Recreation of a 16th century Italian sketch of Invortus

This next one comes out of a recent rabbit hole of mine: strange stories from the ancient world. And my oh my is it a deep rabbit hole.

The story I chose comes out of a little-known Roman text written by a man named Tullus Trebonius Mundus in 118 AD. The text is titled Codex Primarius Romanus in Latin—which translates to “The Principle Roman Codex”.

The Codex was a monumental work when completed, numbering some 30 volumes. Unfortunately, only fragments survive. However, the Codex is interesting as it gave an exhaustive view of daily life in the Roman Empire, particularly the capital city itself. Not only did it chronicle the daily routines and habits of its citizens, but also some of the stories they told each other. Effectively, the Codex includes what we would today call “urban legends” of ancient Rome.

One of the most interesting of these “urban legends” is of a being named Invortus. No where near Olympian status, this minor deity appeared to people in dreams and trances, offering them wishes. But he always asked a steep price.

This wish-granting demon was nicknamed “the Pauper of Rome” (Vir Pauper Romae in Latin) or “the Fool of the Aventine” (Asinus Aventini). According to the Codex, Invortus had been living in Rome since the most ancient times. The first story to involve Invortus said that he helped to overthrow the Roman monarchy by making a deal with the conspirators. Brutus, one of the Republic’s first consuls, was killed that same year at the Battle of Silva Arsia. That was Invortus’s price for overthrowing a government.

Invortus made his home in a cave in the Aventine Hill that overlooked the Tiber River. During the day, Invortus was in his cave or else down in the sewers and catacombs of the great city. Some said he was guarding an entrance to the underworld that lay beneath the Tiber; others that he did not like sunlight. Invortus appeared as a bald fat man with dark, mottled skin and wearing a senator’s toga. His skin was filthy and he oozed tar, leaving black smears on the ground and on anything he touched.

Modern garden built on top of Invortus’s cave

Invortus greeted any he met jovially, treating them like long-lost friends. He was indeed a friend to all, rich or poor. He made deals with any who wished, so long as they were at least 25 (25 being the age of full maturity in Roman law). If someone wanted to make a deal with Invortus, he would often come to them in their dreams. But there are a number of instance where people met him at night in the streets of Rome.

When meeting them in the waking world, he always asked politely for a penny, since according to the Codex, he always claimed poverty. Giving Invortus a penny was seen as a courtesy: to refuse would be to incur his malice. And Invortus had a wicked sense of humor.

One freedman, Hippocrates, who refused to give Invortus a penny was later taken to surgeons with a burning pain in his colon. When the surgeons drugged him, they found ten copper pennies lodged in the man’s rectum. Hippocrates survived the surgery, but his bowels never did work the same again.

When one did make a contract with Invortus, they were bound to it. Invortus was clever and an expert in legalism. There was no loophole that one could exploit to escape their contract. And the price that Invortus asked always had unexpected consequences.

There was really only one thing that would prevent Invortus making contact with someone. Invortus loved filth: he was filthy himself and lived in dark, disgusting places. Therefore, it made sense he hated baths. There are no instances of Invortus ever entering a bathhouse or getting too near a water reservoir.

There is an account of a young man, Valerius Nummus, fleeing his debt to Invortus by hiding in a public bath. Valerius  hid in the baths for two days. Thinking Invortus had left, Valerius exited the building. At once, the man was struck by a runaway cart and killed.

The stories written in the Codex make it appear Invortus was active all times of the year. Though, his favorite time to mingle openly with the people of Rome was during the festival of Saturnalia in December. During this 6-day long celebration was marked by public feasting, pranks, gift-giving, and the reversal of social norms. Masters served their slaves, that sort of thing. Understandably, Invortus loved this. He would spend the holiday going to the evening feasts and spending long hours of the night at the orgies of wealthy men and the brothels of the poorest neighborhoods. It became a tradition as well not to bathe on the last day of Saturnalia. Romans would also drop pennies down wells or fountains to please Invortus.

The most famous historical event Invortus is linked to in the Codex is the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The young emperor Nero sought Invortus fervently. The palace was in a perpetual state of Saturnalian lopsidedness with the emperor parading around dressed as a slave girl. Every day, slaves dumped pennies into the cities’ fountains and some slaves were sent down into the sewers to find Invortus.

At last, Invortus appeared to the emperor in a dream. Nero asked to be made the best harp-player in the Empire. In return, he promised to give Invortus yearly offerings. In addition, Invortus asked for one tenement building in the city to be given to him. It was agreed and when Nero woke up the next morning, he found he could play the harp like no other. He shocked the palace slaves and visiting senators by his extraordinary skill, moving many to tears by the beauty of his music.

