Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the brilliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.


23 Responses to “Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto”

  1. […] A clever analysis of the Hammer horror Dracula film, and its garbled Latin family motto: “Fidelis et Mortem”.  What does it mean? Penelope Goodman of Weaving and Unpickings has all your answers. […]

  2. Michael Simpson said

    The accusative of specification is possible in Latin, but it occurs only in certain constructions, and the Dracula motto is not one of them. It’s a kind of “Greekification” of Latin with, e.g., a passive participle construed as a middle, which voice Latin, strictly speaking, lacks. See W.S. Gordis, “The Accusative of Specification in ‘Aeneid’ I-VI, CJ 5.2 (Dec. 1909), 68-76. I’m not sitting in my study in upstate New York surrounded by grammars, dictionaries, and such, but in a hotel room in Dallas, Texas. I was actually trying to find Jonathan Miller’s “The Drinking Party”–you have looked for it, too–and wound up at your blog and your piece on “Fidelis et mortem,” which I read but was not persuaded by. There’s another article by one W.H. Kirk, “The Acc.of Spec. [my abbreviations] in Latin,” “Classical Weekly” 13 (1919), 91-93, 98-101. These I found on the Internet, and they confirmed what I already knew. Dreary reading, my hotel room is hot, the air conditioning is noisy, it’s late (12:31 am, 25 June 2014), and I want to go home.

    But my inner pedant was summoned by that @#$%& goddess, Pietas, and I had no choice.

    Be well, Professor Goodman, and keep “spes” alive, to quote Jesse Jackson, if he had said exactly that.

    M. Simpson,

  3. Dracula’s heraldry is also suspect. The supporters appear to be merlions with tridents, a device often seen on 19th century municipal arms of seaside townships. There is no helm or coronet, very odd for the bearings of a titled aristocrat like Dracula. There’s just a crest showing a fully-rigged ship, again very odd for someone who resides in the Carpathian mountains.

    • Yes, I always thought the ship was a bit surprising! There is a big flag on his staircase showing a ship, too, visible as he descends into the hall to welcome Harker to his home. I suppose you could read both as a subtle little nod to the journey of the Demeter from Stoker’s novel, reincorporating it into the film after it had been excised from the actual screenplay.

    • Paul Carr said

      In the sequel, Dracula Prince of Darkness, the coat of arms over the dining room fireplace has completely changed, with the merlions replaced by eagles (or gryphons?) and a different design on the shield. In a later sequel, Scars of Dracula, we see the coat of arms on the name plate of the Count’s coffin, and it has changed again, this time having no heraldic beasts but a crow (or similar) on the shield. Perhaps the Count had a different coat of arms created each time he was reincarnated.

  4. Paul Carr said

    Thank you so much for this! As a former Latin teacher and a Hammer film fan, it’s been a struggle to convince other Hammer fans that this motto does not and cannot mean simply “faithful unto death”, as peoples’ eyes quickly glaze over when you start explaining the uses of the accusative case, etc. My own theory has always been that this is an abstract from a longer text, which would provide the verb governing the accusative mortem, but I have never been able to find any such passage, and perhaps this is why. Thanks to Peter Olive for pointing it out, and thanks to you, Penelope, for sharing it. Its a relief to learn that I’m not the only one in the world to have fretted over this motto!

  5. Lenora Salmon said

    Thank you Ms. Goodman! Yet again, I am watching my favorite Hammer films, on Turner Classic Films, in celebration of the upcoming Halloween holiday. Tonight,I noticed the crest in question for the first time. And, I googled, and came upon your blog, to find the exact freeze frame currently on my television. Ahhh, I am in the right place! And since all the sequels mentioned above by Paul Carr ( a huge thanks, as well) are also on tonight, I shall also be able to closely study the crests in the upcoming movies! Who says television isn’t educational? (OK well, actually it was the two of you that were educational….) Immensely enjoyable- thank you again.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Lenora, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! As a huge Christopher Lee fan, I’m very jealous of the TCM schedule currently showing in the States. Here in the UK, we have a channel of the same name, but it just shows lots of rubbish old westerns, and we’re getting none of the Christopher Lee star-of-the-month treats that you are. Ah well, to the DVD collection for me!

