Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The legend of Besiekiery Castle

Castles. There are a lot of them in Poland, some ruined, some perfectly preserved, and all interesting. At times, we will travel the country and stop in a seemingly insignificant village- there to find ruins or foundations which reveal that the tiny settlement was once home to a great lord, or even a king.

I am rather fond of castles, so you will be hearing more about them soon. Today, I want to tell you about my favourite one.

151/365: The castle ruins in Besiekiery
The castle ruins of Besiekiery

The castle ruins in Besiekiery are not a very well known attraction, overshadowed by the nearby king's town and castle of Łęczyca. Their popularity is further diminished by their location in a very small village with no other tourist attractions. A few houses, a small school; Besiekiery is tiny, but it dates back to the 13th century.

Here's where it gets interesting. The name suggests that its original settlers were Scandinavian- viking mercenaries in the service of our first dynasty of kings, the Piasts. 'Besiekr' is a nordic word meaning 'man wearing a bear skin', and king Mieszko I did indeed purchase the services of a number of Scandinavian mercenaries. Not unusual, considering the strong hypothesis that his daughter married Swedish King Eric the Victorious, and later Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. The princess eventually ended up in Norse mythology as Sigrid Storrada.

Such is the most probable history of Besiekiery; archaelogical findings of scandinavian remains in Poland support the theory. But in Polish, 'siekiera' means axe, and so there is also a legend about the devil Boruta (who also dipped his claws in the history of the nearby Royal Castle in Łęczyca) striking a deal with a local noble. Diabolical tricks are a common theme in Polish folklore, and such stories usually feature one of the lesser minions of Hell being outwitted and humiliated by the clever landsmen.

Look closely, at the top. That's a stork's nest.

Not so in this case. Boruta is an eminent character in the region's legends, appearing way back in slavic paganism as a forest and swamp demon. His name is an old Polish term for 'pine tree'. He would not be so easy to outsmart!

In the Besiekiery legend, a noble knight made a bet with Boruta. Perhaps the devil had disguised himself, or perhaps the knight was just that foolish, but he bet the demon that he could build a whole castle without using a single axe. In polish: 'bez siekiery'!

Presumably, the knight was promised riches and immortality if he won; upon losing, he would have to surrender his soul. And he would have won…except the poor man didn't know that one of the labourers working on the construction of his castle was named 'Siekierka'. The castle was built, but the bet and the soul was lost, and the Devil Boruta still haunts the area on his days off from guarding the castle in Łęczyca.

But that's only a legend. The castle is neither demonic nor Norse in origin, being somewhat younger than the settlement. It was built around the year 1500 by a court official named Sokołowski, and used to have a large tower which held the main gate and a chapel, an open courtyard and a three storey house in the back. It was modified several times over the years, but has been abandoned since the mid-19th century.

Currently, the municipality is gathering funds to revitalise the ruins and make them a safe and welcoming tourist attraction. So far they've strengthened the remainders of the main house and rebuilt the moat. There's a little beach, but swimming isn't a good idea as there is a lot of duckweed and leeches. Yuck!

Oh, another interesting thing about this castle is that it's home to a pair of storks. They come every year to build their nests on top of the ruins. Storks are very popular in Poland, we consider them to be one of our national symbols.

The stork is a bird that brings luck, and it's very good to have one on your property- they say lightning will not strike where a stork has his nest. And because storks like high places, many landowners will set up a special post or build a platform on top of the barn roof, or in the branches of a dead tree, to encourage storks to make their nest there. No wonder they appreciate the ruins of Besiekiery!

Meta information:

Location of Besiekiery on Google Maps:

A page with drawings of the castle's original layout and shape:

Information about scandinavian presence in Poland (in Polish):

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