Monday, July 30, 2018

A legend on every corner (Following folktales around the world 76. - Czech Republic)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Prágai regék
Václav Cibula
Móra Ferenc Könyvkiadó, 1979.

This book contains 139 legends and tales from Prague, a city so full of stories I would not recommend visiting it without a similar guide. Every street, every square, every bridge, district, and building has its own legend; one can stand and look at them while listening to (or reading) the stories. Believe me, it's great fun, I have done it myself. In addition, now you can visit the Museum of Ghosts and Legends, and see an exhibit based on the most famous stories of the city! Cibula has done excellent work collecting, researching, and retelling the stories, organized by district. While his original collection doesn't seem to be available in English, other editions have used it as a resource. Try to find this book, or this one, and take them with you when you visit Prague!


The book opens with the life, rule, and prophecies of Libuše, the legendary first queen of the Czech nation - including the one when her subjects demanded a male ruler, and she told them they would regret the decision, because a man's rul would be cruel and bloody (but ended up selecting her own husband, Premysl, anyway). After her death the Women's War broke out; her court ladies built a castle and recruited women and girls, waging a war on the men of the kingdom, until they were outnumbered and slaughtered (according to legend, anyway). A brave woman also featured into the story of The king and the bath girl; a maid name Zuzana rescued King Wenceslaus from captivity, and rowed him across the Vltava River. Another female hero, a Clever princess, designed and built a machine that was capable of lifting the giant bells of the Saint Vitus cathedral. Allegedly, the ropes were made of the court ladies' hair, but we'll never know: The princess destroyed her invention after using it.
Another classic Czech tale is that of the knight Bruncvik, whose statue you can see by Charles Bridge on the left side of the river. It has everything a great fairy tale needs: Sea voyages, magnetic mountains, giant birds, monster-princesses, loyal lions, magic swords... the works.
Prage and its surroundings have many stories involving water sprites - a creature of folk belief that is very essentially Czech. My favorite was the story about a sprite whose lake was destroyed by an ox cart, and it followed the driver (with a water lily on his hat) all the way to Prague to drown him in revenge. The sprite befriended a mortal man on the way to the city, and told him the story.
I also loved the tale of The bride from Gold Street, in which a Jewish girl named Hanina fell in love with a water sprite, and ran away with him despite her father's wishes. Later a midwife got to visit her in her underwater home, and help her give birth to her water-children. Another tale also featured children, but it a different light: A woman whose child had been drowned by the sprite cursed the water-children to get stuck on land and dry out. Eventually, a wise woman persuaded her not to punish children for their father's crime, and she let go of the curse, along with her own child's little shirt.
Water sprites were not the only inhabitants of the river: There were also tales about mermaids, and even the old god Perun, who still drags people under around Charles Bridge.
Another popular topic of legends was art. It is a well known story that the council of Prague ordered the creator of the Orloj, the famous astronomical clock, to be blinded, so that he could never make another one. A woodcarver, on the other hand, murdered a beggar himself to use him as model for the face of the dying Christ for a Crusader church. The curious Jesuit got a funnier fate: Since he spied on the artist who was painting the ceiling of Saint Nicholas', the painter put him in the picture, peeping from behind a column.
Like many other cities, Prague is also brimming with ghosts (maybe even more than others). There is the Burning man of Charles Street (who used to be a money-lender, and saved his money rather than his neighbors from a housefire), the Gingerbread Knight (who was known as headless until he appeared to complain about his gingerbread depictions), the Sad Indian (left behind by a traveling circus and never found the way back home), the Sad Nun (who was killed by her father for falling in love, and helps hopeless lovers when they need it), and the Large Lady of Kozí Square (whose curse was broken by a female cook after she put up with the raging ghost for three nights, hiding under a blanket) (see, blankets do repel ghosts!). Then there was the chilling legend of the Strange dream, in which a girl got to have a wedding with the ghost of her fiance, and that of the Gravedigger and the cards, in which three friends (two dead and one alive) got to play one last game of cards during the Black Plague. Another famous legend is the Shredded painting, in which a secret society gathered in a house every night through their portraits, leaving their bodies behind (one of their wives cut up a painting, and found her husband cut up back in his own bed).
And let's not forget about all the stories of the Jewish ghetto! They deserve their own story collections (if you go to Prague, you can buy some). There are the legends of the famous Rabbi Löw, whose wisdom and miracles are legendary. In one, he made a machine that kept Death away from him (until Death disguised itself as a dewdrop inside a rose). In another, he talked to the spirits of children in the Jewish cemetery, and found the source of the Black Plague. And, of course, there is no Prague story collection without the most famous Prague legend of all - that of the Golem!


I once again encountered sleeping knights; this time, under the Vysehrad, waiting to be awakened by Libuše. They were mostly recruited by a water sprite who dragged swimmers underwater, and took them to the hidden army. According to another legend, there is a secret crypt in the basement of a house in Konviktská Street, where vigilant corpses guard treasure meant for the next great Czech king.
The tale of the Man who sold a dream was familiar from other cultures as well (here, the two dreamers met on Charles Bridge, and shared the found treasure. The story of the bear and the water-sprite was a variant of the famous Norwegian Cat of Dovrefjell. I also found an Oedipus-legend (The House of Death), a haughty countess who made shoes out of bread (and burned in hell for it), and even a story where the Devil helped with the construction of a church (but dropped a column, stolen from Rome, on the Vysehrad).
Local tricksters were King Wenceslaus' court magician, Žito, and King George of Poděbrad's court jester Paleček. Doctor Faust also made an appearance, having his famous house on Charles Square, along with various other magicians and alchemists who moved into the same building later.

Where to next?


  1. Ah! I was in Prague last week and sadly didn't know any of these fascinating tales. I did pick up the 77 Prague Legends book, though. Great post!