European Legends

“Europe, in legend, has always been the home of subtle philosophical discussion; America was the land of grubby pragmatism.”

Daniel Bell

Imagine Switzerland’s William Tell, riding the polish Dragon of Krakow through the French Broceliande Forest… Dream of the iIalian Befana joining the witch’s ride in Austria… Visualize the Flying Dutchman sailing along Scotland’s Loch Ness, with the German temptress Lorelei, and her best friend Melusina… Once put together, all those European legends deliver the creative potential of the old continent. Legends in Europe are at the heart of our society and history. They inspire not just many international films, drawing in billions of tourists from all around the world. But they also help us discover and dream about the origins of the continent’s many fantastic monuments, the magical beliefs that lie behind Europe’s sights, the history that lies behind our present-day culture. Take a trip around Europe’s legendary wonders, and click on the end of each to get the full story.

Portugal

The Rooster of Barcelos

A murder has been committed in the Portuguese town of Barcelos. Who is the criminal? How will he be judged? This is the mystery that the famous legend of the Rooster of Barcelos seeks to solve. In this medieval plot, worthy of an Agatha Christie classic, help may come at any time from an unexpected friend… even a farm animal. But can the miraculous intervention of a rooster save an innocent man? Find out by reading the legend in full here. [read]

Spain

The Bell of Huesca

Ramiro II of Aragon was not a very forgiving person. When twelve nobles disobeyed him, he just went nuts and cut their heads off… This macabre legend was first reported in the 13th-century anonymous Aragonese work the Cantar de la Campana de Huesca. It may come as some relief to know that no one truly suffered his caprices:  the story is totally made-up, and in reality Ramiro II arrived to the throne by other means. He is however remembered in history as a cunning character of great political ability. The legend is so vivid that the expression “a Bell of Huesca” is still used nowadays to refer to a significant event. [read]

France

The Broceliande Forest

Whenever the great wizard Merlin can get away from affairs of state at the court of King Arthur, he returns to his lover, Viviane, in the forest of Brocéliande. In this enchanted wood where druids gather to work their magic, King Arthur will have to fight against a ferocious bull-like animal; his knight, Yvain, will have to deal with a violent storm after having poured water from a spring into a stone… This legendary forest first appeared in literature in the Roman de Rou — a verse chronicle written in 1160  by Wace. [read]

Iceland

Huginn and Muninn

I worry for Hugin
 that he might not return,
 but I worry even more for Munin. Every day at dawn the pair of ravens Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“mind”) travel across the nine worlds. At the end of the day, they perch on Odin’s shoulders and whisper news to him… But how will Odin react when, one day, his beloved ravens don’t show up? Huginn and Muninn are documented in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier Icelandic traditional sources. [read]

Ireland

Finn Mac Cuhaill

The greatest of all the men of Ireland is neither James Joyce, not Arthur Guinness, and not even Bono. No! The greatest man of Ireland is Finn Mac Cumhaill — a famous warrior with adventures spanning throughout a thousand years. One of his popular story was when he managed to catch a salmon. Not any regular salmon, but the rarest of them all: the one who knew all of the world’s knowledge. How did Finn Mac Cumhaill catch the salmon? What did he do with it? And more importantly: how did it end up in him regularly having to suck his thumb? Discover Finn’s secrets in the full story here. [read]

United Kingdom

The Loch Ness Monster

A mysterious monster lurks beneath the rippling surface of Loch Ness… Silently roaming the murky depths, reports claim that a mystic creature will on occasion swiftly split the water, revealing its recognisable neck and humps, before vanishing as quickly as it emerged. Popular interest and belief in the monster‘s existence has varied since it was first brought to the world’s attention in 1933. Sightings of Nessie have declined over recent years and despite high-profile submarine searches and several much-disputed photographs, the creature seems quite content to maintain its low profile… [read]

Norway

Selma

In the summer of 1918, Karl Karlsson walked down to the bridge at Sandnes to fish. Suddenly he saw a creature in the water. It came very close, moving very fast and Karl Karlsson became frightened and ran away, leaving his fishing rod… Locals didn’t need more to give birth to Selma the legendary monster said to live in the lake Seljordsvatnet in the  Norwegian city of Seljord. The Swedish explorer and cryptozoologist Jan Ove Sundberg has been trying to capture Selma for a number of years, but has not succeeded… [read]

Sweden

Sigurd

He doesn’t wear his pants over his tights, but he would, were his story told nowadays. Because Sigurd is a kind of mythological superhero, as well as the central character in the Völsunga saga. He was a warrior and member of the royal family of Denmark and a descendant of the god Odin. He was raised by a blacksmith named Regin, who made him a special sword from splinters of a weapon previously owned by the boy’s real father. You may have heard about him thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien who made an adaptation of the legend in verse under the name The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. [read]

