On the Trail of Polish Fairy Tales
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small, On the Trail of Polish Fairy Tales, Hercules’s Club in Ojców National Park, photo: Renata & Marek Kosinscy / Forum, full_maczuga_herkulesa_1_forum_770.jpg
A standard tourist trip through Poland will typically include several attractions tied with quaint little legends, but most visitors miss out on the background stories. In order to impress fellow travellers and make the most out of these sites, it is worth getting acquainted with the charmingly unconventional tales of Polish folklore.
1. Mouse Tower
According to an old fairy tale, this tower is where Prince Popiel, a 9th-century Slavic ruler, and his German wife, Brunhilda, were eaten alive by a horde of mice. This unsavoury end was the consequence of the pair’s unholy deeds – they had poisoned several relatives out of greed.
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Mouse Tower is located on Lake Gopło in the town of Kruszwica, in central Poland. The tower was built in the 14th century, well after the legendary prince’s time, indicating that the tale might be a calque of the unhappy fate of Hatto the Archbishop Mainz.
It is worth adding that Polish-German love affairs often meet a tragic end in Polish lore. For example, Princess Wanda of Kraków is known for having drowned herself rather than marrying a German ruler.
2. Dragon Cave
As tourists will have understood from the overabundance of dragon tchotchkes on sale in Kraków, the city was once home to one of these fearsome creatures. The beast was a real nuisance to the townsfolk and eventually got what was coming its way. In the most popular, 16th-century version of this legend, the dragon is tricked into eating a dummy sheep filled with tar and other nefarious things by an astute young shoemaker – and the dragon subsequently dies of indigestion. As a reward, the cunning dragon slayer receives the hand of the daughter of Prince Krak, ruler of the city.
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Those wishing to see the dragon’s cave can visit it on the Wawel Castle Hill, where its entrance is marked by a sculpture of a dragon by Bronisław Chromy. Once upon a distant time ‒ back in 2007 ‒ the dragon sculpture could be prompted to breathe fire by sending a text message to a designated number. Unfortunately, the dragon became too temperamental. Now, it simply automatically breathes fire every three minutes.
3. The Devil’s Hand
‘I would have had a fairer trial from the devil!’ an innocent widow once shouted in a Lublin courtroom, after a corrupt jury declared her guilty. The following night, the devil himself arrived at the tribunal in Lublin to request a fair verdict. The Lord of Darkness, possibly illiterate, then signed the new verdict with a handprint. A hand-shaped burn remains visible on the courtroom table from this fairy tale, which is on display at the Lublin Museum.
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4. Wieliczka Salt Mine
This sumptuous salt mine is linked to a fairy tale about a ring: the legend goes that Polish Prince Bolesław the Chaste once gave an engagement ring to a Hungarian Princess called Kinga. She promptly threw it into a salt mine in Hungary, for reasons that vary from one version to another. The day after their wedding in Kraków, she ordered some men to dig the ground in the nearby town of Wieliczka. A salt block was dug up and, lo and behold, the ring was in it. ‘Here’s my dowry,’ she said, ‘build a salt mine here.’
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These are the legendary beginnings of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which was a source of salt for ages. The mine is no longer active, but is open to tourists.
5. The Golden Duck
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The Golden Duck, Fryderyk Chopin Museum, photo: Albert Zawada / AG
Visitors of the Fryderyk Chopin Museum cannot fail but notice a small and woebegone golden duck sitting in a fountain near the main entrance. According the first printed version this fairy tale, dating back to 1925, a poor shoemaker finds out that this golden duck in fact a princess held captive by a spell. She can only be reverted to human form if she finds a man able to spend 100 ducats without sharing any of his acquisitions. The thrifty shoemaker, unable to spend this staggering sum on himself, eventually gives away most of the ducats to a beggar.
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This is no typical fairy tale – the princess is not saved by the poor shoemaker. The latter, on the other hand, has a happy ending of his own and finds wealth and love shortly after abandoning the golden duck to its fate.
6. Hercules’s Club
A peculiarly shaped limestone pillar in the Ojców National Park is mentioned under the name ‘Falcon Rock’ in a fairy tale about Sir Twardowski penned by the 19th-century writer and folklorist Kazimierz Władysław Wóycicki. The nobleman Twardowski sells his soul to the devil on the condition that his soul be collected in Rome. The devil agrees and provides him with great riches and, to celebrate their agreement, turns a great rock upside down.
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This is the ‘Falcon Rock’ or, as it is more commonly referred to these days, Hercules’s Club – a 25-meter-high rock which indeed looks as if it was standing upside down as it widens towards the top. Eventually, Sir Twardowski is tricked by the devil into visiting an inn called Rome, where he has to fulfil his end of the deal.
Written by Marek Kępa, Sep 2015