Oh Prague–such a delight! It’s easy to see why this enchanting place is known as the “Magic City”.
Although the title could easily be attributed to the cobblestone streets, stunning architecture, and abundant hot chocolate, Prague is seriously chock-full of local legends.
After you’ve filled up on heavenly trdelik (delicious funnel-like Czech pastry pictured above), mosey on down to Prague’s Ghosts and Legends Museum.
There, you’ll find a number of displays depicting aged, dusty books and wrinkled old scrolls–the kind of thing that evokes a warm, tingly happiness in fantasy nerds like me.
I was shocked by the sheer number of Prague’s local legends! From Spypek, the Goblin to The Podgy Merchant Hanka, it seems that nearly every basement, bridge, and street corner has its own spectral story.
I was particularly interested in the city’s infamous water sprites, or the little green men that often appear in Czech fairytales. Apparently, Prague’s waters house about 40 sprites, 9 of which dwell in the Certovka Creek. Born as tadpoles with a green, human head, they grow coattails at the age of 350 years, and live to be about 2,000. They revel in the art of catching human souls, which they then store in lidded cups called puclacky.
Fortunately, we did not come across one.
Though it would take weeks to visit every mythical spot, we were able to seek out a handful during our short visit.
Pictured above is St Martin in the Wall Church, which is hidden in some side streets near Narodni Trida. If you look closely, you’ll find a stone statue peering down from the roof, his fingers pulling his face into an look of distortion.
Legend has it that this was a disobedient little boy who was turned to stone. Some say he was taunting a priest; others believe he simply stole some eggs. Whatever the reason, he’s been leering down at onlookers ever since.
The next site can be found in the historic area of Vysehrad, which is one of the oldest parts of Prague.
Venture behind the Church of St Peter and Paul, and you’ll come across a large marble column broken into three pieces.
Known as the Devil’s Column, this was said to be the work of a devil named Zardan. Long ago, a priest had allegedly used Zardan’s help on several occasions, and had therefore been damned to Hell and ordered to repent. However, St Peter took pity on him, and decreed that if the priest could finish saying mass before Zardan could carry a pillar from Rome to Vyesrhad, he would be forgiven.
St Peter even went so far as to cheat–delaying Zardan by hurling him into the sea, which broke the column. The infuriated devil arrived in Prague only moments too late, and cast the pieces down in anger, where they can still be found today.
Another must-visit is the Museum of Alchemy. Alchemy was essentially medieval chemistry centered around the transmutation of base metals, most notably attempts to turn them into gold.
Alchemy played an important role in Prague’s history, and the museum reveals elaborate displays and scrolls with all sorts of fascinating information on the subject.
Alchemy actually originated in China and Hellenistic Egypt, with significant contributions later on by the ancient Arabs, and only gained prominence in Europe after the Middle Ages.
European alchemists perfected a variety of laboratory techniques, and can be attributed with the discovery of Nitric Acid.
They even tried to turn plain urine into phosphorous, but alas, were unsuccessful.
Oftentimes, the actual byproduct of their failed experiments was some sort of alcoholic concoction, which no doubt, aided them in their continued efforts to achieve the impossible. This accomplishment lives on today in Kellyxir, the museum’s alchemical lab pub.
As you can see, this is pretty much the coolest bar ever, and many of the colorful, smoking drinks are served in chemical beakers.
Of course, I opted for the “fairy mulled wine”.
Perhaps the most famous of all Prague’s legends is that of the Golem–a mud-man of Jewish folklore created by the famous Rabbi Loew.
When a fanatical Anti-Semite named Thaddeus threatened the peace and harmony of Prague’s Jewish population, Rabbi Loew dreamed that he could raise a creature to aid them. By using fire, water, air, and earth, the Golem was created–a towering giant with glowing eyes and supernatural powers, who acted as a servant to the Rabbi. Though normally docile and obedient, he could become enraged and dangerous.
When finally the dangers of Jewish persecution had passed, Rabbi Loew decided it was time to deconstruct the Golem. In the night, he performed the creation ritual in reverse, transforming his servant back into a lump of clay.
However, legend has it that the Golem reemerges in Prague during times of crisis. Crisis or no, he can still be found in this wondrous city in the form of Golem hotels, Golem businesses, Golem figurines, Golem restaurants, and even a musical starring a dancing Golem.
Today, you can find the grave of Rabbi Leow in Prague’s Jewish Cemetery–one of the city’s most important Jewish historical monuments.
This hauntingly beautiful place is home to over 100,000 bodies, and 12,000 headstones. Since Jewish custom forbids the removal of old graves, new bodies were simply deposited atop the old ones.
Though the Nazi regime threatened the cemetery with destruction, it escaped through a dark twist of fortune. The Nazis had planned to create a “Museum of an Extinct Race” in Prague, and wished to save the collection of graves as a prime artifact.
Thankfully, this did not come to pass, and hundreds of pebbles and paper prayers can now be found resting atop the tombstones from the multitudes of tourists who have come to pay their respects.
Travel details: Prague is accessible via plane or train, and is swarming with tourists throughout the year. We were lucky enough to find an excellent Airbnb overlooking Old Town Square (a must-see), but there are numerous options for accommodation. Tourists can purchase tickets to both museums mentioned above together for a discount, and should also visit Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and St Vitus Cathedral. For delicious, authentic Czech grub, be sure to stop by Lokal for excellent dumplings, meaty gravy, and a big mug of Pilsner Urquell.