Countess Elizabeth Bathory-Nadasdy

Countess Elizabeth Bathory-Nadasdy

Description: The real story behind the Countess by Mathew Amaral.

Categories: Historical References


The criminal does not make beauty; he himself is the
authentic beauty. ---JEAN PAUL SARTRE.

There is a book by Valentine Penrose which documents the life
of a real and unusual character: the Countess Bathory, murderer of
more than six hundred young girls. The Countess Bathory's sexual
perversion and her madness are so obvious that Valentine Penrose
disregards them and concentrates instead on the convulsive beauty
of the character.

It is not easy to show this sort of beauty. Valentine Penrose,
however, succeeded because she played admirably with the aesthetic
value of this lugubrious story. She inscribes the underground
kingdom of Erzebet Bathory within the walls of her torture chamber,
and the chamber within her medieval castle. Here the sinister
beauty of nocturnal creatures is summed up in this silent lady of
legendary paleness, mad eyes, and hair the sumptuous colour of
ravens.

A well-known philosopher includes cries in the category of
silence - cries, moans, curses, form 'a silent substance'. The
substance of this underworld is evil. Sitting on her throne, the
countess watches the tortures and listens to the cries. Her old and
horrible maids are wordless figures that bring in fire, knives,
needles, irons; they torture the girls, and later bury them. With
their iron and knives, these two old women are themselves the
instruments of a possession. This dark ceremony has a single silent
spectator.

I. THE IRON MAIDEN

...among red laughter of glistening lips and monstrous
gestures of mechanical women.---RENE DAUMAL.

There was once in Nuremberg a famous automaton known as the
Iron Maiden. The Countess Bathory bought a copy for her torture
chamber in Csejthe Castle. This clock work doll was of the size and
colour of a human creature. Naked, painted, covered in jewels, with
blond hair that reached down to the ground, it had a mechanical
device that allowed it to curve its lips into a smile, and to move
its eyes.


The Countess, sitting on her throne, watches.

For the Maiden to spring into action it is necessary to touch
some of the precious stones in its necklace. It responds
immediately with horrible creaking sounds and very slowly lifts its
white arms which close in a perfect embrace around whatever happens
to be next to it - in this case, a girl. The automaton holds her in
its arms and now no one will be able to uncouple the living body
from the body of iron, both equally beautiful. Suddenly the painted
breasts of the Iron Maiden open, and five daggers appear that
pierce her struggling companion whose hair is as long as its own.

Once the sacrifice is over another stone in the necklace is
touched: the arms drop, the smile and the eyes fall shut, and the
murderess becomes once again the Maiden, motionless in its coffin.

II. DEATH BY WATER

He is standing. And he is standing as absolutely and
definitely as if he were sitting.---WITOLD GOMBROWICZ.

The road is covered in snow and, inside the coach, the sombre
lady wrapped in furs feels bored. Suddenly she calls out the name
of one of the girls in her train. The girl is brought to her: The
Countess bites her frantically and sticks needles in her flesh. A
while later the procession abandons the wounded girl in the snow.
The girl tries to run away. She is pursued, captured and pulled
back into the coach. A little further along the road they halt: the
Countess has ordered cold water. Now the girl is naked, standing in
the snow. Night has fallen. A circle of torches surrounds her, held
out by impassive footmen. They pour water over the body and the
water turns to ice. (The Countess observes this from inside the
coach.) The girl attempts one last slight gesture, trying to move
closer to the torches - the only source of warmth. More water is
poured over her, and there she remains, forever standing, upright,
dead.

III. THE LETHAL CAGE

...scarlet and black wounds burst upon the splendid
flesh. --- ARTHUR RIMBAUD

Lined with knives and adorned with sharp iron blades, it can
hold one human body, and can be lifted by means of a pulley. The
ceremony of the cage takes place in this manner:

Dorko the maid drags in by the hair a naked young girl, shuts
her up in the cage and lifts it high into the air. The Lady of
These Ruins appears, a sleepwalker in white. Slowly and silently
she sits upon a footstool placed underneath the contraption.

