Vampires, mummies, and Frankenstein may be Halloween favorites, but an even scarier option comes from Croatia. Born the daughter of a Slovenian count, Barbara Celjska (1392-1451, also known as Barbara of Cilli/Celje) would go on to be one of the most infamous women in Croatian history, the Black Queen.

She married Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary and Bohemia, becoming Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, as well as one of the most powerful women in Europe.

With her husband frequently moving between his kingdoms, she often held court at her castle on the top of Mount Medvednica, in the Croatian city of Medvedgrad. Tantalizingly beautiful but wickedly deadly, she was known for dressing in black robes (hence her nickname) and was associated with witchcraft, magic, alchemy, and possibly even vampirism.

Far from her husband, she took many lovers. When she became tired of them, she had them thrown from the walls and down the mountain. Others were lowered into the valley below in a cage with a wild boar inside. She had a pet black raven that would strike and kill anyone who displeased her. People barely mentioned her name out of fear.

One myth is that during a draught her well was the only one that hadn’t dried up in Medvedgrad. She set dogs loose on anyone who tried to take water from it. But eventually the dogs became thirsty too, chasing her over the castle walls, where she fell to her doom.

One of the more popular stories about Barbara’s demise is that she asked the Devil or help in defending Medvedgrad from the Turks in exchange for Medvedgrad and her body, but when she tried to cheat him, the Devil turned her into a serpent and locked her up underground. According to legend she still slithers around the tunnels of the castle, guarding her treasure.

What is the extent to which any of the myths surrounding Barbara are true? She was an unpopular ruler in Croatia as an outsider, but she was also a bold woman who was involved in politics. She helped her husband Sigismund establish the Order of the Dragon (interestingly a connection between Barbara and Vlad III Tepes, the real-life basis for Count Dracula, who was a member), and had a fierce rivalry with her son-in-law, Albert II Habsburg. On husband Sigismund’s death, she was accused of plotting against him and was imprisoned and her possessions stripped from her by Albert, who succeeded Sigismund. She received assistance from Poland before eventually retiring to Bohemia after Albert’s death, living as the Bohemian dowager queen before, in a less dramatic death, succumbing to the plague.

The legend of the Black Queen is still popular in Croatia today. Croatian children play a game called “Black Queen – one, two, three.” One child is the queen, while the other children try to sneak up behind her; but if the queen turns around, the other children can’t move. It is also part of the tourism industry for Medvedgrad, especially since part of the castle has been restored. The tale of the Black Queen was even included in a Halloween tour of Croatia’s scariest sites.

Barbara Celjska, Holy Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia
Barbara Celjska, Holy Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia