There are many legends about Prague and over the centuries they have helped to colour the city’s atmosphere of mystery, dream and sometimes nightmare. Popular tradition is based on them and much of Prague literature has drawn on them.
Princess Libuše is considered the foundress of the city, because she predicted its birth and future splendour. A princess of a Slavic tribe, when she realised that her subjects were unhappy, she succeeded her father and became the first queen. She chose a humble peasant as her husband and started the Premyslid dynasty.
It is said that she gave the city the name Prah (threshold) because she had a vision of a man drawing the threshold of her house.
The Golem is the best known legend, a legacy of the Jewish Prague, with very ancient origins. The term makes its first appearance in the Bible (Old Testament, Psalm 139:16) to indicate a mass still without form, and is present in the fundamental books of Jewish mysticism, the 13th century Zohar (The Book of Splendour), and the Sefer Jezira (The Book of Creation).
Following a principle of Jewish mysticism, according to which the world and life are emanations of the divine name, several legends about the Golem have arisen over the centuries, sometimes different versions of the same story.
The best known legend is the one set in the Prague ghetto at the end of the 16th century, which attributes the creation of the Golem to Rabbi Jehuda Löw ben Bezalel. This is actually the Polish saga of Rabbi Elija Ba’al Schem of Chelm, which was later, i.e. in the 18th century, attributed to the Rabbi of Prague: in this version, the Golem was a protector of the Jewish people from persecution.
Vodník are water sprites living in the Vltava River, whose task is to collect the souls of drowned people and keep them in small glass ampoules deposited at the bottom of the river. According to tradition, they are dressed in green and red, wear a tuba hat and a tailcoat with the left flap dripping. If they live out of the water, they resist very little, and when the tailcoat no longer drips, it is time to dive back in.
In Frantisek Langer’s version (‘Prague Legends’), there were three vodník in the Vltava, one in Kampa, one at the Vyšehrad cliff and one in Na Františku. All three had problematic relationships with the local population, but only the third suffered from loneliness, and also from the few drownings in the area, which provided him with little work. So he took up reading, and had set up a large underwater library among the fish and seaweed.
The Charles Bridge has given rise to numerous legends, including one according to which its statues are ‘stone protectors’ (from the title of F. Langer’s short story of the same name), and protect the newborn babies on the island of Kampa, accompanying them throughout their lives – this in return for the care they receive for their preservation.
Again Langer (‘Prague Legends’) relates the legend of the sword of St Wenceslas, which was embedded in the bridge wall to protect the city. If there had been an invasion, St Wenceslas would have brandished it, beheading all enemies with a simple cry. But children got hold of it, and it has been untraceable ever since: that is why it is said that children hold the future of the country in their hands.
According to legend, Doctor Faust lived at 40-41 Karlovo namesti, conducting his studies in alchemy there. Certainly, the magician Edward Kelley lived there in the time of Rudolf II.
The house is said to have a curse: a student who lived there disappeared, and a hole was found in the roof: in the same way Faust had been kidnapped by the devil, following the pact by which he had been given the gift of eternal youth.
The legend of Dalibor is one of the best known Prague legends, also performed by Bedrich Smetana in 1868. According to this legend, a man named Dalibor from Kozojedy, a small town in the vicinity of Litomerice, was sentenced to death and imprisoned in the castle tower for sheltering rebellious peasants.
While awaiting the day of execution, Dalibor played his violin and the music coming from his cell was so beautiful that it moved and enchanted all the inhabitants of Prague.
The local authorities, therefore, did not feel like announcing the day Dalibor would be executed. Only when the violin fell silent did the inhabitants of Prague realise that Dalibor’s last hour had come.
The legends of Prague come alive in the various tours that are organised every night in the city centre.
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