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The Green Fairy

The PSP blog has covered many topics, ranging from the culture and history of the Czech people to be benefits of study abroad programs. Today’s entry will focus on an interesting cultural artifact that is perfectly legal in Prague, one that you’ve likely seen referenced in 19th and 20th century literature. If you’re an adventurous type and you decide to come along with us to the city of Prague for your European study abroad program, you’ll have the opportunity to try Absinthe.

Nicknamed the “Green Fairy” for its color and effects, Absinthe was invented in the late 18th century. It is a licorice flavored alcoholic beverage that contains wormwood. It’s the wormwood (vermouth in German) and its high alcohol content that gives the drink its hallucinogenic properties (I say hallucinogenic, though the chemical that’s in wormwood that is a hallucinogenic, thujone, is present in such low doses that the drink won’t really cause you to see much of anything). From Arthur Rimbaud to Édouard Manet (see his painting, “The Absinthe Drinker”), Absinthe has been enjoyed by many great artists seeking otherworldly or mind-altering experiences. Now, we don’t recommend trying Absinthe without caution—a hallucinogen is a hallucinogen, after all—but, if used in moderation, Absinthe can provide a welcomed change of scenery, inspiration, and enjoyment.

If you’re interested in seeing a bit of Absinthe’s history and connection to the arts, PSP recommends checking out the work of Baudelaire, Alfred Jarry, Oscar Wilde, and Hemingway. Hemingway first tried Absinthe when he was working as a journalist in the 1920s. Absinthe made it into a few of his greatest novels, and he even invented his own Absinthe cocktail, which was a combination of Absinthe and champagne.

In the 20th century, Absinthe became popular in the bohemian inspired US cultures based in San Francisco and New Orleans. Absinthe with high enough thujone content was banned in the US for roughly 100 years, but the drink was declared legal in 2007.

Bohemian Legends III: The Knights Sleeping in Blaník Mountain

by admin

At the end of Alois Jirásek´s 1894 book of Czech legends, from which we have drawn in our other retellings, there is a series of as-yet-unfulfilled prophesies. The most famous one, the one Czechs return to in times of trouble, is the last one, about the knights sleeping in Blaník mountain, which lies about an hour outside of Prague. It is important to consider the time when Jirásek was writing, a time when Czech national sentiments were high but national autonomy was still to be won.  Because it´s relatively short, and because the English version is so difficult to obtain, we have translated Jirásek´s entire chapter on the knights of Blaník mountain from the Czech.

The Knights of Blaník

by Alois Jirásek

Hark, regard Blaník, a mountain in the cloak of a dark forest, runing from its summit down its slopes. It gazes seriously, almost somberly, at the land forsaken by the world, at the tree-covered hills and barely fertile plains. Its crown can be seen far and wide, and people who live near often gaze at it questioningly. When it is cloaked in darkness it predicts turbulence and if it shines clear and blue, it promises sure and sturdy times.

On Blaník´s summit you will see, in the shadow of beach, fir, and spruce trees, ancient, stone battlements, most of them crumbled. They are overrun with moss and foliage and not a trace remains of the wooden castle they once protected.

But under the battlements, within the mountain itself, armed knights slumber. It is St. Wenceslas´ army. They slumber and wait for the day when Czechs will need thier help, when they will be called to battle

Under the rocky peeks of Blaník, on the Eastern slope, there is a rock in the form of a Gothic arc. That is the entrance to the mountain, and there a brook spurts. That is where the knights of Blaník let their horses drink when, from time to time, they ride out of the mountain by moonlight, onto the meadow surrounded by trees. On such a night, a dark thundering can be heard around the mountain, the muffled sound of a drum, and the cry of bugle horns. In the morning, the noise ceases suddenly, and the knights, the horses, everything disappears in the stone gate, into the mysterious womb of the mountain. Only the meadow bears witness to the knights´ equestrian tumult, in the form of countless hoofmarks impressed into the earth.

It is so that more than one person set foot in the dungeon where St. Wenceslas´ army sleeps.

One day, a young girl cut grass under the Blaník mountain. Suddenly, a knight stood before her and asked her to come clean inside the mountain. The girl, unafraid, went with him. The gate to the mountain was open. She saw arched halls within the rock and massive pillars on which weapons hung. There was a deep silence, as in a church, and the space seemed bathed in a strange, yellow haze. By the walls, next to troughs, stood a row of saddled horses, and at the stone tables sat knights, their heads resting on the tables. The knights slept and the horses stood, motionless, not nodding their heads, nor digging their hooves into the ground or flicking their tails.