Finland

Ukko

Ukko is an old man, but a powerful one. The legendary character was the god of sky, weather and crops. He could create thunderstorms just by driving his chariot through the clouds. The most significant god in Finnish mythology also had a great weapon: variously described as a hammer, an axe or sword, with which he could create lightning. Ukko was so powerful that a literal thunderstorm took place every time he hooked up with his wife Akka. And that, you must admit, is not bad for an old man! [read]

Denmark

King Dan

The story is told that, in olden days, there were three brothers: Dan, Nor and Østen. They were the sons of King Ypper, who lived in Uppsala in Sweden, which was named after him. The brothers went their separate ways, settling each in a different country. Dan went to Denmark, Nor to Norway, and Østen stayed in Sweden. So starts the story of King Dan — the legendary character projecting Denmark’s national self-image,  and even giving the country its name. [read]

Netherlands

The Flying Dutchman

Who doesn’t love the creepy and strange? Not sailors! Many of them claim to have seen the Flying Dutchman haunting the seas. This legendary Dutch ghost ship is known for not being able to make port and being doomed to sail the oceans forever. If hailed by another ship, its crew will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. It is believed that anyone who sees the ship will have misfortune fall upon them. So powerful is this belief that King George V of England himself, as a young prince during his naval days, claimed to have encountered it, although his somewhat comfortable life would hardly be considered a misfortune. [read]

Belgium

The Manneken Pis

His name, literally translated, means “peeing little man” or “peeing boy.” He has received gifts from lords and kings and has been abducted and saved several times. He shows his pecker to thousands of tourists everyday — enough to make the most zealous exhibitionist green with envy. But who really knows the story of the Manneken Pis? Did he empty his bladder to annoy German troops? Or to save Brussels from the flames? Or maybe to get rid of his kidnappers? Whatever the answer, the legend of the Manneken Pis is yet more proof of how our Belgian friends do not lack for invention or panache… [read]

Luxembourg

Melusina

One advice: never, ever and under no circumstances spy on a woman when she is alone in the bathroom! Why? Because at best it makes you impolite, and at worst a pervert. But also because you may discover things you wouldn’t want to know… This is anyway the hard lesson learnt by Siegfried, the founder of Luxembourg. When Melusina married him, she had one particular request: he should always leave her alone for one full day every month and never ask or try to find out what she was doing. But one day, Siegfried’s curiosity got the better of him. Wondering what on earth she might be doing alone all the time, he peeped through the keyhole… [read]

Germany

The Lorelei

Another legend warning you to be wary of women… The Lorelei is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine in Germany, which soars some 120 metres above the waterline. It is also the place where Lorelei, a beautiful maiden, threw herself into the Rhine in despair over a faithless lover and was transformed into a siren. The rock is said to still retain an echo of her name. It is believed that her drama is the reason why so many ships have sunk on the 65-kilometre stretch of river between Koblenz and Bingen… [read]

Austria

The Mariatrost Witch’s Ride

Why can’t an Austrian soldier have shoes that last more than two days? How can he break a spell cast upon him? The legend of the Mariatrost witch’s ride is like a fairy tale. Its story survived ages thanks to a painting hung above the stairs leading to the chancel of the mighty Church of Mariatrost in Graz. The mysterious painting depicts a witch seated atop a large cat flying through the air. The witch is throwing a handkerchief at a praying man who is holding his metal-soled shoes upward… Did we get your attention? Then read the legend here [read]

Switzerland

William Tell

Ask any Swiss who William Tell is and they are likely to inform you that he’s the hero of Swiss independence. He’s kind of a big deal. According to the legend, Tell, a bit of a hot-head it seems, gave the tyrannical Austrian leader Gessler (or his hat to be precise) the proverbial finger before killing him for good measure. The Legend of William Tell is set in the period of the original foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy in the early 14th century — and this is probably what made it so popular.  [read]

Italy

The Befana

She looks frightening but is actually very kind. Despite her apparence, Italian children awaken each year on January 6 in the hope that the Befana has made a visit to their house. This is a significant day for Italians because it marks the end of the Christmas season and the day when three Wise Men arrived at the manger of the Christ child. But how did this old lady get to know the three Wise Men? Why did she end up delivering sweets to children? Find out in the legend of the Befana [read]

Czech Republic

The Golem of Prague

The Golem is a popular figure in Czech folklore. Hang around in Prague, and you will see several restaurants and other businesses with names referring to the creature. We owe its story to Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks and pogroms. To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought it to life. But the story doesn’t finish as happily as it started… [read]