All was well for Nero for about a month. Then for a building project, Nero sent men to tear down a certain tenement building in poor condition. Nero had quite forgotten this was the building he had given to Invortus. That night a fire started in the upper floors of the building. The fire spread, raging for 6 days and devouring much of the city of Rome.

As the flames rose higher and higher, Nero stood by a window, playing his harp. With each passing moment his prodigious skill left him. Nero wept, not so much for his city but for the gift he had now lost.

Mundus’s Codex treats Invortus as if he were a curiosity, though one that was still around. The author had not made up his mind if Invortus was real or a popular myth among the city’s residents. However, there is one source outside of the Codex that mentions Invortus, though only in passing. An account of work done in the city during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) states that a “cave on the Aventine, long associated with a pagan spirit of the [Tiber] river, was filled with rubble and sealed in with cement”. There is a good chance this is referring to the home of Invortus.

That is the last textual reference to Invortus. For all we know, the Fool of the Aventine was buried by rubble in his cave. There are anecdotal rumors of occultists in the Renaissance seeking Invortus in the ancient sewers of Rome. And even today, some theorize Invortus now lives in the Vatican Archives where he offers wishes to the Vatican. As is his way, he asks for little presents in return or promises which prove unexpectedly hard to keep.

This may all be fairy tale talk. But many in the ancient world took Invortus’s existence seriously. He was a genie, of sorts, with a twisted sense of humor. Who knows if this mythical granter of wishes was ever real or just a story the people of Rome told themselves to explain the often capricious nature of life.

The Roman sewers: once home to a wish-granting demon?

Pokoliszaj Castle

This “haunted” castle is in Hungary near the Romanian border. Built in the 1200s, Pokoliszaj Castle has a peculiar history. From a portal to Hell to dozens of iron coffins, Pokoliszaj has been an enigma ever since it was built.

Believed to have been constructed sometime during the reign of King Béla IV (1235-1270), Pokoliszaj sits atop a craggy hill in eastern Hungary. The surrounding area is sparsely populated and heavily forested.

Folklore has always abounded concerning the area long before the castle was built. Old tales of man-eating ogres stalking the forests, the silhouettes of human figures seen at night, sleep paralysis, and accounts of strange, half human half-animal monsters have existed since at least the Christianization of Hungary in the 10th century.

Though the position of the castle is easily defensible, it remains unclear to most mainstream historians why the castle was built. The area was even more lightly populated in the 13th century and the Pokoliszaj region was not threatened enough by invasion to warrant the building of such a substantial stronghold.

The outer walls are roughly hexagonal in shape with four primary towers. The inner bailey is divided up into many small sections by internal walls and watchtowers. A circular wall surrounds the inner bailey, in which sits the two largest buildings of the castle: the keep and the church.

Aside from these two buildings, the only other structure still standing is a small stone outbuilding near the church.

Pokoliszaj Castle’s exterior wall

Why Pokoliszaj is called the “Inverted Castle” is because the castle’s fortifications are all turned inward rather than outward. That is to say, the castle’s outer walls have crenellations on both sides of the ramparts and an unusual number of inward-facing arrow loops. Projecting guard towers protect the inside face of the main gate, rather than the outside.

All these features combine to give the impression that this castle was built to keep people in, rather than keep them out.

The story only gets stranger from here. Housed in the outbuilding in the inner bailey, is a deep hole, about four feet in diameter. This mysterious hole lies at the physical and figurative center of the castle.

Could this be a gate to the underworld?

This fabled “Pit of Pokoliszaj” has for centuries been believed to be either bottomless or a gateway to the underworld. No records of anyone—past or present—seeing the bottom exist.

The pit became infamous when, according to legend, King Béla offered freedom to any convicted criminal who volunteered to be lowered into the pit on a rope. One man, known only as János, step forward. János was given a torch and lowered into the darkness on a strong rope. Soon, the light of his torch disappeared in the depths of the pit.

After a half hour of continued descent, distant sounds, like animals roaring, came echoing up the shaft. Then the rope jerked and bucked, threatening to break loose from the workers’ grips. The rope was pulled up as quickly as the men could. They found however that János was missing: the rope had been cut. János was never sen or heard from again.

After János, no criminal ever volunteered to enter the pit. Those who had committed the most heinous crimes were thrown down the Pokoliszaj pit. The executioners claimed you could listen to their screams for the better part of an hour, the screams growing fainter and fainter as the prisoners tumbled down through endless darkness.

Worse yet, local legends tell that nightmarish creatures would sometimes crawl out from the pit. Various countermeasures were devised over the centuries, from offering sacrifices, plugging the hole, or annual hunts by local warriors. None worked until Béla built the castle. This seems to have checked the pit’s harmful influence on the region and its inhabitants.