The girl walked in and looked around, but no one moved. So, she began to sweep. She worked quickly and she soon cleaned the entire hall. No one stopped her or spoke to her. No one woke. She left just as she had entered and when she arrived home, they asked where she had been for so long.

The girl was surprised and said she came at the same time as every day. She was amazed when they told her that she had last returned from cutting grass at this time a year ago, that she had been gone an entire year. So she told them where she had been and everyone understood why a year seemed to her a moment. On the third day after her return, however, the girl passed away.

Just like the girl, so a blacksmith from Louňovice was invited into the mountain by a knight, so that he could shoe the horses. The blacksmith did as he was asked and as he left, the knights gave him some rubble in a bag, which the blacksmith angrily spilled out in front of the mountain. At home, he found they had already mourned him, for he had disappeared without a trace an entire year ago.

So he told his family what had happened and when he shook the empty bag the knights had given him, three ducats fell out. Only now did he see that he had made a grave mistake. He immediately ran back to the Blaník mountain gate where he had shaken out the rubble. But in vain. There was no rubble and no ducats.

They also tell the story of a shepherd who was searching for a wayward sheep and wandered into Blaník alone as well as the story of a boy who spent a year in the mountain, like the shepherd, without realizing it.

But that was a long time ago. Blaník is now closed and gazes seriously, almost somberly, at the abandoned land, and it seems the sorrow of a wistful rumination hangs upon it and on the surrounding landscape. St. Wenceslas´ army sleeps. It is not yet time for it to rise. This will happen in times of the gravest danger, when so many enemies befall our land as to carry our kingdom off on their horses’ hooves.

At such a time, there will be signs of the knights´ arrival: Treetops in the Blaník forest will wither, and on the summit of the mountain, an old, dry oak tree will grow green again, and the stream flowing from the mountain will become so overrun with water that it will rush down as a river. Then a massive, bloody battle will ensue in the land between Blaník and Načarad. The dry pond, by which the dead oak will come to life again, will fill with streams of blood shed in battle. There will be weeping and much grief caused by this desperate battle but Czechs will defend themselves bravely against their stronger enemy. Blaník will open at a crucial moment and knights in full armor will spill out and St. Winceslal on his white horse will lead them to aid the Czechs.

The enemy, suddenly surrounded and afraid, will flee madly to Prague where this terrible battle will be finished. It will be such a wild fight, that a river of blood will flow from Strahov to Charles´ stone bridge. Then St. Wenceslas on his white horse, holding a banner, will lead the Czechs and they will shun all foreigners and enemies from the Czech kingdom. And St. Prokop with his staff, the abbot of Sázava, will help them.

Then, peace will follow and the Czech lands will rest. Many Czechs will die in these battles but the ones who will stay will be complete men. Knowing the mistakes of their forefathers and their own mistakes, they will stand their ground firmly and no enemy will conquer them.

Bohemian Legends II: Horymír and His Loyal Steed, Šemík

by admin

In our second installment of Bohemian Legends, we find ourselves five generations after the death of Přemysl, whom we met in the last legend. Now, king Křesomysl (whose name means, roughly, “a mind of stoking,” implying a love of fire) has taken to the throne and some of the prophesies we heard in the first legend have come true.

The resting place of Horymír´s loyal and slightly magical horse, Šemík, can be found in the village of Neumětely, where one can visit it to this day. A tomb, built in 1887 over the place where Šemík was supposedly buried, reads: “In Neumětely people believed, and still believe, that here lies Horymír´s loyal horse, Šemík.”

Note: For a brief intro to the history of Czech legends, see our first Bohemian Legends post

Horymír and His Loyal Steed, Šemík

Upon king Křesomysl coronation, the people took to the mountains and ventured away from the fields, for Křesomysl minded the prophesy of his forefather, Přemysl, who said the Czech lands would rule with iron. Many sought iron and silver deep in the earth and others sifted through streams in search of gold. They ventured out in droves to win their fortune in metals, claim their cold riches, leaving the fields barren. The Czech lands became rich in metal and poor in bread.

Many patriarchs and yoemen lamented the hunger which befell their lands. Horymír, who was in charge of the settlement of Neumětely, was chief among them. Accompanied by his like-minded companions, Horymír traveled to Vyšehrad to speak to king Křesomysl. They urged him to forbid mining, so that the people may return to the fields and not go hungry. They were not heard. The king´s lust for metals was too great.

