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Curious cases in Hungarian history: facts and legends we bet you haven’t heard of

History is a very interesting subject; useful for learning from the past, preparing appropriately for the future, and for truly appreciating the present. Many find history to be interesting beyond measure, while some others frown upon the mentioning of it, remembering only the dull history classes they were forced to sit through in secondary school.

What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that history can present some of the wildest and most unbelievable stories known to us, stranger and more bizarre than any fiction humans manage to come up with. In this article, you can read of a few of such curious cases from one of the richest and most turbulent histories of Europe: the Hungarian history.

The mechanical Turk

The Turk (image via Wikipedia)

In the late 18th century, a sensation took Europe by storm: Farkas Kempelen, Hungarian inventor and scientist unveiled his automated chess player, the Turk. This piece of elaborate, intricate machinery consisted of a large box upon which a chess table was lying, and behind it was sitting the Turk: a mechanical, wooden man. The Turk was thought to be fully automated, and yet it beat every human opponent it faced. Some of his more famous opponents included Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin, but hundreds have tried their luck at defeating the Turk, almost all of them failing.

It has been long suspected that there was trickery at play, yet Kempelen opened the doors of the large box before each match to show the spectators that no one was located inside; no one was operating the machine. The phenomenal hoax has since been disproven; indeed, there were skilled chess-players in it (one at a time), hidden amongst the precisely and expertly crafted machinery of the Turk. The truth might have been revealed, but the identity of the original players remains a mystery to this day.

The adventurous story of the Saint Crown

The Saint Crown of the Hungarian kings is a relic of incomprehensible value for the country. According to legend, the beautiful headpiece was awarded to Saint Stephen by the pope as a sign of his support of the newly formed Christian Kingdom of Hungary, some 1000 years ago. Since then, the Crown has been passed down from king to king, has been lost numerous times, damaged (see the tiny cross on top), found again, and so on.

During the Second World War, some crown-guards tried to hide the priceless object from the impending overtaking of the fascists in Hungary, which resulted in the Crown being buried in an oil-barrel for some time. Originally, Hungary’s fascist leader wanted to entrust Hitler with keeping the Crown safe if he died, but the Americans found it first, and the symbolic relic was transported to and remained in the US for 33 years, before being given back to the now-democratic state of Hungary.

The Hungarian king of Madagascar

Portrait of Benyovszky (image via Wikipedia)

Hungarian history had a few peculiar travelers and adventurers whose stories are difficult to believe, starting from Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, who ventured to the far-eastern regions of the world in the 19th century in search of ancient Hungarian history, creating the first ever Tibetan-English dictionary along the way; to Sámuel Teleki, a relentless explorer of Africa, who has a volcano named after him in Kenya to this day.

But perhaps the most bizarre story is that of Móric Benyovszky, a nobleman of Polish and Hungarian descent, who was famous for his mission to Madagascar, this remote, independent island off the eastern coast of Africa.

Sent there by order of the French in 1774, he colonized the island peacefully, which resulted in him being crowned the king of Madagascar by the native peoples. He later had to renounce this title, and died in a battle against his enemy, the governor of Mauritius.

The horrifying story of Erzsébet Báthory

Copy of her 1585 portrait (image via Wikipedia)

In the 16th century medieval Hungary, no doubt countless of horrible and cruel acts have been committed, as was the custom all over the world at that time, unfortunately. None have been crueler, however, than the (alleged) practices of Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous Lady of Csejte.

According to both legend and contemporary accounts, Erzsébet was a vile, cruel, bloodthirsty and dangerous woman, practicing satanism, dark arts and other occult actions of unspeakable nature. She was said to have tortured, maimed and killed her servants, keeping her castle in terror and fear. The most infamous legend is that of the virgin girls whom she allegedly murdered, gathering their blood in bathtubs for the reason of bathing in it. She did this in order to remain young, something that she had reportedly been very obsessed with. Some claimed that she even drank the blood of young women, giving way to suppositions that she was a vampire.

However, it is very important to note that modern historians believe most of these are unfounded legends, fabricated by people in her time to slander and defame the noblewoman. Whether these stories are the result of sour, lying relatives envious of her castle and wealth, or her truly hideous, real crimes, will remain largely speculation; nonetheless, Erzsébet Báthory’s name lives on in infamy.

Zrínyi’s strange death

Here comes the story of how Lord Miklós Zrínyi has died. Zrínyi was a prominent nobleman of the 17th century Hungarian Kingdom. Besides being one of the strongest advocates for the cause of the liberation of Hungary from both under the Turkish occupation and the Habsburg rule, he was a man of imprescriptible merit in war as well as poetry, politics and science.

Unfortunately, his life was cut short by a freak accident, in which a boar tore his neck and head apart while he was partaking in a hunting. To this day, many believe that his death was orchestrated and was an assassination instead; carried out on the order of the court in Vienna.

The death of Sándor Petőfi

Portrait by Barabás M. (1848) /via Wikipedia/

Being probably amongst the 5 most important, prominent and well-known individuals in Hungarian history and culture, you would be forgiven to think that the circumstances of Sándor Petőfi’s demise are well documented and clear. However, the fate of this famously spirited poet is as uncertain and dubious as it gets. Most historians agree that the last time Petőfi was seen alive was in the battle of Segesvár in 1849, after which his whereabouts become unknown.

For a long time it was believed that he perished in the battle and was buried in an unmarked mass-grave; a lot of evidence pointed towards this, but his body was never found. Different theories surfaced as time passed: some suggested that he survived somehow, escaped to America; some believe that he was taken captive by Russians, living out the rest of his life in remote Siberia, far from his beloved homeland. There are even unbelievable claims of certain poems he wrote while in captivity, none of which ever surfaced as definite proof.

People claim to have seen his grave in Russia, and there was even an expedition prepared to confirm this, ready to use DNA-testing methods in search of the elusive truth. All efforts were futile, and to this day no one knows for sure what happened to the legendary Petőfi.

Bonus: the coach from Kocs

Many do not know, but the wooden carriage, also called coach, was invented in Hungary. It was in 15th century Kocs, a small town of the Hungarian Kingdom where this vehicle was designed and perfected for the first time, quickly spreading through Europe in the following decades. In Hungarian, its name is Kocsi (also used for car and wagon), literally meaning of Kocs.

The word is one of the few that found their way into Western European languages: coach (English), coche (Spanish), Kutsche (German), and so forth. Interestingly, light carriages are called madzsar in some parts of the Caucasian region and Anatolia, referring to Magyar, the Hungarian word for “Hungarian”.

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  - Emily Brontë


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