Princess Libuse: the wisest woman in Czech literary history

Princess Libuse

Today we look at one of the legendary figures in Czech history - sometimes described as the Mother of the Czech Nation - the medieval princess Libuse or Libussa, who has inspired many writers through the centuries. I'm joined by Pavla Jonssonova, who has studied the way that the Libuse legend has been interpreted by different writers, and to what extent it reflects the possible real history of Libuse.

Let's start with the most famous version of the Libuse legend, which is the 19th century Czech writer Alois Jirasek.

"Jirasek's legends are read by schoolchildren, and that is something that is part of our identity and that everybody knows almost by heart. As far as Jirasek is concerned we have the vigour of this dignified woman, who can see clearly into the future and to the past."

So here is an extract from Jirasek's legend - not yet the legend of Libuse herself, but of her family, her father 'Pace' - or 'Krok' in Czech - and his daughters.

He ruled long and wisely. He founded a school where they taught religion, hymns, prophecy, and magic. Since this was before anyone in the country knew how to write, everything had to be memorized. Magic was considered the highest form of learning, pleasing to the gods. 'Pace' would go into seclusion and ask for the guidance of his gods. Once they told him to move away from his small castle, and look for a proper spot on the shore of the river Vltava (Moldau), and build a castle there. So the important men of the tribes went and found such a place on a steep cliff overlooking the river, where there was a spring of clear water. There they built a castle to be the seat of government, calling it Vysehrad, meaning High Castle, and traces of it stand to this day. 'Pace' lived and ruled there for some thirty years.

When he died, he left no sons, only three daughters: Kazi, Teta, and Libuse. These girls were all slender and beautiful, wise and good. Kazi knew medicine, for she knew the healing powers of various herbs and plants and the use of magic incantations, and she treated the sick from far and wide. She lived in her own castle, Kazín. Teta Iived in Tetin, and was especially learned in their pagan religion: she was a priestess. The youngest daughter, Libuse, had the gift of prophecy. At times she would go into a trance and make predictions. On such occasions, people would be somewhat afraid of her. Yet she was the most beautiful, the wisest, and the best beloved of the three sisters, and after their father's death she was chosen as leader in his place. While she had a castle of her own, Libusin, she lived in Vysehrad thenceforth. All the land was happy.

So, now we know a little bit about Libuse and her two sisters, Kazi and Teta. It's quite interesting to see to what extent these legendary figures in Jirasek's version actually reflect history. There has been quite a lot of research done into this, hasn't there?

Princess Libuse
"There's a recent book by Peter Demetz, 'Prague in Black and Gold', where he goes into all the chronicles that depict this part of our legendary past. He starts with the 10th century Christian chronicle, which only refers to a sort of soothsayer of the Slavic Czechs, that predicts the fame of the city 'Praga'. But his main emphasis is on the Dean Cosmas' Chronicle of the Bohemians from the early 12th century. He we see a slightly different picture of the three sisters Libuse, Kazi and Tetka. Dean Cosmas sees them not as much as Jirasek as these wonderful, beautiful creatures, but as very ambivalent. While Kazi is a good witch, Tetka in his understanding is a mean witch. Of course he wants to present Libuse in a good light, but still he cannot help seeing that she is not quite what Jirasek sees her as, the head of this assembly of the Slavic nobility."

So what was Jirasek trying to do? He was writing at the time of the 19th century Czech national revival - obviously he must have had an idea of the role of Libuse in the history of the Czechs, or in the identity of Czechs at a time when the Czech nation was emerging from centuries of being under Austrian rule.

"Well certainly he was trying to provide these very positive models for the Czech people, something they could be proud of."

We've just heard Jirasek's version of Libuse's origins. Jirasek also wrote the story of Libuse herself. It's rather a wonderful story, isn't it?

"It is, considering that she can see the future, she immediately knows where the truth is. People come to settle their disagreements with her and she immediately sees where the truth is."

There were no regular courts, but people carne to Libuse to settle their disagreements. She would sit under a linden tree in the castle courtyard, on a raised rug-covered platform, surrounded by twelve of the wisest men of the realm.

Once she had to decide between two neighbours who were quarrelling bitterly over the boundaries of their holdings. In all fairness, she decided in favour of the younger one, whereupon the elder flew into a rage, and screamed for all to hear: 'What kind of justice can we expect from a woman? Long-haired, but short on brains! Let her sew and spin, but not be a ruler and a judge! Where else does a woman rule over men, except here? We are the laughing-stock among nations, and we cannot stand for such a judge any longer!'