A red-hot poker in her hand, Dorko taunts the prisoner who,
drawing back (and this is the ingenuity of the cage) stabs herself
against the sharp irons while her blood falls upon the pale woman
who dispassionately receives it, her eyes fixed on nothing, as in
a daze. When the lady recovers from the trance, she slowly leaves
the room. There have been two transformations: her white dress sis
now red, and where a girl once stood a corpse now lies.

IV. CLASSICAL TORTURE

Unblemished fruit, untouched by worm or frost, whose
firm, polished skin cries out to be bitten! ---
BAUDELAIRE

Except for a few baroque refinements - like the Iron Maiden,
death by water, or the cage - the Countess restricted herself to a
monotonously classic style of torture that can be summed up as
follows:

Several tall, beautiful, strong girls were selected - their
ages had to be between 12 and 18 - and dragged into the torture
chamber where, dressed in white upon her throne, the countess
awaited them. After binding their hands, the servants would whip
the girls until the skin of their bodies ripped and they became a
mass of swollen wounds; then the servants would burn them with red-
hot pokers; cut their fingers with scissors or shears; pierce their
wounds; stab them with daggers (if the Countess grew tired of
hearing the cries they would sew their mouths up; if one of the
girls fainted too soon they would revive her by burning paper
soaked in oil between her legs). The blood spurted like fountains
and the white dress of the nocturnal lady would turn red. So red,
that she would have to go up to her room and change (what would she
think about during this brief intermission?). The walls and the
ceiling of the chamber would also turn red.

Not always would the lady remain idle while the others busied
themselves around her. Sometimes she would lend a hand, and then,
impetuously, tear at the flesh - in the most sensitive places -
with tiny silver pincers; or she would stick needles, cut the skin
between the fingers, press red-hot spoons and irons against the
soles of the feet, use the whip (once, during one of her
excursions, she ordered her servants to hold up a girl who had just
died and kept on whipping her even though she was dead); she also
murdered several by means of icy water (using a method invented by
Darvulia, the witches; it consisted of plunging a girl into
freezing water and leaving her there overnight). Finally, when she
was sick, she would have the girls brought to her bedside and she
would bite them.


During her erotic seizures she would hurl blasphemous insults
at her victims. Blasphemous insults and cries like the baying of a
she-wolf were her means of expression as she stalked, in a passion,
the gloomy rooms. But nothing was more ghastly than her laugh. (I
recapitulate: the medieval castle, the torture chamber, the tender
young girls, the old and horrible servants, the beautiful madwoman
laughing in a wicked ecstasy provoked by the suffering of others.)
Her last words, before letting herself fall into a final faint,
would be: 'More, ever more, harder, harder!'

Not always was the day innocent, the night guilty. During the
morning or the afternoon, young seamstresses would bring dresses
for the Countess, and this would lead to innumerable scenes of
cruelty. Without exception, Dorko would find mistakes in the sewing
and would select two or three guilty victims (at this point the
Countess's doleful eyes would glisten). The punishment of the
seamstresses - and of the young maids in general - would vary. If
the Countess happened to be in one of her rare good moods, Dorko
would simply strip the victims who would continue to work, naked,
under the Countess's eyes, in large rooms full of black cats. The
girls bore this painless punishment in agonizing amazement, because
they never believed it to be possible. Darkly, they must have felt
terribly humiliated because their nakedness forced them into a
kind of animal world, a feeling heightened by the fully clothed
'human' presence of the Countess, watching them. This scene led me
to think of Death - Death as in old allegories, as in the Dance of
Death. To strip naked is a prerogative of Death; another is the
incessant watching over the creatures it has dispossessed. But
there is more: sexual climax forces us into death-like gestures and
expressions (gasping and writhing as in agony, cries and moans of
paroxysm). If the sexual act implies a sort of death, Erzebet
Bathory needed the visible, elementary, coarse death, to succeed in
dying that other phantom death we call orgasm. But, who is Death?
A figure that harrows and wastes wherever and however it pleases.
This is also a possible description of the Countess Bathory. Never
did anyone wish so hard not to grow old; I mean, to die. That is
why, perhaps, she acted and played the role of Death. Because, how
can Death possibly die?

