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Monday, October 8, 2012

Balkan Chronicles: League of Vampires

It's October and Halloween is coming! What better way to celebrate than to sink our teeth into some true vampire legends?

 Further exploration of the vampire theme has revealed several historical personages who might have been true vampires. Not surprisingly, most are of royal/noble blood - but this could be due to the fact that history is all about those who are in power.

The word vampire itself is now acknowledged to be of Slavic origin (Eastern Europe and especially the Balkans). In a land steeped in vampire lore, there was widespread belief that people who died in sin were able to rise from the grave from sunset to sunrise to suck the blood of the living! The word vampire made its way into the English language in the early 18th Century from the Serbian/ Croatian word vampir, thanks to the case of Arnold Paole/Arnaut Pavle, a documented case of supposed vampirism in a village which is part of Serbia now.

We also see the Serbian connection in the SiFi TV series Sanctuary. The character of Nikola Tesla, played with sardonic flair by Jonathon Young, is a scientific genius with a taste for the finer things in life who is also a centuries-old vampire. In the series, Tesla has a love-hate relationship with the beautiful Helen Magnus, who is also a gifted sceintist (played by a raven-haired Amanda Tapping!). Magnus herself is part vampire - this gives her near immortality, without the need to drink blood and she is quite comfortable to walk in the sunlight too. Magnus and Tesla met in Oxford during the Victorian era, together with a motley crew of interesting characters. Incidently, Nikola Tesla was a real historical personage and he was a scientific genius too. The real Tesla was of Serbian origin but born in Croatia; he is now credited with the invention of alternating current/AC. He was of course, not really a vampire!

1. The Black Queen of Medvedgrad

The name Medvedgrad means 'Bear City'
Medvedgrad is a 13th Century medieval castle town that rises above Zagreb on the slopes of the Medvednica mountains (Bear mountains). I visited Medvedgrad with a friend in early Spring this year and admit to being somewhat underwhelmed. The view from the castle tower is breathtaking enough but the castle-fort has been 'restored' in such a way that most of its dark Medieval ambience and spooky character has been lost.

 Anyway the folklore is more interesting - Medvedgrad is said to be haunted by the Black Queen, a beautiful woman in long black robes who walks the walls and the nearby woods surrounding the ruined castle. An enigmatic and mysterious figure; legend has it that after she was widowed, she only dressed in black, thus earning the name Crna Kraljica  (Black Queen). But the Black Queen also had a black heart and people hated and feared her. According to local folklore, she was not only a witch who practiced alchemy but also a vampire who sucked the blood of young people in Kneginec village. Her other black deeds include having her young lovers thrown out of the castle windows once she grew tired of them! But the Black Queen is most feared for her pet, a giant raven which terrorised the villages near Megvedgrad. She would set her monstrous raven on the poor villagers who angered her and the bird would claw at their faces and peck out their eyes until they fell dead!

 According to a website called Secret Zagreb Walks (, children still play a game called Crna Kraljica - jen, dva, tri (Black Queen - one, two, three). Here a child stands in a circle with her back turned to her friends and quickly recites the above line; while her back is turned her friends try to approach near her and enter the circle. They have to freeze when she turns around because if she sees anyone moving, he/she is out of the game. The child who enters the cicle and touches her without being seen will take her place as the Black Queen!

But is there a real person behind the legend? Most think the Crna Kraljica of Medvedgrad is Barbara Celjska (Barbara of Cilli/Barbara von Cilli/Barbara of Celje). She was the daughter of Herman II, Count of Celje (Celje is located in present-day Slovenia). Barbara married King Sigismund of Luxemburg (he was also king of Croatia and Hungary and later became Holy Roman Emperor)) in 1405 or  1408, when she would have been only 13 or 16 at the later date. All the sources seemed to agree that she was a woman of exceptional beauty, very energetic and ambitious, with a penchant for intrigue. She also founded the Order of the Dragon with King Sigismund; an Order which was established with the express purpose of defending Europe from the Ottoman Empire.

Barbara of Celje was also reputed to have an interest in alchemy and the occult and was even rumoured to drink human blood during communion (perhaps with the Inner Court of the Order of the Dragon?). But Barbara of Celje spent most of her life in Hungary, Slovenia, and the small Croatian town of Krapina (close to the Slovenian border) and could not have spent too much time in Medvedgrad. Was the Black Queen an entirely different person, perhaps?

Some say that Barbara of Celje is the inspiration for Carmilla, the female vampire in the book by Irish author Joseph Sheridan le Fanu. But I don't see any similarity between the charismatic and ambitious Barbara of Cilli as compared to the sappy but blood-thirsty Carmilla.

