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Strange tales: Bulgars, poets and emperors’ skulls

Khan Krum the Fearsome of Bulgaria was an important figure in early medieval Europe, a scourge of the Avars and Byzantines who turned the skull of an emperor into his wine cup and he was not alone in the practice.

Many peoples and cultures throughout history have made bowls, for either eating or drinking, out of human skulls. Totemic and usually with a ritual use, the practice is perhaps most commonly associated with the waves of nomadic ‘horse peoples’ of Eurasian, Iranian and Turkic origins that emerged from that vast expanse of the central Asian steppe from roughly the 8th century BC to the 10th century AD.

One such group of people that came westwards towards the end of this early medieval period were the ‘Bulgars’ or ‘Bulghars’ who eventually gave their name to Bulgaria.

The Bulgars were originally a nomadic Turkic people. Where they came from exactly is not clear but like most Turkic peoples it may have been on the western edges of China. By the 5th century AD they are recorded as living in southern Russia between the Caspian and Black seas and extending a little westwards into what is now the eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and there they stayed until the 7th century AD.

In around 668 AD another people, the Khazars, overran this territory and several Bulgar tribes led by Khan Asparukh moved down into the northeastern Balkans where they settled, with the heartland of their new territory being along the edge of the Black Sea south of the river Danube.

In doing so they moved directly into the sphere of influence of the Byzantines who – having already had to deal with invasions by Goths, Huns, Sarmatians, Slavs, Vandals, Alans and others in recent centuries – were naturally none too pleased at this intrusion by yet another wave of pagan barbarians on their northern frontier.

In 680 the emperor, Constantine IV, led an army against Asparukh but was decisively defeated at the battle of Ongal and forced to both cede territory to the Bulgars and acknowledge the existence of this new Bulgar khanate.

Over the following decades the Bulgars, largely peacefully, established themselves as a political and military elite that eventually amalgamated with the local Slavs and adopted their language although retaining their own particular ethno-cultural identity. Like so many other cultures before them however – the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians and Persians to name a few – one custom at least the nobility seemingly embraced with gusto was the cultivation of vines and enjoyment of wine. The area had a rich viticultural tradition, with the ancient Thracians having built up a wine culture around the start of the Iron Age and the Romans then having spread the practice across Pannonia, Illyria, Dacia and Moesia during the expansion of viticulture under the Roman emperor Probus relatively more recently in the 3rd century AD.

After a series of further wars with the Byzantines, Khan Krum rose to power in 803 and embarked on an aggressive campaign of territorial expansion, which greatly increased the borders of Bulgaria, particularly northwards along the Dniester river and into the Carpathians and what is modern Hungary, as well as westwards and south into Serbia and Macedonia.

The expansion of the Bulgarian empire under Krum with the lighter yellow area showing his conquests from 803-814. The blue arrows in the southeastern corner show the passage of Nikephoros’ army.

In 805 Krum’s army destroyed the remnants of the Avar Khaganate (in modern Hungary) as it reeled from a disastrous war with Charlemagne and in 809 he took Serdica (modern Sofia) from the Byzantines and slaughtered 6,000 people there.

It was this spread into what is now Hungary in 805 however that may have had a profound effect on viticulture and winemaking in the country.

The author and historian Miles Lambert-Gócs has suggested that the Bulgar invasion of the old Avar lands aided the development of Tokaji as a wine region. He notes in ‘Tokaji Wine: Fame, Fate, Tradition’, that a number of the original grape varieties in the Zemplén mountains (of which Tokaji is a part) are reputed to be of Balkan origin; winemaking practices are similar to the distinctive ones the Bulgaro-Slavs would have picked up in Thrace from older, pre-Roman Thracian customs (Tokaji having not been part of Roman Pannonia); and certain place names in the area can be traced to a Bulgaro-Slavic linguistic root as can some wine-specific terms.

For example he says the word ‘kasha‘, used in Tokaji-Hegyalja to denote trampled grapes, is from the Bulgaro-Slav word meaning the same thing, while the Magyar for wineskin, ‘tömlö’, is very close to the Turkish (and hence possibly Bulgar) word ‘tulum‘.

There are also a number of Greek loan words in Hungarian such as the Greek for ‘vat’ which is ‘kados‘, which in Magyar is ‘kád’. Meanwhile the Greek for grape bunch stalks is ‘kotsani‘ which is very similar to the Magyar ‘kocsány‘ while in Bulgar it is ‘kochan‘.

The modern Bulgarian word for pot, vat or cauldron is ‘kazan’ while that for a bathtub or vat is ‘bah‘. The similarity is clearer in some words than others but there are what appear to be tangible links.

The appearance of Greek loan words in Hungarian, particularly with reference to winemaking is intriguing. As the people known as the Magyars did not arrive in the region until the latter part of the 9th and early 10th centuries, it is conceivable if not extremely likely that the Magyars themselves inherited winemaking terms and practices that had already been introduced to the region by the Bulgars in the early 9th century; Greek winemaking terms and loan words that had been picked up and adopted by the Bulgars from their own proximity to the Byzantines and their assimilation of various local Greek-influenced peoples and cultures like the southern Slavs and such remnants of the Romano-Hellenised Vlachs and Thracians that remained when they moved into the area in the 7th century.

As Lambert-Gócs admits though, it is an area that is very under researched.*

As Krum’s territorial accumulation continued apace, the Byzantine emperor, Nikephoros I, was engaged in a war with the Abbasid Caliphate. Nonetheless, he would have listened to reports of what was happening on his northern border with some concern. The death of the caliph Harun al-Rashid and subsequent power struggle among the successors allowed Nikephoros to make peace with the Arabs and refocus his efforts on the Bulgars to the north.