Let us return to the seamstresses and the maids. If Erzebet
woke up wrothful, she would not be satisfied with her tableaux
vivants, but:

To the one who had stolen a coin she would repay with the same
coin... red-hot, which the girl had to hold tight in her hand.

To the one who had talked during working hours, the Countess
herself would sew her mouth shut, or otherwise would open her mouth
and stretch it until the lips tore.

She also used the poker with which she would indiscriminately
burn cheeks, breasts, tongues...

When the punishments took place din Erzebet's chamber, at
nighttime, it was necessary to spread large quantities of ashes
around her bed, to allow the noble lady to cross without
difficulties the vast pools of blood.

V. ON THE STRENGTH OF A NAME

And cold madness wandered aimlessly about the house.---
MILOSZ
The name of Bathory - in the power of which Erzebet believed,
as if it were an extraordinary talisman - was an illustrious one
from the very early days of the Hungarian Empire. It was not by
chance that the family coat-of-arms displayed the teeth of a wolf,
because the Bathory were cruel, fearless, and lustful. The many
marriages that took place between blood relations contributed,
perhaps, to the hereditary aberrations and diseases: epilepsy,
gout, lust. It is not at all unlikely that Erzebet herself was an
epileptic: she seemed possessed by seizures as unexpected as her
terrible migraines and pains int he eyes (which she conjured away
by placing a wounded pigeon, still alive, on her forehead).

The Countess's family was not unworthy of its ancestral fame.
Her uncle Istvan, for instance, was so utterly mad that he would
mistake summer for winter, and would have himself drawn in a sleigh
along the burning sands that were, in his mind, roads covered with
snow. Or consider her cousin Gabor, whose incestuous passion was
reciprocated by his sister's. But the most charming of all was the
celebrated aunt Klara. She had four husbands (the first two
perished by her hand) and died a melodramatic death: she was caught
in the arms of a casual acquaintance by her lover, a Turkish Pasha:
the intruder was roasted on a spit and aunt Klara was raped (if
this verb may be used in her respect) by the entire Turkish
garrison. This however did not cause her death: on the contrary,
her rapists - tired perhaps of having heir way with her - finally
had to stab her. She used to pick up her lovers along the Hungarian
roads, and would not mind sprawling on a bed where she had
previously slaughtered one of her female attendants.

By the time the Countess reached the age of forty, the Bathory
had diminished or consumed themselves either through madness or
through death. They became almost sensible, thereby losing the
interest they had until then provoked in Erzebet.


VI. A WARRIOR BRIDEGROOM

When the warrior took me in his arms felt the fire of
pleasure... ---THE ANGLO-SAXON ELEGY (VIII CEN.)

In 1575, at the age of fifteen, Erzebet married Ferencz
Nadasdy, a soldier of great courage. This simple soul never found
out that the lady who inspired him with a certain love tinged by
fear was in fact a monster. He would come to her in the brief
respites between battles, drenched in horse-sweat and blood - the
norms of hygiene had not yet been firmly established - and this
probably stirred the emotions of the delicate Erzebet, always
dressed in rich cloths and perfumed with costly scents.


One day, walking through the castle gardens, Nadasdy saw a
naked girl tied to a tree. She was covered in honey: flies and ants
crawled all over her, and she was sobbing. The Countess explained
that the girl was purging the sin of having stolen some fruit.
Nadasdy laughed candidly, as if she had told him a joke.

The soldier would not allow anyone to bother him with stories
about his wife, stories of bites, needles, etc. A serious mistake:
even as a newly-wed, during those crises whose formula was the
Bathory's secret, Erzebet would prick her servants with long
needles; and when, felled by her terrible migraines, she was forced
to lie in bed, she would gnaw their shoulders and chew on the bits
of flesh she had been able to extract. As if by magic, the girl's
shrieks would soothe her pain.

