-based angelica extract to disinfect hands, and smoked juniper to fumigate clothes. And he was right in doing so. As Węgłowski notes, Helwig either had uncommon knowledge or great intuition, because his methods were actually very effective in fighting the fleas which feed on rats and which are considered the main carrier of the Yersinia pestis bacteria.
As it turns out, Helwing was also very rational and empirical in his approach to upierze. He explained this superstition with real-life cases of people being interred alive:
Then when they awoke from their stupor in the grave, in fear and doubt they would start to bite whatever was next to them, in the end biting their own body, they raved, screamed and moaned which was understandable in their predicament. This led later to unchristian superstition and harmful silliness which brought about the irresponsible and unreflective witch-hunt trials, wrote Helwing in 1722.
It seems Helwing was much more skeptical about the actual possibility of existing vampires than van Helsing was. But, as Węgłowski suggests, he was just as relentless about fighting superstition, as van Helsing was about fighting vampires.
There remains one question: How could Stoker, writing his famous novel in the end of the 19th century, have learned about the 18th century Masurian botanist living somewhere in remote Eastern Europe? Węgłowski points to the fact that we actually don't know how Stoker learned about Dracula either but one of the possible sources of such knowledge could have been his close friend, the Hugarian turkolog Ármin Vámbéry. Could it be that this amazing erudite passed on to Stoker not only the knowledge about Dracula but also about a certain 18th century vampire skeptic from Masuria, who had some experience with fighting vampires?
By the way, in his recently published book A Very Polish History of Everything (the book is tellingly captioned: Copernicus was Polish and so was everyone else), Węgłowski claims that Polish traces also lead to Dracula, and the gallery of historical and mythical figures that he considers 'Polish' is really bloodcurdling, and includes Frankenstein, the Golem, and even Stalin.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 2 April 2015