Have you heard? Prague is a fairytale?
If you’ve visited Prague before than you already know that walking through Prague is like walking into a fairy tale. The cobblestone streets that twist and turn from the Charles Bridge to Old Town Square, carry locals and travelers alike past hotels, shops and restaurants which are housed within buildings dating back centuries. The riverfront of Vltava are lined with colorful buildings that span large lengths, each one a bright pastel color, and many decorated with fancy paintings and statues on the higher levels. Crossing one of the oldest stone bridges in Europe you gaze up at the castle on the hill (the largest ancient castle in the world) and see tall spires that lift into the air, making a beautiful outline across the sky. It’s no wonder so many people flock to Prague and get lost in the city. Each turn is a new revelation and each day brings a new surprise.
As you walk the streets of Old Town Square or Lesser Town, the Jewish Quarter or Hradčany, around the castle walls, you may look up and notice a beautiful facade but with a seemingly odd painting or statue just above the entrance. Many may believe that they are whimsical pieces of art chosen by previous owners. But many would be mistaken. For in each of these ornate adornments found above the doors of old Prague houses represents a legend from centuries ago. Learning these tales can bring clarity to these artistic works and enrich our understanding of what life might have been like for former citizens of Prague.
Join us for a walk back to Prague’s most famous legends, as we wind our way through this beautiful, enchanting city.
The House of the Three White Roses:
In the center of Prague in Malé náměstí (Small Square) stands a house referred to as the House of the Three White Roses, which were painted to commemorate the tale of 3 sisters who lived these long ago. The legend goes that the parents of the three sisters had died and left a good deal of money to their daughters. The daughters were unsure what to do with the money and spend their time in frivolous tasks, waiting only for a rich man to come along, woo them and take each one to his castle in a far off land.
And so one day when a handsome stranger arrived and began to court the oldest daughter with tales of his kingdom across the sea, full of wealth and luxury, it was not long before the eldest sister packed up her share of the wealth and set off with this handsome prince. Not long after another rich man, a duke, arrived and also wooed the second sister who was soon enchanted by the stories he told of his lands and luxurious life. She too packed her jewels, money and expensive clothing and left with him, leaving the youngest sister behind. But the youngest did not have to wait long as a handsome English nobleman soon appeared in Prague and charmed her with tales of castles and gardens. And so the youngest and final sister packed what was left of the family inheritance and left with this man.
It was years later that a traveling merchant recounted what truly happened to the three sisters. They were not living happily ever after in 3 separate, rich lands, but instead had been robbed and left to fend for themselves by the very same man. This imposter had learned of the sisters’ wealth and devised a plan which allowed him to appear to each one, tricking them into believing his stories before carrying them off and then robbing them and leaving them with nothing.
The House of the Stone Frog
On the lane U radnice, there is a house which has a stone frog carving found above the entrance. In this fairy tale, we encounter a tailor names Lokytek who lived there centuries ago. The tailor was a fun-loving man and whenever he had the chance to partake in the local festivals and carnivals he did so. He was especially drawn to many of the performers and street artists who could juggle, do acrobatics and perform daunting tasks. As the story goes, one day the tailor was watching a particular street performer dressed in a green costume. He was enthralled by the man’s ability to seemingly move his body into impossible positions, twisting and bending with incredible ease.
Several days later, Lokytek’s housekeeper was seen running from the house, looking horrified and shouting for help. When the passer-bys were finally able to calm her down and ask what was wrong she told how she had not seen Lokytek in over a day but had only heard strange noises coming from his workshop. When she finally heard a shout from within, she entered the room and was shocked to see a large green frog sitting in the chair where the tailor often sat to work. The housekeeper concluded that the frog had swallowed her master and she fled the room to the streets.
Those listening to the story were also afraid, but one brave guarded decided to venture within and learn the truth. He was gone for several minutes before returning, still carrying his drawn sword, but laughing a loud. Behind him was Lokytek, dressed in a strange green costume. He explained that he had been so taken with the street performer, that he had attempted to make a similar suit but his tailoring skills were no match for the design. And so he ended up looking like a frog.
Years later, after his passing, his neighbors commissioned the stone frog to be make and placed above the entrance to his house in memory of the story.
King Václav and the Bath Attendant
King Václav IV is one of the most famous and revered Czech kings. However, during his reign as kind of Bohemia he was criticized by many of the nobles at court for playing favorites with his personal appointments. And so it happened that one day while traveling to Prague, King Václav was attached and taken prisoner by some of these nobles and imprisoned in the Old Town Hall. There he laid in anguish for nearly 4 months with no hope of escape. Until one day when he begged his captors to at least allow him the luxury of attending the city bath house by the Charles Bridge. His captors allowed it, under heavy guard, and so the king was accompanied to the bath house where he bathed alone before going outside to enjoy the sunshine and momentary freedom. Gazing across the Vltava River to Prague Castle, he was quite sad and beset at his situation.
