This is part two of a series of articles I’ve been writing for Wroclaw Uncut. Part one can be found here.
A couple of months ago, I shared with you some of the many great folk legends that can be found on Ostrów Tumski, Wroclaw’s cathedral island. Today, we’re taking it one step further by looking at some of the local legends from Wroclaw’s city centre, the so-called Stare Miasto (old town).
For those of you interested in locating some of these things for yourself, there is a map at the end of the article. Check it out!
1. The Gambling Priest
There’s no denying that Saint Elizabeth’s church is one of the most beautiful buildings on the Rynek. It was built back in the 14th century as a place for Catholics to worship, but for most of its history (from 1525 – 1947) it was firmly under the control of the Lutheran church. What was the reason for this change?
Well, it all goes back to a man named Scultetus, the priest who was in charge of the church back in 1525. Scultetus was a good man, but unfortunately he had something of a gambling problem.
One day, Scultetus challenged the local Lutheran priest Henry Rybisz to a game of dice. At first, luck was on his side and he won a lot of money, but then he got greedy. Extremely confident, he placed all of his winnings on a single throw of the dice and, inevitably, lost.
Henry Rybisz was a shrewd man, however, and he allowed Scultetus to remain in the game provided he could offer up something of value. Eager to continue playing and regain the money he had lost, Scultetus decided to gamble the most valuable thing in his possession: ownership of Saint Elizabeth’s church itself.
Needless to say, he lost, the church passed into Lutheran hands and Scultetus spent the rest of his life in shame.
2. Lightning on the Bell Tower
In 1529, four years after Henry Rybisz won Saint Elizabeth’s church in a game of chance, a huge storm hit the city of Wroclaw. The church was pelted on all sides by hail the likes of which it had never seen and for many hours the sky above the church was filled with lightning.
One bolt of lightning chanced to hit the bell tower at the top of the church, knocking it clean off and causing it to smash into pieces on the courtyard below.
When the storm finally passed, the Catholic worshipers were quick to point out that it must have been a sign from God that He was greatly displeased the church was no longer theirs.
However, the Lutherans pointed out that no one had been hurt during the storm – a miracle considering how badly the church had been damaged! They claimed that God must have been on their side after all, and that he must have sent his angels to protect the worshipers hiding inside.
In fact, the only casualty of the storm was a single black cat which had been crushed to death by the falling bell tower. Since black cats are often associated with witchcraft, this was further proof to the Lutherans that their church was literally a weapon against the forces of evil.
To this day, you can see a plaque commemorating this event on the side of the church. In this image, you can see several angels gently lowering the bell tower to the ground so that no one will be hurt by its fall.
3. The Bridge of Penitents
On the other side of the Rynek sits the Church of Mary Magdalene with its distinctive bridge-linked towers.
Many years ago, Wroclawians were convinced that every night at around dusk, they could see white figures with brooms in hand walking along the bridge between the towers.
These figures were said to be the souls of girls who had tried to escape domestic duty during life, now condemned forever to walk the bridge at night, cleaning it in their wake.
Legend says that if an unmarried couple walks the length of the bridge while holding hands, their love for one another will be bound together by these spirits of servitude and will never fade.
4. The Peddler’s Ghost
Many years ago, back when the Rynek was actually used as a marketplace, there worked a very greedy vendor who would haggle over every penny. She was notorious in the area for the tenacity of her salesmanship, as she would regularly press customers for every spare grosz and accuse those who didn’t buy anything of theft.
After she died, the vendor was buried in the cemetery at Saint Elizabeth’s church… But she didn’t stay buried for long!
Every night for many weeks after her death, the boy whose job it was to guard the Rynek swore he could see the woman’s coffin opening and her ghost rising from the grave. The ghost would cross over to the place where her stall had stood for many years and there she would begin to sell her invisible wares to customers who didn’t exist.
When the boy told the rest of the town what he had seen, no one believed him so he decided to get some proof. One night, he broke into the cemetery while the ghost was away and stole from the woman’s coffin her white burial cloth.
Instantly, the ghost saw what had happened and, letting out a blood-curdling shriek, gave chase. The boy ran into the nearby church and up the steps of the tower to try to get away from her, but the ghost was quicker. Like an animal, she scaled the wall of the church and no matter how fast the boy ran, she was always just a few steps behind him, her hands outstretched and her ghostly eyes full of fury.
Fortunately, luck was on the boy’s side. As he reached the top of the tower (and found himself trapped with nowhere to run), suddenly there came from the distance the crowing of a rooster.
Dawn had come. With the coming of the daylight, the ghost instantly lost her power and vanished before the boy’s eyes never to be seen again. He showed the white burial cloth to the townspeople as proof of what he had seen and everyone was amazed.
5. The Dumpling Clock
The dumpling clock is sadly no longer with us but it used to hang on the tower of Saint Barbara’s church on Świętego Mikołaja street. You can still see the place where it used to hang.
The story goes that long ago, there lived in the local area a businessman whose wife could never do anything on time. Every day, her husband would return from work only to find that his wife had barely started cooking his dinner. Night after night he was forced to wait while she had finished and no matter how much he shouted at her about it, she could never seem to organise herself.
One day, the merchant decided he had had enough so he tried to come up with a way to stop his wife being so lazy. Struck with inspiration, he asked the local church if he could move its clock forward by ten minutes. The church agreed.
Sure enough, the next day the woman heard the clock chiming the hour and, panicking, she started throwing things into the pot for the evening meal. Ten minutes later she knew something was up when suddenly all of the other clocks in the city started ringing the hour and her husband walked in through the door, beaming with pride that his ruse had worked.
For the first time ever, dinner was ready on time.
From that day until its destruction in 1947, the so-called Dumpling Clock rang ten minutes before all the others in the city — a reminder to all the housewives that they had better start cooking now than wait until their husbands were home.
And on that highly-sexist note, that’s all for legends from the old town. For those of you interested in hearing more about the colourful folklore of Wroclaw’s streets, more information (and guided tours) can be obtained from www.kolowrocek.pl, which is where I learned most of these legends in the first place.