There are a couple of thousand different Polish coats of arms. You might expect that these would all include images of some lofty or knightly character but that isn’t always the case. Many are suprising, even baffling. So let’s take a look at seven unusual coats of arms and the stories behind them.
What we have here is a coat of arms called Kot Morski (editor’s translation: Sea Cat), which has a nice white cat as its centrepiece, otherwise known as the emblem. Does this image commemorate some particularly valiant cat that helped win a sea battle with its sharp claws? Unfortunately that’s not the case and the answer is way more down-to-earth. Originally the coat of arms actually showed a monkey, the kind sailors used to take to sea as a pet. Such an animal is called Meerkatze in German, which means none other than ‘sea cat’. But somewhere along the way, the emblem was altered and today instead of a monkey it shows, literally, a sea cat.
There’s a cute animal in this one as well, this time a squirrel. Why exactly the Bażeński coat of arms has this critter as its emblem remains unclear, sadly. But the figure of a black man holding a banner above it can be explained, by a legend. Polish noblemen would create legends about the origins of their coats of arms, which they revered greatly, to highlight their importance. According to the one linked to the Bażeński sign, it’s first holder, Jan Bażeński, won an important duel against a Moorish opponent, even taking his adversary captive. He was knighted for this victory, with this figure added to his emblem to remind all of these alleged (and not very PC by today’s standards) events.
What at first appears to be a straight face emoji, is actually a representation of the full moon. According to legend, the knight Bogdan Iwanicki managed to successfully conduct reconnaissance of enemy positions in moonlight, allowing for the safe passage of his side’s units and the prince in command of them. In recognition of this supposed deed, Iwanicki was given this coat of arms called Pełnia (editor’s translation: Full Moon), commemorating that night-time intel operation. Interestingly, apparently Iwanicki was actually helping Lithuanian forces fighting against the Polish, but this doesn’t seem to disqualify the legend as a traditional means of explaining the origin of a Polish coat of arms.
Here we have another coat of arms with a representation of a face, only this time it’s that of a person with a vulture’s beak instead of a nose. Unlike many other Polish coats of arms that weren’t restricted to identifying only one family, this mark was assigned to a single house, namely the Elżanowskis. A single family’s sign such as this, a thing not uncommon in Poland, is called an ‘own coat of arms’ and usually postdates the signs of medieval origin that were shared by various Polish houses. When you browse through publications on coats of arms, you find that the Elżanowski mark dates back only to the 17th century, meaning it is a couple of hundred years younger than the oldest Polish coats of arms. But frustratingly, there seems to be no explanation as to why this sign has such a peculiar emblem.
Did Cupid’s arrow pierce the heart of somebody who fell in love at the sight of the face in the Elżanowski coat of arms? Not quite. The Przyjaciel (Friend) coat of arms has a different story to tell. Legend has it that in an ancient battle the knight Mirosław tried to retrieve the body of the fallen prince Henryk from the battlefield. Unfortunately, Mirosław died during the attempt, but his descendants were given the Przyjaciel coat of arms for his honourable stance, which shows the valiant knight’s cause of death.
This unusual wood sandal sign came to Poland via Livonia (a historical province on the east Baltic coast once belonging to Poland) where the family using it was called Olszer but also Holtzschuher. This would suggest a German background, and indeed, when you dig a little deeper, you find that a very similar coat of arms was used in the 16th century in Nurnberg, Germany, by the Holzschuher family (spelled without a ‘t’). So quite probably the mark appeared in Livonia due to the historical German presence in the region (established, for example, by the Hanseatic League) and at some point was Polonised receiving the name Olszer. By the way, in German Holz stands for ‘wood’ and Schuh for ‘shoe’, which explains the emblem’s unusual shape – it is a literal depiction of the surname it’s linked to.
Why the figure on top of the Olszer coat of arms looks kind of like one of Santa’s little helpers remains a mystery, perhaps one should check German sources because the Holzschuher sign includes the same element. However, the last coat of arms in this selection has undoubtedly something to do with Christmas, namely it was given to the Stojanowicz family on 21st December 1789, just three days before Christmas Eve – what a lovely present! In case you didn’t already figure this out for yourself, in the middle of the emblem there are (according to a late 19th-century heraldic description) two cornucopias overflowing with apples and grapes. In the lower left side you can see some ripe cereal crops, whereas in the upper right hand side you can see a nice white doggy. All of this abundance makes Stojanowicz one of the most image-rich Polish coats of arms.
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2017