The Pokoliszaj Preservation Society based in nearby Debrecen has been influential in consolidating all the legends concerning Pokoliszaj and studying the castle. Of great interest to them has been the keep. The castle’s church—while an excellent example of early Gothic architecture—was almost completely destroyed in an inferno sometime in the 1400s or 1500s.

The interior of Pokoliszaj chapel

The keep is five stories tall with a sizable undercroft. The first two floors seemed to have been devoted solely to barracks-style living spaces for perhaps a hundred men. Wooden outbuildings would have held even more men, but these are almost completely gone. 

The upper three floors of the keep are filled with numerous hallways that twist and turn in no coherent pattern like a maze. All along the halls are heavy doors which lead to small, unadorned cells. Many of doors are scratched on the inside and so are the walls of the cells. Analysis has shown that the general coating of grime in many of the cells is partially made of dried blood.

In the keep’s undercroft,  fifty iron coffins have been found over the years. These coffins were most likely additional means to restrain the castle’s unusual inmates. A wood engraving found by the preservation society shows ten tall, naked humanoid figures with unusually long nails being bound and sealed in the coffins.

None of the castle’s rooms stand out from each other except for an unusually large room at the top of the north tower on the fifth floor.

This room is called the Bride’s Room because of a metal engraved plate found there that depicts a woman in a long gown and a veil that covers her face. While the cells measure 4 feet by 7 feet, the Bride’s Room measures 1,000 square feet with three accompanying side rooms for storage and hygiene. The room was comfortably furnished, with a four-poster bed, couch and table, and tapestries—many of which are now completely destroyed.

The bride’s bed

It appears Pokoliszaj Castle had a very dignified guest. And it was a guest who lived there—albeit one who couldn’t leave—since the door to the Bride’s Room locks only from the outside.

The castle was thought to be inhabited by an unnamed order of monastic knights. Whenever a monster would be spit out of the abyss, it would presumably either be killed or imprisoned.

Another telling of the story has it that the knights would eventually go insane—even transform into hideous shapes—after their long vigil over the pit and they would be imprisoned in the keep’s many cells.

For all we know, the knights were successful for many years until the appearance of the mysterious “bride”. Apparently, early in the morning after All Saint’s Eve sometime in the late 13th or early 14th centuries, a knight discovered the veiled bride laying unconscious on the precipice of the pit. She was brought up and locked in the storage room that would eventually become her bedchamber.

Nothing is known about the bride. She apparently never gave the knights any information about her origins or purpose. No one knows her name to this day. But it is clear the knights treated her with respect, even if they remained suspicious or fearful.

However, at some uncertain time years later, a local popular version of the Pokoliszaj myth tells how the bride gave birth to her son. This son, described as a pale boy who grew to manhood in hours, brought about the destruction of the castle by releasing his mother and all the other prisoners of Pokoliszaj.

It is true all the cells were found open, many of the doors hang on busted hinges. This may be due to time or force, we do not know. The iron coffins previously mentioned had their lids thrown off by extreme force from the inside.


Iron coffins found underneath the keep

It is clear something happened at Pokoliszaj Castle that brought it to its end.

When the castle fell and what caused its fall is still unknown for certain. It is known a fire destroyed the church around 1450. It was never rebuilt afterwards, indicating 1450 as the date the castle fell. It could be that the castle was attacked by enemy forces unaware of the castle’s true inhabitants. This may be unlikely, since 15th century Ottoman chronicles tell how Turkish armies avoided the region when attacking Hungary.

Pokoliszaj Castle was always a forgotten place, even in the 13th century when it was built. There are few records of its existence. One is a letter from the chief architect to Béla reporting delays in construction.

Another reference comes from a record of royally-controlled castles in Hungary from 1435. The name “Pokoliszaj” appears at the end and it has a strange little mark beside it, like an asterisk. What this means is anyone’s guess.

Pokoliszaj Castle was left to rot for centuries until the conservation society formed in 1989 to keep the castle from falling into total ruin. The Pokoliszaj Preservation Society played a large part in uncovering the castle’s story, and thus they contributed a large amount of material to this post.

Even with all the preservation society’s efforts, mysteries shroud the castle. What lies at the bottom of the pit? How much of the legends are true? Did this “bride” character really exist, and if so, who was she and what hand did she have in the castle’s fall? If the stories are true, then we are looking at Europe’s first ever supermax prison. It also begs the question: where is the bride and her child now?

Who knows when these questions will be answered. There is a lot of room for conjecture. Are we looking at a former prison to monstrous beings or a completely misunderstood, secluded castle that fell to invaders sometime in the 15th century?

What do you think?