Upon seeing a small boat tied to a dock below, he crafted a plan. He beckoned to one of the bath attendants who passing and asked of her help, offering her a great reward for her assistance. The girl, Zuzana, immediately recognized the king and agreed to his plan. Tying together linens, they lowered themselves to the banks of the river, untied the boat and set off for the opposite bank. When the guards realized what had happened it was too late and the king and Zuzana were already on the other side of the river. From there they managed to make their way to Novy Hrad (New Castle) where Václav IV was well received into his court.
After making amends with the nobles who had imprisoned him, the king went about setting order back into life And one of the things he did was to reward the young bath attendant by making her the proprietor of the new public baths that he had built. He also decreed that the guild of barbers and bath attendants be given a higher status among the tradesmen and commissioned an emblem of a rolled towel in the shape of a circle, inside it a kingfisher, which was the symbol of the king. He also had a portrait of Zuzana painted on the Old Town Bridge Tower in memory of the bath attendant and so that no one would forget what she had down for her king.
The Pinkas Synagogue
Prague’s Jewish Quarter has a rich and deep history in the city. But few know about the individual stories and legends surrounding this neighborhood. It is said that there was once a very poor man named Pinkas who tried to survive and provide for his family by buying and selling old clothing. However, this was rather enough money and often times he was forced to take money from one of the local lords who admired Pinkas for his honesty. This went on for some time, but the lord began to become annoyed with Pinkas, because each time the man received a donation of money from the lord, he would utter his thanks to God and not to the lord. This frustrated the lord so much that he decided he not to offer assistance to Pinkas the next time the man came asking. The lord commented that surely Pinkas’ God will save him.
That night Pinkas and his wife went to bed tired and downtrodden but with hope that God would not forget them. In the middle of the night the whole family was awaken from the sound of breaking glass and they all ran to see what it was. After some confusion Pinkas found the body of a dead money lying on the ground in his kitchen surrounded by broken glass. He recognized it as one of the pets of his lord which he had seen on previous visits. Fearing that the lord and his neighbors who believe that he, Pinkas, had killed the money out of anger for the lord not having bestowed upon Pinkas his normal generous gift, his wife decided that it was best to burn the monkey’s body in the fireplace.
As Pinkas was carrying the monkey’s body to the fireplace he heard a sound of a coin hitting the ground and saw that one coin seemed to have fallen from the monkey’s mouth. He quickly cut open the money and found inside a head of gold coins! With this money Pinkas’ wife was able to go and buy enough food and drink to celebrate the upcoming holiday. Later that day the lord stopped by to see if Pinkas’ God had really not forgotten him and was surprised with the rich food and wine that was set out on the table.
As Pinkas was an honest man, he confessed as to what had happened, insisting that he had not killed the monkey, but only found him dead. As the lord knew Pinkas well as an honest man, he believed him. The lord supposed that the monkey, who often witnessed his master biting a golden coin, did the same but ingested the coin as well. After some time, the coins accumulated in the monkey’s stomach and he died. Someone must have found the body and decided to play a trick on Pinkas.
The lord would not accept the money from Pinkas, and so Pinkas was able to increase his trade and eventually became a rich merchant. He was always very generous with his money and gave to all those in need. Later when a synagogue was built on his street it was named in his honor.
The Prague Golem
There are many legends and fables about the golem in Jewish tradition. But the most famous of those comes from Prague. It is said that towards the end of the 1500’s in Prague the Jewish community was suffering from anti-Semetic attacks within their neighborhood. A local rabbi by the name of Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal wanted to find a way in which to protect his people. And so he fashioned a golem out of clay which he sourced from the banks of the Vltava River.
He and several of his acolytes were able to bring to life this large beast, who resembled a giant of a man, by performing rituals and traditional Hebrew incantations while walking around the golem. The rabbi was able to control the golem by placing a small piece of paper in its mouth which read, “shem” which is similar to the Hebrew word neshemah meaning “breath”. With this ‘breath’ the golem was able to come to live and do the bidding of his master, Rabbi Bezalel.
During the time that the golem was following the orders of the rabbi, the citizens of the Jewish ghetto in Prague were able to return to a more peaceful lifestyle in which they did not fear for their lives.
However, the rabbi soon learned that if he did not maintain constant vigilance over the golem, it would take matters into its own hands and reek havoc on the streets. So the rabbi devised a plan in which he would allow the golem to rest each Friday afternoon, at the start of the Sabbath, until the end of the Sabbath. He simply removed the strip of paper which breathed live into the golem and then placed it back in again on Saturday evening so that the golem could return to his work of protecting the people.
But one Friday Rabbi Loew forgot to take the shem out of the golem’s mouth before he went to give service at the synagogue. When he realized what he had done it was too late. The golem had gone to the streets and began to destroy much of the neighborhood, breaking windows and doors and storefronts.
And so the rabbi decided that the golem was too powerful for him alone and he removed the shem for good. It is said that the golem lies in wait for a time in which the Jewish community will call it again to come and restore order in their communities. Some say that the body of the golem can still be found in the very same synagogue where Rabbi Loew was ministering