Prague’s Ghost Stories
As a young boy, my parents gave me a collection of Grimm’s Fairy tales. These were not the sanitized ones given to most children in the US, these were the originals in all their gory glory. Instead of some moral or lesson the revised editions would teach, I read stories that had the “hero” cutting an old woman’s head off to get her money or innocent people dying from the worst plague. I had never encountered so many stories without a happy ending. I sat for hours reading these stories. This planted a seed of interest in old folktales, superstitions and ghost stories. The fact that my mother’s maiden name is Grimm may lend a hand to this. When I came to Prague I immediately went on a search for such stories. What I learned quite quickly is that there isn’t much in the way of ghost stories, at least as most would think of them.
Very few Czechs have any real belief in ghosts or the supernatural. Seeing as how it is one of the most atheist countries in the world I can see where that comes from. Two major religious wars started here, church reforms were attempted here and one ruler, Rudolph II, invited any manner of mystics and alchemists to the castle of Prague. Even with all of this the city simply doesn’t have much in the way of vindictive ghosts or other such storybook characters. When a ghost shows up in Prague they are part of a story where they have a message to relay. There are a few that just wander lost and a couple are cursed but overall, not much to to frighten you.
This disregard for spooky stories goes hand in hand with the general lack of belief in undead creatures and the fact that the Czechs didn’t really have the witch hunt craze that was so prevalent throughout Western Europe. There are two major exceptions. The witch trials of Northern Moravia, also known as the Boblig witch trials. Boblig was a retired judge that was assigned to a witch hunter counsel. He would accuse and kill around 100 people of witchcraft before his death in 1696. Without him to force the witch hunts they disappeared pretty much after his death.
An interesting discovery was made just a few kilometers from Prague in the city of Čelákovice where they found 14 corpses buried sometime around the late 10th or early 11th centuries. All 14 graves and corpses were treated as if their society felt they were vampires. Corpses were nailed to the ground, often the heads were smashed and a dagger in the mouth to prevent the vampire from biting. And yes, there were stakes through the heart.
A culture is reflected in the stories it tells. Let us look at this reflection in a few of the stories told here at one time.
The Ghost of Kinsky Palace
Standing in Old Town Square you will notice that one building is set a few meters out from the adjoining buildings. That is the National Gallery (Narodní Galerie) also known as the Kinsky Palace (Palác Kinských). It looks as if it took one step into the circle of buildings. It was finished in 1765 and as the story goes, the idea was to set the building a bit forward to be more noticeable. So, here is where the story begins.
The nobleman asked the builder about this idea. The builder knew this would be against the zoning laws but that is nothing a good bribe can’t fix. They built a large fence around the area to make sure no one notices where they were building until it would be too late to stop and off to work they go. One day an old man stumbled through the gate of the fence by accident. He immediately became very disturbed at what he saw and informed them they could not build this far into the square. It was the devils underground there, grave danger!! After the workers laughed the old man off the site they got back to work.
Things went fine for a few weeks but at a certain point they would stop building for the day, go home, and return the next day to find the foundation had cracked and was unstable. This happened three days in a row. The builders investigated the foundation and found no reason for the rupture. Yet, on the 4th day it had, again, cracked. Unable to think of anything else they thought the old man may know something. They lost another days of work searching for him and they did finally find him at his favorite bar. Asking him what he knew about the ground he tightened his gaze and stared at the head builder. “You don’t understand.” he said. “The ground is not fit for man to build on, the devil owns what is beneath. He will not let that building stand.” The head builder thought perhaps the old man had a few too many beers, but the way he spoke made the builder wonder. “Maybe the old man isn’t crazy.” he thought.
“Is there a way to deal with this?” the head builder asked.
The old man shook his head. “The price is heavy, you must do something so evil the devil will agree to let it stay.”
“What could that possibly be?” Asked the builder.
The old man took a large drink of his beer. He turned slowly to the builder, his tone of voice changed into an ice cold whisper. “Kill a small child and put their body in the foundation. This will please the Devil and he will allow the building.”
The shocked builders quickly left the bar convinced the old man was nuts and there would be no murdered child in the foundation.
The days go by and there is no advancement of the building. Any progress made the day before would be dismantled by the next day. The situation went on for two more weeks. Now they were way behind on the project with no solution. Being well known builders in Prague they were concerned that their reputation may begin to tarnish if this continues. What to do? The head builder and a couple of his associates finally came to the horrifying decision to go through with the murder.
Traveling to a small village they found an orphanage and arranged to have a small girl given to their care. She was taken back to Prague and in the middle of the night she was killed and placed in the foundation.
The next day the men went back to work. The following day there was no problem with their progress. This time the foundation held. The building was quickly finished and the first inhabitants moved in. In a very short period of time the first owner moved out and sold the building for a great loss. When the owner was asked why he sold he spoke of nights spent hearing a little girl cry. Little feet running down the hall only to stop if someone investigated. He said the worst night was just a few days before he decided to leave. He woke in the middle of the night to find a little girl in tattered clothing standing at the foot of his bed. He sold the building and moved away.
Now, if you notice there is no moral, no punishment for a horrible crime and really no other haunting after the house sells. The tales in the Czech Republic tend to just explain things, not actions. There are a small few that are intended to teach. Such is the case of the vodniks, or more properly, vodníci, the water sprites of the Vltava river.