Slovakia

The White Lady of Levoca

Julia Korponayova was a remarkably beautiful woman, but also a spy — a kind of Bond girl from Medieval times. She used to live in the town of Levoca which was under siege by the Hapsburg army outside its walls. In the lengthy days of siege, she became the lover of the rebel Hungarian baron. One night, she stole his keys, and let the army in, leading to the fall of the town. But this didn’t stop her from meeting an unfortunate end. [read]

Hungary

The Miraculous Hind

Where will the hunt of a miraculous hind bring the two sons of a Persian king, Hunor and Magor? What is this beautiful and protected island near a lake where they eventually decide to settle? You may not find historical accuracy in the Hungarian Legend of the Miraculous Hind but you will probably grasp some important element of the psyche of the Magyar nation. The legend is so old that it is found in various forms among those nations who were the distant relatives or neighbours of the Hungarians, long before their settlement in Hungary. [read]

Poland

The Dragon of Krakow

A long time ago, in a den at the foot of Wawel Hill, there lived a terrible dragon. Each day the evil dragon roamed around the countryside, killing people, pillaging their homes and devouring their livestock. None of the inhabitants of the city of Krakow, from the poorest beggar to His Majesty King Krak, didn’t know where it had come from and how it got there… The Dragon of Krakow is a famous Polish legend and fairy tale. The large 200-foot-long cave in Krakow now attracts thousands of visitors each year. [read]

Lithuania

The Iron Wolf

When the Grand Duke Gediminas felt asleep, he dreamed of a huge Iron Wolf standing on top of a hill and howling as strong and loud as a hundred beasts. What did it mean? How did it relate to the origins of the city of Vilnius? This is what the legend of the Iron Wolf is all about. First found in the Lithuanian Chronicles, the legend possibly reflects the Lithuanian desire to showcase their mythic origins in the Roman Empire. The creature is nowadays one of the symbols of Vilnius and appears on the sportswear of local teams. [read]

Latvia

The Bear slayer

Lāčplēsis was chosen by the gods to become a hero of his people. His name meant “Bear-slayer”, because as a young man, living as the adopted son of the Lord of Lielvarde, he killed a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands. At the castle of Lord Aizkrauklis, he spies on the activities of the witch Spīdala, who is under the control of the Devil, and the holy man Kangars, who is in reality a traitor plotting with crusaders to replace the old gods with Christianity… The epic poem of Andrejs Pumpurs written between 1872-1887 is based on local legends and is regarded as the Latvian national epic. [read]

Estonia

The Old man from the Lake Ülemiste

A word of warning: should you be out wandering through Tallinn after dark on a cold autumn night and a strange old man approaches you, be wary, for he has a question for you… “Is the city finished yet, or is there still work being done?” You should definitely answer no, there’s still loads of construction going on and it’ll probably be years before it’s ready. The disappointed old man would then turn and leave, grumbling all the way back to the lake. The belief is that if the answer were ever yes, the old man would call up the waters of the lake and wipe out the city in a great flood. [read]

Belarus

The Elephant-Men

Belarusian legend speaks of a great war that took place upon the country’s soil long ago, between man and the elephant-men who terrorised the countryside. Years and years went by with no hope of resolving this conflict until one day a student of the occult imprisoned the spirit of one of these elephant-men in a nearby oak tree. Terrified, the rest of the elephant-men retreated, but it is said that at night the eerie trumpeting calls of the elephant-man echo through the Belarusian woods. [read]

Ukraine

The Bliznitsa

Who among you will bring me for a gift a silk flower, then to that person I will give my heart and hand“. The legend of the Bliznitsa starts with a challenge to win a damsel’s heart. But Bliznitsa is also the name of a summit with three peaks called the Twins by locals. How does the challenge relate to the Mountain? Who will win the lady’s heart? What secret love hides on top of the Carpathian mountain? Find out in the popular legend of Bliznitsa… [read]

Moldova

Dragoș

Dragoș, the first ruler of Moldavia, was an animal lover. He had many hunting dogs, but the one he favoured the most – the smartest and the best at hunting, whose name was Molda – jumped during the chase of a buffalo into a stream. It didn’t manage to get ashore and drowned. Dragoș missed his dog so much that he decided to name the country he founded after it. This gave the name to Moldova, or the Country of Moldova. [read]

Romania

The Chief architect Manole

Nine stonemasons and their master Manole were building a monastery for the Wallachian prince Negru Voda. But for an unknown reason, the walls of the new building kept on collapsing at night. In a prophetic dream, Manole was advised to brick up into the wall the first woman who arrived on scene. On the following day, Anna, his own wife, showed up in the early morning… The story of Manole is a legend kept alive by the imagination of several generations, by some old practices, by the prattle of simple people, and several popular rhymes… [read]