Horymír´s audience with the king was not without consequence, however. When the miners in the settlement by Březová mountain heard of Horymír´s attempts to dismantle their profession they flew into a rage. They wanted Horymír´s blood. Some scoffed that if it be bread he is concerned with, they should suffocate him with it. The other miners took to the idea of this punishment and, like a swarm of wild bees, they set out to the town of Neumětely.

The miners reached Neumětely by nightfall. Luckily, a good soul had run ahead of them to warn the town. Just in time, Horymír mounted his favorite horse, Šemík, and escaped the miners´ wrath. Šemík´s white main led the angry miners through the forest for a while but then vanished from sight quite suddenly.

Now safe, Horymír looked back at his settlement. It was in flames, the mounds of grain flying up in ashes, a year´s worth of harvesting up in smoke.

“May I burn to coal should I not avenge this,” he said.

What the miners didn´t burn, they stole. They led away livestock, rode off in stolen carriages pulled by stolen horses and shrieked spitefully: “If he was afraid of hunger, may he now have it!”

The miners, thinking Horymír would die wandering the mountains, lost and alone, went to sleep peacefully the next night, not bothering to place guards at the entrance to the settlement. Horymír and a group of his allies fell upon the mining settlement at Březová mountain that night as the miners slumbered, exhausted by the previous night´s victory. Horymír and his men slaughtered the miners mercilessly. By morning, the occupants of the Březová mountain mining town lay scattered and ghostly under the morning fog, murdered to the last.

After this deed, Horymír rode Šemík to Vyšehrad. They arrived unnaturally fast, when it was still morning, both man and horse untired by the night´s slaughter. By afternoon, miners gathered at the king´s throne with news of Horymír´s brutality. Though Horymír argued that he could not have been at Březová mountain that night since he arrived at Vyšehrad in the morning, the king, always loyal to those who mined for him, immediately imprisoned Horymír. Many patriarchs and other laymen came to speak on Horymír´s behalf, bringing news of the miners´ unprovoked savagery which, to them, justified Horymír´s retaliation. In the eyes of the metal-greedy king, their words did not weigh as much as those of the miners. The miners called for Horymír to be burned at the stake and the king ordained that it should be so. Horymír, it seemed, would burn to a coal just like he swore he would should he not fully avenge his home.

When Horymír stood before the king before his execution he asked to be granted one last wish: To ride his horse, Šemík, for the last time.

“Go,” scoffed king said. “But a Šemík without wings will not save you.”

The guards led the horse out into the courtyard. Šemík, joyful to see his master, danced on hooves as nimble as a deer´s. Horymír mounted him and whistled once with exaltation. The horse rose on its hindlegs, then began prancing around the courtyard, light-hooved. Horymír whistled a second time and the steed leapt from one side of the courtyard to another, landing by the gate. Then Horymír whistled a third time and said: “Well then, Šemík, upward!”

At that moment, the horse spoke in a whisper: “My lord, hold on!” and leapt over the battlements.

The king, the laymen, and the miners alike cried out in terror and then watched, in either fury or delight, as the white horse and his rider galloped far away having already, unbelievably, reached Radotín. Now, the noblemen, too, pleaded for Horymír´s life, so taken were they by his bravery and the speed of his horse.

The next day, the king sent a message to Neumětely, declaring that Horymír had been pardoned and asking him to return to Vyšehrad for an audience with the king. Horymír did return the next day, but on a different horse. When the king, curious about the amazing steed, asked about Šemík, Horymír replied, crestfallen, that Šemík lay at home, for he was heavily wounded by their escape.

Horymír stayed at Vyšehrad only as long as politeness dictated and soon hurried back home, where the villagers had been tirelessly rebuilding their settlement. In the stables, Šemík lay on his side, no longer able to stand. He told Horymír that he would soon pass and had but one final request: That Horymír not feed his body to the birds or the wild beasts but that he burry him in front of his front gate. With that he passed.

Šemík and Horymír won a battle, but not the war. Indeed, the lands were more brutal when in the hands of men, just as queen Libuše warned. The prophesy from the time of queen Libuše, that the Czech lands would be ruled by iron and that they would often go without bread, held true for many generations to come, challenged again and again, but overcome only after the time of legends had passed.

Bohemian Legends, Part I: Queen Libuše and her Prophesies

by admin

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.

Czech Beer and Culture

The Czech love of beer is serious business. If you’re going to attend a study abroad program in Prague, you should know that the brewing of beer is an important part of Czech culture, society, and history. Beer’s long national history can be traced back to records of Czech brewing at the Břevnov Monastery in 933 AD, but there’s solid evidence that the Czech people harvested hops since the first century. What we do know with certainty is this: the Czech know and love their craft.

