Haunted Poland: The White Lady of Wiśnicz Castle

In southern Poland, nestled between miles and miles of remote Polish villages, is a petite fairy-tale town called Nowy Wiśnicz. As you drive through this pleasant little community and turn your head to the left, you’ll see a beautiful baroque-style palace perched high atop a hill, surrounded by acres of trees.

Polish castle

This is Wiśnicz Castle. Gazing upon it, you experience a romantic break from reality, a feeling that the modern world doesn’t exist and that any second you might be witness to a knight riding down the rode or a peasant working in the field.

The castle has a long and interesting past filled with numerous legends and tales. It would be an injustice to cover them all in one blog post. Instead, today I am focusing on perhaps the most mysterious one—the White Lady of Castle Wiśnicz.

In the 16th century, the castle was home to a powerful Polish noble family who often entertained important guests and visitors—among them was the powerful Polish Queen, Bona Sforza. Everyone feared Queen Bona. In European history, she is known as one of the most calculating and conniving female monarchs, one who would stop at nothing to get her way.

Bona was also something of a daredevil. One of Castle Wiśnicz’s towers is encircled by a very narrow, unfenced terrace where guards would stand on watch duty. It was believed that the reason for making the terrace so narrow was to discourage the guards from falling asleep on the job  because they would fear falling off the tower. Bona, herself, was unafraid, as she would supposedly ride around this narrow terrace on horseback.

Wiśnicz Castle
Wiśnicz Castle in olden times. Many fell to their deaths trying to ride around this narrow tower.

When someone upset her at the castle or didn’t follow orders, Bona would inflict a cruel punishment on them. She would bring the person to be punished atop the narrow tower and force him to watch her ride around it three times. She would then command the victim to do the same. However, a different horse would be brought in, one that had been fed alcohol. The victim would get on the drunken horse and attempt to ride around the tower. No one ever succeeded. They all fell from the tower to their deaths, much to Bona’s satisfaction.

Supposedly, Bona’s most evil deed was inflicted on her daughter-in-law.  The Queen’s son, Sigismund II Augustus, had fallen in love with the beautiful Barbara Radziwiłł and married her. They were to be king and queen. This aroused the anger of many important people in Poland, including Bona, who opposed the marriage because it was politically incorrect at the time. The young couple had married for love, without regard for the marriage’s political consequences.

Supposedly, Bona took matters into her own hands to stop the marriage—permanently. She had the beautiful Barbara unknowingly drink poisoned wine at Wiśnicz Castle. The young queen died in agony. The worst part of it, no one ever proved or disproved that the girl had been poisoned.

Barbara Radziwiłł
The “White Lady,” Barbara Radziwiłł, is said to haunt the halls of Wiśnicz Castle.

From that time, people have claimed to see a beautiful woman, completely white, walking through the castle and on the grounds. It’s said that this woman is the young Queen Barbara, haunting the castle out of sadness that her marriage was so tragically cut short.

As for Bona, it’s said she could not escape punishment in the afterlife for all her crimes. In the dead of night, especially when there’s a storm, people claim to see a woman in white riding around the castle’s tower. It’s believed this phantom is Bona’s spirit, forced to ride around the tower for her sins, just as she did in life.

When I was a young child  visiting Wiśnicz Castle, I would always be afraid of staying there past dusk. One time, it was getting dark, and I was walking through the forest path away from the castle. I was feeling relieved at no longer being on the castle grounds when I thought I heard a strange sound mysteriously echoing from behind me. The sound could have been anything, or nothing. After all, it’s a surreal, dreamlike experience being in a forest near a medieval castle at dusk. Still, I’m pretty sure it sounded a lot like….horse hooves.

An American’s Take on Polish Independence Day

SONY DSCHappy Polish Independence Day!  98 years ago, Poland transformed from a repressed, war-torn territory into a proud and unified nation. But Poland’s independence on November 11, 1918 was just part of a larger story.

On that same day, World War I officially ended when an armistice was signed between the allied and central powers. As the guns quieted down across Europe, the celebratory cries of millions of newly-liberated people rang out.

The age of empires was dead. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia crumbled into ruin, allowing the people whose voices and cultures they had suppressed for centuries to rise to new life. These people included the Czechs, Yugoslavians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Poles.

Poland has more often than not been on the right side of history. In the middle ages, while Jews and other minorities were being banished, tortured and killed by other countries, Poland accepted them, granting them the human rights that all people deserve.

In 1791, when most of Europe was still dominated by kings, Poland signed the second democratic constitution in history (after the United States). The constitution guaranteed greater liberty and equality for all people within the Polish lands. Sadly, just a few years later, Poland was conquered and divided up between the empires of Europe.

Polish FreedomWhen it gained independence in 1918, Poland was, again, on the right side of history. It served as a living example of a people’s natural right to be free in their own country, what Woodrow Wilson called “national self-determination.”

