A visionary woman saw the future of the Czech capital
Like many old cities, the origins of Prague are a bit mysterious. A popular legend says the city was founded by a female pagan visionary. Like Britain’s King Arthur and other founding figures, how much is true history and how much is national myth can likely never be sorted out.
As early as around 200 B.C., the Celts were living on the location of the present day Prague suburbs. However, the current city dates to the eighth or ninth century A.D., and its settlement is connected to the legend of Libuše and her peasant husband, Přemysl.
Libuše – described as a princess or a duchess – was one of three noble sisters. She was a prophetess and the youngest of the three, while Kazi was a healer and Teta was a magician. The father was Krok, a judge or duke who rose up from the masses to restore order when prosperity set the previously content and simple people fighting among themselves.
Krok chose Libuše to succeed him because she was the wisest of the three. She is supposed to have looked out from the hill at Vyšehrad and foretold the future. “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars,” she said, declaring the name of the city to be Praha, which some people associate with the modern Czech word for threshold. She also saw the hill on which Prague Castle is now located as being the back of a dolphin.
Some early versions of the legend have Libuše seeing her vision of a future Czech nation at Libušín, a town almost 30 kilometers from Prague. Since this village never prospered and grew, the place has been conveniently moved to Prague, which fits the vision better.
While the story so far has a strong female leader, that changes. The people were not ready for matriarchy, so Libuše was forced to marry. She let fate decide by letting a horse lead her to her husband, who was either plowing a field with one broken sandal or eating lunch under a tree, according to varied accounts. In both accounts, Libuše secretly urged the horse to go to the man she had seen before and already chosen for herself.
The husband was Přemysl, and their marriage was the start of the Přemyslid dynasty, which, after several legendary rulers whose existence is debatable, became established in 876 with Duke Bořivoj I, who is more generally accepted as a real historical figure. The dynasty lasted until Wenceslas III, who died in 1306.
In Chronica Boëmorum by Cosmas of Prague, the spelling Lubossa was used. That account, written between 1119–25, is the basis for most others. But even that had predecessors. A 10th century account by a writer who called himself “Christian in name only” told of an unnamed virgin soothsayer building a castle to stop a plague and then marrying a peasant plowman.
Not plague, but famine figures into later accounts. Přemysl had not finished his plowing when he was found by Libuše, and this was an omen for a bad harvest. He is also said to have planted a staff, which had three shoots sprout, but two of them died. This was an omen for two of his and Libuše’s sons dying. The third, Nezamysl, would succeed them.
Several accounts say she left behind a treasure still hidden at Vyšehrad consisting of a silver horse, a golden frog and hen, and 12 golden eggs. It can be found on a Good Friday at midnight when the ground opens up, but it is guarded by lions.
Another tale says her golden chariot is hidden in the rocks of Divoka Šarka.
Chronicle author Cosmas, a church-trained scholar and cleric, struggled in transposing the clearly pagan Slavic myth into his Christian historical framework. The sisters Kazi and Teta (Thethka) are depicted as a maker of poison potions and an evil witch — more like the three witches in Macbeth than the daughters in King Lear.
He had a harder time painting Libuše entirely negatively though, as he sides with pro-Bohemian sentiment in seeing her as a heroic figure, praising her for her chastity, wisdom in judicial affairs, her speech and her honesty. He takes her soothsaying as a flaw though, as claiming it was a deception against the people.
He also depicts her laying in bed to dole out justice, rather than sitting on a throne as she is seen in later pictures and tales. Cosmas goes on to criticize women as being unfit to give out justice, either on a throne or in bed.
The most popular version of the story comes from Alois Jirásek, who tackled the tale in his Old Czech Legends, published in 1894.
Jirásek took a kinder view of the sisters, depicting Kazi as an herbal healer and Teta as something more like a priestess, teaching people about the worship of idols and deities.
He also gives a more modern view of Libuše, leaving out Cosmas’ more demeaning elements.
Another popular version from the time of Czech national awakening was an opera by Bedřich Smetana, which premiered in 1881 at the opening of the National Theatre in Prague, and again in 1883 when the theater reopened, after being rebuilt following a fire.
She also figures into notable patriotic paintings and sculptures from the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the most famous is a a sculpture of Libuše and Přemysl by Josef Václav Myslbek. It is part of a group of four statues of legendary figures now in Vyšehrad. They were moved from flanking the Palacký Bridge during World War II for their safety. A painting called The Prophecy of Libuše is in the upper circle of the National Theatre.
Most recently, she was the subject of a low-budget film called The Pagan Queen, released in 2009.
The ruins of the corner of a small building with arched windows at Vyšehrad are called Libuše’s Bath, and are used to give a geographical anchor to the story, but the ruins come from a much later date.