Though not as old as Kraków, Poland's modern capital is still wrapped up in myth and legend. With a history running back to the 9th century, and having been on the forefront of the nation's development for much of that time, Warsaw has developed a rich folkloric tradition, that is oddly unique, and strikingly rich compared to many relatively new capitals.
There are many fairy tales and much folk lore to be told about Warsaw, but the city has two central legends that are entwined most directly with its history. One has come to tell the story of the city's resilience and defiance of outside foes, while the other tries to account for Warsaw's naming and mythic begging’s. Let's take a look.
The Legend(s) of Wars and Sawa
It seems that no one can quite agree on what fantastic occurrence led to the curious name of Warsawa being bestowed on a small and humble fishing village lying on path of the Vistula. What most can agree on though is that it's all wrapped up in two figures, Wars and Sawa.
The most widely propagated (and possibly most far-fetched) of the versions tells of how King Kazimierz Odnowiciel (a famous Polish King of Kraków who reigned during the first half of the 11th century), when making his yearly visit north on the Vistula River, ordered his ship to stop after smelling the fresh scent of home cooked food from a lone shore-side cabin. After disembarking and reaching the cabin, he was greeted warmly by a woman, who told him that her husband (a fisherman aptly named Piotr Rybak) would shortly return with freshly caught fish. The King was delighted, and when Piotr returned, they feasted.
During dinner the couple told the king of their troubles. Having recently given birth to twins they were struggling to baptise the children, as there was no church or practicing priest in the district. After trying to reward the two's hospitality with gold, and receiving nothing but humble refusals, the King determined to be the children's godfather, and to organise the baptism himself.
Soon after the twins were baptised on a hill overlooking the cabin at the side of the Vistula. The King named them Wars and Sawa (a boy and a girl), and also announced that he intended to make the hospitable fisherman lord over the surrounding lands. Finally, the King said that a town would one day spring up around the fisherman's home, and when it did, it should be named after the newly baptised twins. Wars and Sawa, thus becomes Warsawa.
The Mermaid of Warsaw
Proudly donning the capital's coat of arms, and defiantly wielding a sword in the centre of Warsaw's old town square are depictions of mermaids. This symbolic mascot of the city originates with another of its central myths. The story goes that after years spent living in the Baltic Sea two mermaid sisters decided it was time for a change. They both departed, one leaving for the North and the other coming south, determined to swim to the source of the mighty Vistula river.
Supposedly the mermaid heading south loved the central Polish countryside so much she decided to stay. But, local fishermen soon realised that something was amiss when they kept losing all their catches in the water. They decided to capture the person responsible and set out to hunt the mermaid. It didn't go to plan. The fishermen instantly fell in love with the mermaid and asked her to sing for them night after night.
Later a salesman is said to have been travelling through the area, and had the far-flung, entrepreneurial idea to capture the mermaid, and show her off for cash. He succeeded in tricking her and imprisoned her. However, she was luckily heard screaming by a local fisherman's son, who freed her with the help of his friends. In thanks, the mermaid vowed to defend the boy's hometown forever, and today Varsovians have held her to be a symbol of their continuing resilience and independence.