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Early Czech History Told in Old Polish Legends

The Legend of Cech, Lech and Rus

 

Once upon a time there were three brothers.  They were named Cech, Lech and Rus, and they lived in a land far to the north.  Their land was beautiful, and the earth was good, but as they prospered and as their tribes grew larger they decided to set out on their own, each to a different and distant land.

Lech climbed a tall tree and looked all around.  First he looked to the south, where across the mountains he saw rolling hills and fertile valleys.  When he told his brothers what he saw, Cech decided that he would settle there, in Bohemia, the future land of the Czechs.  Lech then turned to the east.  He saw vast plains crossed by great rivers.  When he told his remaining brother what he saw, Rus decided to settle there, in a land that would become the home of the Russians.

Lech then looked to the north, hoping to find a home for his own tribe.  There he saw the cold, deep waters of the Baltic Sea.  He could not settle there.  He looked to the west, where he saw dark forests inhabited by war-like tribes that spoke an unintelligible language.  He could not settle there either.

At first Lech was disheartened, but he noticed the nest of a white eagle in the tree next to him.  He took it as a sign and decided to stay where he was.  On that spot Lech built a great city, which became Poland’s first capital.  He called it Gniezno, which means nest in Polish.  And the white eagle henceforth became the emblem of Poland.

Czech history has not occurred in a vacuum.  The Czech Lands do not occupy an isolated island in the middle of a vast sea.  They are set smack dab in the heart of Europe, and their history has been influenced by contact with other nations.  The Czechs have been in contact with their Polish neighbors to the north since earliest times.

Old legends are interesting and sometimes they contain a grain of truth.  The legend you just read contains two.  First, the story of Cech, Lech and Rus tells us of the kinship of the Czechs, Poles and Russians, three branches of the Slavic family tree.  (It should be noted that in olden days the Poles were referred to by their eastern neighbors as Lesi.)

This story also brings to mind the migration of the various Slavic tribes from their ancestral homeland to the countries that their descendants inhabit today.  Slavic tribes entered Bohemia around the fifth century AD.  The Czechs were one of them.  They settled around what is now Prague, and gradually spread their influence and authority over the other Slavic tribes that had settled in Bohemia and Moravia.  Eventually all of the Slavic people in these lands came to be known as Czechs.

During the early days of Czech and Polish history, their respective rulers vied for the leadership of East Central Europe.  The Czechs, however, joined the Christian community first.  Tradition tells us that Bohemia’s Prince Borivoj, who was St. Vaclav’s grandfather and St. Ludmila’s husband, was baptized by one of the Apostles of the Slavs, St. Methodius.  Borivoj did much to bring pagan Bohemia into the Christian fold before his death around 894 AD.  And three generations later his great-granddaughter Dubravka carried Christianity northward when she married the pagan Prince Mieszko I of Poland.

Another old Polish legend tells us this:

The Legend of Prince Mieszko’s Sight

 

Prince Mieszko was born blind.  He was a handsome and intelligent child, but he could not see.  When his seventh birthday arrived, his father Ziemomysl held a great celebration for him, as was the Slavic custom in those days.

The great hall of the castle was filled with dancing, music and merriment.  Mieszko had a wonderful time.  He enjoyed the music and he was sure that somehow it was going to be a great day for him.  All of a sudden he could see!

Ziemomysl was greatly moved by his son’s miraculous sight.  He asked the tribal elders what the miracle could mean.  They drew a blank, all but one.  One wise old man explained to Ziemomysl that his son’s blindness stood for the blindness of Poland.  Under Mieszko’s rule, he continued, Poland would finally see and would become a great nation.

After the death of his father Mieszko became the ruler of Poland.  He was a brave and powerful prince, but he was still a pagan.  He fell in love, however, with the good and beautiful Christian princess Dubravka of Bohemia.  Dubravka refused to marry Mieszko unless he converted to Christianity.  He agreed, and Dubravka came to Poland with a following of Czech priests.  Dubravka instructed Mieszko in the Christian faith herself, and he was baptized in the same great hall where he had gained his sight many years before.  And under the influence of Dubravka the whole country converted to Christianity.  Finally Poland could see as well, as the veil of paganism was lifted from her eyes.

Princess Dubravka married the pagan Polish Prince Mieszko in 965 AD.  In the following year, 966, he and his court accepted the Christian faith, and he was baptized by a Czech priest.  Besides the legendary great love that he felt for the beautiful Bohemian princess, there was another reason why Mieszko converted. He wanted to protect himself and his country from the encroachments of his German neighbors to the west.  With Poland a Christian nation, there would be no excuse for the Germans to proselytize with fire and sword.  And a dynastic alliance with neighboring Christian Bohemia would both strengthen and legitimize his position all the more.

Shortly after Bohemia’s Princess Dubravka took Christianity to Poland, Bishop Vojtech of Prague took the new religion to Hungary, where he was largely responsible for converting the fierce Magyars.  From there he went north to the Baltic Coast to convert the fierce Prussians.  At that time Poland was ruled by Dubravka’s son Boleslaw I.

Another old Polish legend relates the following:

The Legend of Vojtech’s Gold

 

King Boleslaw of Poland invited Bishop Vojtech of Prague to come to Poland to convert the pagan Prussians who were living on Poland’s northern border.  As Vojtech and the few monks that accompanied him approached a Prussian village, they spotted a small house off to itself in the woods.  A poor widow lived there, and when she saw the bishop she came to him and offered him a cup of milk.  He drank it, gave her his blessing and continued on his way to the Prussian village.

When the pagan Prussians saw their uninvited visitors they came out ready for battle.  Vojtech held up his cross in a gesture of peace.  The Prussians, however, saw only a gold jewel set with precious stones.  They killed the bishop and sent the monks fleeing in terror back to Gniezno.

King Boleslaw sent a delegation to the Prussians to recover Vojtech’s body.  To their surprise the Prussians demanded the weight of the bishop’s body in gold.  The Poles had not come prepared for such a demand, but they went along hoping for a miracle.  The Prussians set up a makeshift scale with a long plank straddling a log.  They placed a large basket on each end of the plank.  In one basket they placed Vojtech’s body.  In the other the Poles placed what little gold they had brought with them.  It was not nearly enough.  The Poles added their personal jewelry.  It still was not enough.  The end of the plank with Vojtech’s body rested firmly on the ground.  The basket of Polish gold was up in the air.

The poor old widow who had given Vojtech the milk and received his blessing came meekly forward and dropped a small gold coin in the basket.  It was the only valuable thing that she owned, her greatest treasure, all that was left of her dowry of long ago.  Slowly the basket of gold came down, and the basket with the bishop’s body went up.  A perfect balance was miraculously achieved, and the Poles took Vojtech’s body back to Gniezno for a proper burial.

Bishop Vojtech was murdered by the pagan Prussians in 997 AD.  Soon he was canonized, and the German emperor, who was Vojtech’s friend, established an archbishopric at the site of his burial in the year 1000.  Thus Gniezno became the seat of Poland’s first archbishopric, the same Gniezno where Mieszko gained his sight and was then baptized, and the same Gniezno that was built on the site where the legendary Lech spotted the eagle’s nest in the tall tree after his brothers had departed for Bohemia and Russia.

- Robert Janak

“Early Czech History Told in Old Polish Legends,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), February 1997, pages 9-11.

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