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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.