Traces of the devil, unsolvable mysteries and the roots of a hateful hoax can be found in stone
Among the names for Prague is the Magic City, and not without reason. Places connected to legends are all over the city, and throughout the centuries everyone from alchemists to vampires are supposed to have passed through the city.
We have rounded up a few places that have some connections to the myths and mysteries of the city. There are many more, and we will get back the them soon.
1. The Devil’s Column. Vyšehrad is one of the oldest parts of the city and has many curious spots. Behind the Church of Sts Peter and Paul you can find a marble column broken into three pieces and firmly planted in the ground. The legend is that it was thrown there in anger by a devil named Zardan. A priest who served at a church at Vyšehrad — the smaller forerunner of the massive structure that now sits there — used the help of the devil on several occasions and had been condemned to hell but sought to repent. St Peter pitied him and said that if the priest could finish saying mass before the devil could carry a pillar from Rome to Vyšehrad, then the priest would be forgiven.
The devil was delayed when St Peter, oddly helping the priest to cheat, hurled the devil into the sea, thus breaking the column. By the time the devil made it to the church he was just moments too late and threw the column’s pieces where you can see them today. In an exorcism in 1665, the demon involved gave his name as Zardan.
Other sources say the column actually is a remnant of the Church of Decollation of St. John the Baptist, which once stood near St Martin’s Rotunda, or from a Romanesque basillica that was also nearby. Yet others claim it is some sort of sundial or pagan time keeping device. Only Zardan knows for sure.
2. The Petrified Servant. Standing stones appear across Europe. In the northern reaches of Prague there is such a stone, but it is engulfed in mystery. The reddish stone, now on the edge the front lawn of a suburban house in Dolní Chabry in Prague 8 has long been called Zkamenělý slouha, or Petrified Servant. It stands about as tall as a person, 172 cm, and was moved to its current location from a nearby hill. Possibly it was put in place as long as 7,000 years ago, long before the Celts were in Bohemia. Some similar stones have been attributed to an ancient culture called the Beaker People. Who erected it, why and how remains a mystery. It would have been alone in a field until recently when urban development encroached on its land. Could it have been a religious site or simply a territorial marker? We haven’t got a clue. But somebody took some effort to put it there a long time ago.
3. The Stone Boy. A short walk from Národní třída, sort of hidden in side streets is St. Martin in the Wall Church. It was originally built in the late 1100s and once was actually part of the town wall. The building is a bit austere save for one detail. If you look at the roof, you can see a boy or man with his fingers pulling his face into a distorted expression.
Legend says this is no gargoyle. It is disobedient boy who was turned to stone. He perhaps was a roofer’s assistant who taunted a priest who was on his way to give last rights, or another tale says he was stealing pigeon eggs. In any event, somebody cursed him and turned him to stone right as he was looking down and making faces. It could just be a sort of gargoyle, if believing that makes you feel better about all those times you taunted someone and didn’t turn to stone.
4. Císařský mlýn. The strange place of contemplation near the far edge of Stromovka built by Emperor Rudolf II is gone, save for few details that were salvaged into the current residential complex. Rudolf had an obsession with occult arts and built this place based on allegorical principals. A stone grotto was carefully constructed to let in a single shaft of light, a hill top overlooked the Vltava, a stone dam created an artificial fish pond, and there was a promontory with 22 windows.
It possibly was meant as a shrine to or a re-creation of the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus, a supposed author of mystical works who may have lived around 200 AD, if he isn’t complete fiction. The grotto also may have been related to the idea that one had to go through the center of the earth to find the Philosopher’s Stone. It fell into worse and worse repair and was eventually rebuilt as luxury apartments in the early 2000s. A stone gateway with the letter “R” and a crown is one of the few reminders of its author.
5. The Old Jewish Cemetery. Next to Emperor Rudolf, Rabbi Loew is perhaps the figure most connected with Prague mysticism. His tombstone is in the Jewish Cemetery in Old Town. A statue of the rabbi is on the right side of Prague City Hall, and information about him and the Golem and other legends of the area are easy to find.
The Old Jewish Cemetery has another claim to fame: All those unsupportable rumors of a vast religion-based conspiracy to control the world can be traced to the cemetery as well. The book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has a scene where characters meet in that very cemetery to hatch their plan. Many extremists throughout history have taken that book as fact even though it has been shown to be a forgery, and a crude one. The scene traces its roots to an earlier fiction book, Hermann Goedsche’s 1868 novel Biarritz.
Many experts attribute authorship of the Protocols to the Russian secret police around 1903 as part of an effort to spread anti-Semitism. Car tycoon Henry Ford printed and distributed a translation of the book in the United States, one of the more shameful acts in his career.
Author Umberto Eco addressed the topic of anti-Semitism and the Protocols in his 2010 book The Prague Cemetery.