The outlaw hero is a ubiquitous character in human history. England has Robin Hood, Australia has Ned Kelly, China has Song Jiang, Wales has Twm Siôn Cati, and Java has Wisanggeni. In Slovakia the historical figure of Juraj Jánošík and his legacy of folk-legend make him a national hero and symbol of resistance for the Slovak people.
Juraj Jánošík was born circa 1688 in Terchova in the Žilina District of modern day Slovakia to Martin Jánošík and Anna Čišníková. As a youth he fought with the Kuruc, the anti-Hapsburg Hungarian rebels led by the Hungarian Prince of Transylvania, Francis II Rákóczi. Following the defeat of Rákóczi at the Battle of Trenčin (August 3, 1708) Jánošík joined the Imperial Army of the Hapsburg Empire.
While serving as a guard in Bytča Jánošík met Thomas Uhorcik, a brigand in one of the robber gangs that roamed northern Slovakia. Jánošík may or may have not have helped Uhorcik to escape, but it is certain that by 1711 he had returned to the Terchova area where he met Uhorcik and joined a band of brigands. His reasons were no doubt prosaic. In an area plagued by unrest, civil wars and poverty, brigandage offered an adventurous young man opportunity for personal wealth and advancement, albeit beyond the pale of conventional society.
The folk-legends that grew out of Jánošík’s life offer different versions of his route into outlawry. In one legend Jánošík plays a trick on his father, masquerading as a highwayman to rob him of all his money while his father was on his way to Liptov to buy mules. On his father’s return to the family home Jánošík reveals himself to be the highwayman and returns the money, having delivered a lesson on the risk of highway robbery. Shortly after Jánošík leaves to join the brigands who allow him to join them after he completes a number of tests.
In another tale Jánošík meets a rich man and his soldiers on a narrow path in the Tatras. Refusing to give way Jánošík is forced to defend himself against the soldiers who try to push him from the path. After a brief scuffle the soldiers and the rich man find themselves at the bottom of the ravine while Jánošík, now burdened by the rich man’s money bag, carries on his way; the money he distributes to the poor and he is forced into hiding in the mountains to avoid the inevitable pursuit.
In both stories Jánošík receives supernatural help from either mountain goddesses or witches, depending on the version, who give him three magical items: a shirt that will stop any bullet, a red leather belt that helps him to run more swiftly than any man, and a valaška (a shepherd’s or mountain axe) that variously allows Jánošík to leap prodigious heights or climb cliffs and peaks inaccessible to others.
A third tradition offers a more gruesome cause for Jánošík turning to a life of crime; the flogging to death of his father by the lord of the manor after Martin Jánošík refused to leave the deathbed of his wife, Anna, to work in the fields.
Whatever the reasons for joining the brigands Jánošík demonstrated an aptitude for the outlaw life and assumed leadership of the band after Uhorcik’s departure. Centred on the King’s Plateau, a triangle of land overlooking Liptov, Jánošík operated throughout the eastern counties of Slovakia and into Moravia, Silesia, Poland and Hungary. His exploits of robbery against the aristocracy earned him sympathy and support and there is some evidence that Jánošík distributed stolen wealth to the poor, with jewels stolen from Lord Skalka distributed to the ladies of Terchova.
In 1712 Jánošík was captured at Klenovce but managed to escape, adding to his already established legend within the region. He was recaptured in 1713, betrayed either by Gajdosik, a fellow gang member, or by his former sweetheart who had lost her heart to the captain of police, Joseph Lehotsky.
During his trial by the county Court of Liptov Jánošík pleaded guilty to charges of robbery of which he was guilty but adamantly proclaimed his innocence in relation to crimes he had not committed such as the robbery of a priest from Orava that had occurred during Jánošík’s incarceration. His defence attorney, Bathasar Palagyay pleaded guilty to charges of robbery and appealed for clemency from the Court. In his turn Jánošík promised to reform his ways, give up his former life, and become a law abiding citizen.
The Court, unmoved by the attorney’s plea or Jánošík’s promises applied a double punishment. Jánošík was to be stretched on the rack for his lesser crimes and then hanged for his greater ones. The death sentence was carried out on March 17 or 18, 1713, in front of a vast crowd. According to popular legend Jánošík, already a national hero, danced the hadjuchy, a lively folk dance, in his shackles, circling the gallows four times and while hanging on the rack refused the Emperor’s amnesty with the words, “Now you have roasted me, you might as well devour me.” Following Jánošík’s execution the authorities pursued other outlaws in Slovakia, arresting and executing Uhorcik, who under his real name of Martin Mravec had married and ran the Gray Falcon tavern in Liptovsky Mikulaš.
Jánošík, like all outlaw heroes, represents a struggle against a power greater than himself and the people he represents. Like all outlaw heroes his actions occur at a time when the tensions created by economic, social, and political conditions created an environment in which taking actions outside the normal bounds of society and against oppressive authorities became acceptable to many, if not legal.
He robs the rich and powerful and shares the proceeds with the poor who offer sympathy and support, such as the shepherds who caroused with Jánošík in the taverns of Klenovce, Dunajov, and Terchova. And, unlike most brigands of the time, Jánošík is not known to have murdered anyone, while his bravura in the face of death is of the style expected from a hero during their last moments. Like Robin Hood and Ned Kelly, Jánošík transcended the role of outlaw hero to become a culture hero. His body is purported to lie in complete preservation in the crypt of the church in Liptovsky Mikulaš where he waits to arise once more to strike down the oppressors of his people.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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