Bohemian Legends, Part I: Queen Libuše and her Prophesies
For writers, legends and myths may be the most captivating records of a particular culture. Bohemian legends are particularly captivating.
One of the first retellings of Bohemian legends comes from the 12th century Chronica Boemorum written by Cosmas of Prague in Latin. The legends recorded in these ancient texts were rediscovered during the Czech National Revival in the late 19th century, when Czechs were searching for an identity which would not be tethered to their Germanic overlords. The most famous retelling of Czech legends comes from this time, written by Alois Jirásek in beautiful, picturesque Czech.
This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to Bohemian legends. Our retelling does not wish to substitute reading the complete legends (Jirásek´s version has been translated into English); our goal is to entice you to delve deeper into these tales, which are by turns whimsical and universal.
Our first installment deals with the mythic figure of Queen Libuše, who may have lived sometime in the eighth century and was said to have had the gift of foresight. It was she who predicted the existance of the city of Prague. She lived in a castle built on a rock high above the Vltava river named Vyšehrad (literally “high castle”). To this day, one may walk the battlements of Vyšehrad and gaze upon most of the city of Prague.
Note: All dialogue in the text is our own translation of Jirásek´s version of the legend.
Queen Libuše and her Prophesies
Libuše was the youngest of three sisters. Her eldest sister Kazi wielded magic of herbs and knew all manner of healing while the middle sister, Teta, was deeply devoted to the gods and taught the people how to worship. Libuše, though the youngest, was the wisest and possessed the gift of foresight. Their father, Krok, was a duke that rose to power as the people fought after beloved Father Čech´s death. After the death of Krok the people chose his wise and just daughter Libuše as their queen.
In those days, a ruler´s work was mostly that of a judge and Libuše was known for being a wise judge who resolved all manners of disagreements. One day, Libuše judged a dispute between two men whose houses had fallen into a bitter battle over land. When she resolved the dispute in one house´s favor, the man against whose favor she had decided flew into a rage and said: “What justice is this? Can´t we see a woman is judging us! A woman of long hair, but short reason. She may weave, and wield a needle, that she may, but she cannot judge! … Shame to us men! Shame! In what other nation are men ruled by women? Only we are, only we, and that is why we are a laughingstock. Better to die than to bear such a reign!”
Silence followed the aggrieved man´s words. Libuše stared, moved, at the gathering before her then rose and replied with dignity: “So it is. A woman I am and as a woman I act; I do not reign with an iron fist and for that you think I do not understand you. It should be that you have a stricter regent than a woman. May you have him! You shall have your wish. Go home in peace, now. Let the great council elect a ruler. And whomever they elect, I shall marry.”
Then queen Libuše called for Kazi and Teta and the three sisters spent the night in council by the holy alter which only they were allowed to approach. The next day all three sisters stood before the people who gathered from all over Bohemia to hear the queen speak.
Libuše said to them:
“You know why I called the entire nation, here. You do not appreciate freedom. I recognized it and felt it. Inspired by the gods, I announced that I would no longer rule you, because in your hearts you ask for the rule of a man. You long for a ruler who will take your sons and daughters as his servants and take your best cattle and horses as he pleases. You want to serve like you have never served before, and pay taxes…until you feel heavy and bitter. All better than the shame of being ruled by a woman. I do not wish to make you afraid and I stand by what the gods already inspired me to say and what the seeing spirit showed my sisters and me. Elect your ruler wisely and carefully, however, for it is easy to elect a ruler and harder to remove him. If you are determined then it will all happen as you wish and if you will allow it, I will advise you as to your new ruler´s name and whereabouts!”
The crowd cried “advise us, give us council!” and Libuše rose and stretched out her hand to silence them.
“Hark, behind those mountains…there are unkept fields which belong to no one. There your ruler plows with two spotted oxen… Přemysl is his name and his descendants will rule this land forever… You needn´t search for the way. My horse will take you; do not hesitate to follow it. It will lead you there and back by the surest path. The person before which my horse will stop and whinnie, that is the one I tell you of. You will believe me only when you see your new ruler eat at an iron table.”
The next day, Libuše´s horse led a group of men off to find the new king. It walked so surely that the men understood that the queen had taken her steed on this treacherous path many an evening and returned again many a morning. The horse walked with determination, undistracted by herds of wild horses, and when the men stopped to rest, the queen´s horse was the first to step out on the journey again. Finally, they arrived at the fields beyond the mountains and there they met a tall man who plowed with two spotted oxen, just as the queen described. The men took out a royal garb and fell before him, calling to him as their king. Přemysl gazed at them solemnly. Then he stuck his staff into the ground and released the oxen, saying “Go back where you came from.” The oxen ran into the forest and the mountain closed behind them as if they had never been. Then Přemysl spoke:
“It is regretful that you came so early in the morning. Had I been able to finish plowing this field, we would have had enough bread forever. But because you were in such a hurry and interrupted me at work, believe me when I say, the people will often go hungry.”
In the meantime, the staff which he had planted in the ground began to grow. Three green buds emerged from it. Then Přemysl asked the men to have breakfast with him. He turned over his iron plow to make it into a table and the men stood, dumbfounded, for now they saw their king eat at an iron table, just like the queen had said they would. As they sat and ate the bread Přemysl offered them, two of the three leafy branches on the staff shriveled and died. The men asked, afraid, what this meant.
“That I shall tell you,” said Přemysl. “Hear ye that many of my descendants will rule, but only one of them will remain a king and ruler.”
Then the men asked him why he ate at an iron table.
“I eat at an iron table,” replied the future king, “so that you may know that my lineage will rule with iron. Take iron seriously! Plow with iron in times of peace and in times of war protect yourself with it! As long as the Czechs have such an iron table, they will always defeat their enemy. When foreigners one day take this table from them, Czechs will lose their freedom!”
On their way to the castle, the men asked Přemysl why he took his leather purse and his sandals of bast with him, now that he would be king.
“I give them to you to keep forever, so that my descendants may know where they came from, so that they may live in humility, without pridefully oppressing the people entrusted to them, for we are all equal.”
Thus, though she was no longer the sole ruler, Libuše chose her king and he was just and discussed all matters of ruling with her. It was Přemysl who witnessed Libuše´s most famous prophesy: “I see a city touched by the greatness of the stars!” Following this prophesy, Přemysl built a castle in the place Libuše ordained and they called it Prague.