Poland – This legend is certainly one of the oldest of all known Polish legends. It tells a story about three Slavic brothers who decided to depart together from their overpopulated homeland where they couldn’t feed their tribes anymore, in order to find new places to settle for their people.
The symbolic brothers were Lech (founder of the early Poland), Czech (founder of the Czech Republic), and Rus (associated with Russia in many popular versions of the legend, but more probably telling about Ruthenians).
Many scholars try to locate this legend on the timeline of history and they point at the early medieval migration period what could date the legend to around 6th century AD, but the origins of it might go back much further. The Polish legend stresses out that these were the times when all the Slavs were speaking one language and inhabited one land.
Poland knows many variations of this legend, and it’s one of the first Slavic stories that Polish children learn in their early years, included in majority of books with old Polish tales. Even though there are many small differences between the various versions, there’s always the common plot that starts with the three brothers who departed together from their homeland in order to find a better place to live.
First to bid farewell was Rus, who chose to go eastward into the vast steppes where the wind was blowing freely.
Brother Czech left second with his tribe. He went westward, finding out about fertile lands (Czech version tells us that he settles in the area of the Říp Mountain located in the central Bohemian flatland).
Lech and his people kept going north, passing many uninhabited lands, but for a long time couldn’t find anything that could feed them all. One day they stopped by exceptionally beautiful lands with thick forests and clean waters full of animals and fish, and decided to take a longer rest there.
Then, they saw an unusual sight which Lech and the tribe’s elders interpreted as a good omen. A huge white eagle appeared on the sky and sat on a nearby oak where its nest was built. Before landing on the oak, the eagle stopped in the air with the wings wide open – its feathers were beautifully contrasted with the red evening sky.
After consultations with the elders, Lech decided to stay in that place. His tribe built there a fortress and named it Gniezno after a word meaning a ‘nest’ (‘gniazdo’).
Gniezno grew to become a city and an important Polish cultural and religious centre over the centuries. It’s located in the region of Greater Poland, in west-central part of the modern-day Poland, and it’s been often called the first historical Polish capital city. Archaeological excavations conducted there did confirm that there was once a Slavic fortified settlement with a pre-Christian place of worship located on top of a hill that is coincidentally known under a name of Lech’s Hill or Lech’s Mount.
The white eagle on a red background is an important symbol to the Poles since then. It became the symbol carried on the Polish coat of arms ever since the medieval times. Below you can see a chart showing various versions of the Polish Eagle over the centuries:
What’s interesting, this legend exists not only in Poland but also in the Czech Republic. However, in the Czech version there are only two brothers: Čech and Lech (this Czech legend was first written down in 11th century). The legend was not known in any historical Eastern Slavic sources that could possibly ‘confirm’ the existence of the legendary brother Rus. Nevertheless, this legend is a beautiful example of an old tale telling about common roots of different Slavic nations.
Want to know more about the legend and why the founder of Poland was called Lech? Check the author’s original article here: lamusdworski
Illustrations in this article come from Polish children’s books:
- Cover art by Janusz Towpik for book ‘Lech, Czech i Rus’ by E. Szelburg-Zarembina, 1980
- Drawings by Zdzisław Byczek for book ‘Legendy Polskie’ by Magdalena Grądzka, 2002
- Drawing by Jan Marcin Szancer for book “Orle gniazdo. Podania, legendy i baśnie wielkopolskie” by Stanisław Świrko, 1971.