Twardowski: The Pole Who Sold His Soul

One of Poland’s creepiest tales, and perfect for the Halloween season, is the legend of Pan (Mr.) Twardowski.

Known as the Polish Faust, Pan Twardowski is an old Polish legend about a man who sells his soul to the devil to obtain all the riches and pleasures of the world. Only at the end does he realize that these earthly goods are not worth losing his soul over and barely escapes eternal damnation by praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The legend  dates to 16th century Poland where it is believed that a man named Jan Twardowski actually existed and dabbled in the dark arts. One of the most famous stories is that King Sigismund August II hired him to summon the spirit of the dead queen, Barbara Radziwill. Supposedly, Twardowski used an enchanted mirror to bring the spirit into the room for the king. Barabara’s spirit quickly disappeared, however, and the devil’s face appeared in the mirror. Since then, the mirror has been cursed.

Twardowski's mirror in Węgrów. Legend says if you look into it, you will see your future.
Twardowski’s mirror in Węgrów. Legend says if you look into it, you will see your future.

If you look into the mirror, you’re supposed to see the future. In 1812, when Napoleon was leading his army across Poland into Russia, he stopped in a small town called Węgrów where Twardowski’s mirror had turned up. According to legend, Napoleon looked into the mirror and foresaw his defeat in Russia, which did come to pass. For decades, tourists have been visiting Węgrów to look into this magic mirror, which is on display at the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Peter and Paul. Many claim to see odd images or their futures reflecting back at them.

Another legend is that Twardowski wrote a manuscript inspired by his black magic. Kept at the University of Kraków, the “Twardowski Book” contains a black spot which is said to be the hand print of the devil himself (although experts say it’s an ink spot).

In all the legends, Twardowski tries to trick the devil by including a contractual clause that he will only give up his soul in Rome.  Twardowski, who never plans on visiting Rome, believes he is safe until the devil tricks him back, luring him into a tavern called “Rome.” As Twardowski is dragged into hell, he begs Mary for help. Although Mary saves Twardowski from the devil, he is left suspended in a type of limbo on the moon, where he supposedly remains to this day for his sins.

Polish Faust
Twardowski summoning Barbara’s spirit for the Polish king.

It’s a very interesting story that has taken numerous forms throughout the years. In one version, Twardowski rides in the sky on a rooster and throws gold coins to the poor people below because he wants to help the world. In another story, Twardowski tells the devil that he will go to hell, but only if the devil spends a year with Twardowski’s wife. The devil doesn’t last long.

Whether the legend is true or not, it conveys a great message. Ultimately, it’s a story about avoiding greed and empty material desires lest you figuratively “lose” your soul and a piece of your humanity. Any kind of extreme is bound to be a liability to our ultimate health and happiness.

Watch the 1936 version of the film on Youtube.  In addition to telling a great story, it’s a movie rich with Polish culture and history.


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