Everybody was dumbfounded, but nobody came to Libuse's defence. When nobody spoke up for her, she flushed with shame and sorrow. She turned to her critic and said, 'You are right! I am a woman, and I rule like a woman, not with a rod of iron, but with compassion, which you take for weakness. You need a stricter ruler, and your demand shall be fulfilled. Go hmne now, in peace! Let the people choose a duke to rule them, and I shall marry whomsoever they choose.'

Having spoken, she swept inside, sent for her sisters Teta and Kazi, and retired to the farthest corner of her secret garden where no outsider was allowed to go. Here stood Perun, a wooden idol, with a head of silver and a beard of gold. Libuse, herself motionless as a statue, worshipped the idol. She stayed the rest of the day till after dark, thinking and wondering what would happen now. Meanwhile her sisters arrived. The three ladies talked in seclusion until dawn.

In the morning, Libuse called for a gathering of the heads of clans, to be held on a day soon after the harvest. On the appointed day came many leaders from far and wide, some alone, and others with their retinue, some old, others young, some on foot, others on horseback. The castle courtyard was decorated for the meeting. There was much noise and clamour, as everybody wondered who would be chosen. Trumpets were blown to call the meeting to order, all grew quiet, and gazed to Libuse on her throne, with her sisters by her side.

Libuse made her speech: 'All of you know why I called you together. You did not appreciate the freedom I gave you, so the gods inspired me to tell you that I shall rule you no longer. You want a man, a duke who will take away your children to serve him, who will choose the best of your cattle and horses for taxes according to his whims. You want to serve a master and to pay for it, as so far you have not had to do. In return, you will not have to be ashamed of having a woman ruler. So be it! Go ahead and choose a duke, but do so wisely and carefully, because it is easy to put someone in power but hard to get rid of him. However, if you wish, I can advise you as to whom to choose.'

'Tell us! Advise us!' they called out, as they had no proper candidate.

Libuse rose, her eyes grew dreamy, and it became clear that she was in a prophetic trance. In a far-away voice she said: 'Beyond the hills is a small stream called Bilina. On its banks, where it makes a bend, there is a little village, Stadice. A hundred and twenty paces beyond the village, upstream, in a narrow valley, there is a field where you will find your future duke, a ploughman. He has two oxen: one is brown, with a white head, the other one is brown with a white streak down its back, and white hind legs. Go, take along the clothing fit for a duke, give the man my message, and bring him back here to be your ruler and my husband. His name is Premysl and our descendants will rule here forever. You will not have to ask the way. My white horse will lead you, just follow him. When the horse stops by a ploughman and neighs, that man will be Premysl. You will be certain it is he when you see him eating off an iron table.

So there we have Jirasek's Libuse. The legend has inspired many artists, writers and musicians since then as well, hasn't it?

"Absolutely, and not only Czechs but also German writers and others. I guess that her best-known sentence is, 'Behold, I see a great city, whose fame will touch the stars.' But the sad truth about this, the most famous sentence of Libuse, is that Cosmas put the sentence into Libuse's mouth, but he took it directly from Virgil's Aeneid."

And so this very famous description of the origins of Prague - Libuse's prediction of its foundation - in literary terms at least doesn't have its origins in Prague at all.

"Unfortunately not!"

What do you think is the relevance of the Libuse legend today, both to writers and to Czechs in general?

"I think that Libuse is indeed perceived as this noble princess, and I wish it would inspire women politicians to come bravely forward and be these leading figures, like this Mother of the Slavs! But unfortunately there is this kind of ending to Libuse's legend, after her death, when her ladies-in-waiting were losing their power in the court and they set up their castle Devin - the Girls' Castle - and started this military operation, the famous Maiden Wars. That, I think, always brings forward some laughter in Czech people. It casts a strange light on the legend of women's power as something that is a little bit ridiculous."

And last of all, there is one other very famous rendition of the Libuse story in the form of Bedrich Smetana's opera, 'Libuse'.

"It includes a very ceremonial fanfare, that is used at every occasion that needs this kind of ceremonial introduction. Also the National Theatre was opened by Smetana's 'Libuse', and it is our most ceremonial opera."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.