The beginnings of a nation are always dawn-lit and mystical, and nowhere do we find the dawn-light gleaming forth in more measureless beauty than in the legends of early Czechie. There is a wealth of these legends, many largely historic, and between and within the lines of some we get rare glimpses of the Mysteries and of the noble figures of initiate kings and queens. One of these was the Princess Libushe, the "mother of Czechie," a beautiful pagan figure shining out in the dim though historical past like a spiritual lamp of the Law.
The land called the Czech Republic is an ancient land, with proofs of the existence of man as far back as the last ice age. Neolithic man lived there later, and a bronze age of high development lasted until about the eighth century. In due course, however, a great Slavic stream began to pour down. Infiltrated with Celtic blood from at least two invasions, and touched with Roman culture, it nevertheless remained predominant, and from one of its strong tribes — the Czechs — both land and people finally took the name which is still retained.
The leader of this tribe was Czech, who ruled his people wisely. No fences had to be raised to set off my land from thine, only the balk was left: a foot-wide strip of soil that belonged to neither, with a neutrality all held sacred. For those were days when the Mystery-light still burned in Czechie, though it had long been quenched in other and older lands and practically the whole of Europe was whirling to the pit of a cycle, ten centuries long about, that was awful with grovelings and terror, and black with ignorance and sin. But in mountain-rimmed pagan Czechie, the ancient wisdom was still believed and many of the old truths known. The gods lived very close to human ways, and there communed with them. Magic was believed in and revered as an art that was high and sacred, and only to be followed for the uses of the soul.
At length the warrior Samo was chosen king for his valor in ridding the country of the bloody Avars in the seventh century, the latter years of which covered the rule of Krok, his son or grandson and the father of Libushe. Krok was a magician, a good and wise man, who came to the throne when a spirit of disorder had begun to take possession of the people. But soon he had order reestablished, and peace returned. Finally, desiring to know the future for the protection of his people, Krok sought three days of solitude and communion with the gods, who told him that it was best to seek another home. Krok told his people they had naught to fear for the long journey: when the destined spot was reached, the gods would give them to know it.
So Krok and his people set out, and came to the wide Vltava (the modern Moldau). As they climbed the high hill that overlooked its waters, the promised revelation came upon them like a flash of light. "This is the place," they cried with a single voice, and here they pitched their camp. Here was erected, in due course, Vysehrad, the mighty fortress-castle within whose walls the entire people could assemble, the acropolis of the future Prague, the residence of Libushe who was to come, and the council chamber of the gods.
Krok died after a reign of thirty years, leaving three daughters, all "wise women," not only in the learning of the schools but in the secret wisdom of antiquity, versed in spiritual magic taught them by their father. Kazi, the eldest, was a wonderful physician, skilled in all the magic of the healing art which in ancient days was a department of the Mysteries. Teta was the priestess of the nation, teaching the people the wisdom of the soul. But Libushe transcended her sisters in wisdom and beauty and was the people's eager choice, becoming thus Krok's successor and Czechie's ruler, lawmaker, and judge.
As people had gone to Krok with their disputes, so now they came to Libushe who rendered just decisions. One day two elders of the tribe each claimed for himself the narrow neutral strip or balk that lay between field and field. They hastened to Vysehrad where sat the Princess in judgment with twelve men of years and power beside her. A vast multitude had assembled there besides. The two disputants stood before her, the younger accusing the older man. But he, full-bearded and fierce, demanded that his will be done, recking naught of the injustice that might follow.
Libushe heard the cause, weighed well the evidence, and announced her decision to the leader of the twelve lordly men beside her; and these agreed that the decision was just, for Libushe found truly that a great wrong had been done the younger man. But ere she could finish her words the elder, mad with rage, stormed as though a torrent had sped loose:
"Such is the justice of our law! Know you not the reason? A woman sits over us in judgment! Long of hair forsooth, but short of wisdom! She may spin, she may sew; but let her not presume to judge! Shame upon us who are men! Where else than in our land rules a woman over men? We only are so ruled, and have been made a laughing-stock!"
Cruel grief at such ingratitude pierced Libushe's heart, but patiently she waited, that others might be first to rebuke the offender. Alas! all stood there as though paralyzed, so wild and hot had been the speech. At length Libushe spoke with majesty and dignity: "I am a woman, true, and as a woman I judge. That I do not enforce my judgment with the iron whip — it is this which gives you cause to say my wisdom is but little. You need a ruler more severe than woman, and you shall have him. A congress shall be called of all the nation; it shall choose a leader and ruler, and on whomsoever the choice shall fall, that one will I take for a husband."
