Golden duck (Polish Złota kaczka) is a legendary creature popular in Warsaw's urban legends and folk-lore. According to a popular story, noted by Artur Oppman, the duck is dwelling in the cellars beneath the Ostrogski Castle. The creature, in fact a princess enchanted by the devil, is living in a small pond, surrounded with gold and diamonds, and is waiting for a poor boy from the plebs to set her free.
According to most versions of the legend, the duck will give 100 golden ducats to anyone who dares to enter the labyrinth of cellars and manages to find her. The small fortune however is to be spent entirely on that person's own living and desires. Not a single grosz could be given away and not a single penny is to be left for another day. Depending on the version of the legend, there are two similar endings:
– a poor young boy, shoemaker's pupil, finds the golden duck and receives 100 ducats, but is unable to spend all the money in one day. Because of that he gives the remaining money to a beggar, who tells him that it's not the money that brings luck. The golden duck disappears, taking with her all the riches hidden beneath the castle, but from that day on the boy is lucky. He becomes a shoemaking master, finds a beautiful wife, lives on until his late years, surrounded with happy children and friends.
– a soldier of the 4th Regiment finds the duck and receives 100 ducats.
A drunkard and bon-vivant, he has no trouble spending all the money on drinking with his friends. However, shortly before returning to the cellars beneath the castle to claim the fortune and princess' hand, he sees an old beggar and, unwillingly, gives him a single grosz that was left deep in his pocket. The duck disappears taking all the riches away, but the soldier lives his life happily ever after.
Ostrogski Castle – courtesy of the Frederic Chopin Museum
Ostrogski Castle is a place connected with the Warsaw legend of the golden duck. It is located on Tamka Street and slopes down towards the Vistula River, just outside Warsaw's city walls. This castle was originally built by Janusz Ostrogski, Castellan of Krakow, circa 1580. Ostrogski castle was used as the seat of parliament gatherings. In 1644, the castle was devastated by the Swedish army. The cellar was repeatedly flooded by the Vistula, and was once thought to be an evil place, to be avoided at all costs. In 1681, Jan Gninski bought the castle and hired Tylman van Gammeren, the court architect, to restore the intregity of the building, but this work was never completed. The castle was also owned by the aristocratic families Zamoyski and Chodkiewicz. In 1820, it was bought by Michal Gajewski. Over the years the castle fell into various stages of disrepair, and was used as a military hospital, a children's home, and a rubber factory. By 1859 the castle was used as a musical conservatory for the Warsaw Music Institute. The institute was attended by pianist Ignacy Paderewski and composer Karol Szymanowski.
By World War II the castle was destroyed by the Germans. After the war all of Warsaw was rebuilt and so was this castle. The reconstruction was completed in 1954.
Today the Ostrogski Castle houses the Fryderyk Chopin Society, and its museum to the life and works of the great composer. It houses portraits, letters, manuscripts, and the grand piano that Chopin composed on in the last two years of his life.
The Legend of the Golden Duck
In 1807, Warsaw was known as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In 1815, Warsaw became the capital of Poland, under the rule of the Russian tsar.
No one knows when the Golden Duck inhabited the basement of this palace, and guarded a treasure trove. This story's timeline was most likely after 1813, because of the battles that the Poles fought with Napoleon. The Golden Duck was reputed to be a symbol of happiness. The Legend of the Golden Duck was heard by many in the city of Warsaw and it was the "Urban Legend" of its time. There were rumors regarding this or that person exploring the basement of the manor house. Some were never heard of again. Some were thought to be victims of crimes, since there were many seedy characters in this part of town. Like all urban cities there were people that took up residence in abandoned buildings.
A young apprentice shoemaker in Old Town Warsaw, lived on a neglected street near the poor district of Powisle, near the Vistula River. Lutek, was the shoemaker's given name. The shoemaker passed by the castle many times, but had heard it was a dangerous place. Then one day his curiosity got the best of him and he decided to go inside to see if "The Legend of the Golden Duck" was true.
The young man entered the three hundred year old Ostrogski palace in the evening of St John’s day, with only a candle to light his way, and headed towards the basement. Lutek's luck had not been good up to this point, so he decided he had nothing to lose. He knew it was St John's night, which the legend said was a good time to be sure and see the Golden Duck. He hoped that the miracles of this night would favor him. Just in case, he made sure he pinned a sprig of St. John's Wort to his shirt. He hoped this would protect him from the evils of this night.
Lutek's master shoemaker had not paid Lutek, as promised, and he was penniless. The best thing that came out of their association was Lutek's skill for making good quality shoes and boots. In fact, Lutek was a talented shoemaker. He hoped to open his own cobbler shop soon. All he needed was a little money to invest in equipment and a store.
Lutek wandered for a time until he entered a flooded cellar. To his amazement, there was a duck swimming there in the musty-smelling chamber.
What happened after that was even more amazing! The duck swarm towards him and immediately turned into a beautiful princess. The shoemaker had never seen a girl so fair of face. She had golden-blonde hair and a radiant gold crown with precious jewels. Her floor-length dress was of plush, shiny brown velvet with a ruffled white satin under dress embroidered and decorated with lace-like flowers. Her cape was a lighter shade of golden brown with a large crimson collar. The water suddenly turned from muddy and dark, to clean and sparkling blue. There were crystals radiating on the surface, like diamonds. The light was blinding like the sun. It was like some sort of celestial apparition, and the air was refreshed with a lovely floral fragrance. Lutek was dumbstruck! Surely this was some sort of magic.
Could she be one of the fairies that forecasts your future? He heard that fairies can both trick or enchant you.
The princess asked, "Lutek … What are you doing in this cellar?"
