The Oldest Czech Legends

Today, I would like to tell you a bit of facts – and lot of myths – about the origins of the Czechs and about the founding of Prague. Please come in, the story begins…

Where did the Czechs come from?

Říp hill, photo: archive of prague.tips

The rotunda of Saint George on top of the hill Říp, photo: bkm / prague.tips

The Czechs are members of the Slavs, ethnic group which emerged in Eastern Europe (what is today Ukraine) around 500 AD. The Czechs’ ancestors migrated west. During 6th century, the Slavs arrived to Bohemia and Moravia. The legend says that they were led by Forefather Czech who came to the Říp hill (which is north of Prague) and settled with his people there. Most probably, the arrival of the Czechs was gradual and not organised as in that time, they were people of farmers in that time lacking higher organisation.

Inhabitants of Bohemia before the Czechs

The Slavs – or Czechs – were not the first inhabitants of Bohemia whom we know by name. The first were the Celts – more precisely, the Celtic Boii tribe – after which Bohemia is named. After Celts, the Germans came. The empire of Marcomanni King Maroboduus (d. 37 AD) had a centre in Bohemia.

Prague earliest settlements

Both the Celts and the Germans had their settlements in the area of today Prague. It is no wonder. The area is near confluences of several major rivers (the Vltava, the Berounka, the Sázava and the Elbe) and the area was settled soon. Even the oldest found trace of hominids in the Czech Republic (Homo erectus) was found nearby – at Přezletice.

Přemysl, the first duke of the Czech

The Statue of Přemysl and Libuše at Vyšehrad, photo: archive of prague.tips

Přemysl and Libuše at Vyšehrad, photo: bkm / prague.tips

The Czechs soon developed some hierarchy and started to establish structures of a future state. Mythical Forfather Czech as well as his successor Krok were rather a wise men and judges of their tribe. The third legendary generation, however, was the one which had a new type of leader – a ruler.

Krok had three daughters – Kazi, Teta and Libuše. Libuše was a seer and after Krok’s death was chosen by the Czechs as their new judge. The legend says that once, when Libuše judged in a dispute between two men, the man who lost his cause criticised heavily Libuše’s rule saying “Wow to men ruled by a women!” and also “Long hair – no sense!”. Such male chauvinism enraged Libuše who told her people that from that moment on, they shall have a man as the duke – but his rule will be harder. She told the elders of the tribe to let a horse roam free and that it would find the man whom she will marry and who will became the Czech duke. The horse led the elders to a man named Přemysl (which suggests some previous secret visits by Libuše). He was ploughing a field when they arrived.

Founding of Prague

Přemysl indeed married Libuše and became the duke. Libuše then had a vision in which she saw “a city whose fame reaches the stars”. Her prophecy sent men into a forest. They were to found the city on a place where they would find a man hewing a threshold for his house. Threshold is “práh” in Czech.  And so – as the legend says – it happened that our city was named Praha. Well, we are lucky, then, that the man was not making a dustbin or worse!

Přemysl’s legacy

The legend about Libuše and Přemysl does not lack several aspects from older tales of other nations (for example the tale about Roman dictator Cincinnatus, who was also ploughing a field when the heralds arrived to him to inform him about his nomination). However, the oldest domestic source from late 10th century gives also the oldest account of the legend – a farmer named Přemysl becoming a duke and founding Prague, only it does not mention Libuše by a name (only as a virgin seer – whom Přemysl marries, nevertheless).

The legends – and the truth?

Prague Castle, photo: archive of prague.tips

Prague Castle, photo: bkm / prague.tips

What of the legends is true? Honestly, we do no know. We do not know anything about such a planned founding of Prague. It is much more probable that Prague simply grew from previous settlements. We also do not know, why it was named Praha – it may refer to a threshold, but also to a ford or perhaps to a parched summit of a hill (now the place of Prague Castle?) – old Slavic language had words for those close to “Praha”.

What we do know is that our first ruling dynasty referred to itself as descendants of Přemysl (later to be known as the Přemyslid dynasty – Přemyslovci)  – and not as descendants of the first historical duke Bořivoj I who was probably the one who established firm central rule. A chronicle from early 12th century says that Přemysl’s bast shoes and his pouch were kept at Prague Castle – and used during the coronation ceremony – to remind his grandsons of their origin. They were probably lost in 1420 in the first year of the Hussite Wars.

Our knowledge of the first centuries which the Czechs spent at their today homeland could only be sparse. There are only a few solid facts provided by archaeology, sometimes by written accounts which are often obscure. It is hard – or impossible – to disentangle the myths from reality. Probably each nation has its own myths about its origin, its name. Are there any common things your myths have with ours?

Author: Pavel Janecek

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