“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil” – C.S. Lewis
Monsters are traditionally thought to be thick on the ground in Transylvania. There is a good reason for this (beyond the obvious connection with Bram Stoker’s fictionalized Vlad Tepe, Dracula). It’s one of the few places you can get a quality occult education straight from the Devil himself. For top tier schools of magic, it’s hard to beat Sibiu’s Scholomance, assuming you can find it, survive it, avoid selection as a dragon-riding aide-de-camp to Satan, and graduate.
Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German), Romania, ranked “Europe’s 8th-most idyllic place to live” by Forbes in 2008 (and the sometimes capital of the Principality of Transylvania in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries) has long been nicknamed “The City with Eyes” or “The City Where Houses Don’t Sleep” due to common use of a Baroque architecture style for ventilating attics that makes the houses look like they have open eyes on their roofs. You wouldn’t sleep either if you lived a stone’s throw from an educational institution where the Devil was dean.
No one is quite sure when Scholomance first opened its doors to eager young, yet nefariously-inclined minds, but a reference is made in Icelandic sagas to the education of scholar Sæmundr Sigfússon (1056-1133 A.D.), who sailed abroad to attend the “Black School” for the Dark Arts, the description of which dovetails closely with the details of Scholomance. Historians believe that Sæmundr probably travelled to “Franconia” (southern Germany), which puts him a whole lot closer to Romania than Iceland. Add to that the fact that one of Sæmundr’s distinguishing traits is an uncanny ability to repeatedly cheat the Devil, and we have to assume he learned from the best, or rather the worst as the case may be.
Class sizes are small (according to tradition somewhere between 9-13 students) and most scholars attend Scholomance on scholarship, but it’s a bit of a roll of the dice, since one of the scholars selected from the freshman class at the end of their education will be obligated to remain in eternal servitude to the Devil’s weather-making business, engaged in the dicey occupation of dragon-wrangling. A celebrated German-born British portraitist and topographic photographer named Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972) was know to have spent some time photographing landscapes in Romania, and while to the best of our knowledge never actually visited Scholomance, probably should be put on the payroll writing their brochures. He even makes the possibility of servitude in a demonic-weathermaking enterprise sound like a somewhat humdrum fate.
This land of strange poetic beauty has many quaint superstitions and observances to interest and captivate the wanderer amid her heights and hollows. Some of the weirdest of these appertain to water. A typical one is the eerie legend of the Scholomance, or School of the Devil. In the heart of the mountains to the south of Sibiu there is a little lake of an almost inky surface, which is immensely deep. This lake is shunned by every Romanian, for it is here that the dread Scholomance is believed to exist; and here proceed those proud and profane scholars desirous of mastering the hidden secrets of Nature and acquiring supernatural powers. As usual in legends concerning the Devil, he gets the best of the bargain. In this instance he is content with a tithe. The Devil selects ten scholars at a time, and proceeds to initiate them into his awful mysteries, stipulating, however, that when nine of them are released and return to their homes as accredited and qualified sorcerers, he may retain the tenth. This poor slave of the Devil never returns to earth to see the clear sky overhead; instead, the baffled magician mounts on the back of a dragon, who, in fair weather, lies asleep under the deep waters of the lake, where he abides all the time with his infernal master, assisting him to brew the thunder which from time to time reverberates through the mountain passes. One can imagine the captured scholar doing in finitely better work as creator of “effects” behind the scenes at Drury Lane or the Lyceum, or as a per former at Maskelyne and Devant’s. A duller task than making thunder in a cold lake all the year round I can scarcely conceive of. The manufacture of Christmas numbers in the summer time would be sheer rapture compared with this tame routine (Hoppé, 1924, p188-189).