The shoemaker was startled by the sound of her voice which echoed through the cellar… Lutek tried to speak but could only stutter out his words:
"I ca-came to see if the le-le legend was true".
"Well, as you can see I am here", the princess replied. "My name is Halina (meaning "bright shining one"). The princess touched his hand and he immediately felt safe.
"The townfolks say that you can grant wishes. However, I have forgotten what my wishes were to be. What kind of wishes do you grant?" asked Lutek.
"Well, you pick, but you must follow my rules for them to come true", the princess said with a smile.
"I will do whatever you ask", replied the shoemaker.
The princess then handed the shoemaker some money, in a brown velvet, drawstring pouch.
"If you spend all one-hundred ducats, your life will be enriched. However, you must not give a single ducat to anyone else. These are ONLY for your use", the princess warned. "Breaking this rule will destroy the spell".
Lutek was joyous to think that Princess Halina was so generous, and he took the coins and bowed gracefully. A misty fog formed and the Princess Halina turned back into a duck and the cellar was once again dark. For a brief time, Lutek was blinded by this change. He stood still until his eyes could focus again, in the candlelight. Then he ran out of the basement into the moonlight. Lutek was so excited that he decided to go home and hide the coins under his pillow until morning. If they were there he would spend the whole day buying things he desired. If they were gone, then he would know that what he saw was only a dream.
The shoemaker had many dreams that night about what he might do with the money and he awoke early the next day. Lutek looked under his pillow and the coins remained where he had put them the night before. He then dressed in his Sunday best, and ate breakfast. When it was time for the markets and shops to open, the shoemaker went out into the city. It was a beautiful day and he was full of the joy of anticipation.
The first thing Lutek did was hire a carriage to take him to the various places he wished to explore. He bought loads of new clothing and changed into his favorite purchase for the rest of the trip. People did not notice that he was Lutek, the shoemaker, since he looked like a rich man in his finery. After a few hours of shopping he ate his lunch in one of Warsaw's finest taverns. Then he saw a bakery and bought some bread and cakes to take home. Lutek felt very good since his meal was excellent. After lunch he decided to go to the theater. He had NEVER been in a theater before and he enjoyed the play and the music. When the young man looked to see how much money he had left, he thought that he could never spent it all. Daylight was fleeting, and he still had most of his ducats left.
Lutek wore his new clothes and other men tipped their hats to him, as he rode by in the carriage. He was getting tired from all the excitement of his new life, so he decided to go home and begin again the next morning.
Lutek had the carriage drop him near his home. Some young boys came running up and offered to carry his parcels, hoping for a tip from the elegantly dressed man. He walked along, with the boys following behind. When he got part of the way home, he saw a poor beggar sitting near the wall.
By now the street was full of people celebrating St. John's night. There were bonfires and the smell of smoke made it difficult to breathe. One man sat in the darkness. Lutek felt a little worried that he might be robbed, since no one was near this particular spot.
"Those are very smart shoes you are wearing", the man exclaimed.
"Thank you. I am a shoemaker. I made them myself", Lutek beamed.
"Kind Sir, I have not eaten for two days. I have traveled all over Europe fighting with the Emperor Napoleon. I fought in Italy, Spain, Germany, and Moscow. The last battle was the worst since we lost against the Russians. At the Battle of Leipzig, last October, a cannon ball blew up near me and scarred my face and my arm was partially removed by the impact. We lost 70,000 men in that battle, some died, some were prisoners of war, and some were injured. Could you spare some money for a poor invalid?"
The young shoemaker knew what it was like to be poor, since he had only been rich for one day. He felt great sorrow for the soldier's fate. He quickly gave the man some of his coins, totally forgetting what the princess Halina had said.
The wind came up and a whirlwind appeared and an icy cold spread over Lutek's body. This was very unusual on a balmy June night. He then saw the princess once again. She spat forth her rules: "You have broken the rules, thus you lose everything". Suddenly, all the items the shoemaker bought disappeared from the arms of the young boys. They all ran off in fear.
Lutek had nothing he bought with the ducats, but his old clothing, at his feet, and his shoes. He was embarrassed to be naked on the sidewalk, and he hurriedly dressed in his old clothing once again. A few citizens chuckled at his plight, but they were not surprised since this was always a night of merriment and the unexpected, they just thought he drank too much mead. All that remained were the coins in the beggar's hand.
The beggar told Lutek to not worry: "This money was not earned by you, but you can earn more in the future. True happiness is found in good health, good skills, a wise head, and strong hands to work with. You will be happy!"
Lutek smiled and was hopeful on this night of miracles. According to the legend, the shoemaker lived many happy years. He had the good luck to be successful in his shoemaking business, found a wonderful wife, whom he loved dearly, and they had many fine children and grandchildren. He never wanted for food or clothing. He learned that work can be its own reward and that charity towards others enriches your life. So Lutek would die a happy man, who would be remembered as a wonderfully dedicated citizen who loved his family, and did what he could to better the world.
The princess had disappeared and the "Golden Duck" was never seen in the Ostrogski cellar ever again. She had finally found a good man who understood that true happiness cannot be achieved selfishly. No one knew who Princess Halina was or where she came from.
The Legend of the Golden Duck tells us that even though there may be rough times in our lives that we can have many days of happiness in the joys of our family, work, and the beauty of nature. The joy of giving is often more pleasurable than the joy of receiving.
The Ostrogski Castle had been ruined twice, restored twice, and remodeled over its four hundred and twenty five years. It stands as a monument to the fortitude of the Polish people.
Some versions of this story have the princess as an evil spirit, but I prefer to think of her as a means to find what was right. She was a magical spirit, a fairy, or maybe even a saint.