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  • Jan Ziska, the Human Drum? April 23, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    jan ziska

    One-eyed Jan Ziska was one of the wildest and the best of the generals of the late medieval religious wars. As a Hussite he defended his people, predominantly Czechs, from carnivorous Catholic neighbours and his enemies breathed a huge sigh of relief when, in 1424, JZ was struck down by the plague. However, one of the most curious facts about Ziska was that as he died he demanded that his body be skinned and that his skin be prepared as a drum covering to lead his troops into battle. There is no question that, given JZ’s prestige and the love his men felt for him, a Ziska drum would have been a useful asset after his death. He also, it is said, demanded that his skinned body be left to the wild animals rather than to the worms: Tibetan style. Is there really any truth to this story at all? It seems to conform a little too well to the anti-Hussite image of Ziska, an able warrior, beyond the pale of God.There is also the fact that far from birds and wild beasts devouring Jan he was buried with much keening at Zeslau, where Ferdinand I accidentally stumbled upon his tomb a century later.

    However, there is a curious addendum. In 1744 when Frederick II invaded Prague in 1744 he took possession of the drum of Ziska and dragged it back to Germany with him: Voltaire even wrote an obnoxious poem on the subject, so there was a drum and it did go westwards; Voltaire’s prose history incidentally seems to have been the source for the drum legend in the English speaking world. Of course, this may have been Ziska’s drum, though not made of his skin; alternatively, it may have been a drum ascribed in tradition to the great man but that had nothing to do with Jan. Too bad that the drum got lost somewhere in Freddy’s treasure vaults, presumably to be thrown away in a nineteenth-century spring cleaning when no one could remember any longer what the broken thing in front of them was or was supposed to have been. For those who like the idea of human drums look for an earlier post of ours on a French revolutionary (or more likely victim) from Nantes who had drum ambitions and more dispiritingly the complete lack of contemporary sources for Ziska as a percussion piece. Of course, a lack of foundation has never stopped a poet: Ziska rarely features in western literature but Ziska’s drum appears in Schiller, Quarles and (the tiresome) Byron inter alii. Other human drum stories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com