Cultural Beasts: Poland's Influential Animal Kingdom
#lifestyle & opinion
default, An advertisement for the off-road vehicle Tarpan, 1977, photo: Inplus-Photo/East News, tarpan_1240_en-1.jpg
In this nature-inspired article, Culture.pl takes a look at some of Poland’s most prominent wild animals from past and present, and reveals their influence on Polish identity.
The king of the forest
When discussing Poland’s animal kingdom it’d probably be fitting to begin with the highest ranking official: the king. The ‘King of the Forest’ is how the żubr (pronounced: zhu-brr), or European bison, is often titled in Poland. Being the biggest naturally occurring beast, it has always inspired awe with its strength and dignity and is traditionally linked to Poland’s royalty, who were generally very fond of them. For instance, the 15th-century poet Mikołaj Hussowski dedicated his Latin poem Pieśń o Żubrze, Jego Dzikości i Polowaniu na Niego (‘A Song About the Bison, Its Wildness and Hunting For It’) to Bona Sforza, Poland’s queen. Although he probably wouldn’t have done so if he’d known she wasn’t interested in the subject. In the early 20th century, the poem was translated into Polish by Jan Kasprowicz, a poet himself. Here’s an excerpt:
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In the Lithuanian forests it breeds, the wildest beast
And it has a carcass so enormous
That when it bows its head dying in defeat,
Three men can sit between its horns
Today the żubr is a protected animal and hunting for it is only allowed when its population exceeds what is seen as the desired level. But even these occasional hunts stir a lot of controversy, since only a century ago the European bison was on the brink of extinction. Due to hunting and deforestation, it had disappeared from almost all of Europe, and before World War I, its last natural habitat was in the Białowieża Forest in today’s Poland and Belarus. World War I saw the complete destruction of that last natural population, when foreign soldiers and impoverished locals hunted the bison down for meat.
However, thanks to a (miraculous) post-War effort initiated by the Polish zoologist Jan Sztolcman, the species was successfully revived using the few specimens from zoos and farms that were still left – in 1924, that number was as low as 54 worldwide. Today there are almost 2000 of these majestic beasts in Poland, over 600 of which live in the wild in the Białowieża Forest. Free-roaming European Bison also occur in the Bieszczady Mountains in the country’s south east and in the north-west region of Zachodnio-Pomorskie.
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First ever endangered species protection programme
Like the żubr, the tur (pronounced: toohr) or aurochs is a member of the Bovidae family, which includes the impala and domestic cattle. The aurochs had, however, worse luck than its distant cousin as it is now extinct. Originally widespread around Europe, Asia and North Africa, things changed by the 13th century. In Poland, hunting and agricultural development had pushed this forest animal into only appearing naturally in the central region of Mazovia. Here it was under special care from the royalty who sought to preserve the species.
According to the Museum of Natural History in Wrocław, this protection can be traced back as far as 1288 and reached its peak in the 16th century when special guardians, over a dozen of them, were appointed to look over the animals. Sadly though, despite these efforts dubbed the ‘world’s first ever endangered species protection programme’, the limited population didn’t survive, most probably due to disease. The last wild aurochs (a female one) died of natural causes in 1627 in Jaktorów Forest. The very last specimen, a farmed one, died in 1755 in Prussia. Today the Last Aurochs Monument in the village of Jaktorów reminds the world of the last wild tur.
The aurochs is still alive in the Polish language though. If you want to say that somebody is physically very strong, you say they’re silny jak tur, namely ‘strong as an aurochs’.
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White Eagle soaring upward
Another animal with a royal position in Poland’s animal kingdom, apart from the kingly żubr and the apple in the rulers’ eye that was the tur, is the eagle (orzeł in Polish, pronounced: oh-rzew). This magnificent bird even gets to wear the crown itself as shown in Poland’s national coat of arms.
This coat of arms has been in use since 1990 and is very similar to the pre-war one, which was designed in 1927 by the architecture professor Zygmunt Kamiński (when Poland was under the communist regime, the eagle was deprived of the crown, a nod to the class conflict worldview).
The crowned white eagle (in various shapes) has been an official state symbol since Przemysł the Posthumous chose it as the country’s emblem during his coronation in 1295. It’s also linked to a traditional legend about the earliest beginnings of Poland:
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(…) On that spot, where the wild birds wandering through the vast skies were to be nesting, a castle was to be raised, or it was because he’d found an eagle’s nest there. Taking the lucky omen as his coat of arms, Lech left it for the governors, dukes and kings of Poland, the white eagle soaring upward with its wings spread.
