10 Fantastic Beasts from Poland & Where to Find Them
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default, The Crown Tribunal building in Lublin. An artistic installation by the Design in Air group, referencing the legend of the Slavic Dragon, part of the F, center, mythical_creatures_jo190612_121415.jpg
Poland is populated by a myriad of mythical creatures, from the heights of the mountains through the mazes of city streets to the depths of the sea. Among them you can find the famously dangerous Wawel Dragon, the friendly coal-mine-dwelling Treasurer, and the mysterious Sea Bishop. Culture.pl explains the legends behind ten mythical beings from Poland, and reveals where you can actually encounter some of these legendary creatures in the real world…
The Wawel Dragon
Possibly the most famous mythical creature in Poland is the Wawel Dragon, which is said to have terrorised the citizens of Kraków long, long ago. It has been described in legend as far back as the 12th century and, according to the most popular tales about it, the fantastic being dwelled in a cave beneath Wawel Castle. The townsfolk offered animals to the dragon to keep its wrath at bay, but sometimes the offerings didn’t prove sufficient. Then the dragon would:
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[…] leave its den in broad daylight and with horrifying roars it would attack various beasts, horses and cattle pulling carts or ploughs, murdering and killing them, it would also turn its anger toward men, if they didn’t hide in a safe place, it would fill its bowels with their torn flesh.
From the 15th-century ‘Annals’ by Jan Długosz, trans. MK
Fortunately, a cunning shoemaker eventually tricked the dragon into eating a dummy cow filled with sulphur. As a result, the dragon suffered from an unquenchable thirst and drank so much water from the Vistula river that it exploded…
Over the years, bygones have become bygones, and today the Wawel Dragon is a cherished symbol of the city of Kraków. In front of the cave where it once supposedly resided (fittingly called Smocza Jama or ‘Dragon’s Den’) you can find a 1969 sculpture of it by Bolesław Chromy. Beware, every three minutes the sculpture… breathes fire!
Vistula by Jan Styczyński - Image Gallery
The Lublin Serpent
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The Crown Tribunal building in Lublin. An artistic installation by the Design in Air group, referencing the legend of the Slavic Dragon, part of the Festival of Lublin Legends, photo: Jakub Orzechowski / Agencja Gazeta
In the city of Lublin, there’s a legend about a mythical creature that would protect the town’s inhabitants from dragons. The being’s Polish name is Żmij, which translates as ‘Serpent’ or ‘Slavic Dragon’. Here’s how this fantastic beast is described by Brama Grodzka - Teatr NN, a Lublin cultural institution working to preserve local cultural heritage:
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Those who saw it say it’s a reptile with a single pair of legs, paws equipped with claws, wings and three heads attached to long necks. The serpent would wave its long snake-like tail covered with scales and tipped with a venomous spike. People believed it was the ruler of snakes, a guardian of justice and a protector of waters and sowing. The Serpent had power over lightning and fire phenomena in the sky so it could protect the people against attacks from airborne dragons.
From www.teatrnn.pl, trans. MK
The serpent is said to have resided on a wooded hill, in a place where today you can find Żmigród Street. Intriguingly, the name of this street means none other than… ‘the Serpent’s town’ or ‘the town protected by the Serpent.’
Recently, there has been a new sighting of the long-absent Slavic Dragon. During the Festival of Lublin Legends in June 2019, its necks and tails were protruding from the windows of the historical Crown Tribunal building in Lublin’s Old Town. The protective beast’s appearance was the result of a special installation.
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Another protective mythical being from Poland is Skarbnik or ‘The Treasurer’. The Treasurer is a demon in the shape of an old man with a white beard and eyes that glow in the dark. He can be encountered in the coal mines of the Silesia region. According to the most widespread legends about him, he is a former miner who truly loved working underground. When he was dying, he asked God to let him remain forever in the proximity of coal. His wish was granted, so now he roams the coal mines. The noted writer Gustaw Morcinek writes of the Treasurer in his 1957 article Śląska Mitologia (Silesian Mythology), published in the Literatura Ludowa magazine:
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A decent ghost this is, dwelling in the old goaves of the coal mines. He’s actually a very decent ghost, you just have to watch not to anger him. For he helps the miner with his work, he’ll come with assistance when you have to raise a derailed coal cart and put it back on track, he’ll help with severing huge chunks of coal, and if a miner is lethally endangered by a roof fall, he knocks and beats in an agreed-upon manner so as to warn.
If you’d like to see the Treasurer for yourself you can do so. A statue of the protective demon can be visited at the Guido Mine and Coal Mining Museum in the town of Zabrze, which is located at a defunct coal mine.