The story of her brother, Frederic II is more chilling. Legend has it that he murdered his wife, Elizabeth of Francopan in 1422 in order to marry Veronika of Desenice, the daughter of a minor noble from the village of Desenic in Croatia. The couple made their escape to a small village but Count Herman II and his men soon tracked them down. He had Frederic imprisoned in a castle tower (rumored to be either Veliki Tabor or Ojstrica Castle) with no doors or windows, except for a small opening to pass him food and water! Veronika was put on trial for witchcraft as Count Herman believed that she had cast a spell on his son, but she was found not guilty. But the Count had her put to death by drowning (trial by drowning?) and her body was entombed in one of the castle walls of Veliki Tabor. When Frederic II was released after four years, he was said to be broken in both mind and body., and more or less faded out of the picture. His son, Ulric II (by Elizabeth of Francopan), succeeded Count Herman II as Count of Celje. Ulric II turned out to be the last male descendent of the House of Celje, so perhaps the family was cursed by Veronika after all!

2. Count Vlad Dracula

I'm sure by now that everyone knows that the book Dracula, by Irish author Bram Stoker, published in 1897 was based on the historical personage known as Count Vlad III, prince of Wallachia (present-day Transylvania in Rumania). However, Bram Stoker did not create the vampire genre; this has been credited to John Polidori, whose novella, The Vampyre, was published in 1819. In his book, Polidori created the archetypical vampire persona in the form of Lord Ruthven - handsome, alluring, charismatic and predatory.

However, Bram Stoker's Dracula defined the genre and made it wildly popular. Dracula is much more powerful than either Lord Ruthven or Carmilla, two predators who depended more on their wiles and charms rather than raw power to subdue their victims. They were also in many ways, subjected to the constraints of the society they lived in. Dracula broke these boundaries and was the personification of evil.

Castle Peonari was the actual 'home' of Count Vlad Dracula.
Vlad III was born in 1431, and is therefore about 40 years younger than Barbara of Celje. What is interesting however, is that his father, Count Vlad II, was admitted into the Inner Court of the Order of the Dragon by King Sigismund and Barbara of Cilli to swear allegiance to defend Europe against the Ottoman Empire. Count Vlad II decided to take the name Dracul, which means 'dragon' for the great honour bestowed on his family. In any case, Count Vlad II did not keep his oath to the Order of the Dragon - when his land was seized by a Hungarian warlord, he turned to the Ottomans for help. He even allowed his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu 'the Fair' to become hostages in exchange for Ottoman help in securing the throne of Wallachia from the Hungarians. The handsome Radu soon became a favourite of Mehmet II. He converted to Islam, was allowed into the Imperial court and honoured with the title of Bey. As young captives, Radu and Vlad III learnt to fight, ride a horse and speak Turkish. Both also acquired an insider's knowledge of the Ottoman Court. But Vlad III hated his brother and the Ottomans and probably felt betrayed by his father; although being held hostage may have saved him from his father's enemies.

When his father and older brother were asssinated by the Boyar (high nobility), probably John Hunyadi (legend has it that he was the illegitimate son of King Sigismund), Vlad III became prince of Wallachia. He proved to be even more ruthless than his father and attacked the Boyar who were constantly trying to seize power. Once his position was secured, Vlad III turned against the Ottomans although they helped to put him on the throne. His enemies started calling him 'Vlad Tepis' or 'Vlad the Impaler'. Vlad Tepis had no compunction about killing and literaly drank the blood of his enemies.  He also called himself Count Vlad Dracula. However, among the common people of Transylvania the word 'dracul' also referred to the devil; in any case dragons were generally perceived to be evil.

Vlad III was so successful that Mehmet II sent Radu Bey to attack him with a huge army of professional soldiers. Radu eventually laid seige to Castle Peonari - it is said that Vlad's wife threw herself from the castle tower into the river below rather than fall captive to the Turks. It was Radu's turn to became  prince of Wallachia.

Hunyadi Castle is located in Transylvania.
Matthias Corvinus was born here.

Vlad III fled to seek assistance from Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and Croatia (also known as Matthias Hunyadi, the younger son of John Hunyadi). Unfortunately, he was imprisoned by King Matthias, probably in Hunyadi Castle. The name 'Corvinus' is familiar because in the Underworld series of films, the progeniter of both the vampire and lycan races is a 5th Century Hungarian nobleman called Alexander Corvinus. In fact, in the series, the virus which created the two races is known as the Corvinus strain.

Vlad III was eventually released when King Matthias realised that Radu Bey intended to conquer Hungary as well. Vlad III regained the throne of  Wallachia after Radu was assasinated but he ruled only for a few months before he was assasinated himself by his enemies. His head was taken to the Ottoman Court as a prize.

4. Sava Savanovic
Sava Savanovic, who lived in the early 1700s,  is said to be the most notorious vampire from Serbian folklore. According to legend, Sava Savanovic lived in a watermill on the Rogacica River, located in the remote forests of western Serbia. This monster would attack and drink the blood of  unsuspecting peasants who came to grind their grains at his watermill. Local people believe that he still inhabited the watermill until recent times.

The watermill was bought by the Jogodic family who were too fearful to use it as a mill. However, it was not a loss, because the awtermill proved to be a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, they did not repair the mill either for fear of provoking the sleeping vampire. When the disused watermill collapsed in September 2012, there was widespread fear among the people of the nearby village of Zorazje that the vampire Sava Savanovic is looking for a new home!