The excerpt comes from the lengthy Kronika Polska (The Polish Chronicle), where the 16th-century clergyman and royal secretary Marcin Kromer describes Polish history along with its mythical origins. In the author’s vision, the legendary progenitor of Poland, Lech, founded the country’s first town, Gniezno, in a spot where he saw eagles flying or nesting. Gniezno is actually one of Poland’s oldest towns (its origins date back to the turn of the 6th century) and its name seems linked to gniazdo, the Polish word for ‘nest’.
The golden eagle, the strongest European eagle and a fitting candidate for a coat of arms (the exact species in the emblem isn’t specified), is seldom encountered in Poland. According to the state’s Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection, there were about 60 nationwide in 2017, most of them living in the various southern mountain ranges.
An early sign of spring
Another important bird in the Polish animal kingdom is the bocian (pronounced: boh-tzhyan) or white stork. In Poland, everybody knows that these flying creatures bring newborn babies. Culture.pl’s article about Polish midsummer traditions explains why:
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According to some historians, the Slavic ancestors of modern-day Poles ‒ who eventually formed the first Polish state in the 10th century CE ‒ observed midsummer by having joyful outdoor celebrations with bonfires, dancing and singing, a holiday called Kupala Night. The festivities would often involve some otherwise unthinkable promiscuity, the results of which were justified nine months later by saying that storks had delivered a new brood of babies to the village. (Fittingly, storks return to Europe from Africa about 9 months after the summer solstice.)
If this theory is true, the aforementioned Lech and his settlers were quite probably among the pioneers of the belief. What seems quite amazing is that the notion would’ve survived all those ages, showing how lively certain folk beliefs can be.
Another popular belief is that if a pair of white storks decides to build a nest on the roof of your house, that’s good luck. In general, Poles tend to like these birds a lot, they’re even on the list of the country’s protected animals. Adam Mickiewicz, the eminent Romantic poet, wrote of the storks with fondness in his famed Pan Tadeusz:
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For the stork has flown to the native pine
And spread his white wings, an early spring sign
The sympathy seems to be mutual as, according to a 2014 study, approximately 90,000 white storks or a fifth of the species’ world population spend the warm months (from mid-March until the turn of August) in Poland. That makes the animal, which migrates between Europe and Africa, a ‘household’ one to Poles.
Wild & bad
Pan Kleks - Dzik jest dziki
Like the stork, the dzik (pronounced: jeek) or wild boar is an animal very familiar to Poles. There are around 140,000 (!) of these forest animals throughout the country, so no wonder Poles have a special sentiment towards them. For example, almost every Polish kid knows this children’s rhyme by one of Poland’s most valued 20th-century children’s authors, Jan Brzechwa:
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The boar is wild, the boar is bad
Very sharp tusks the boar has
When a boar in the forest you meet
You quickly run away up a tree
In recent years, however, there have been a surge of boar sightings in cities. A quick online search will lead you to headlines like ‘Wrocław: Boars Coming Closer and Closer To The City Centre’ or ‘Eye To Eye With The Boar: Rapid Increase of Boars in Szczecin’. So, you don’t really have to wander through the woods like Brzechwa described anymore. You might even bump into one in your own neighbourhood! The Gazeta Lubuska newspaper gives an answer as to why:
According to foresters, there are a number of reasons. The citizens themselves are to blame, those who don’t secure their trash or, what’s even worse, feed the animals. That makes them accustomed to there being easily accessible food in the proximity of humans. Also, our cities are constantly growing bigger.
The urban wild boar problem has become so meaningful that in 2018 the city of Szczecin launched an information campaign called Eye To Eye With The Boar, letting people know that ‘boars in the city may endanger the lives and health of citizens’ and that when you meet a boar it’s best not to ‘attempt to pet it’ but to ‘calmly walk away in the opposite direction, observing the animal’. There seems to be no mention of ‘quickly running away up a tree’…
The żbik (pronounced: zh-beak) or the wildcat is also linked, like the dzik, to Polish culture meant for the young ones. But in this case the target audience is somewhat older than the addressees of Brzechwa’s poem. Kapitan Żbik (Captain Wildcat) was one of the most popular comic books in Poland under the communist regime, with 53 issues appearing in the years 1968-82 (over 11 million copies were sold). The protagonist was the titular policeman who’d solve different cases involving murder, theft and espionage. The main brains behind it were the writer Władysław Krupka and the draughtsmen Grzegorz Rosińki and Jerzy Wróblewski. Here’s a teaser for the issues Strzały Przed Północą:
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A mysterious shadow roams the village at night… Whom does the bride fear? What will happen if Captain Żbik doesn’t make it in time? Discover the events of that hot summer from the next issue titled Shots Before Night.
