The Olza in myth and history
The Olza in legends
The world of folk tales from Cieszyn Silesia is very rich. It includes both borrowings and original elements, because the region is located on an ethnic and cultural borderland, where many nations meet. It was here that Polish, Czech, Slovak and German influences crossed. The geographical location only reinforced this phenomenon because the communication network made increased contacts with faraway lands a necessity. The region is located at the crossroads of trade routes leading from the north to the south and from the east to the west, which was conducive to the cultural development of its inhabitants.
In the past, the world of legends and tales was kept alive by storytellers who had an indubitable gift for recounting these unique local myths in various configurations, combining different motifs and coming up with new ones, depending on their talent and invention. Today, there are no such figures. Lifestyle and civilizational changes, especially those that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, made it impossible for this element of culture to survive in its natural conditions. Nowadays, there are no traditional country weddings, women no longer get together to pluck feathers and men do not spend their time in taverns. Occasions when such stories could be told disappeared along with the mystery behind the phenomena which made people believe in the existence of creatures such as utopiec, nocnica or mare, which were natural for the mentality of the people living in previous centuries. The oldest inhabitants of the region still remember such stories from their childhood. Sometimes they try to pass them on and write them down, but when it comes to the oral form, such stories are a thing of the past. It means that nowadays we can only get to know folk tales thanks to the written legacy left by people brought up in a world where such stories were still alive. Luckily, some of them were outstanding figures gifted with real talent, such as Gustaw Morcinek, Adam Wawrosz, and Józef Ondrusz, among others.
The author of the collection of short stories "Baśnie z Podbeskidzia śląskiego" was Emanuel Grim, the priest (1883-1950), deeply connected with the folk culture of the region. He drew from it, but also created through his own literary work. (Cieszyn Historical Library Collection)
The world of folk beliefs, tales and stories combined elements of the well-known surrounding world with the world of fantasy, fear of the unknown and dreams related to the folk understanding of social justice, the victory of good over evil, the inevitable punishment for wrong done to others and the reward for good deeds.
An element of the surrounding, well-known world was the Olza, the main river in the region. It has its source in the forests of the Beskid Mountains, flows next to the walls of the ducal castle in Cieszyn, goes on through the plains across the industrial Karviná coal basin and ends its course near Bogumin, where it flows into the Oder. For people living here, the Olza was extraordinary. The river has its beginning near the source of the Vistula. For the inhabitants of this region, it became a factor of their national identification. Just as the Vistula is a synonym of Polishness, the Olza is a synonym of native soil. Its 99 kilometres, 49 tributaries, and high or low water level do not reflect its significance for the people living in the region. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Olza is a frequent feature of folk tales. Sometimes it only appears in the background, but there are also stories in which it plays one of the most important roles.
One of the most frequent motives in folk tales from Cieszyn Silesia are utopce, mares and nocnice. They stem from people’s fear of the unknown and the force of the elements.
An utopiec from Cieszyn is a vodyanoy, an inhabitant of rivers and ponds (not only the Olza). It was depicted in various ways. It could be shown as an enemy who lies in wait for man’s life and soul, a malicious being or finally a creature which helps the people who deserved it due to their goodness or weakness resulting from old age or illness. Gustaw Morcinek describes an utopiec in “The Legend of Duke Przemyslaus” (“Legenda o księciu Przemysławie”): “...in the valley by the castle, you could hear the murmur of the Olza River, where utopce lived. These little fellows reached up to man’s knees and were truly amusing in their red jackets and knickers. They hurt no one, they only scared drunkards on their way home from the inn on moonlit nights or clung to the wheels when some subject of the duke was fording the Olza River…”. The utopiec was also depicted as an instrument of punishment inflicted on those who hurt other people, for example in a poem written by Władysław Młynek:
“In the bay, under the willow, near the dam,
Where fish and crawdads were having fun,
In the spot where the Olza River bent,
Lived an utopiec, a funny little gent.
Under the water he was dry and sleepy,
But taken ashore, he was always dripping.
Sitting on a stone, he didn’t move a lot,
And kept human souls under a big clay pot.
They belonged to those who hurt their fellow men
And now under the pot had to serve their term…”
The figure of Utopiec – the Cieszyn variety of the Vodyanoy – a character of numerous fairy tales. It is a strongly rooted element of folk beliefs, remaining very much alive in the collective consciousness of the inhabitants of the region, even until today. This is a contemporary rendering of Utopiec by Iwona Cichy. (from Renata Karpińska, Anna Cieplak “Visit Cieszyn with three brothers", Cieszyn 2014) “
In the abovementioned “The Legend of Duke Przemyslaus”, utopce also punish Gringolus, an evil servant of the duke, who used sorcery to destroy the love of Przemyslaus and his wife Dorotka. He did it for money because he wanted the duke to marry Kordula, the daughter of duchess Sidonie. This plan did not work out, kind-hearted Dorotka saved the marriage and Gingolus drowned in the Olza, pulled underwater by utopce.