Despite this impressive record, Poland is often known for its inability to stay independent. Indeed, just 21 years after gaining independence in 1918, it lost it when the Nazis invaded. After World War II, it continued to suffer repression by the Soviet Union. For decades, it was trapped behind the communist “iron curtain,” until regaining freedom in 1989. Even now, an increasingly aggressive Russia has Poland once again fearing for its future.

So why is the 1918 independence day particularly important for Poles? Why choose to celebrate something that was so temporary and seemingly meaningless when we look at Poland’s history in the 20th century?

I suppose the technical explanation is that 1918 was the first time that the modern Polish nation was formed. In the past, it had been a kingdom. In the future, it would continue to be a nation, but in a different form.

More importantly, though, it’s an example of how Poles are among the most determined group of people on earth, unwilling to give up even when the sky is collapsing around them. There was no guarantee that the new Poland formed in 1918 would last. The fact that independence had been gained at all after over a hundred years was a miracle, and the future didn’t necessarily look promising.

Dzien NiepodległościStill, Poland survived. It didn’t matter what might happen . The main thing was to focus on the here and now. Do your best with what you have, and never EVER give up. Sounds cliché, but it describes the entire Polish experience. No matter how many times it gets knocked down—by the Mongols, the Swedes, the Soviets, the Nazis, etc.—it ALWAYS gets back up to try again. That’s a lesson everyone can learn from Polish independence.

I’m an American. I was born in America, and my primary loyalties are to the red, white and blue. For me, independence day is July 4. But, deep inside me, on a day like today, I feel a proud connection to my Polish ancestors who fought and died for an idea that was Poland. A drum beats in my heart and those famous words from the Polish national anthem echo in my soul:  Poland is not yet lost.

Meet Poland’s Most Famous Monster: The Wawel Dragon

 

The Dragon of KrakowIn many ways, Krakow is a town taken right out of a medieval storybook. Quaint narrow roads, towering cathedrals and an imposing castle greet anyone fortunate enough to visit this famous hub of Polish culture.

No medieval story, however, is complete without a fire-breathing dragon, and Krakow does not disappoint. Below Wawel Castle lies a natural limestone cave. Upon entering this “Smocza Jama,” or dragon’s den, one cannot help but be overcome with the coldness of the stone walls and the primal feeling that pervades this ancient expanse. Legend has it that the Wawel dragon made its home in this very cave. Here is the story.

Centuries upon centuries ago, Krakow’s inhabitants were being terrorized by a bloodthirsty dragon living in the limestone cave under Wawel Hill. No one knew where this beast had come from, only that it wreaked havoc on the town, destroying  livestock and feasting on young Polish virgins.

The king was desperate for a solution. He offered all sorts of riches and his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever could slay the monster. Soon knights arrived from across the country to face the beast in the hopes of collecting the reward. Their weapons were useless against the dragon’s thick scales; however,  and they all suffered agonizing deaths. It seemed the dragon was there to stay.

Now, there was a young boy named Krak living in the city, a shoemaker’s apprentice, who claimed he could slay the dragon without any sword or armor. Naturally, everyone laughed him out of the room (even though sword and armor had proven useless up to this point), except for the king. By this point, the king had no place to turn to. He was willing to try anything to save his kingdom from the Wawel dragon.

Smok Wawelski
16th century drawing of the Wawel Dragon under the castle

Krak requested two items to slay the beast: a dead sheep and sulfur. Confused, but desperate for a solution, the king supplied the materials. After cutting the carcass open, Krak stuffed it with sulfur and sowed it back up. He then placed the sheep in front of the dragon’s cave in the middle of the night.

The next morning, the dragon emerged from its cave to begin a typical day of murder and destruction. When it saw a sheep just sitting in front of the cave, (apparently this didn’t seem odd at all), it gobbled it up. Big mistake.

Soon, the Wawel dragon began suffering the mother of all belly aches, as the sulfur in the sheep caught fire in its stomach and began exploding. Somehow, a ruptured gastrointestinal tract was not enough to kill the beast. Instead, it flew as fast as it could to the Wisła River and began drinking water to try and extinguish the fire. The water didn’t help, but apparently made the situation worse. Shortly after, the dragon exploded, its remains sinking to the bottom of the river.

sheep
The Polish weapon of choice against dragons

Krak became an instant hero for killing the dragon in such an ingenious way. The king gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. Eventually, Krak became king, built a castle atop the dragon’s den, and named the city Krakow.

When I was a kid visiting Krakow, I would always peer into the Wisła River, hoping to spot the bones of the Wawel Dragon at the bottom. I was never lucky enough to find them. Although, some bones of a mysterious large beast were found not far from the city.

Over the centuries, the Wawel dragon has become a major staple of Krakow’s culture. The limestone cave draws thousands of tourists each year. Outside the cave, near the river, a fire breathing statue of the Wawel Dragon was erected in 1972. Most visitors, especially  kids, have a photo climbing it.