Slovenia

The Little Dragon in Postojna Cave

In the Postojna cave lives a little dragon called Jami. Unlike his brethren, Jami is a nice dragon: peaceful, friendly and a lover of nature. Although he desires to play with children, understandably, they are all terrified of him and what he might become. But the little dragon has a secret of his own: he guards the beautiful cave pearls… Interested in this lovely legend? Keep in mind that it is actually inspired by true facts as the Postojna cave is actually the pride of Slovenia, and the home to countless blind salamanders. [read]

Croatia

The Black Queen

The Black Queen is the most infamous mythical resident of Zagreb. She is a diabolic lady in long black robes with a vicious personality, knowledge of evil magic and ability to shapeshift. She was a cruel ruler, a witch, a snake and a fearsome dark apparition on the forest pathways. The Black Queen once ruled the Medvedgrad castle, a medieval city that rises above Zagreb on the slopes of the Medvednica mountain. Historians believe that the source of the folktales about Her Viciousness lies in actual female rulers of the castle… [read]

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Queen Katarina

One morning, Queen Katarina ordered her servant to saddle her horse, setting off towards the villages around Bobovac. When she saw the people living in poverty, she gave to every child a single golden coin… Katarina was Queen of Bosnia and the wife of King Stephen Thomas. After her husband’s death in 1461 she became the queen dowager of Bosnia, but had to flee the Ottoman invasion in 1463. Her memory, though, remains alive to this day. Legends on Queen Katarina can be heard from old people in many Bosnian villages. [read]

Serbia

Sava Savanović

What happens every night in the old watermill at Zarožje village? Why is every miller who tries to spend the night there found dead in the morning? And more importantly, who is Sava Savanović, the mysterious figure who used to live in the area and is accused of having killed a young girl?  Sava Savanović is regarded not just as the first Serbian vampire — he is also now the touristic emblem of the city and the entire Kolubara region.  Some even say he is still alive today and haunting his former village… [read]

Albania

The Castle of Rozafa

Three brothers were building a castle but had make a sacrifice: one of their wives. They agreed to choose whichever wife brought them lunch the following day. They promised not to tell their wives: but two of the deceitful brothers revealed the plot when back home. The following day, Rozafa, the wife of the youngest brother, brought lunch without knowing what would happen to her… Today you can even visit the Castle of Rozafa in the city of Shkodër, located in the north-west of Albania. There you can admire the sculpture of the woman who had the misfortune to be buried in the foundations of the castle…  [read]

Bulgaria

The First Maternitsa

For more than 1,000 years, Bulgarians have celebrated their national day on March 1st. On this occasion, they wear a special accessory made of red and white yarn, called a Martenitsa. The belief is that if you wear the Martenitsa, Baba Marta will help you, and spring will come more quickly: You can only take it off when you see the first stork of the season. The tradition comes from the legend of the falcon of Khan Asparuh, the first Bulgarian king, who was shot by an enemy while crossing a river… [read]

Macedonia

The Three Fates

Three of them come together, on the third night after a new baby is born, and their visit is life-changing: quite literally. Some call them the Narechnici, others the Fates. But unlike the similarly nocturnal tooth fairy, they leave much more than a coin under the pillow: a fortune for the lucky ones, a curse for the doomed. You got it: the Three Fates have the power to foretell the baby’s destiny, and they are far from benevolent. Except perhaps for the youngest, who has the power to undo the evil curses placed by her two big sisters. [read]

Greece

The Twelve Labours of Heracles

Hercules, or Heracles, is the favorite son of Zeus, the master of the gods. With prodigious strength, he is admired by all. All? Not quite: Heracles has a human mother, and Hera, Zeus’ immortal wife, is distinctly unimpressed. She has sworn herself against the hero, and unleashes all her jealousy against him. For his sins of his parents, Heracles must accomplish twelve labours in twelve years. He knows that his strength and reason may not be enough to face the exacting tasks designed by the vengeful goddess… [read]

Cyprus

The Five Finger Mountain

Two boys were both deeply in love with a beautiful Cypriot girl. One boy’s heart was made of gold, the other not. One day the two men got tired of trying to outwit each other… so they decided on a duel. But losing the duel proved to have unintended consequences, such as changing  the shape of a mountain forever… Cypriots are very fond of their Five Finger Mountain in Kyrenia — but the reasons given for its strange appearance vary greatly from one legend to another. [read]

Turkey

The Grey Wolf

The Turks revere the Grey Wolf because it has come to symbolise both honour and love of country. A key element in the Turkish origin myth is the focus on the Grey Wolf as the mother of the Turkish people. The legend of ‘Boz Kurt’ (Grey Wolf) sees the great she-wolf awaken and locate the birth, identity and legacy of the Turks through conquest and the construction of a great civilisation. At its core, the legend tells the story of Asena, a she-wolf who engenders the birth of the first Turkish people. [read]

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