Drinking Wine from Your Enemy’s Skull in Medieval Bulgaria

Have you heard of body shots? It’s a thing mostly at college parties where the exposed stomach of a partygoer substitutes as the vessel for a shot of alcohol. The same kind of thing happened in medieval Bulgaria, but with a much more macabre twist.

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khan krum sits at the table
Khan Krum of Bulgaria depicted using the skull of Emperor Nikephoros I as a wine glass after his victory over the Byzantines. Photo: Public Domain, wikimedia.org

Drinking from another person’s body part is not a new practice. We know that it even happened in medieval Europe, though the context was anything but kinky. Meet Krum, the Bulgarian Khan who defeated the Byzantines and turned the head of the emperor into a drinking cup. And to make matters worse, while Krum was sipping wine from his enemies’ skulls, his strict laws had made drinking illegal.

What should a ruler do to be remembered in history? Military success? Extravagance, à la Louis XIV? Or maybe laying down draconian laws? Khan Krum did all of this. However, being in charge of the Bulgarian state only a century after it was founded was not easy. After successful wars in the north of the Danube, the new Khan established a mutual border with the Frankish empire. But success in the north meant trouble in the south. And Bulgarians have founded their country on the land they won from the Eastern Roman Empire.

This was a tough pill to swallow by Byzantium. So in 811, Emperor Nikephoros I decided to end the Bulgarian country – a menace so close to the capital of Constantinople. A mighty army was gathered, and soon, the Byzantine forces crossed the border with their neighboring country. After receiving information about the size of the invading force, Krum decided to ask for a truce. It was rejected, and a tough decision had to be made.

No retreat, no surrender

Krum knew that his already exhausted army was no match for the invading force. So he decided to retreat from the capital. What followed was an easy victory by the Byzantines, who sacked the city like any medieval army would do. Another plea for a truce was made but to no effect. On the return to Constantinople, the victorious army, riding high on morale, met with something unexpected. While crossing the Balkan mountains, they stumbled upon an ambush in a narrow pass.

The Khan had decided he wasn’t going to be an observer watching his country being plundered. Angered by the fact that Nikephoros had rejected the truce for the second time, Krum regrouped his forces and mobilized militias. The narrow pass in the mountain leading to the way for Constantinople was blocked by wooden fortifications. Once inside this trap, the Byzantine army fell into the hands of the Bulgarians.

A strategic victory calls for a celebratory drink

The decisive military victory was made possible by the strategic retreat and the regrouping, and, of course, with the help of the mountainous terrain. The Byzantine emperor lost his life in the battle, and his head was turned into a silver-plated cup. By drinking from it, Khan Krum followed an ancient Bulgarian tradition of drinking from your enemy’s skull to consume his soul’s energy.

Krum was not only a military genius. After defeating the Avars in the north, he asked the war prisoners why their kingdom became so weak. He then used all the knowledge from the interrogations to create Bulgaria’s first written laws. Apart from harsh penalties for theft and false accusations, vineyards were also eradicated. But that didn’t stop the Khan from drinking wine from the skull of the ex-emperor.

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