Monday, July 23, 2018

Sleeping knights, vigilant devils (Following folktales around the world 75. - Poland)

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 in the series here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Alvó lovagok
Lengyel regék és mondák
Jerzy Snopek
Móra Ferenc Könyvkiadó, 1988.

This book contains 94 Polish legends, tales, and histories from various sources, ranging from folklore collections all the way to medieval chronicles. Jerzy Snopek, the editor of the volume, is a writer, translator, and literary historian - as well as Polish ambassador to Hungary since 2016. He divided the stories into chapters by theme: There are separate categories for historical legends, local legends, devil tales, sleeping knights, and folk beliefs. There is an introduction about Polish oral tradition, and at the end of the book each tale gets notes, complete with original sources. While some of the stories read like literary re-tellings, the book paints a detailed and unique picture of Polish tradition, including some remnants of their pre-Christian mythology.
For Polish tales and legends in English, I recommend this book, or this one or this one.


Among historical legends the first one right away grabbed my attention; it was about Wanda, queen of Poland, who broke tradition at her beloved husband's death, and ordered that no queen, servant, or even animal should go to the grave with a king. Also among the well known legends was that of the Wawel Dragon, which Krak the hero killed not with a sword, but by tricking it into eating sulfur. There were several legends about Saint Kinga, Hungarian princess and Polish queen, and her kindness to ordinary people. In one, she gave her golden shoe buckle to a stonemason, and in another, she threw her ring into a cave to claim salt mines for her people. And talking about legendary women: There was one story about Jurata, pre-Christian Queen of the Baltic Sea, who loved a mortal man, and for that Perkun destroyed her underwater palace with lightning. Ever since then, the amber shards of her palace keep washing up to the shore... 
The story of Popiel was both terrifying and memorable. He was an awful king, tormenting people and poisoning his relatives - as punishment, his palace was overrun by a flood of mice that eventually devoured him and his evil wife alive. This story appeared in the book twice, in different variants; in one, he even built a glass dome underwater to get away from the mice, but they broke the dome and killed him anyway.
I have always loved legends about knights and kings sleeping under mountains, waiting to return. This book has a whole chapter of them! They are usually found in a cave accidentally by a blacksmith or a shepherd. In some, people lose years of their life while they venture into the cave, while in others the knights come out periodically to try to find at least one good soul worth returning for. In one story, a pig kept sneaking into the cave to eat the oats put out for the sleeping stallions...
Among the folktales, my favorite was the one about Jesus Christ and the Bandits (also makes a great indie band name). Jesus and Saint Peter accidentally got caught by bandits, and became their servants. While traveling together, they saw the bandits helping the poor, but eventually they got caught, and the bandits sentenced to death for their crimes. Jesus then stood up, bore witness to the good deeds, and also revealed that most wrongs the bandits had to right were done by the judges themselves...
Devil tales were especially fun because of their world view. Apparently, every nation, and every Polish city, has its own devil. Among Polish devils, the most popular were the bear-like and clever Boruta, and his companion and sidekick Rokita. The latter did not fare well in most stories; in one, the Wide Woman (a.k.a. Virgin Mary) killed him with a lightning bolt. Whoa.
Among folk beliefs they listed werewolves, blood-sucking spirits, baby ghosts with wings and double teeth (sweet dreams), mermaids, and giants. The most interesting creature was definitely the Basilisk, which had to be hunted and killed with various tricks. My favorite was the one where someone had to enter the basilisk-infested building in an armor made of mirrors.


I once again encountered a fern flower legend, in which a man who accidentally had one in his boots became invisible to everyone else. The legends on Master Twardowski were similar to many other wizard stories, Faust among them - incidentally, the two of them met face to face in one of the stories. My favorite was the one where Twardowski got stuck halfway between heaven and earth, and now lives on the moon (hence the dark spots). He has his student with him in the form of a spider. Said student used to chop Twardowski up and then revive him for eternal youth; as a spider, he sometimes comes down to earth to gather news for his master. Imagine being a TA forever...
I was reminded of Odysseus by the story in which the devil gave a mag od wind-seeds to a poor man. Sadly, the man's son ate a seed, and such a hurricane blew forth from his mouth that it destroyed the entire village. And of course you can all guess whom I was reminded of by the golden spear of King Boleslaw that flew back to his hand every time he threw it...

Where to next?
The Czech Republic!


  1. Thnks for sharing

  2. Fascinated by these as I've been reading Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books which reference some European legends. In the Polish developed games derived from the books, there is a quest called Towerful of Mice that echoes the Popiel story, I suspect - as does someone else:

    Are some gaming developers a type of storyteller?

    1. Well, I'm a professional storyteller, but I was hired as a screenwriter for a video game once, because I knew the stories they were working with. So yes, there can be an overlap :)

  3. I'm pleased that they had the sense to approach you - the right person.