Many cultures have legends of dragons and dragon slayers, but this one is definitely unique. While other dragons are typically slain by swords, arrows or magic, the Wawel dragon went down from an exploding sheep carcass. Hmm, must be a Polish thing.

Strange Things Only Polish People Will Understand: Part 1

Growing up in a Polish-American household, I was exposed to a number of things that, though they seemed normal to me at the time, later turned out to be very abnormal, at least when it came to American society.

So I’m beginning a series here that will highlight some of these very weird things that only Poles, specifically Polish-Americans, may understand…

Hot Milk:

milk skin, boiling milk
The sight of boiling milk was a common one for me growing up.

I didn’t just drink warm milk for years, I often drank hot milk to the point that it actually coagulated in the mug, forming milk skin…All of my Polish family members thought this was normal. Maybe it was. But eating cereal in near-boiling milk most certainly was not. Yes, I essentially ate “cereal soup” for years. Oh well. Us Poles are big on our soup anyway.

Hot Soup in the Summer

Fresh Rosół
Rosół is amazing, even in the summer.

While we’re on the topic of soup, you should know that Polish people eat a lot of it. Soup is delicious. However, when it’s 95 degrees and humid outside, it’s not exactly your food of choice. Nevertheless, there was one consistency in all those hot summer days I spent in Poland as a kid: we had soup every single day. Most people need something cool to refresh themselves from the heat. Poles need something warm.

Wearing Socks in Your Sandals:

socks in sandals
The classic “socks in sandals” look.

I never actually did this, but I notice that many Polish people do. Isn’t the entire purpose of sandals to keep your feet cool when it’s warm? Doesn’t wearing socks in them defeat that purpose? I don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with Polish grandmothers telling their grandchildren to dress warmly.

 

This is just the beginning of what is sure to be a long list. Please share your own Polish oddities in the comments section. I will include them in the blog.

 

The Dead Are Out Tonight

All Souls Day Poland, Dziady
“All Souls Day” in ancient Polish times

If you want a treat in Poland on Halloween, you’d better be ready to play some tricks because America’s spookiest holiday really isn’t a big deal there (although that’s slowly changing).

Instead, Poles strongly observe the two religious holy days immediately following Halloween–“All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” (Dzien Zaduszny)—which have more than their share of traditional ghostly customs.

It all begins on the eve of “All Souls Day,” November 1. Traditionally, entire families would gather for a large dinner in the evening. Now, when I say entire families, I mean living……and dead. Extra spaces would be reserved at the table for deceased family members and other wandering spirits that would emerge from the netherworld on that night. Indeed, the entire point of “All Souls Day” is to offer prayers for restless spirits trapped in purgatory, stuck between heaven and hell. Traditionally, on that night, families would chant:

Holy sainted ancestors, we beg you
Come, fly to us
To eat and drink
Whatever I can offer you

Special food would  then be served such as buckwheat groats, kutia, and  “soul bread.” The “soul bread,” known as zaduszki, would be made of rye and shaped into a long loaf to represent a dead person. Naturally, the food would be shared with the deceased at the table, and vodka (probably what the spirits were actually after in all this) would be  poured out for them as well.

Zaduszki
Hundreds of candles burn in this cemetery for “All Souls Day.”

Following the meal, Poles made, and continue today to make, pilgrimages to local cemeteries to honor their dead. They light candles and place them on the graves; this custom goes back to pagan times, the idea being that the heat from the candles will warm the forlorn spirits wandering the earth. They typically attend Mass at this time as well.

On this night, centuries ago, Poles would also give leftover food to beggars (called dziady) who would pray for deceased loved ones in return. These mysterious beggars acted as intermediaries between the living and the dead.

Driving through the Polish countryside on  the night of “All Souls Day” can be a truly magical, surreal experience. As the candles from thousands of individual graves burn in the distance, you cannot help but feel a mystical connection to the supernatural. You can understand why on this night the lines between the realms of the living and the dead are blurred and why it’s the opportune time to pray for those lost souls, whom we may one day join.

Today, many Polish superstitions have died along with those who observed them, but the religious significance of the holy days remains stronger than ever. Poles often tend to group “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” into one giant observance meant to honor and pray for the dead. People don’t work and schools are closed on those days.

These holy days are not unique to Poland. Catholics around the world observe them to some extent. Poles just happen to add their own unique and interesting flavor to them. It’s a beautiful custom that not only fosters a common religious experience, but also adds to Poland’s national identity.

So during this mystical week, you won’t see many trick-or-treaters in Poland. You might, however, run into a wandering spirit. In that case, you’d better have a bottle of Smirnoff on you.

See Also

http://www.polamjournal.com/Library/Holidays/Zaduszki–All_Soul-s_Day/zaduszki–all_soul-s_day.html

Polish Customs Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab