“Bohemia is nothing more than the little country in which you do not live. If you try to obtain citizenship in it, at once the court and retinue pack the royal archives and treasure and move away beyond the hills.” – O. Henry
14th Century A.D. Bohemia (more or less the modern day Czech Republic) was a rough and tumble sort of principality, that at the height of its power saw the King of Bohemia crowned Holy Roman Emperor and exerted authority over Moravia, Silesia, Lusatia, Brandenburg, an area around Nuremberg called New Bohemia, Luxembourg, and several small German towns. King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (1361-1419 A.D.), named the third King of Bohemia at the tender age of two had a somewhat tenuous grip on power, and although not an incompetent ruler and a relatively learned man, vacillated between idleness, alcoholism, and random cruelty. He married Joanna of Bavaria in 1370, but rumor had it that her death in 1386 resulted from a vicious attack by the King’s favorite hunting dogs. He was obviously not marriage material, much more concerned with theatrical entertainments and magic shows. Nonetheless, titles like Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia still impress the ladies, so it is unsurprising that in 1389, Wenceslaus was married for a second time to Sophia, daughter of the Elector Palatine John II of Bavaria. John II was acquainted with Wenceslaus’ fondness for prestidigitation, so when he arrived at Wenceslaus’ capital in Prague for his daughter’s wedding, he had a veritable army of jugglers, dancers, and magicians in tow. A polite gesture, no doubt intended to forestall any future dog maulings, but one that irked King Wenceslaus’ favorite creepy court sorcerer, Ziito of Bohemia, leading to a series of rather gruesome spectacles.
The only near contemporary record we have of Ziito is in the History of Bohemia by Jan Dubravius (1486-1553), Bishop of Olmutz, who painted a rather disturbing picture, remarking that as Ziito took his place among the many wedding guests, “he immediately arrested the attention of the strangers, being remarked for his extraordinary deformity, and a mouth that stretched completely from ear to ear” (Peterson, 1839, p570). This rather odd visage, commonly referred to as a “Glasgow Smile”, although reputedly popular among Scottish street gangs and Batman villains, was not considered fashionable in 14th Century Bohemia, and it seems that Ziito’s particular instance may very well have had more reptilian origins (David Icke fans should not get excited at this point, as I can make no clear connections with any reptilian conspiracy to. dominate the universe). Rather, Ziito was able to unhinge his jaw, much like many of our cold-blooded friends, in the service of quite literally eating the competition alive. Ziito calmly and coolly studied the bumblings of the magical hacks in the retinue of the Elector Palatine of Bavaria and decided drastic action was necessary.
Ziito was for some time engaged in quietly observing the tricks and sleights that were exhibited. At length, while the chief magician of the elector Palatine was still busily employed in shewing some of the most admired specimens of his art, the Bohemian, indignant at what appeared to him the bungling exhibitions of his brother-artist, came forward, and reproached him with the unskillfulness of his performances. The two professors presently fell into warm debate. Ziito, provoked at the insolence of his rival, made no more ado but swallowed him whole before the multitude, attired as he was, all but his shoes, which he objected to because they were dirty. He then retired for a short while to a closet, and presently returned, leading the magician along with him. Having thus disposed of his rival, Ziito proceeded to exhibit the wonders of his art. He shewed himself first in his proper shape, and then in those of different persons successively, with countenances and a stature totally dissimilar to his own; at one time splendidly attired in robes of purple and silk, and then in the twinkling of an eye in coarse linen and a clownish coat of frieze. He would proceed along the field with a smooth and undulating motion without changing the posture of a limb, for all the world as if he were carried along in a ship. He would keep pace with the king’s chariot, in a car drawn by barn-door fowls. He also amused the king’s guests as they sat at table, by causing, when they stretched out their hands to the different dishes, sometimes their hands to turn into the cloven feet of an ox, and at other times into the hoofs of a horse. He would clap on them the antlers of a deer, so that, when they put their heads out at window to see some sight that was going by, they could by no means draw them back again; while he in the meantime feasted on the savoury cates that had been spread before them, at his leisure (Godwin, 1847, p274-275).
Ziito seemed to have a penchant for sorcery with a gruesome flavor. It is said that, although he did not lack money, he was a merry, if grotesque prankster, so endeavored to change a handful of corn grain into thirty hogs. He drove the swine to a particularly miserly dealer in porcine products named Michael, selling them at a bargain price with the simple caveat that the pigs should not be driven to the river to drink. Court sorcerers are generally not regarded as having any great insight into animal husbandry, so Michael duly ignored this cryptic advice.
The hogs no sooner arrived at the river, than they turned into grains of corn as before. The dealer, greatly enraged at this trick, sought high and low for the seller, that he might be revenged on him. At length he found him in a vintner’s shop, seemingly in a gloomy and absent frame of mind, reposing himself, with his legs stretched out on a form. The dealer called out to him, but he seemed not to hear. Finally, he seized Ziito by one foot, plucking at it with all his might. The foot came away with the leg and thigh; and Ziito screamed out, apparently in great agony. He seized Michael by the nape of the neck, and dragged him before a judge. Here the two set up their separate complaints; Michael for the fraud that had been committed on him, and Ziito for the irreparable injury he had suffered in his person (The Parterre,1834, p328).
Famed circus maestro, P.T. Barnum, in examining the history of magical performance, decried the story of Ziito as pure “humbug”, pointing out that this dismemberment episode closely mirrors a similar story about the diabolical Dr. Faustus selling a horse to a jockey.
He once sold a splendid horse to a horse-jockey at a fair. The fellow shortly rode his fine horse to water. When he got into the water, lo and behold, the horse vanished, and the humbugged jockey found himself sitting up to his neck in the river on a straw saddle. There is something quite satisfactory in the idea of playing such a trick on one of that sharp generation, and Faust felt so comfortable over it that he entered his hotel and went quietly to sleep – or pretended to. Shortly in came the angry jockey; he shouted and bawled, but could not awaken the doctor, and ill his anger he seized his foot and gave it a good pull. Foot and leg came off in his hand. Faustus screamed out as if in horrible agony, and the terrified jockey ran away as fast as he could, and never troubled his very loose-jointed customer for the money (Barnum, 1866, p306).
The moral lesson here is that you don’t screw with Bohemian sorcerers. They’ll eat you alive just to make a point and have no problem sacrificing a limb in service of a good macabre joke. We must appreciate Ziito, at the very least, for his commitment to his art. Alchemists, Sorcerers, Magicians, and Witches through the ages have dabbled in the dark arts, attempting to conjure miracles from an external source. Ziito, on the other hand seemed to think that unless cannibalism or maiming was involved, it just wasn’t entertaining enough. This is of course the distinction between involvement and commitment, or as noted by Martina Navratilova, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed”.
Barnum, P. T. 1810-1891. The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, In All Ages. New York: Carleton, 1866.
Godwin, William, 1756-1836. Lives of the Necromancers: Or, An Account of the Most Eminent Persons In Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, Or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power. 2nd Ed. New York: Harper & brothers, 1847.
Peterson, Charles Jacobs, 1819-1887. “Ziito, the Sorcerer”. Atkinson’s Casket v9. Philadelphia: Sam. C. Atkinson, 1839.
“Ziito the Sorcerer”. The Parterre of Poetry and Historical Romance: With Essays, Sketches, And Anecdotes v1. London: E. Wilson [etc.], 1834.