But all this is child's play - a young girl's play. During her
husband's life she never committed murder.

VII. THE MELANCHOLY MIRROR

Everything is mirror! ---OCTAVIO PAZ

The Countess would spend her days in front of her large dark
mirror; a famous mirror she had designed herself. It was so
comfortable that it even had supports on which to lean one's arms,
so as to be able to stand for many hours in front of it without
feeling tired. We can suppose that while believing she had designed
a mirror, Erzebet had in fact designed the plans for her lair. And
now we can understand why only the most grippingly sad music of her
gypsy orchestra, or dangerous hunting parties, or the violent
perfume of the magic herbs in the witch's hut or - above all - the
cellars flooded with human blood, could spark something resembling
life in her perfect face. Because no one has more thirst for earth,
for blood,and for ferocious sexuality than the creatures who
inhabit cold mirrors. And on the subject of mirrors: the rumours
concerning her alleged homosexuality were never confirmed. Was this
allegation unconscious, or, on the contrary, did she accept it
naturally, as simply another right to which she was entitled?
Essentially she lived deep within an exclusively female world.
There were only women during her nights of crime. And a few details
are obviously revealing: for instance, int he torture chamber,
during the moments of greatest tension, she herself used to plunge
a burning candle into the sex of her victim. There are also
testimonies which speak of less solitary pleasures. One of the
servants said during the trial than an aristocratic and mysterious
lady dressed as a young man would visit the Countess. On one
occasion she saw them together, torturing a girl. But we do not
know whether they shared any pleasures other than the sadistic
ones.

More on the theme of the mirror: even though we are not
concerned with explaining this sinister figure, it is necessary to
dwell on the fact that she suffered from that sixteenth-century
sickness: melancholia.

An unchangeable colour rules over the melancholic: his
dwelling is a space the colour of mourning. Nothing happens in it.
No one intrudes. It is a bare stage where the inert I is assisted
by the I suffering from that inertia. The latter wishes to free the
former, but all efforts fail, as Theseus would have failed had he
been not only himself, but also the Minotaur; to kill him then, he
would have had to kill himself. But there are fleeting remedies:
sexual pleasures, for instance, can, for a brief moment, obliterate
the silent gallery of echoes and mirrors that constitutes the
melancholic soul. Even more: they can illuminate the funeral
chamber and transform it into a sort of musical box with gaily-
coloured figurines that sing and dance deliciously. Afterwards,
when the music winds down, the soul will return to immobility and
silence. The music box is not a gratuitous comparison. Melancholia
is, I believe, a musical problem: a dissonance, a change in rhythm.
While on the outside everything happens with the vertiginous rhythm
of a cataract, on the inside is the exhausted adagio of drops of
water falling from time to tired time. For this reason the outside,
seen from the melancholic inside, appears absurd and unreal, and
constitutes 'the farce we must all play'. But for an instant -
because of a wild music, or a drug, or the sexual act carried to a
climax - the very slow rhythm of the melancholic soul does not only
rise to that of the outside world: it overtakes it with an
ineffably blissful exorbitance, and the soul then thrills animated
by delirious new energies.

The melancholic soul sees Time as suspended before and after
the fatally ephemeral violence. And yet the truth is that time is
never suspended, but it grows as slowly as the fingernails of the
dead. Between two silences or two deaths, the prodigious, brief
moment of speed takes on the various forms of lust: from an
innocent intoxication to sexual perversions and even murder.

I think of Erzebet Bathory and her nights whose rhythms are
measured by the cries of adolescent girls. I see a portrait of the
Countess: the sombre and beautiful lady resembles the allegories of
Melancholia represented in old engravings. I also recall that in
her time, a melancholic person was a person possessed by the Devil.

