Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Prague Ghosts and Legends Tour

The Prague Ghosts and Legends Tour starts from an alley off of the Old Town Market and wanders through a bit of the Old Town telling stories of horror from the past.

When we set out from the tour office, we were joined by a red hooded figure. The guide told us that he was Jan Mydlar the Headsman. He came to Prague from a wealthy family to study medicine. He fell in love with the old miller's young wife Dorotea. She poisoned her husband so they could be together. She was found out and sentenced to death. Jan took a job as an assistant to the headsman (that's the town executioner) to try and free her. He failed to save her. He also missed his medical exams and was forced to stay in his loathsome job. Thanks to his medical training, he was an expert at torturing prisoners for confessions. Eventually he became the headsman when his boss retired. His successful career was highlighted by the execution of 22 noblemen (Protestants who had led a failed coup against the Catholic Hapsburg ruler) in the Old Town Square in 1621. Some heads were put on display on the Charles Bridge for ten years. Jan eventually retired, turning the job over to his son Jan Vaclav. By this point in guide's story, were arrived at the executioner's pub, where the headsman and his co-workers would go for drinks after a hard day's work. Now, the executioner's pub is a place for all to relax, not just professionals.
Lose your head to drink or the ax man!

The Old New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe. It was built in the 13th century and has survived all the floods, fires, famines, and pogroms that have plagued Prague in the past 700 years. At the end of the 16th century, the Jews of Prague had been restricted to a small section of the city. If only their ghetto had been left alone, things might have been okay. But the other residents of Prague would raid them or cause other problems. That is when the Rabbi of the Old New Synagogue, Rabbi Judah Loew, used his secret knowledge of mysticism and the clay from the river bank to form a huge automaton. He called it the "Golem" which in Hebrew is "servant" or "slave." The Golem was large and mighty with a bald head and a special stone in his forehead that activated him. Every night the Rabbi would deactivate the Golem to save it from wearing out by excess use. The Golem helped with tasks in the area, especially in construction and moving heavy objects. His main task was to defend the Jewish quarter from invaders. Since the automaton had fiery eyes (as in, they could shoot fire) and a frightening appearance, the Christians and others in Prague left the Jews alone. Then one day the Rabbi was called out of town on an emergency, so the Golem was left with his wife. She did not turn it off. Rather, she put it to all sorts of tasks, including contradictory ones. After a day, the Golem went berserk and started to destroy the Jewish Ghetto. The Rabbi returned in time to save the city. He took the Golem up to the top of the Synagogue and deactivated him. It is said that the Rabbi's son reactivated the Golem who has protected the Old New Synagogue throughout the centuries. The stairs up to the roof have been partially removed to prevent anyone from trying to interfere with the Golem.

Old New Synagogue ladder, inaccessible to mortals

A group of monks had set up a monastery named after Saint Francis in the north end of Prague. The monks also opened a hospital (Hospital Na Farntisku) which served everyone. Back in those days (the middle ages), going to the hospital was not a short trip like it is today. Today, you could get out in two or three weeks. Back then people could be in the hospital for years. Since the hospital was run by monks, that meant there was no alcohol and no women visitors. Consequently, across the street several bars and houses of ill repute opened business and were quite successful. One of the priests became angry over this, that the monks would pray for the salvation of sinners while across the street sinning was going on unchecked. He took a life-sized cross with him and went up and down the street, preaching the destruction of sinners. Some hearts he touched, others he made angry. He became more bold and began going into the buildings to preach to the people inside. One day, he went into a bar where a very pretty and popular prostitute (whether she was popular for her looks or for her good rates is unclear) was trying to relax after a long day's work. He shook his cross at her and preached directly at her. She was unrepentant, and even stripped naked in an attempt to seduce him. He flew into a rage and clobbered her on the head with the cross. Her skull split like a nut and she was dead. The bar patrons became very angry and stoned him to death on the spot. To this day, the two unhappy souls are seen wandering around the hospital, arguing who had the greater sin, the prostitute or the murderer.

Down another alleyway just past St. Agnes' Cloister was an old restaurant and bar. Back in the day, the beautiful barmaid working there had a pure and true heart. She was waiting for her true love. One day a tall and swarthy Turkish merchant came to town. When their eyes met, it was love at first sight. They began to go around together (though in secret since she was a Christian and he a Muslim) and their love grew from "at first sight" to truer and deeper love. When the time for his return to Turkey came, they promised each other to be true. He promised he would be back soon. A month passed. Then a year passed. Then two years. Then three, with no return by the Turkish merchant. She began to suspect his love was not true. Enter one German merchant who makes the same first impression. Again, the two lovers begin to walk and talk together. He eventually has to go back to Germany with the same promises of faithfulness and a quick return. Only this time, he is back in two months. Things proceeded as such things do. They were soon married and living happily ever after. Until the day the Turkish merchant returned to Prague. Rushing through the streets to find his true love, he came upon her hand in hand with the German merchant, exchanging sweet signs of true love. He was sure that she had betrayed him. Suddenly overcome with passion, he dropped the great pack of gold coins and jewels he had brought as a wedding gift, took out his great curved sword and slashed the head off of the woman he loved. He fled back to Turkey, never to be heard from again. Nowadays, the ghost of the headless woman roams the streets looking to trade her fabulous wealth (for the Turk never took his sack of gold and jewels) for someone's head. So if you are in desperate need of more than a little spending cash, you can search the St. Agnes's Cloister region of Prague on a dark night and see if you can find the headless lass.

These are the stories that our guide shared. He had a good sense of humor but he was not very scary. He was fairly unfocussed and some of his stories seemed to have no point. For example, he described how one building in a fashionable quarter was completely derelict because all the locals know it's haunted and any foreign investors fail to develop it through strange circumstances. But the guide didn't go into any detail at all of why it was haunted or what happened to anyone who tried to use the property.

Most inexplicably haunted building in Prague

Also, at one point on the walk, someone dressed as the Grim Reaper was just standing around in one of the alleys we went down. He wasn't at all scary or even seemingly interested in us. Based on my experience, I really can't recommend this ghost tour.

For an interesting article on the Golem legend, see this page, or this page

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