Monday, 17 August 2015

GUEST POST: Elizabeth Bathory - Female Werewolf

by Jazmina Cininas

Jazmina Cininas is a practicing visual artist, curator, arts writer and lecturer in Fine Art Printmaking. Her elaborate linocut portraits reflect a long-standing fascination with representations of female werewolves, and draw on a wide range of sources such as historical records of witch hunts and werewolf trials, psychiatric and medical literature, fiction, folklore, cinema and the internet. Jazmina’s chapter ‘Fur Girls and Wolf Women: Fur, Hair and Subversive Female Lycanthropy’ appears in She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves (Manchester, 2015). For the record, Jazmina is not a werewolf.

Erzsébet was frequently mistaken for a vampire, 2011
reduction linocut
edition: 20
image: 37.0 x 28 cm
paper: 43 x 34.3 cm

In 2011, I created the linocut portrait Erzsébet was frequently mistaken for a vampire commemorating the early seventeenth-century Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory, as part of my Girlie Werewolf Hall of Fame PhD project. In his 1980s’ book, Dracula was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania, Raymond McNally argues that Erzsébet is at least partly responsible for inspiring Bram Stoker’s Dracula, while Hungarian director Peter Sadsy christened Erzsébet Countess Dracula in his 1970 horror film of the same title. It is a moniker that has persisted not only in popular culture but also amongst Báthory scholars, including Tony Thorne, who named his 1997 biography Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elisabeth Báthory. That Erzsébet has come to be immortalised as the Countess of Blood demonstrates just how entrenched vampire lore has become in the Báthory persona; however her earliest supernatural incarnation in popular culture in the West was as a werewolf. It is this lesser known incarnation of Erzsébet’s persona that I commemorate in my portrait.

In his 1912 anthology of werewolf lore, Werwolves (most of it his own invention) Elliot O’Donnell differentiated vampires from werewolves on the basis that the former was a transmissible disease while the latter was not, declaring: “Vampirism is infectious… Lycanthropy is not infectious.” The statement indicates not only that the infected bite is a relatively recent development of werewolf lore, but also that there was sufficient overlap or confusion between vampirism and lycanthropy to necessitate the articulation of a clear distinction between the two at the time. Werewolves found themselves swept up in the vampire wave which peaked in 1730s Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, sustained within the established concepts of witchcraft, animal familiars and cannibalistic devil worship. Etymology reveals a special intimacy between the occult entities, particularly in Eastern Europe. The Russian volk-odlak, from volk meaning ‘wolf’ and dlak meaning ‘hair’, originally designated the werewolf; however it has come to refer exclusively to vampires, and we see a similar shift in occult allegiances in the Serbian vukolak/vukodlac, the Bulgarian vrkolak, the Czech vilkodlak and the Greek vrykolakos. In Romania, Greece and East Prussia it was furthermore believed that a werewolf could return as a vampire after death or vice versa. Among the other elements of werewolf lore absorbed into the later vampire tradition are the tell tale omens of paranormal inheritance such as having been born with teeth or a tail.

Sabine Baring-Gould first brought Erzsébet’s story to the Western imagination in the English language’s first in-depth examination of werewolfism, The Book of Werewolves. Published in 1865, some thirty-two years before Dracula, Baring-Gould’s text suggests that in the late nineteenth century the Countess was more properly considered a werewolf than a vampire. Baring-Gould conforms to nineteenth-century protocols of self-censorship in not providing a surname, simply referring to the Countess as “Elizabeth __”, which may go some way towards explaining why her association with lycanthropy never took hold in the same way that her directly-identified association with vampirism did, although the former is not completely forgotten. An online search of The Columbia Encyclopedia sees Erzsébet “celebrated in legend as a female werewolf”, and she also rates an entry in Brad Steiger’s 1999 encyclopaedia of all things shape-shifting, The Werewolf Book.

Čachtický hrad, where Báthory was imprisoned from 1610-1614.
Site visit, European Werewolf Odyssey, 20 April 2009

Erzsébet Báthory remains a contested figure, even amongst historians. The general consensus is that Erzsébet was arrested and imprisoned in her own castle tower at Čachtice in the final days of 1610. She was charged with witchcraft and the reputed torture and murder of anywhere between thirty-six and 650 young women from her local village and the lesser gentry, although she was never formally convicted of any crime, unlike four of her servants, believed to be her accomplices. She finally died in her tower prison in 1614.

In his chapter, ‘Posthumous Verdicts’, Thorne points to a number of writers who question the motives of those who brought the accusations against Erzsébet and the legitimacy of the court proceedings against her. In an age and society that saw mistreatment of servants as the nobility’s prerogative, violence as commonplace, and medical practices that were often akin to torture, Thorne argues that the shaming and incarceration of the powerful and wealthy widow was suspiciously convenient for a number of her political rivals, especially those who owed her money. Numerous books, films and visual representations perpetuate the myth that Erzsébet bathed in the girls’ blood in her belief that it would preserve her youth and beauty, and this salacious detail has become the default visualisation of the Countess, as a Google image search will attest. This was certainly the form chosen by the McFarlane toy company for their Elizabeth Bathory action figure, released in 2004 as part of their Monsters Series 3: Six Faces of Madness collection.