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The Sea Bishop
Here’s another mythical being that comes from below, but this time it’s not from the depths of the coalmines but rather the depths of the sea. The curious Sea Bishop (‘Biskup Morski’ in Polish), known also as the Sea Monk, is said to have been captured in the Baltic Sea in the 16th century by fishermen fishing for herring. This being had the body of a fish and the head… of a bishop, and since it was such a unique find it was brought as a gift to the Polish king, Zygmunt I. Here’s how the affair was described in the Rozmaitości literary supplement of the Gazeta Lwowska newspaper in a 1823 article titled O Zwierzętach przez poetów i malarzy zmyślonych (On Animals Dreamt Up By Poets and Painters)
In the year 1530 in the same place [the Baltic Sea – ed.], the Sea Bishop was fished out. The head of this monstrosity was to look like a bishop’s mitre. When the Polish king became its owner, he had it released into the sea because, as they say, the creature displayed a great fondness for sea water.
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The article goes on to say that a similar being once jumped out from the sea onto the deck of a boat off the coast of Holland. It spoke good Dutch and, after smoking a pipe of tobacco it received from the sailors, it returned to where it came from…
The story of the Polish king’s encounter with the Sea Bishop was first put in writing by the Swiss physician and naturalist Conrad Gessner in his 16th-century zoological treatise Historia Animalium. There, apart from the tale, you can also find an amazing illustration of the mythical creature.
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The Warsaw Mermaid
Next on our list is another aquatic being, the Warsaw Mermaid which is (as the name suggests) a half-woman, half-fish. According to the most popular legends about her, long ago she swam up the River Vistula from the Baltic Sea until she found a particularly beautiful spot where she decided to reside. There she would sing so beautifully that the local fishermen grew fond of her even though she would free captured fish from their nets. Alas, a greedy merchant caught and enslaved the mermaid wanting to make a profit by presenting the singing creature at fairs. Fortunately, a fisherman’s son heard her weep and he and his friends ended up freeing her from her confinement. Grateful for that, the mermaid promised that in return she would always protect the fisherman’s settlement. Needless to say that very settlement is now Warsaw, a city which has the Warsaw Mermaid as its official symbol…
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A classic description of the Warsaw Mermaid can be found in the noted writer Artur Oppman’s 1925 book Legendy Warszawskie (Warsaw Legends):
She was a maiden of heavenly beauty. […] She had long raven-black hair that fell in locks over a white neck that looked as if it had been carved in marble; her sapphire eyes raised toward the full moon were strangely poignant and sad, and her slightly blushed face emanated a magical charm […]
The Warsaw Mermaid can be spotted in various places in Warsaw. One of her most valued likenesses, the 1939 statue by noted sculptor Ludwika Nitsch, stands by the Vistula near Centrum Nauki Kopernik metro station.
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The Golden Duck
Aside from the Warsaw Mermaid, there is another mythical being associated with Warsaw and water: the Golden Duck. This precious creature is said to have dwelled in a pond hidden deep in the cellars of Ostrogski Palace in today’s Tamka Street. The story goes that the duck was actually an enchanted princess ready to grant great riches to the daring adventurer who’d manage to find her. In the various iterations of the legend, it is a poor shoemaker or a soldier that eventually discovers the magical bird.
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There was a pond in the cavern, filled with diamond-clear water. And in the pond the Golden Duck was swimming. […] She gleamed with that peculiar brightness that had blinded him before, and on her shapely neck there hung pearl necklaces of strange beauty, and each feather was fitted with diamonds. On her legs, which gracefully treaded the water, diamond rings were shining.
From the 1938 book ‘Legendy Warszawskie’ by Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina, trans. MK
Upon discovery, the Golden Duck turned into a princess who gave the lucky finder a pretty sum of money, telling him that if he spends it all on just himself, he’ll get much more. However, the shoemaker (or soldier) decided to give some to a beggar, losing his financial prospects but retaining a clean conscious.
Nowadays, it’s far easier to find the Golden Duck than it was in the distant past. A statuette of it stands next to Ostrogski Palace, a picturesque baroque edifice dating back to the 17th century, which houses the Frederic Chopin Museum.
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The third, and last, mythical being from Warsaw on our list is the highly dangerous Basilisk. It is said to have lived in the basement of a derelict house in Krzywe Koło Street in the Old Town, where it supposedly guarded great riches. Here’s how the beast was described by Artur Oppman:
It was something between a rooster and a snake. It had the head of a rooster with a huge purple comb shaped like a crown, a long slim neck, a snake-like one, a bulgy trunk covered with black, ruffled feathers and hairy legs, tall and ending with paws that had huge, sharp claws.
