In honor of Halloween (a holiday which isn’t really celebrated much here except perhaps as an excuse for a rockin’ themed bar party), this week we’ll re-present a few good, old-fashioned Prague ghost stories which I have taken the liberty of retouching a bit for dramatic effect. Several years ago I worked them up as scripts for an English-language theater company, and for this blog piece have condensed them into very short stories. They’re legends that I read in books in both Czech and English translation, and I admit to doctoring them a little bit for fun and narrative effect. Folklore purists will probably not like them very much, but I hope you do.
THE MAD TURK OF UNGELT
Just off of Old Town Square and behind the immense Gothic bulk of Týn Church, there is a shadowy courtyard called Ungelt. It has existed there since the 12th century. When it was first built in the middle ages, it was a sort of mini-fortress with fortified walls and a moat, and had been constructed primarily for the protection of foreign merchants and their goods. Back in those times Prague sat at the intersection of several trade routes, and so it was common for traveling merchants from all over Europe and the lands of the east to stay within these walls where they could be protected by the king’s soldiers.
In olden times there was an inn here in one of these buildings and the innkeeper’s daughter was a lovely blonde-haired girl named Zuzana. She was the most beautiful young woman in the city, and so she had many suitors. But Zuzana wasn’t interested in any of them. Then one day a trading caravan arrived from the east, and riding among them was a handsome young Turk with dark, smoldering eyes. The moment he laid those eyes on Zuzana, the two of them fell instantly and madly in love, the way people only do in ancient ghost stories and very long Shakespearean tragedies.
During the weeks that the caravan stayed in Prague, Zuzana and her Turkish lover met secretly every night, and eventually they decided that they wanted to be married. But the Turk said this wasn’t possible until after he had finished his trade mission and returned to the east. He promised to come back and make Zuzana his bride as soon as he possibly could and she swore that she would wait for him.
The next day he departed. Zuzana settled in for a long wait. In those days the roads were perilous and bandits and robbers and, even worse, armed tax collectors were everywhere. Overland travel was long, slow and dangerous, and she knew that it would be a long time before her love returned. A couple of years passed and still Zuzana remained true. In the meantime, a young rich merchant’s son had started to court her. At first she paid no attention to him, but when another year had passed she started to be afraid that the Turk had been killed somewhere on his journey or, worse yet, had forgotten her.
Eventually she gave in to the advances of the merchant’s son. After their wedding, the feast was held in the courtyard of Ungelt. Long tables of sumptuous food and drink were laid out, and there was music and dancing and the two families rejoiced heartily. Except for Zuzana, who seemed somehow listless and distracted at her own party. Sometime during the celebration, she looked to the back of the crowd and there she was shocked to see the blazing eyes of the young Turk! She was horrified. She didn’t know what to do, so she took a deep gulp of wine and simply endeavored to maintain her composure. Sometime during the night he slipped up close to her in the crowd. She almost fainted when he reached out his hand to hers, but then here merely pressed a note into her hand, and slipped away into the crowd. Zuzana immediately excused herself, and went to the restroom to read the note in private. It said, “Meet me tonight at midnight at our secret rendevous. I only want to say goodbye.” Later that night she snuck away from the festivities to keep the fateful meeting. It was the last time she was ever seen alive.
Several months passed and no one ever found out what had become of the beautiful young woman with the long blonde hair. Then one day in one of the houses of the courtyard, an old woman sent her grand daughter down into the cellar to bring up some wood for the fire. After a few minutes the girl came running back up the cellar stairs, screaming and hysterical, and unable to say what had frightened her so. A party of brave souls was assembled and went downstairs to investigate, where they found that the girl had knocked over a pile of kindling and revealed beneath it a rotted severed head. It had long blonde braids just like Zuzana had used to wear. In a connecting cellar under some old logs they found the body that the head belonged to. It was still wearing a wedding dress.
It seemed that the Turk had lost his mind in a jealous rage and killed his beloved Zuzana. After that, he never knew a moment’s peace for the rest of his life, which was very short. When he had regained his senses after the ghastly murder and realized what he had done, he was stricken with grief and horror, and his sanity departed from him immediately. He wandered the muddy streets of the Old Town in a mad delirium for the rest of the night, until just before sunrise when he somehow succeeded in scaling the outside wall of one of the high towers of Týn Church. He threw himself to his death on the cobblestones below at the first light of dawn.