Some scholars have related Scholomance to the legendary Dom-Daniel (a magic school said to be underwater near Tunis in the Arabian Nights) and the infamous College of Sorcery in Salamanca (“Scholomance” looks suspiciously like “Salamanca”). One of the leading linguistic theories is that Scholomance is not actually a Romanian term, rather the Germanization of the Romanian “Solomonari”, which is the word for traditional weather wizards, and folk etymologies relate this to King Solomon’s reputed ability to control the weather. Although, what are the odds of two Colleges of Sorcery being named so similarly? About the same as there being two colleges of sorcery, would be my guess.
The legends of Dom-daniel and the College of Sorcery in Salamanca appear in the gypsy Romanian Scholomance, or school which exists somewhere far away deep in the heart of the mountain, “where the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all magic spells are taught by the devil in person.” Only ten scholars are admitted at a time, and when the course of learning has expired nine are dismissed to their homes, but the tenth is detained by the professor in payment. Henceforth, mounted on an ismeju, or dragon, he becomes the devil’s aide-de-camp, and assists him in preparing thunderbolts, and managing storms and tempests. “A small lake, immeasurably deep, high up in the mountains, south of Hermanstadt, is supposed to be the caldron in which the dragon lies sleeping and where the thunder is brewed (Leland, 1891, p128-129).
Of course, common sense tells us, that whether said dragon actually resides at the bottom of a small lake south of Hermanstadt between bouts of thunderbolting, one should probably avoid provoking the creature, just to be on the safe side. Dragons are not known for the mild dispositions.
Romanian peasants anxiously warn the traveler to beware of throwing a stone into this lake, lest it should wake the dragon and provoke a thunderstorm. It is, however, no mere superstition that in summer there occur almost daily thunderstorms at this spot, and numerous stone cairns on the shores attest the fact that many people have here found their death by lightning. On this account the place is shunned, and no true Romanian will venture to rest here at the hour of noon (Gerard, 1888, p5-6).
Psychiatrist James Van Teslaar, reminiscing on his boyhood in Romania, described the Solomonari as more of a long-standing fixture in Romanian folklore related to fears about the kind of weather that can really ruin a farmer’s day, and rather than a select few graduates of the Scholomance, the country-side was rife with itinerant Solomonari looking to make a quick buck.
Next to drought the Romanian fears and dreads hail. One hail-storm, in the middle of a hot summer afternoon, beating down upon the ripened ﬁelds may destroy the hopes and labors of a season and with them the food for the following winter is gone as well. When the Romanian appears particularly worried about it, along come the Solomonari. These are men travelling about and claiming to have the knowledge how to drive away hail from any locality by means of their secret incantations. While some of the peasants are beginning to entertain some doubts concerning the ability of these Solomonari to make good their claim they prefer to be on the safe side and the Solomonar, as a rule, has no difﬁculty to collect his modest fee. It would be unwise, argues the Romanian, to draw the ire of a Solomonar upon one’s self over the matter of a little money. The Solomonari also claim for themselves the ability to drive away rats from the barn by means of their wonderful incantations. If any animals are sick while they are around, the Solomonari will undertake to cure-them. Generally, they are willing to make themselves useful in any capacity in which their miraculous powers can be used (Van Teslaar, 1917, p53-54).
If you’re going to go pro in the Dark Arts, you may as well go for the highest quality education you can get. U.S. President James Garfield once observed, “A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil”. Personally, I think a brave man is a man who looks the Devil in the face and asks him what today’s homework is.
Gerard, E. (Emily), 1849-1905. The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, And Fancies from Transylvania. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and sons, 1888.
Hoppé, E. O. (Emil Otto), 1878-1972. In Gipsy Camp and Royal Palace: Wanderings in Rumania. London: Methuen & co. ltd, 1924.
Leland, Charles Godfrey, 1824-1903. Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling: Illustrated by Numerous Incantations, Specimens of Medical Magic, Anecdotes and Tales. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891.
Stratilesco, Tereza. From Carpathian to Pindus: Pictures of Roumanian Country Life. Boston: J. W. Luce, 1907.
Van Teslaar, James S. (James Samuel), b. 1886. When I Was a Boy in Roumania. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co, 1917.