Frankenstein Castle (Burg Frankenstein) is a hilltop castle in the Odenwald overlooking the city of Darmstadt in Germany. Though built in the 13th century, it was not until the 18th century when the famous book changed its status into a favorite tourist target. There is an opinion that this castle may have been an inspiration for Mary Shelley when she wrote her 1818 Gothic novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.”
Frankenstein is a German name consisting of two words: The Franks are a Germanic tribe and “stein” is the German word for “stone”. Accordingly, the meaning of Frankenstein is “Stone of the Franks”. The word “stein” is common in names of landscapes, places and castles in Germany. Consequently, the term “Frankenstein” is a rather ordinary name for a castle in this region.
Before 1250, Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg built Frankenstein Castle and thereafter named himself von und zu Frankenstein. The first document proving the existence of the castle in 1252 bears his name. He was the founder of the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein, which was subject only to the jurisdiction of the emperor, with possessions in Nieder-Beerbach, Darmstadt, Ockstadt, Wetterau and Hesse. Additionally the Frankensteins held other possession and sovereignty rights as burgraves in Zwingenberg (Auerbach (Bensheim)), in Darmstadt, Groß-Gerau, Frankfurt am Main and Bensheim. The hill on which the castle stands was probably occupied by another castle from the 11th century, which fell into ruins after Frankenstein Castle was built a short distance away to the northwest. Claims of an even older predecessor upon the hill are widespread, but historically unlikely.
The Odenwald, the mountain range on which Frankenstein Castle is located, is a landscape with dark forests and narrow valleys shrouded in mystery and enshrined in legend. Many folktales and myths exist about Frankenstein Castle. None of them have been verified as fact, but all of them have influenced the culture and traditions of the region.
In 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel was born in the castle, where he was later engaged as a professional alchemist. It is suggested that Dippel influenced Mary Shelley’s fantasy when she wrote her Frankenstein novel, though there is no mention of the castle in Shelley’s journals from the time. However, it is known that in 1814, prior to writing the famous novel, Shelley took a journey on the river Rhine. She spent a few hours in the town of Gernsheim, which is located about ten miles away from the castle. Several nonfiction books on the life of Mary Shelley claim Dippel as a possible influence.
Dippel created an animal oil known as Dippel’s Oil which was supposed to be equivalent to the “elixir of life”. Dippel attempted to purchase Castle Frankenstein in exchange for his elixir formula, which he claimed he had recently discovered; the offer was turned down. There are also rumours that during his stay at Frankenstein Castle, Dippel practiced not only alchemy but also anatomy and may have performed experiments on dead bodies that he exhumed. There are rumours[who?] that he dug up bodies and performed medical experiments on them at the castle and that a local cleric would have warned his parish that Dippel had created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. There are local people who still claim today that this actually happened and that this tale was related to Shelley’s stepmother by the Brothers Grimm. However, none of these claims have been proved to this date, and some local researchers doubt any connection between Mary Shelley and Frankenstein Castle.
Despite being a well-known tourist destination, Frankenstein castle has never been developed into a commercial tourist attraction on a large scale. Local people use the mountain chain on which Frankenstein Castle is located for sport activities like hiking and mountain biking. Normally the castle is open to the public until late at night, on-site parking is possible right at the castle and a restaurant serves food and refreshments. Admission and parking are free except during special occasions like the Halloween festival, when there is a charge for admission. However, there are no further tourist facilities on the site.
The castle is easily accessible via Autobahn A5, exit “Darmstadt-Eberstadt”. The site is 35 km (20 mi) from Frankfurt International Airport. The public transport system of Darmstadt serves tram stop “Frankenstein” (located at the foot of the mountain range, a steep 3 km walk from the ruins) with tram lines 1, 6, 7 and 8.