VIII. BLACK MAGIC

...who kills the sun in order to install the reign of
darkest night.---ANTONIN ARTAUD

Erzebet's greatest obsession had always been to keep old age
at bay, at any cost. Her total devotion to the arts of black magic
was aimed at preserving - intact for all eternity - the 'sweet
bird' of her youth. The magical herbs, the incantations, the
amulets, even the blood baths had, in her eyes, a medicinal
function: to immobilize her beauty in order to become, for ever and
ever, a dream of stone. She always lived surrounded by talismans.
In her years of crime she chose one single talisman which contained
an ancient and filthy parchment on which was written in special
ink, a prayer for her own personal use. She carried it close to her
heart, underneath her costly dresses, and in the midst of a
celebration, she would touch it surreptitiously. I translate the
prayer:

Help me, oh Isten; and you also, all-powerful cloud. Protect
me, Erzebet, and grant me long life. Oh cloud, I am in danger. Send
me ninety cats, for you are the supreme mistress of cats. Order
them to assemble here from all their dwelling-places; from the
mountains, from the waters, from the rivers, from the gutters and
from the oceans. Tell them to come quickly and bite the heart of
______ and also the heart of _____ and of _____. And to also bite
and rip the heart of Megyery, the Red. And keep Erzebet from all
evil.

The blanks were to be filled with the names of those whose
hearts she wanted bitten.

In 1604 Erzebet became a widow and met Darvulia. Darvulia was
exactly like the woodland witch who frightens us in children's
tales. Very old, irascible, always surrounded by black cats,
Darvulia fully responded to Erzebet's fascination: within the
Countess's eyes the witch found a new version of the evil powers
buried in the poisons of the forest and in the coldness of the
moon. Darvulia's black magic wrought itself in the Countess's black
silence. She initiated her to even crueller games; she taught her
to look upon death, and the meaning of looking upon death. She
incited her to seek death and blood in a literal sense: that is, to
love them for their own sake, without fear.

IX. BLOOD BATHS

If you go bathing, Juanilla, tell me to what baths you
go.---CANCIONERO OF UPSALA


This rumor existed: since the arrival of Darvulia, the
Countess, in order to preserve her comeliness, took baths of human
blood. True: Darvulia, being a witch, believed in the invigorating
powers of the 'human fluid'. She proclaimed the merits of young
girls' blood - especially if they were virgins - to vanquish the
demon of senility, and the Countess accepted the treatment as
meekly as if it had been a salt bath. Therefore, in the torture
chamber, Dorko applied herself to slicing veins and arteries; the
blood was collected in pitchers and, when the victims were bled
dry, Dorko would pour the red warm liquid over the body of the
waiting Countess - ever so quiet, ever so white, ever so erect,
ever so silent.

In spite of her unchangeable beauty, Time inflicted upon her
some of the vulgar signs of its passing. Towards 1610 Darvulia
mysteriously disappeared and Erzebet, almost fifty, complained to
her new witch about the uselessness of the blood baths. In fact,
more than complain, she threatened to kill her if she did not stop
at once the encroaching and execrable signs of old age. The witch
argued that Darvulia's method had not worked because plebeian blood
had been used. She assured - or prophesied - that changing the
colour of the blood, using blue blood instead of red, would ensure
the fast retreat of old age. Here began the hunt for the daughters
of gentlemen. To attract them, Erzebet's minions would argue that
he Lady of Csejthe, alone in her lonely castle, could not resign
herself to her solitude. And how to banish solitude? Filling the
dark halls with young girls of good families who, in exchange for
happy company, would receive lessons in fine manners and learn how
to behave exquisitely in society. A fortnight later, of the twenty-
five 'pupils' who had hurried to become aristocrats, only two were
left: one died some time later, bled white; the other managed to
take her life.

X. THE CASTLE OF CSEJTHE

The stone walk is paved with dark cries.---PIERRE-JEAN
JOUVE

A castle of grey stones, few windows, square towers,
underground mazes; a castle high upon a cliff, a hillside of dry
windblown weeds, of woods full of white beasts in winter and dark
beasts in summer; a castle that Erzebet Bathory loved for the
doleful silence of its walls which muffled every cry.