Is it said by superstitious people that to this day you can still see the mad Turk sometimes lurking in the shadows of Ungelt, late at night in the last hour before the sun comes up. He stands staring intently with his large dark eyes, and in one hand he holds Zuzana’s bloody head suspended from it’s long golden braids. With his other hand he will beckon you to come with him, and then disappear into the nearest doorway. Whatever you do, don’t follow!
MORE SEVERED HEADS and A GIRL IN A WET T-SHIRT
On Karlova Street near Charles Bridge stands an ancient structure known as the House at the Golden Well. Its name originally came from a strange well in the cellar of the house that was said to glow at night with a golden light. People said that the golden glow must have come from some fabulous treasure hidden within the depths of the well. One day a beautiful young serving girl, half undressed, was washing herself at the well when she was surprised to look up and see standing over her the over-randy and under-scrupulous master of the house. In her rush to escape from his amorous advances, the poor girl tripped and fell down the well. Fearing lest she might tell the lady of the house of his lusty but unwelcomed intentions, the master made no attempt to rescue the young girl and she was soon drowned. Later, the corpse was retrieved and the well was drained in order to clean it. During this process, a stone came loose from the inside of the well near the bottom and a stream of gold ducats came pouring forth from the opening, proving the legend of the golden glow. But though the master of the house was well pleased by his new-found wealth, the peace of the household was disturbed forever after by the ghost of the drowned girl who walked the house every night, wailing and slapping about in her sodden underclothes.
And she was not the only unhappy spirit to wander this house…
Many years later the lower floors of the building were occupied by a pastry cook who set up a bakery and began producing many fine and fancy pastries. His specialty was gingerbread, and he made beautifully decorated figures of all imaginable shapes. Now, in those days the house was known to be haunted by the spirit of a knight and his lady, both of whom were headless. Though many people had seen them, no one knew what their story was so no one knew how to set them free.
One evening as the pastry cook was working in his kitchen, he took it into his head to make several pans of gingerbread cookies in the shape of the headless knight and lady. But then it occurred to him that no one would want to buy such macabre sweeties and so he gave them heads of his own invention and then went to bed. In the morning when he returned to the kitchen he found that the heads had been snapped off all of the gingerbread cookies. He was furious and blamed his assistants who all denied having damaged the cookies. That night the cook made sure the kitchen was under lock and key before he went to bed, but the next morning he returned to discover once again that all of his gingerbread figures had been decapitated. Again, his assistants professed ignorance. That night the cook decided to sleep in the kitchen so as to catch the cheeky vandals who were destroying his work.
In the middle of the night the cook was awakened where he slept on the floor by the ghosts of the knight and his lady. The cook was immediately shocked to see that now the pair of spirits both possessed their heads… held before them in their outstretched hands! In the knight’s right hand he held a sword which he brandished threateningly.
“You have made figures of us according to how our bodies look,” said the knight’s disembodied head, “but you have created our heads from your own imagination. We have brought you our real heads so that you may look upon them. And unless you want to lose your own head as a punishment for trying to make money off of our misfortune, you will now roll out your gingerbread and copy our heads exactly as you see them before you now. But be quick! Our heads must be back in the river Vltava before the first light of morning.”
The frightened cook very quickly complied. A while later when he had finished, the knight complimented him on his excellent work. “And now you may set us free and release us from this house.
“Many years ago there was an evil but very rich merchant who lived here. He once drowned a young serving girl in the well in the cellar. And she was not his only victim. My lady and I once stayed a night here within these walls and while we were asleep, the evil merchant cut our throats in order to steal our money. He cut off our heads and threw them in the Vltava but our bodies he buried here in the cellar next to the well. If you wish to set us free, you must dig up our bones and bury them in the cemetary. If you do this, then a treasure will come to you of its own accord.”
The cook was too scared to refuse and so the next day he did exactly as he had been instructed. He took a spade into the cellar and after some digging was able to locate the headless remains of the knight and his lady. He transferred them to the cemetary. When he returned home he found that the stairs to the cellar had collapsed. It seemed that in exhuming the graves he had dug out the earth that was supporting the stairs and after a while they had fallen in taking part of the wall with them. In doing so, a small niche behind the wall was exposed. And there lay a goodly pile of solid gold coins.
The pastry cook lived happily ever after and the headless knight and his lady were never seen again.