McFarlane Toy Company, Elizabeth Bathory painted action figure,
McFarlane’s Monsters Series 3: Six Faces Of Madness,
released June 2004, 15.2 cm

The series is known for its graphic depictions of notoriously bloodthirsty serial killers or tyrants from throughout history, and adds the macabre touch of three heads impaled on a candelabrum in the Báthory figurine while the Countess indulges in a literal bloodbath. Yet this latter motif did not appear in the Báthory legend until 130 years after her death, first appearing in László Túróczi’s 1744 travelogue of the Hungarian nation, A Short Description of Hungary together with its Kings.

Although there are numerous representations of Erzsébet in visual culture, only one portrait of her is known to have been painted from life; however it has either disappeared or is of contested authenticity. Painted in 1585, the portrait inspired a number of copies soon after, leading to speculation and contradictory claims as to which is the original painting. The portraits in question all follow the same template: standing pose in regal dress with laced, deep red bodice, pearl choker/chain and distinct white lace collar.

Anonymous, 17th century copy of the lost 1585 original portrait of Erzsébet Báthory

The question “Who is the Real Erzsébet?” posed on the website is pertinent not only to the five portraits on display, but also to the myriad personifications of the Countess in literature and film, very few of which, however, acknowledge her early ‘career’ as a werewolf.

In my own interpretation of the Báthory legend, I wanted to draw particular attention to the lycanthropic motifs that have generally been overlooked in visual representations of the Countess without overly romanticising or demonising my subject or neutralising the wolf. My intention is to imbue my female subjects with additional agency through the wolf, part of which requires acknowledgment of the wild canid as top predator. In Erzsébet’s case I was keen to explore whether it was possible to address the complexities of the historical person and her subsequent mythic persona, without casting her as either victim or monster.

The extravagant Hungarian lace collar and the muted maroon and ochre tones, along with the placement of the crest in the top right hand corner, nod towards the historical portraits of the countess, thereby locating my Erzsébet within her ‘legitimate’ visual tradition.

Báthory crest

In their chapter ‘The Social Biology of Werewolves’,* W.M.S. Russell and Claire Russell claim that the ‘E’ in the Báthory coat of arms is constructed from a vertical jawbone intersected by three wolf’s teeth (they are actually dragon claws), and also mention a legend in which Erzsébet was followed about by a she-wolf, reinforcing lycanthropic allusions. I have included this latter element in my portrait as well, further integrating woman and wolf through merging the facial features of the two species.

Julie Delpy as Erzsébet Báthory (top) in Delpy (dir.), The Countess (2009)

Julie Delpy as the werewolf Serafine Pigot
in Anthony Waller (dir.), An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)

From amongst the multiple versions of the Erzsébet Báthory portrait and multiple interpretations of the countess in film, I have chosen Julie Delpy to be the face of my Erzsébet. The French-born actress directs herself as the youth-obsessed lead in her 2009 film of the Báthory legend, The Countess, and also played the female werewolf Serafine Pigot in the 1997 film, An American Werewolf in Paris, thereby serving to further reinforce the lycanthropic references of my portrait. Delpy’s eye has also been merged with the wolf’s profile, offering a less monstrous imagining of the confluence of the lupine with the feminine than seen in An American Werewolf in Paris.

I have resisted the blood bath and fangs, however the ruby red perfume bottle offered up by the extended, bloodied hand nods to popular myths surrounding the Countess and her belief in the cosmetic virtues of blood. The title, Erzsébet was frequently mistaken for a vampire, acknowledges the intimacy between werewolf and vampire lore, as exemplified in the Báthory legend.

Detail of working drawing for Erzsébet was frequently mistaken for a vampire,
2011, digital collage

I have excluded the fang motif from my portrait of Erzsébet Báthory, even though I have used it in other portraits. In the case of Erzsébet, I was concerned that fangs would visually locate her too strongly within the vampiric tradition, reinforcing this version of her culturally constructed persona, whereas I wished to draw attention back to her largely neglected lycanthropic legacy.

Although dominant visualisations of Erzsébet Báthory see her largely aligned with the vampiric tradition and its inherent stereotypes, I hope that returning the focus to her earlier cultural incarnation as a werewolf takes a step towards redressing this largely under-represented aspect of the countess’ mythos in visual culture, while also locating Erzsébet at a significant crossroad of an evolving tradition of representing lupine femininity.

* in Animals in Folklore, edited by J.R. Porter and W.M.S. Russell (Cambridge, 1978)

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