The Countess's room, cold and badly lit by a lamp of jasmine
oil, reeked of blood, and the cellars reeked of dead bodies. Had
she wanted to, she could have carried out her work in broad
daylight and murdered the girls under the sun, but she was
fascinated by the gloom of her dungeon. The gloom which matched so
keenly her terrible eroticism of stone, snow, and walls. She loved
her maze-shaped dungeon, the archetypical hell of our fears; the
viscous, insecure space where we are unprotected and can get lost.

What did she do with all of her days and nights, there, in the
loneliness of Csejthe? Of her nights we know something. During the
day, the Countess would not leave the side of her two old servants,
two creatures escaped from a painting by Goya: the dirty,
malodorous, incredibly ugly and perverse Dorko and Jo Ilona. They
would try to amuse her with domestic tales to which she paid no
attention, and yet she needed the continuous and abominable
chatter. Another way of passing time was to contemplate her jewels,
to look at herself in her famous mirror, to change her dresses
fifteen times a day. Gifted with a great practical sense, she saw
to it that the underground cellars were always well supplied; she
also concerned herself with her daughters' future - her daughters
who always lived so far away from her; she administered her fortune
with intelligence; and she occupied herself with all the little
details that rule the profane order of our lives.

XI. SEVERE MEASURES

...the law, cold and aloof by its very nature, has no
access to the passions that might justify the cruel act
of murder.---SADE

For six years the Countess murdered with impunity. During
those years there had been countless rumours about her. But the
name of Bathory, not only illustrious but also diligently protected
by the Hapsburgs, frightened her possible accusers.

Towards 1610 the king had in his hands the most sinister
reports - together with proofs - concerning the Countess. After
much hesitation he decided to act. He ordered the powerful Thurzo,
Count Palatine, to investigate the tragic events at Csejthe and to
punish the guilty parties.

At the head of a contingent of armed men, Thurzo arrived
unannounced at the castle. In the cellar, cluttered with the
remains of the previous night's bloody ceremony, he found a
beautiful mangled corpse and two young girls who lay dying. But
that was not all. He smelt the smell of the dead; he saw the walls
splattered with blood; he saw the Iron Maiden, the cage, the
instruments of torture, bowls of dried blood, the cells - and in
one of them a group of girls who were waiting their turn to die and
who told him that after many days of fasting they had been served
roast flesh that had once belonged to the bodies of their
companions.

The Countess, without denying Thurzo's accusations, declared
that these acts were all within her rights as a noble woman of
ancient lineage. To which the Count Palatine replied: 'Countess, I
condemn you to life imprisonment within your castle walls.'

Deep in his heart, Thurzo must have told himself that the
Countess should be beheaded, but such an exemplary punishment would
have been frowned upon, because it affected not only the Bathory
family, but also the nobility in general. In the meantime, a
notebook was found int he Countess's room, filled with the names
and descriptions of her 610 victims in her handwriting. The
followers of Erzebet, when brought before the judge, confessed to
unthinkable deeds, and perished on the stake.

Around her the prison grew. The doors and windows of her room
were walled up; only a small opening was left in one of the walls
to allow her to receive her food. And when everything was ready,
four gallows were erected on the four corners of the castle to
indicate that within those walls lived a creature condemned to
death.

In this way she lived for three years, almost wasting away
with cold and hunger. She never showed the slightest sign of
repentance. She never understood why she had been condemned. On
August 21, 1614, a contemporary historian wrote: 'She died at dawn,
abandoned by everyone.'

She was never afraid, she never trembled. And no compassion,
no sympathy or admiration may be felt for her. Only a certain
astonishment at the enormity of the horror, a fascination with a
white dress that turns red, with the imagination of a silence
starred with cries in which everything reflects an unacceptable
beauty.

Like Sade in his writings, and Gilles de Rais in his crimes,
the Countess Bathory reached beyond all limits the uttermost pit of
unfettered passions. She is yet another proof that the absolute
freedom of the human creature is horrible.


-----translated by Alberto Manguel.

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