Greek and Egyptian mythology seems to predominate our culture, but recently Polish mythology has become increasingly popular.
One of the most popular video games, and now TV series “The Witcher” is based on a number of short stories by a Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.
If the adventures of Geralt of Rivia are anything to go by, then Polish mythology is a field that any myth lover should want to explore.
From magic to terrifying creatures with supernatural powers…this is simply the stuff any good myth is made out of and more.
Like every culture, the Polish people have stories that date back to time immemorial.
The thing about these stories is that some people swear they are true; others believe they are nothing but myths, while many simply don’t know what to make of them.
Like it is the case in many cultures, these stories and myths are designed to teach society, in general, some kind of lesson.
Let’s take a look at some of
the most exciting Polish myths, legends, and folklore:
Janosik – The Polish Robin Hood
The legend of Robin Hood is one that’s very popular with the masses for the very reason why wealth inequality is very unpopular even today.
The idea that a skilled crusader would take it upon themselves to steal from the rich and give to the poor is as thrilling a tale as any.
While the English had Robin Hood, a skilled archer, and swordsman, the Polish had Janosik, a charming thief who plundered the countryside with a bunch of his friends.
Legend has it that Janosik was more than just a thief. Even though he plundered and even robbed the manor houses owned by the rich on both the Polish and Slovakian sides of the Tatra Mountains, he never harmed the poor.
In fact, much like Robin Hood, he and his merry band of vagabonds would bestow gifts and money upon the poor.
The myth goes that Janosik was more than just a man. He had supernatural powers that made him invincible to bullets and wounds.
He also had the magical ability to move from one place to another at an astonishingly quick pace – faster than any normal human being.
The legend goes that he was given these gifts by three witches.
He had met these witches as a young boy, and because he wasn’t afraid of them, the witches chose to bestow upon this extraordinarily courageous boy the kind of gifts that would make him an expert and most famous robber in all of Polish history.
As such, they give him three magical trinkets: a shirt, a belt, and an alpenstock.
He always had these three gifts on him, and as long as he did, he could evade any capture and be almost superhuman.
However, much like most great mythical men in this world, Janosik was betrayed by a woman he frequently visited.
She secretly destroyed these three trinkets and betrayed him to the soldiers who were eager to arrest the Polish Robin Hood.
The Dragon of Krakow – The Myth about How Krakow Came to be the Capital of Poland
The legend of how Krakow came to be is steeped in mythology, and like all great stories, it involves a dragon – the most mythical of all mythical creatures.
The story goes that a long time ago, along the River Vistula, there was a small settlement made up of good, hardworking, and peaceful people.
These people plied their trade and farmed the land in harmony with their neighbors, and all was well.
However, close to this village, there was a hill called “Wawel Hill.” This hill had a deep cave on its side, and the cave’s entrance was overgrown with tall bushes and grass.
No man ever ventured into that cave. Legend has it that there was a fearsome dragon that lived within it, and it had been sleeping for a very long time.
In fact, so long that the stories of the dragon’s existence were passed down from father to son for generations until no one alive had ever really seen the dragon, but still, the people believed and left the cave alone.
However, as it is with many cultures, there comes a generation that simply doesn’t buy into the old folklores, and such is the story of how the “Dragon of Krakow” came to be awakened.
The young people of the village who grew up hearing stories about the fearsome dragon that no one alive had ever seen begun to wonder if it really existed. They quickly begun to believe that it didn’t, and to prove the old folk wrong, they decided to venture into the cave.
With their torches, they entered the cave and explored every inch of it for a very long time until they came upon a dark mass of scales that belonged to the mythical dragon. By this time, it was too late.
The dragon had been awakened. As it roared and breathed fire, angry at being so rudely awakened after centuries of napping, the young man ran out of the cave, and the dragon followed.
From then on, the village knew no peace. The dragon would often swoop down and take their sheep and young virgins to devour.
It terrorized the villagers for so long that they began to despair and feel doomed. Their attempts to kill it failed, and many people lost their lives in the quest.
Their rescue came in the form of a man named Krakus or Krac (there are conflicting stories as to who he really was – some say he was a shoemaker’s apprentice; some say he was a wise man of the village).
Anyway, Krakus decided to poison the dragon by mixing a thick yellow paste with some sulfur and smearing it on a bunch of sheep.
He then baited the dragon with the sheep, and once the dragon devoured the sheep, as usual, he became insatiably thirsty as there was a terrible fire within him thanks to the sulfur.
The dragon then flew down to the river to quench his thirst, but no matter how much he drank, the fire still raged on within him. He kept drinking until he burst into little pieces like an over-inflated balloon.
The villages rejoiced when news of the dragon’s death reached them, and they made Krakus their ruler. They build a stronghold in Wawel Hill in his owner, and as the village grew around this stronghold, it became known as Krakow – after the hero who saved it, Krakus.
The Legend of Rusalka – The Polish Tree Spirit or Succubus
There is a lot of bad in this world, and for the most part, this evil tends to befall those who are vulnerable (women and children).
As such, myths and legends exist of the spirits of these wrongfully mistreated people coming back to exact their revenge on the men who did them wrong. Such is the myth of Rusalka, the Polish tree spirit and version of a succubus.
The story as to what the Rusalkas were before varies because some people believe that they were brides who died on their wedding night, women who met a violent death at the hands of men – the bottom-line is that they are spirits of women who come back to haunt the living.
Rusalkas are commonly referred to as Slavic water spirits, and they are believed to inhabit the lakes and forests of western Poland.
During certain times of the year, Rusalkas come out to play by living the water and sitting on branches of birch or willow trees. They appear in the form of beautiful women who long to share the company of men. They ask these men for little things like bread, salt, and even sexual favors.
Any man who falls for a Rusalka’s tricks and seduction dies in her arms. Rusalkas are believed to be spirits of women that come back to exact revenge on men for their wrongful death.
The Legend of the Baba Yaga
Anyone who has watched the “John Wick” movies will be familiar with the term “Baba Yaga.” It’s a Proto-Slavic word that directly translates to “hag” but is associated with torment, horror, and the threat of violent death. In the myths, the Baba Yaga is a rude old lady who lived in the forest.
She was often accompanied by a black cat (some say a snake, others a crow or an owl).
The Baba Yaga was unnecessarily mean and would feed on children who got lost in the forest. She locked them up in a cage first, fattened them up until they were plump and juicy, and then baked them in her oven for dinner. There is a Baba Yaga in almost every culture.
The beauty of Poland is often in juxtaposed evil that’s lurking in the mist.
The idea behind these myths is that they are designed to teach lessons or give fair warning to those who do evil in society.
Some are also meant to show how rewarding bravery can be – like the myth about the Dragon of Krakow.
So, the next time you see the Witcher, you might know a few things about the monsters he’s hunting and why they exist!