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Few mythological creatures bear as many fascinating titles as Abhartach – one of Irish mythology’s most famous tyrants. Viewed as a possible origin for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Abhartach was an undead vampire that roamed Northern Ireland at night and drank his victims’ blood.
He was also a tyrannical ruler in his living days as well as a cunning magician capable of cheating death. He was a dwarf too judging by his name Abhartach or Avartagh which literally translates as dwarf in Irish. It’s not to be mistaken with Abartach/Abarta, one of Ireland’s old Celtic deities.
So, who exactly is Abhartach and why does he have so many titles?
Who is Abhartach?
Abhartach myth is both simple and somewhat complicated because of later retellings and rewrites in the Christian era of Ireland. The oldest Celtic myth we know of is described in Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1875). While the other retellings of the story change a few details, the core is more or less the same.
Abhartach’s Celtic origin
In Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, Abhartach myth tells of a magical dwarf and a dreadful tyrant from the village Slaghtaverty in Derry, in central Northern Ireland.
Named after his small stature, Abhartach wasn’t inherently magical but got his powers from a local druid who was very knowledgeable about the ancient Celtic lore and magics. According to the myth, Abhartach placed himself in the service of the druid and, at first, did all the cleaning and scuttle work the druid asked of him with great diligence.
Abhartach cooked for him and washed his clothes and sheets, all to ingratiate himself to the druid as much as possible. In the meantime, however, Abhartach observed as much as he could, learning various incantations and strange sorcery tricks from the druid. Then, one rainy day, both Abhartach and the druid went missing, and all the druid’s spell scrolls and texts vanished with them.
Soon after, a great horror came upon Ireland – Abhartach had returned as a dreadful sorcerer and a tyrant. He started committing terrible cruelties upon those who had wronged or mocked him in the past. Abhartach appointed himself king of the region and ruled his subjects with an iron fist.
As Abhartach’s cruelties continued, a local Irish chieftain called Fionn Mac Cumhail decided to confront the tyrant and stop his madness. Fionn Mac Cumhail managed to kill Abhartach and buried him standing upright in an old Celtic burial laght (above-ground stone tomb).
The purpose of this type of burial is to stop the dead from returning in the form of any of Celtic mythology’s many undead monstrosities such as Fear Gorta (zombies), Dearg Due (demonic vampires), Sluagh (ghosts), and others.
Despite this deterrence, however, Abhartach did the impossible and rose from the grave. Free to terrorize the people of Ireland again, Abhartach started roaming the countryside at night, killing and drinking the blood of everyone he deemed worthy of his anger.
Fionn Mac Cumhail confronted the evil dwarf again, slew him a second time, and once again buried him upright in a laght. The next night, however, Abhartach rose again, and continued his reign of terror over Ireland.
Befuddled, the Irish chieftain consulted with a Celtic druid on what to do with the tyrant. Then, he fought Abhartach again, killed him for the third time, and this time buried him upside-down in a laght, as per the druid’s advice. This new measure ended up being sufficient and Abhartach was unable to rise from the grave again.
Abhartach’s Continued Presence Felt Through His Grave
Curiously, Abhartach’s grave is believed to be known to this day – it’s known as Slaghtaverty Dolmen (translated as The Giant’s Grave) and is near Abhartach’s hometown of Slaghtaverty. The dwarf’s grave is made from one large rock placed horizontally on top of two vertical rocks next to a hawthorn tree.
Just a few decades ago, in 1997, attempts were made to clear the ground, but they proved impossible. The workmen were unable to neither push down the burial stones nor cut down the hawthorn tree. In fact, as they were trying to clear the ground, a chainsaw malfunctioned three times and a chain eventually snapped and cut the hand of one of the workers.
The efforts to clear Abhartach’s burial laght were abandoned so it still stands there to this day.
The Christianized Version of Abhartach’s Myth
Like many other Celtic myths that were later incorporated into Christian mythology, the tale of Abhartach was also changed. The changes are minor, however, and most of the story is still very similar to the original.
The biggest change in this version is that Abhartach’s first death is an accident. In this myth, Abhartach had a castle from which he ruled his land as well as a wife. Abhartach was a jealous man, however, and suspected that his wife was having an affair. So, one night, he tried to spy on her and climbed out of one of his castle’s windows.
As he was scaling the stone walls, he fell to his death and was found and buried the next morning. The people buried him upright in a laght, as was the custom for evil people who may rise from the grave as monsters. From there, the story continues in a similar way to the original.
In the Christian version, the hero who eventually killed Abhartach was named Cathain and not Fionn Mac Cumhail. And, instead of consulting with a druid, he talked with an early Irish Christian saint instead. In addition to telling Cathain to bury Abhartach upside down and surround his grave with thorns, the saint also told him to use a sword made of yew wood.
This last bit is particularly interesting as it relates to contemporary vampire myths that say vampires can be killed by stabbing them through the heart with a wooden stake.
Abhartach vs. Vlad the Impaler as Bram Stoker’s Inspiration
For decades, the widely accepted narrative about Bram Stoker’s creation of the character of Dracula was that he got the idea from the story of the Romanian prince of Walachia (voivode in Romania, also translated as chieftain, leader), Vlad III.
Vlad is known in history as one of the last Romanian leaders to resist the occupation of Romania by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Vlad’s men fought for many years in the mountains of Walachia and achieved many victories. Their leader eventually became known as Vlad the Impaler because he’d order the captured Ottoman soldiers to be skewered on spikes as a warning against further Ottoman attacks. Eventually, however, Walachia also fell to the empire’s onslaught.
While we do know that Bram Stoker took a lot of notes from William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, some recent scholars suggest an additional inspiration for the character of Count Dracula.
According to Bob Curran, a lecturer in Celtic History and Folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, Bram Stoker had also read and researched many of the old Celtic myths, including Weston’s story of the Abhartach.
Curran also adds that the research Stoker did on Vlad III didn’t really include information about his proclivity for cruel punishments and impaling people on stakes. Instead, Curran suggests that a more likely inspiration for parts of Dracula’s story such as the wooden stake killing method may have come from the Abhartach myth.
Symbols and Symbolism of Abhartach
The basic story of the Abhartach is a rather classic tale of an evil tyrant who terrorizes the innocents with his magical powers until he’s slain by a brave local hero. Naturally, the villain acquires his powers via theft and not as a reflection of his worth.
The fact that Abhartach is a dwarf is a reflection of Irish folklore’s tendency to portray heroes as tall and large while villains are usually described as small in stature.
As for the connections to contemporary vampire myths, there do seem to be a lot of parallels:
- Abhartach wields powerful dark magic
- He is royalty/an aristocrat
- He rises from a grave every night
- He drinks the blood of his victims
- He can only be slain with a special wooden weapon
Whether these parallels are just coincidences, we can’t really know. It’s possible that Bram Stoker took his inspiration from Abhartach instead of Vlad III. But it’s also possible that he was inspired by both.
Importance of Abhartach in Modern Culture
The name Abhartach isn’t really seen regularly in modern culture such as fantasy books, movies, TV shows, video games, and so on. However, vampires are arguably one of the most popular fantasy/horror creatures in fiction.
So, if we assume that Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula was at least partially inspired by the Abhartach myth, then versions of the evil Vampire dwarf King can be seen in thousands of works of fiction today.
While Abhartach is relatively unknown in much of the world, it’s likely that this myth influenced other vampire tales that came later. The Abhartach myth is a perfect example of the intriguing and detailed tales of Celtic mythology, many of which have been highly influential in shaping modern culture.