Lehel (or Lél) was a 10th century Magyar chieftain and a descendant of Árpád who took part in the Hungarian invasion of Europe. Not many details are known about his life, except that he ruled over the Duchy of Nitra (in modern-day Slovakia) and led the Magyars and their Kabar allies in battle against the Franks. For example, it is known that Lehel led his forces in the Battle of Riade (933) and the Battle of Lechfeld (955), both of which have ended in the Magyars’ defeat. Lehel was even captured in the battle of Lechfeld, where the entire Frankish realm, united under Otto the Great’s banner, virtually annihilated the Magyars. Otto’s decisive victory would prove to be a turning point in history, putting an end to the Magyars’ incursions into Western Europe. In the aftermath of this battle, Lehel, together with Bulcsú and Súr (the other leaders of the Magyars) were taken to Regensburg in chains and hanged.
Despite his failures in battle and anticlimactic death, Lehel entered the realm of legend thanks to a fictive account of his captivity and execution. The story was first recorded in the 14th century Chronicon Pictum, 400 years after Lehel’s death, but it must have been made up gradually over the decades (until then). Either way, according to the Chronicon Pictum, Lehel was brought before the “emperor” (presumably Henry I, Duke of Bavaria) who wanted to know why the Magyars are so “barbaric against Christians”. Lehel replied arrogantly that they are “the scourge of God” sent to punish them for their sins. This was an attempt of the 14th century author to link the medieval Hungarians to Attila’s Huns of Late Antiquity. Not receiving a real answer, the emperor decided to put Lehel to death, but granted him the favor of choosing the way he would be executed.
Still defiant, Lehel asked for his horn, saying that he will answer after he blows it one last time. Seeing no harm in this, the emperor allowed it and had the horn handed to Lehel. However, instead of blowing his horn, Lehel took a step forward and bashed the emperor’s skull with it so hard that he killed him on the spot. Before he was seized by the guards and taken away to the gallows, Lehel told the emperor’s corpse that he will be his slave in the afterlife. Like other horse cultures from the Eurasian steppes, the Magyars believed that whoever they killed in their lifetime will serve them in the other world. The author of the Chronicon craftily mixed history with fantasy using the timely death of Duke Henry and ascribing it to Lehel, turning him into a Hungarian national hero. In reality, Henry died of disease shortly after the Battle of Lechfeld, while Lehel was unceremoniously executed. The two probably never exchanged a word.
- The Horn of Lehel at the Jász Museum in Hungary.
- Chronicon Pictum text in Latin and a Romanian translation (G. Popa-Lisseanu, 1937).
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