In reality, the wildcat is a very rare animal, one that lives in the mountain ranges of Poland’s far south-east. Exactly how many there are isn’t known since the żbik has a rather ‘secretive’ lifestyle – it’s hard to even capture one on camera, let alone count them all. Still, some nature enthusiasts try to make estimations, according to which there’s somewhere around 150 wildcats in total.
The sharp-sighted one
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The winged knights, Poland's famed mounted soldiers, would ride to battle wearing predator skins, sometimes lynx ones, photo: FoKa / Forum
Apart from the żbik, you’ll also find the ryś (pronounced: rhy-sh) or the lynx. While it’s quite easy to mistake a wildcat for an overgrown domestic cat due to their similarity, there’s no way you’d make the same error with a lynx. Europe’s largest feline, it can grow over a metre long and weigh up to 35 kilograms. It preys on deer and roe deer – not necessarily the kind of cat you’d want to sit on your lap. But many consider it a sight to behold. Here’s an excerpt from the 19th-century Mała Encyklopedia Polska (Small Polish Encyclopaedia) by Stanisław Plater:
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Its fur is dark and yellow, on the back its marked with spots, getting whiter as it nears the underbelly. Its eyes are smart and shine with energy, especially at night, which is why it’s sometimes called ‘the sharp-sighted one’ (…). The lynx’s fur is (…) beautiful and soft.
Unfortunately, due to hunting, poaching and deforestation of their the natural habitat, lynx numbers have greatly dwindled. The ryś was widespread in the Middle Ages, but a recent study has shown that in today’s Poland there are only about two hundred of them. In an attempt to better the lynx’s situation, it was put on the list of protected species in 1995.
The iron wolf
The wilk (pronounced: vheelq) or the wolf is another of Poland’s prominent predators. Like the ryś, it’s a forest animal that’s been strongly affected by the shrinking of woods and hunting. Once common throughout the country, the wolf almost disappeared from Poland in the 1970s when less than a hundred were left. Fortunately, it became a protected species in 1998 and as a result there are over a thousand of these creatures today spread across various parts of the country, such as the woods of the north-east Masuria.
Of course, wolves can be dangerous. They prey on large animals like moose and deer and even attack humans in certain cases. Due to their aggressiveness, they were often portrayed in Polish painting as attackers of sleigh parties. An artist especially valued for such scenes was Alfred Wierusz Kowalski, creator of the late 19th century painting Wilki Napadające Sanie (Wolves Attacking A Sleigh).
But the wolf may also have positive connotations. Like in this quote from the previously-mentioned Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, where the poet calls on the legend of an iron wolf that appeared in the Grand Duke of Lithuania Giedymin’s dream and showed him where to found the city of Wilno (today’s Vilnius):
when on the height of Ponary, by the huntsmen's fire,
he lay on a bear skin, listening to the song of the wise
Lizdejko; and, lulled by the sight of the Wilia and the
murmur of the Wilejko, he dreamed of the iron wolf ;
and awakened, by the clear command of the gods, he
built the city of Wilno, which sits among the forests
as a wolf amid bison, wild boars, and bears.
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Reporters during John Paul II pilgrimage to Poland in 1987 standing on board of Tarpan, photo: Wojtek Łaski / East News
A tarpan is a type of horse, but not one you’d harness to a sleigh or carriage. Once common in Europe, mankind’s expansion has led to the tarpan’s extinction. The last reported wild specimen died in the Ukrainian steppes in the late 19th century. Here’s a description from the 19th-century Memoirs by Kajetan Koźmian, a poet and writer who got to see some of the last tarpans with his own eyes:
About three miles away from the town of Zamość there was, as I remember, a wildlife park of a mile’s area, entirely fenced, to the guarding of which certain villages had been appointed. Plenty of various beasts were kept there: deer, roe deer, fallow deer (…). Wild horses grew and bred there, which I saw. They were small like peasant’s horses, but of stocky build and with thick but smooth legs, very strong, with coats of a uniform black and mouse grey colour.
Even though the tarpan is no more, it is still very much alive in the so-called Polish consciousness. That’s because it’s the ancestor of a local breed called konik polski, literally the ‘Polish horse’, a small and peaceful animal. Also, there used to be a popular Polish-designed commercial off-road vehicle called a Tarpan. Manufactured in the years 1972-1994, the car is now looking to become a museum exhibit: the National Museum of Agriculture in Szreniawa is almost ready to open its Tarpan pavilion which will feature about twenty units. Although this is bound to stir up feelings of happy nostalgia in many a Pole, it won’t, in any way, substitute seeing a real live tarpan horse.
As the Rolling Stones once sang:
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Wild, wild horses
We'll ride them some day
Sure, but not the extinct ones…
Author: Marek Kępa, April 2018