So saying, she went from the court to her castle, sending messengers to her sisters, bidding them come. Within the castle garden was a sacred spot where none but Libushe and her sisters ever presumed to go. An arbor temple stood there in the deep linden shade, sacred to aegis-bearing Perun. (2) This temple Libushe entered, and there remained in silence and alone till darkness fell, reflecting, counseling with the gods. Suddenly in the gloom stood Kazi and Teta before her. What Libushe confided to her sisters, what they considered and said to her, what the three, all gifted with prophetic power, resolved and counseled in that sacred spot, no person ever knew. The whole night passed as they advised together there, until at last, high over the castle, shone the first faint gleam of dawn.
With the sunrise hour, Libushe sent out a call for the gathering of the people, and nationwide they came. As though they were one man the vast crowd surged up to the Vysehrad and into the spacious hall where she sat upon her throne. Kazi and Teta sat on each side.
Libushe spoke austerely and with dispassion: "You know full well why I have called you together. That you know not how to value freedom I have learned full well, for I have tested you. Out of the wisdom of the gods who counseled me, I now declare to you that I shall rule no longer — since in your hearts you desire the rule of a man. Your desire is for one who will crush your sons and daughters into serfdom; who will take the best from you, all according to his will. Yet no wish have I to cover you with fear. Let me but say: Choose your leader wisely. In this, if it be your wish, I will still consent to advise you; I will tell you his name and the place of his abiding."
"Tell us! Advise!" they cried, pressing close about the throne.
Libushe rose and, pointing to the northern mountains, she said: "Beyond those mountains in Lemuz is a river called Belina. Near it is a hamlet where the family of Stadic dwell. Near it, too, is an odd fallow, 120 paces in width and length, lying in the midst of many fields. There you will find your leader. He will be plowing with two dappled oxen, one with a fair white head, the other with a white forehead, white adown the back, and his hinder legs white as snow. Take princely garments with you, and tell the man that you come as messengers from your nation and from myself that you may give to your nation a Prince and to myself a husband. His name is Premysl, and over this land his descendants will reign for ages.
"Trouble not to seek the way nor to inquire. My horse will go ahead and lead you there. Before whom he will stop and neigh, he is the man you seek. Readily indeed will you believe me when you see him eat at a table of iron."
Libushe beckoned and a white horse was brought forth. It was early autumn, and a quiet, sunny day. The princely robes were laid upon the saddle, and swiftly the horse went on his way. No one guided him, yet not a step out of the right way did he go. Plains were covered and mountains left behind, until on the morning of the third day the messengers came upon a hamlet in a low, narrow valley. There was Premysl, very tall and noble, and before his plow two oxen, dappled as Libushe had described. Down the wide balk the messengers hastened to him, Libushe's horse ahead, who reared and neighed as with delight, then knelt down before the plowman. Taking the princely robes Libushe had sent, the messengers approached Premysl with greetings:
"Fortunate among all men, O Prince, chosen of the gods! Let go your dappled oxen, leave off your peasant gear; put on the princely garments we have brought; mount this fair horse and come with us. So bids the Princess Libushe and the whole Czech nation. To you and your heirs shall be the leadership of our land. You are chosen as our protector, prince, and judge."
Premysl listened and pressed down deeply into the earth the dry staff he held in his hand. Taking from the dappled oxen their wide yokes he said to them, "Go back now whence you came." Before the oxen opened a giant rock; then it closed behind them and they were as though they had not been.
"Pity it is, indeed," he said to the messengers, "that you should come so early. Could I have but finished plowing this field, for all time there had been bread in plenty in our land. But forbearing to wait, you cut off my work, and unto you and yours, therefore, shall famine come again and again."
Even as Premysl spoke, the dry hazel staff put forth leaves as though spring had come, and three fresh green branches sprouted forth, covered with leaves and young nuts. Premysl bade the men sit with him at his table. He turned the plow on its side and from a bag of bast took cheese and a loaf of bread, and laid these on the shining level share. "It is the iron table of which the Princess spoke," said each chief to himself. While they sat breakfasting, two of the fresh green branches of the hazel staff withered and fell away. Only the third one remained, but that was green and living, and shot up high in luxuriance. Fearfully they questioned Premysl, who said: "Know that among all who shall spring from me, many there will be to begin their reign, but one alone shall complete it."
Premysl rose and bade farewell to his now exalted house. Then, clothed in the royal garments, he mounted the waiting horse, and with him went his peasant's bag and shoes of linden bast. Again the messengers questioned and he replied: "These shall be gifts to you, gifts to be preserved through coming ages, that those who reign after me may remember whence they came, lest they lose their way in pride and abuse their sacred trust — for, verily, we are all brothers." (3)
They soon approached high Vysehrad, where Libushe waited to greet them white-robed and sublimely beautiful, surrounded by the nobles, chiefs, and elders of the realm. Valiant, handsome, young Premysl clasped hands with the Princess, and they entered the castle rejoicing. There was celebrated their marriage, there all feasted joyously and listened to singers chanting bardlike the heroic deeds of Czechie. And when the dark night came, festal fires and torches flared out.