Culture

The culture surrounding beer in Prague is highly social, which makes Prague an excellent choice for a summer creative writing program. Whether you are writing fiction, poetry, or pursuing a career as a professional writer, grabbing a pint at a local bar will likely present opportunities to get a fast and friendly introduction to the basics of Czech culture. The locals prefer to drink with company, frequenting the local pubs, festivals, and beer hotels. What is a beer hotel?! Well, these impressive complexes include a hotel (shocking), a brewery, and usually at least a couple of dining options. Beer hotels are the perfect spot for someone who wishes to engage a growing facet of Czech culture while making sure they stay relaxed and refreshed. No need exhaust yourself by exploring right away; the beer hotel is ideal for that traveler who likes to consider their options without missing out on the fun. Try one out while you decide your next move! Or try one out if you’ve had too much to drink—be safe.

I Drank What?

If you walk into a pub and your server brings a round without taking your order, don’t be surprised. Many bars or pubs in Prague only have one beer on tap, so they’ll bring you what they’ve got. It might be a good idea to check what each place has before you enter. If they’ve got more options, they’ll take your order.

Czech Check, Please

Did I forget to mention that the beer is cheap? I forgot to mention that the beer is cheap. When you visit Prague for your European study abroad program, you can be sure you won’t have to miss out on the fun because of a tight budget. With pints for less than $1.00 (U.S.), you’ll be able to make new friends or join your creative writing workshop cohort without burning a hole in your pocket.

What’s in a Name? (Prague History Lesson)

Studying abroad is about more than just personal development and building experience. Very often, reasons include a particular investment in understanding a location, culture, or historic relationship. Other times, the program or location offers opportunities that are not as easily accessible through institutions at home. In the case of Prague, many of our students cite both reasons. This is no surprise when one teaches writers, because often historic relationships, culture, and the physical particulars of location are bound together in our work.

What About Prague?

Generally, it s believed that the city gets its name, as many do, from its physical location. The Czech name, Praha, is derived from the Slavic word práh. The meaning is something like “ford,” or in other contexts “river rapids,” and it is generally accepted that this is a reference to the city’s origin at the crossing point for the Vltava river. This means that its original naming was conducted in the same spirit as U.S. cities like Grand Rapids, Cedar Rapids, or Chagrin Falls. It also means that there are other, similarly named locations that derive their identities from the same etymological turn, such as the Praga district in Warsaw, Poland.

Alternative Theories

The word práh also exists in the Czech language, where it means threshold. Alongside the commonly accepted etymology, there exists an explanation that ties this meaning to princess Libuše, the legendary ancestor of the Czech people as a whole, who was said to have ordered the city “to be built where a man hews a threshold of his house.” Other theories tie the name Praha to the term “na prazě,” which refers the the shale upon which the castle and the surrounding city was built.

Wrap-Up

While there may never be a cut-and-dried answer to the origin of Prague’s name, the more familiar English version is easily traced back to French modifications to the original name as it became a common term in that language, and other common names or references to it have also called it “the heart of Europe” and “the mther of cities.” See you there!

Studies in Prague: Franz Kafka

Chances are, if you’re looking into the PSP, you already know a bit about Kafka’s career and history as a writer. One of the reasons we use his quote on the front page of our site is to highlight the fact that so much of the mood and matter of his writing is entrenched in the time and place that gave birth to it, the city of Prague. In 1883 Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and as a result of social and economic pressures, his family encouraged their children to become proficient in High German, the language Kafka would later choose to write in.

Kafka’s personality was such that he constantly feared being found repulsive, as well as being considered a sexual failure. When these social fears and anxieties are combined with his cultural location as a middle-class, educated Jewish worker in a cosmopolitan city that was, nevertheless, prone to the prejudices and pressures of the age, it is easy to understand how the surreal and alienating elements in his more famous stories came to be. It’s also easy to understand how their application to byzantine bureaucracies and the inscrutable judgment of power came from a member of a minority population in a city that was being ruled by an outside power.

The influence of the focal lenses of culture, history, and social attitudes is clear at every point in Kafka’s work, making him an ideal writer to study if you are working to understand how literature interacts with the other elements of culture in its time. For writers, he also provides a unique example of the ways identity can be brought to bear in the craft, and by growing closer to the history that shaped his experience, students have the opportunity to find new layers of depth and richness when they return to their study of the words themselves.