  6. Greg Medernach said

    Hi. Love your post here. Great stuff! The only issue I have with your piece is this: The motto says not: “Fidelis et Mortem”, but rather: “Fidelis et Morten”. Look again at your screen grabs: that’s an N, not an M, at the end of the motto on both the crest over the fireplace and also on the stationery. I’m pretty sure that’s a mistake by the designer or the construction crew, but it does say: “Fidelis et Morten” on both. Sorry to be pedantic about it. I do think your conclusions are correct though, and that it was supposed to read: “Fidelis et Mortem”.

    I think the motto and the crest design are supposed to be inside jokes given the subject matter and story (and as you say the excised yachting excursion aboard the Demeter). But if this were truly Dracula’s motto, wouldn’t it have been written and put in the castle back when Dracula was still a living, mortal man: a pre-vampire Dracula family motto? I mean, would a vampire really go and hire someone to put a crest and a motto in his castle? For what reason? And who would do such a job? Another disguised vampire hunter like Jonathan Harker? Maybe he gets all his work done that way and then drinks their blood without ever paying the bill. In fact, maybe Valerie Gaunt was another vampire hunter answering an ad for a housekeeper, and after she cleaned up the castle, Dracula drank her blood and made her his live-in girlfriend. (Can you imagine: Dracula living in sin in 1958? Shocking!)

    Also: I think Valerie Gaunt’s vampire woman character is saying the things about Dracula being so mean and please take her away and such to Jonathan Harker simply to distract him so that he will hug and comfort her and she can bite his neck and drink some of his yummy blood. I believe Dracula is disapproving of this taking the initiative thing on the part of his vampire girlfriend because like in the Bela Lugosi version, he was saving Harker (Renfield in the Lugosi version) for his own midnight snack, and she was trying to steal it out of the office fridge even though Dracula had already put his name on it. (The nerve of some people!)

    I love stuff like your post where people actually get serious about movie details like this. I hope someday someone does a history of the bed we see in Jonathan Harker’s room in Dracula’s castle. I have seen that bed in so many movies and TV shows over the years! It’s in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), and it was in The White Queen mini-series a couple of years back. I think I also saw it in Game of Thrones and the Tudors as well. I love that big four-poster bed! I’ll bet it’s sitting in some prop house somewhere in England just waiting for its next job.

  7. Maurice Dufilho said

    I was just watching the movie for the first time tonight approaching Halloween October 15 Sunday evening 2017. And went through the same attempt to translate something taking the objective case or the accusative case directly after the conjunction and it didn’t make any sense . It didn’t make any sense to me as I said. But I did teach Latin about at the time of the Kennedy assassination. And I had classical training in lesson all through preparatory school junior college and of all places Warren County Missouri. It was there that students were mandated to speak Latin and recreation. This was especially true in land and adventAdd

  8. Ron Benoit said

    Hi there. The Dracula story has always been one of my favorites. I find it very interesting what you’ve done. Good job. I’m baffled when people only think of Dracula as a monster story and I’ve always thought of it as a very pitiful love story. Anyways thanks and good job. Have a great day!

  9. Ron Benoit said

    Hi. After I left a comment I read the other comments and Greg Medernach stated that it actually said Morten instead of Mortem. So I went back and looked at the images and it does say Mortem. On the stationary it’s not clear enough to make it out between an N or an M. However on the crest the letters are raised and you can actually see the shadow to the right of most of the letters including the last M. Looking at it as an N the right side of the letter would be straight up and down and not leaning to the right. But as an M you can see the shadow even though you can’t see the right vertical line of the last M. That skinny little Shadow tells me that that last line is there even though we can’t see it. Just saying. Have a good oMe!