The Sprites of Vltava
A few hundred years ago the people of Prague would live closer to the water. What I mean in that more women would be fetching water, men fishing and there would be more going on then just enjoying the view. Children would also be closer to the water more often. Anyone who has spent 5 seconds with any 10 year old will know that telling them to stay away from the water because they can’t swim is simply an invitation to have the child do what you said not to do. If you tell them they can’t swim they will tell you they can. You say “don’t touch that”, guess what they grab. Tell them not to go in the water and you will have a wet child rather quickly.
The issue is mothers like their offspring to stay alive and the river can be tricky certain times a year. Kids may not fear the water but they are scared of monsters! So, the remedy for drowned kids is to frighten them with vodnik! A grumpy toad like creature that would drag unsuspecting swimmers underwater, drown them, and keep their souls in a jar. Drowning may not scare children but their soul in a jar!! This is a different story.
If you wander to the Lennon wall or take our Prague Discovery tour you will go by one of the good types of water sprites. A statue of Kabourek is sitting off from a water wheel having a pipe. This fellow seems to be a bit like your crazy uncle that gets a bit loud if he drinks too much. He might have even tried to save a fisherman or two from drowning since he really isn’t that bad. If he can’t save you he still will save your soul in a jar but hey, he has to do something with it. He was known to hang out in pubs and for a beer or two he would tell the fishermen where the schools of fish would be found. He was also known for being grumpy if he didn’t think the beer was good. Like I said, a crazy, slightly drunk uncle who is Czech.
The tradition of using creatures to frighten children to stay safe has been done throughout the world, the Czechs just have some very unusual ones to choose from. They also keep certain themes. Since there was so much building going on, especially from the 1200’s to the 1500’s that builders have many stories about them like the first one.
The Devil’s Due
Perhaps one of my favorites is the tale of a builder of the Charles bridge tower. One of the foremen kept running into trouble keeping the tower from leaning to one side. Yes, I know what you are thinking. This was his own issue and not the Devil’s ground. Don’t worry, the Devil will be in the story too.
His top builders and planners could not line up the tower to stand proper. The ground near the river is a bit more unsteady and was creating problems. The Emperor was putting on the pressure to get the job done and master builder was at his wits end trying to come up with a solution. Finally, in his frustration, he calls upon the Devil to help him. As we know from every story the Devil shows up in, the Devil has a contract to sign. In this case, the first soul to cross the bridge after it is finished will be forfeited to him. The foreman agreed and, in a short time, the tower was complete.
Typical of every story involving the Devil, the foreman had a plan to trick him and save anyone from going to hell. He had brought a chicken along and was going to let it be the first to cross the bridge. I will add here that this may be the start of the “why did the chicken cross the road” jokes. As is also typical, you really can’t trick the Devil and he doesn’t like when you try. The Devil, knowing of the deceit, was already busy. The foreman’s wife had received a visitor with news that her husband had been injured on the other side of the bridge and she should go to him. Obviously he was not injured, only finishing up the final touches. He didn’t notice his wife was crossing the bridge until she had almost reached him. He watched in horror as she collapsed and died having been the first soul to cross the bridge. The tower stood and the Devil got his due.
The Dwellers of Prague Castle
Prague Castle is the subject of so many stories it is hard to choose. The castle has its own water sprite and he guards the water there. This is an important task since there was only one source of drinking water at the castle. His name is Paklt. He is said to stand 60 centimeters tall and wearing a strange smile. He fades into the walls anytime someone tries to follow him. Not much more is known of him since he seems to be a bit shy.
There are stories about the ghost of Charles IV and even stories of the dwarfs of Charles IV running around the castle. There are specters who protected the cathedral from Protestants who wanted to ruin a mass by ringing the bells at the wrong time. They prevented the bells from ringing until the proper hour of mass. There is also the story of the White Apparition of the Cathedral.
The bell ringer of the church had spent the evening out having a few too many beers. Not wanting to climb all the way up to his room in the tower he slept in the chapel. He was woken in the middle of the night by the Apparition who told him that if he ever came to chapel in that condition again he would be punished. The following night he remained sober and stayed at a friends house. He was too frightened to return to the cathedral after dark. That morning he woke and discovered that his head of black hair had turned white from his fear. It is said he never drank again.
In 1753 the ghost appeared again. A guard was walking his rounds when he saw lights in the cathedral and he heard the organ playing. As he approached the door a white figure stepped out. “Stand, state your name” the guard pronounced. The figure looked at him, threw wheat at his feet and went back inside. When the guard followed him in he saw no one in the chapel. The next night another guard would encounter the same situation, only this time the image threw gold coins instead of wheat. The third night a third guard was spooked by the appearance of the white figure and fired at him. The specter caught the bullet and threw it to the guards feet. He then proclaimed “Next year, your crops will be generous, the year after luck will shower the country with gains, but the third year there will be war.” He was correct. By the third year the seven years war had begun.
You can visit all of these sites as well as many others on our Prague Discovery tour. Also, ask your guide if they have any favorite stories. I would tell you my absolute favorite story, but you will have to take my tour to hear it.