In a story entitled “About the Boatman from Darków and the Utopiec” (“O Darkowskim przewoźniku i utopcu”), an utopiec helps a man in need. Plinta was a boatman who brought people across the Olza River near the Darków village, on the way to Frysztat. He was an old and ailing man, but he could count on the help of an utopiec who substituted for him and acted as his helper. However, the same kind-hearted creature drowned the people who mistreated his friend. As we can see, utopce which appear in folk tales do not only reflect the fear of deep waters and treacherous river currents, but also serve a didactic function: they punish evil men, scare drunkards, help the good and teach people to keep their word.
In one of the versions of a legend about a girl living in Cieszyn and the Swedish army stationed in Cieszyn Silesia during the Thirty Years’ War, there is an interesting motive which compares legends from various cultures. A country girl tells a Swedish soldier about utopce, whereas he talks about mermaids, figures close to the hearts of representatives of this sea nation. Thankful for the girl’s help, the soldier begins playing the flute and leads poverty out of the girl’s cottage (this motive is also related to legends about mermaids). He then leads poverty to the bank of the Olza, where it is drowned by utopce. (“The Legend of the Pale Cieszyn Girl”, “Legenda o bladej cieszyniance”).
Another group of legends with a different theme, in which the Olza also plays an important role, are those about the Golden-headed snake. They have many variations and were particularly popular in the part of the region located near the mountains.
One of these stories (“About the Golden-headed king of snakes from Godula”, „O Złotogłowcu, królu wężów z Goduli”) talks about the power of love which is ready for the biggest sacrifices. Jaś, son of the Black Duchess (the heroine of numerous legends from Cieszyn), fell in love with shepherdess Hanka. However, his mother did not approve of this relationship and turned her son into a Golden-headed snake (in most folk tales, the snake lived in the Olza, in its upper course). To remove the spell cast on her lover, Hanka was given the task of breathing new life into an apple tree growing on Barania Góra (Ram Mountain). Apples from the tree were supposed to remove the evil spell. Hanka could only do it by watering the tree with her own tears and water taken from the source of the Olza. In the course of the story, she had to endure humiliation, additional challenges and show extreme persistence, but finally she fulfilled her task on Midsummer Night (which is another reference to legends from outside our region). This legend emphasized positive human qualities, such as goodness, faithfulness and perseverance.
Another legend about the Golden-headed snake refers to the times of the Swedish Deluge, when king John Casimir was passing through Silesia. Swedish soldiers ask highlanders if they know where the king is hiding. Highlanders fool them and say that at midnight, the king always takes a bath in the Olza, near Godula. However, this king is not John Casimir that the Swedes are looking for, but the Golden-headed snake (his name comes from the gold crown he wears on his head). The Swedes want to entrap the king, but they are defeated by brave men and supernatural forces. Then, highlanders help the Polish king safely reach his destination. In memory of this event, Silesian highlanders wear red caftans which, as the legend has it, were originally made of the king’s coat (“About the Red Caftans from Istebna”, “O czerwonych bruclikach istebniańskich”).
In the legend about Imko Wisełka, the Olza becomes a place of trial and rivalry for those who court Gryzeldka, a Cieszyn princess. Her father wants to marry her off to a wealthy man, but she is in love with Imko Wisełka, a servant of the duke. Even though Imko saved the duke’s life on a hunt, it does not matter and the poorly born young man has no chance. To marry her loved one, the princess demands that the suers for her hand compete in masks. The duke comes up with numerous tasks, such as throwing a stone across the Olza, climbing a rope to the castle walls by the bank of the river (those who were not up for the task fell into the water). Imko wins, but when he takes off his mask, he is put in a dungeon, where he can only wait for a sad end to his life and punishment for his audacity. However, the princess manages to free him and the lovers flee along the Olza, until they reach its source, located next to the source of the Vistula. In the end, Imko establishes a settlement which is today known as Wisła.
There is also a story about the castle in Nawsie, which was inspired by legends which depict the river as a force of nature. The castle stood on the bank of the Olza and Czarny Potok. It was the residence of a knight. When the knight went hunting one day, he was surprised by a terrible storm and a downpour. When he came back, it turned out that this natural disaster caused a big flood and the water from the rivers washed away the hill on which the castle stood. It was destroyed completely, but the hill between the Olza and Czarny Potok is still called Castle Hill.
There are many other folk tales in which the Olza and its banks are depicted as the place where one can go for a walk, ponder, relax or meet others. The Olza is also a confidante and patiently listens to confessions. All these motives were based on the observations and personal experiences of storytellers. It proves how dear and significant the river was to people living in this region.