A legend set in stone: Šemík the talking horse, saviour of Sir Horymír

Šemík's grave in Neumětely, photo: Public Domain

In days of yore, when the greedy pagan Prince Křesomysl reigned over the Czech lands from the ancient Prague castle at Vyšehrad, he forced peasants to abandon their villages and fields to pan for gold and mine for silver to fill the royal coffers. With famine looming – so the legend goes – a knight named Horymír tried to reason with the prince, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. What’s more, miners torched the knight’s estate, setting off a cycle of revenge. And Horymír would have been beheaded – if not for his noble steed, Šemík. The white horse is said to be buried in the south Bohemian town of Neumětely.

‘Horymír was a proud leader, a supporter of his people… When about to lose his head, he whispered to his horse: You see the Vltava River down there? Šemík, let’s jump into it!’

– So go the lyrics to a song by Zdeněk Svěrák and Jaroslav Uhlíř, the beloved comedic song-writing team.

According to Czech legend, the knight had asked for, and was granted, one last ride on his beloved (talking) white horse around the Vyšehrad Castle grounds before his execution. And as agreed, Šemík took the opportunity to jump over the ramparts.

The pair miraculously survived the plunge, and made it to the opposite side of the Vltava, to the amazement of assembled lords and ladies. But Šemík was near death, and asked his master to build a tomb in his memory.

Šemík's grave in Neumětely,  photo: Public Domain
In a small park just next to the Neumětely town cemetery, beneath a stone carved in the shape of a horse’s head centuries ago, lies the reputed final resting place of Šemík the talking horse.

Since 1887, the site has been protected by an open sandstone mausoleum, paid for with gold donated by Karel of Schwarzenberg. The inscription on its face reads, “In Neumětely, it was believed and is still believed that Šemík, the faithful horse of the Knight Horymír, is buried here.”

Local historian and patriot Marie Malínská is among those with sufficient imagination to embrace the legend.

“Historical science tells us that it is really is just a fable. But since it’s literally set in stone, we believe it – that which is in stone is forever (laughs) – and that without a doubt, beneath this huge stone, and these pillars like the four legs of a horse, Šemík is buried.”

View from Vyšehrad,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
Indeed, there is no historical documentation that Knight Horymír – let alone his talking horse – ever existed. The first written mention of them came nearly seven centuries after the reign of the mythical Prince Křesomysl, in Hájek’s ‘Bohemian Chronicle’ of 1541.

What’s more, the tale bears more than a passing resemblance to the German legend of Eppelein von Gailingen, said to have escaped a public hanging in around 1372 at Nuremberg Castle the very same way – as immortalised in 16th century folk songs.

Fittingly, the refrain to the Czech ode to Horymír and Šemík notes that people will forever debate whether the pair really jumped from Vyšehrad Castle – but such people have no imagination, and ‘only the horse and the river know for certain’.