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However, the real reason to fear the Basilisk weren’t its sharp claws. Its most dangerous weapon were its owl-like eyes that glowed red and yellow. With just one gaze from them, the beast could turn a man into stone. Many perished trying to rid Warsaw of the pesky Basilisk which, according to some accounts, wreaked havoc in the city, starting fires and killing animals. Finally, a daredevil carrying a mirror went down into the cellars in Krzywe Koło Street, and when the mythical creature saw its own reflection, it was killed by its own gaze.
Of course, these purported events happened ages ago. Today you can look straight into the eyes of the Basilisk without worrying about being turned into stone. A small statuette of the mythical being, embellishing the entrance of a restaurant, can be found in the Old Town Market Square.
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The Włocławek Griffon
Another Polish city with its own fantastic creature is Włocławek, a place today well-known for its ketchup. Legend has it that the Włocławek Griffon, a half-lion, half-eagle, chose the very spot where the town stands. The story goes that in a time long past, a nobleman called Włodzisław was looking for a place to build a new settlement. But despite repeated attempts he couldn’t find the right location. Discouraged by this, Włodzisław went on a solitary walk. That was when he encountered the Griffon, which spoke to him in these words:
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‘You and your descendants shall be safe here. You’ll be surrounded on two sides by rivers: the Vistula and the Zgłowiączka. Further off there’s the forest. If you promise that neither your lumberjacks nor their successors will destroy my forest, I’ll promise that no enemy of your town shall pass through it.’
From ‘Legenda o gryfie’, a 2014 article published by the Merkuriusz Polski newspaper, trans. MK
Unfortunately, those who ruled the settlement after Włodzisław didn’t honour this ecological pact and started to cut down the forest. Eventually, when the town was attacked by a band of hostile knights approaching through the woods, the Griffon could no longer protect it – the wood was too thinned out. But the beast did manage to warn the townsfolk of the nearing attack and many of them fled, their lives saved. The town, however, was razed and had to later be rebuilt.
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To commemorate the Griffon’s role in Włocławek’s history, an image of a half-eagle, half-lion was present in the town’s coat of arms from the 14th to the 16th century. Today you can see the Griffon in reproductions of that urban symbol.
The Turnip Numberer
The next mythical being on our list is, like the Griffon, a hybrid of different animals. It was believed to have an eagle’s head with deer antlers, a lion’s trunk and front paws, and the hind legs of a goat. People say it roamed the Karkonosze Mountains, which lie on the borders of Poland and Czechia, near Germany. The location of its habitat resulted in the creature having multiple names in various languages. In Polish the being is called ‘Liczyrzepa’ (which translates as the ‘turnip numberer’), Germans call it ‘Rübezahl’ whereas in Czechia it’s named ‘Krkonoš.’ Liczyrzepa was considered a ‘spirit of the mountains’, one who presided over the summits, forests and lakes in the Karkonosze range.
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But some believe that Liczyrzepa actually had the form of a human being.
He was a true Silesian since he was born into the Lord’s world in the town of Legnica. […] When he grew up he became a rambler, and after taking a liking for the mountains, he began to rule far and wide over them (…)
From the 1898 book ‘W Górach Olbrzymich’ by Stanisław Bełza, trans. MK
As a man-like entity, Liczyrzepa felt lonely, so he abducted a beautiful maiden to keep him company. But the resourceful maiden tricked him into counting turnips in the garden, and she escaped while he was distracted. In view of that episode, he received the name ‘turnip numberer.’
Today you can still spot Liczyrzepa in the Karkonosze Mountains. A statue of him by Grzegorz Pawłowski stands in front of the Karkonoskie Tajemnice museum in Karpacz. The likeness shows the mythical being in its hybrid animal form.
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Also closely linked to nature were the mythical Stolemy (or Stolems as you could call them in English), giants from the region of Kashubia. As one would expect, they lived long ago and are credited with shaping the region’s terrain, which is famous for its many lakes and hills.
They were giants gifted with great strength. Nothing could withstand their power. Neither the sea, nor the forests and by no means men. A stolem could pull out a tree with its roots as if it were a field flower, if he only wished to do so. He could move mountains from place to place as if they were sacks of potatoes, and with one strike of his fist he could demolish the homes of men and churches.
From ‘Baśnie Kaszubskie’, a 1925 book by Zuzanna Rabska, trans. MK
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People say that when a stolem wanted to sit down, he created a seat for himself by heaping up ground to form a hill. When he wanted to cross a lake, he would pull out a few trees, throw them into the water, and cover them with earth to make a passage – that’s how bogs and marshes were created.
Chroniclers differ on whether the stolems were malevolent or friendly towards men, perhaps they were a mix of both. Nowadays they no longer shape the Kashubian countryside, but you can still encounter them in the village of Gniewino, where there are fifteen large wooden sculptures of them.
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Written by Marek Kępa, Sept 19