Then Libushe led Premysl to a room where walls and tables glittered and shone with the dazzling gleam of gold and silver, of bronze and iron. All this great treasure she showed Premysl, now to be shared with him. Then she led him to the sacred spot by the linden tree where many times thereafter they both sat in serious counsel, considering their people's good. The many new laws Premysl enacted in the years to come brought to discipline the rebellious and the proud, laws which were followed for many ages.
One fair day Libushe, Premysl beside her, stood on a high cliff overlooking the wide Vltava. Lifting her hand she pointed to a forested hill whereon she saw a noble city whose glory she declared would reach the stars. She pointed out the very spot where they should build the castle of the city, calling it Praha (Prague).
The Vltava, south of Praha (Prague). Photo: Vilem Heckel
Again, low at the foot of the Vysehrad rock was Libushe's solitary bath. One day, on the dark surface of the waters, vision after vision came and went, Libushe looking on the waters. Darker and more terrible grew they till her heart cried out in pain and agony. Her maidens were lost in wonder and grief, and to them Libushe spoke:
"I see the blazing of great fires, fair hamlets burning, mighty castles, lofty halls! In the glow of it I see bloody battles waging on. Livid, stricken bodies I see, brother killing brother and the stranger treading on their necks! I see misery, humiliation, terror, desolation, grief!"
Two of her maidens approached carrying the golden cradle of her first-born. She kissed the little golden bed and laid it on the waters. As it sank within their waiting depths, Libushe spoke again:
"Endless night shall not reign over this land. Bright day will dawn again and, purified by grief and pain, made stronger by her diligence and love, Czechie will rise again in strength, and glory shall be unto her once more. Then shalt thou rise upward into the light, and in thy sheltering arms shall rest the nation of a future day, redeemed, reborn a child."
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Many reflections are stirred by this legend. The women of secret wisdom; the mysterious oxen and horse; the peasant raised to princehood; the blossoming staff; aegis-bearing Perun and the sacred tree; and the mystery-setting of the whole — these have their counterparts in myth and legend all over the world. On the other hand, there is the undenied existence of Libushe, Premysl, and Krok as great historical characters; of the fortress-castle of Vysehrad and the actual founding of the House of Premysl there — a house which ruled in Czechie for centuries.
The fact is, this legend is equally precious as a mystical record or historical account. Libushe's knowledge of Premysl is no more fantastic than Joan of Arc's recognition of the Dauphin under his disguise. The visions of the one match those of the other, and we find similar prophecies recorded of Birgitta of Sweden, Brigit of Ireland, the Gnostic Maximilla and Prisca, and doubtless of others who also lived this side of a dawn-mist of any sort. The soul is practical and mystical both, historic and legendary, a fact and an allegory, just as was Libushe. Indeed, is not each one of us, all the time and every day, an allegory or symbol of — something? There is a whole philosophy in the answer to this simple question.
Libushe was more than a ruler in the ordinary sense. She had a knowledge of the world's ancestral theosophy, as had her sisters and father, and she occupies a place in the heart-life of Czechie that suggests the mystical figures of Quan-Urn-Bodhisattva, the ancient mother-teacher of Korea, or Kwan-Yin, the Chinese "Mother of Compassion." Around such great figures legends are bound to cluster.
Czechie in the days of the Princess Libushe was a focus of mystic life. Under cyclic law streams rise at last to their source, and men and nations both, clearing the path through effort, in time find their way back to the spiritual heights of their youth. It is one of the meanings of the story known to all the world's Bibles as the return of the wandering son to the "Father's house." Those who know this law through having watched its unfoldments — especially throughout the long, strange processes of history — know that no hope can be too great to hold for a nation whose beginnings were so brotherly and so high.
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1. Retold by my mother, Dr. Grace Green Knoche (1871-1962) — from Bessie Barborka's translation of the Czech rendition of Alois Jirasek. — Grace F.Knoche (return to text)
2. The Zeus of the Czech pantheon, which rivals that of Greece or Rome in beauty and completeness. (return to text)
3. These shoes, as Kosmas of Prague recorded in the 13th century, "are to this day preserved at Vysehrad," and remained there until well into the Hussite wars when they were lost sight of, undoubtedly sharing in the general destruction that left the country without a literature and almost without a venerated treasure of any kind. (return to text)