    • Peter Warden said

      You can see at the wall clear a “N” at the end.
      And on the letter you can’t see the “N” but you can see the letter is shorter as the first “M”.
      It is definitely a “N”

  10. Cristian said

    Hello! I am struggling with translating for the purposes of a heraldic motto the following: „From his/her hand (I take) even poison“. I want the verb to be omitted for brevity. Would the following be true to the intended meaning? MANU EIUS VENENUM ETIAM or rather MANU EIUS ET VENENUM?

    • Hi Cristian! Both of those are grammatically correct, and indeed you could have the final two words in the first option either way round – i.e. venenum etiam or etiam venenum. (This isn’t true for the other, as you wouldn’t want to end a phrase with ‘et’ – so it can only be et venenum, not venenum et.)

      The choice between the two is then just about nuance and style. I think your second phrase is probably closer to the English meaning you want, as etiam is more often found meaning ‘also’ (rather than ‘even’), but ‘et’ is more often used to mean ‘and even’ or just ‘even’. But it partly just comes down to what sounds better and feels better for you.

  11. […] Blogartikel von Penelope Goodman über Draculas fehlerhaftes Latein lässt sich finden unter, obwohl dort leider der Denkfehler gemacht wird, Dracula hätte sein Schloss erst nach seiner […]

  12. […] Blogartikel von Penelope Goodman über Draculas fehlerhaftes Latein lässt sich finden unter, obwohl dort leider der Denkfehler gemacht wird, Dracula hätte sein Schloss erst nach seiner […]

  13. […] Blogartikel von Penelope Goodman über Draculas fehlerhaftes Latein lässt sich finden unter, obwohl dort leider der Denkfehler gemacht wird, Dracula hätte sein Schloss erst nach seiner […]

  14. […] Goodman, ókortörténész posztja hívja fel a figyelmet Dracula címerére és annak latin nyelvű feliratára a Horror of Dracula […]

  15. Peter Warden said

    You have done the same mistake as I have done first.
    The eye sees what it want to see.
    “Fidelis et morten” is to read on the wall and slmost not to see on the letter.
    “Morten” and not “mortem”.
    This word doesn’t exist at all.
    Your explanation ist great.
    I like it

  16. Paul said

    Hi Penelope. What’s interesting is that this motto sets the stage for Latin being included in almost every subsequent Hammer Dracula film: there’s none in BRIDES (although there is the Latin burial service in KISS OF THE VAMPIRE); then Sandor administers absolution and Extreme Unction in Latin (with a glitch or two) in PRINCE; there is Mass (strictly the Leonine Prayers after Mass), Exorcism (two brief excerpts from the Roman Ritual, with pauses in all the wrong places), and the Pater Noster (not to mention the book on vampires in Latin) in RISEN; the Pater again in TASTE; Twice the priest prays in Latin (badly) in SCARS, including the Pater again; none in AD 1972, but in SATANIC, Van Helsing has his “Soli Deo gloria. Nisi Dominus frustra” when confronting Dracula, and (correct me if I’m imagining this) it seems that Keeley, just before Van Helsing slaps hin in his laboratory, clasps his hands and says something which sounds to me like “Veneratio in sanguis sanct-” before being interrupted (sanctorum, presumably), although again it is grammatically incorrect. I wonder if there is any other film series in which Latin has featured so often?

    • Hi Paul. Thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right, and your catalogue of the occasions when it shows up is really useful. You’re right that the majority of it is liturgical Latin, and often a bit shaky! I suppose it is part of the landscape of Gothic horror, which is often interested in the conflict between the forces of Christian good (manifesting as church Latin) and Satanic evil (manifesting as magical / alchemical Latin). But we shouldn’t take for granted that Hammer would have applied that template, just because we’re so used to it and it now seems a given in hindsight.

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