In 811 he marched a powerful army against Krum, so large and terrifying that one contemporary chronicle claimed that the Bulgars, “were unable to resist, they abandoned everything they had with them and fled into the mountains.”

Krum asked for peace but this was denied and Nikephoros marched to the Bulgarian capital of Pliska, which he took, apparently killing a great number of Bulgars in the process including the 12,000 members of the palace guard.

In Pliska he captured not only, says the Chronicle, “great spoils” of treasure but also Krum’s large stores of wine, which he distributed to his troops and then had the city sacked and burned.

With the Bulgars apparently defeated and incapable of giving battle the Byzantines began to ravage the Bulgarian countryside, “plundered unsparingly, burning fields that were not harvested. They hamstrung cows… They slaughtered sheep and pigs, and committed impermissible acts.”

Eventually, with no sign of Krum committing to the fight, the campaign lost all semblance of a military enterprise. The famous Byzantine regiments, the tagmata, became more of an ill-disciplined rabble, the army lost its cohesion as troops broke ranks and ranged far and wide to look for loot. Nikephoros, who the chronicles say at this point was overcome by hubris and lethargy, ceded the initiative to the Bulgarians who had in fact been rallying and preparing an ambush in the mountain passes leading out of their territory.

In this 14th century illustration, a servant brings Krum his wine inside the cup made from Nikephoros’ skull

In a series of harassing raids and ambushes the Bulgars, with their Slav and Avar subjects, wore down the Byzantine army until, after several days of these hit and run tactics, they attacked the Byzantine camp in the Varbitsa Pass at dawn and started a rout in which the majority of the Byzantine army including Nikephoros were killed. The emperor’s son, Staurikos, was paralysed by a spinal wound but although he was rescued by the imperial bodyguard, he died a few months later.

Nikephoros was the first Roman emperor to die in battle since Valens’ death at Adrianople against the Goths in 378 AD. After Krum had stuck his enemy’s head on a spike for a few days he had the skullcap lined with silver and turned into his wine cup, toasting his victories with his chieftains and warriors, presumably with vintages from his restocked cellars.

This grisly custom was possibly a tradition picked up from that other great nomadic people that had once roamed across the Bulgars’ former and current homelands around the Black Sea, the Scythians; who both Strabo and Herodotus say used their enemies’ skulls as goblets. It was a neat juxtaposition of the civilised(as the Greeks and Romans had always viewed it) and now Christian practice of wine drinking and the distinctly barbarian and frighteningly non-Christian tradition of doing so from a human skull. The shock and humiliation of such an act was likely felt as a seismic jolt across the empire.

Nor was Krum the only Bulgarian ruler to drink wine from a defeated enemy’s cranium. As late as 1205 Tsar Kaloyan was reputed to have used the skull of the Latin emperor, Baldwin I of Constantinople, as a wine vessel having captured him at, as it happened, another battle at Adrianople, and then executing him a little later; while the great Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga supposedly took the skulls of three of his enemies and used them as saké cups.

Finally, that great Romantic ghoul, the 6th Lord Byron, likewise had a skull mounted in silver and used as a wine goblet.

A friend, Thomas Medwin, remembered the poet explaining one evening that the skull had been unearthed by the gardener at Byron’s country home, Newstead Abbey in 1808 and was supposed to have belonged to some “jolly friar or monk of the abbey about the time it was dismonasteried.”

Seized by a “strange fancy” to have it mounted as a drinking-cup Byron sent it into town to be so transformed. Edged in silver the polished bone was still very evident and had a “mottled colour like a tortoise-shell”.

Byron went further in his Gothic pretensions saying he had founded a new order with 12 companions of which he was ‘abbot’ and at each chapter meeting: “The crane was filled with claret and, in imitation of the Goths of old, passed about to the gods of the Consistory, whilst many a grim joke was cut at its expense.”

This almost seems too melodramatic and macabre to be true but Byron did have something of a morbid predilection for skulls and had many in his possession. Furthermore, he was moved to write a whimsical poem about his new cup, or “scribbling some lines about it,” as he put it to Medwin, ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull’ in which he imagines the former owner of the skull happy that his bones are being used for something pleasurable than being food for the worms.

The American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, saw the cup when he visited the Abbey in the 1850s and remarked it, “would hold at least a quart – enough to overpower any living head into which this death’s head should transfer its contents.”

The original skull cup is long since gone. In the 1860s the African explorer William Frederick Webb and his wife Emilia bought Newstead Abbey and although they actively set about filling the house with Byron memorabilia, Emilia had the skull reinterred. However, the museum commissioned a copy to be made and it now sits on one of Byron’s tables.

One wonders if the emperors Nikephoros or Baldwin might have agreed with these stanzas from Byron’s ode:

“Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet’s shape
The drink of gods, than reptile’s food.

“Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?

“Quaff while thou canst—another race,
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.”

*Lambert-Gócs does admit that 20th century Hungarian and Slovak writers, such as J. Kossuth in 1903 and B. Varsik in the 1970s, sought to refute the idea that the Bulgars and their Slav allies might have had any influence on regional winemaking but he terms it “Bulgaro-Phobia”, with many turn of the century Hungarians finding the idea of being “lumped in with the Balkan peoples…repugnant”. Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s 1930s travelogue ‘A Time of Gifts‘ likewise ends with many Romanians warning him of the wild and almost perpetually criminal nature of the Bulgarians and that he should not go there, which is perhaps illustrative of how the country and people were viewed by many of their neighbours.

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