Alois Jirásek (1851 – 1930) was a Czech high school teacher who in his spare time collected old Bohemian legends and wrote an incredible number of historical novels filled with intrigue and betrayal. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature four times, but never received it. The Czechs were very disappointed every time it was announced that somebody else was going to get the prize … just like the Japanese were bitterly disappointed when Haruki Murakami did not receive the Nobel Prize for literature last year.
I think the problem with Jirásek’s work might have been that no good translations of his books were available a hundred years ago. For what it’s worth, I think that Murakami should have gotten the prize, and hopefully will receive it sooner or later, given that his books have been translated into many languages, including of course English.
I briefly mentioned one of the legends that Jirásek described in his collection, Legends of Old Bohemia in my post titled “The Mystery of Alleged Translation of “HOW TO RIDE MOTORCYCLES FROM JAPANESE”.
Jirásek’s version of an old legend, called “Dívčí válka” (“War of Girls”, or war of girls against men, or of matriarchy against patriarchy), is based on the description of a medieval chronicler in Bohemia called Cosmas who recounted in his Latin chronicle at the beginning of the 12th century in an old, gruesome legend, featuring almost as much violence as Matt Damon’s movies, but in much more horrific and graphic detail, how Czech girls declared war on men who refused to be governed by women after the death of a fair and just Princess called Libuše who used to peacefully rule the Czech nation for many years.
The Bohemian legend of “Faust’s House” that I will shamelessly and completely inappropriately (because it has nothing to do with translation) appropriate for my silly blog post today, is much more recent, probably from the early 19th century, and is also included in Jirásek’s fascinating collection of Bohemian legends.
According to Jirásek’s version of a legend about Faust’s House (2,343 words in Czech, which would be a relatively easy translation job), a poor, homeless student who had no place to live and was so broke that he could not pay rent, decided to move into a gloomy, abandoned house on one corner of Karlovo námĕstí in Prague. This despite the fact that as everybody knew, the house was cursed. According to the legend, this was the very house from which Dr. Faust, better known from Goethe’s play, was taken to Hell by the Devil as payment for serving Faust for years and making every one of his wishes come true. Faust was trying mightily to fight the Devil off by using his greedily acquired knowledge of black magic and spells, but to no avail.
In Jirásek’s version of the legend, to save time, the Devil simply abducted Faust through a hole in the ceiling to his new infernal residence and that was it for poor Dr. Faust.
Incidentally, Faust’s House, which was according to other legends built on a former pagan sacred ground where people used to bring sacrifices to the Dark Goddess Morana in pagan times, was in addition to Dr. Faust also home to several famous alchemists and many other strange and clever people skilled in turning clay, or literally nothing, into money. Fittingly enough, the spooky house is currently the home of the First Faculty of Medicine of Charles University.
Although fine Bohemian masons tried to brick over the hole in the ceiling many times, it never worked – the next day the hole would appear again. That must have been one reason why nobody wanted to rent the house. But the student paid the hole in the ceiling no mind and settled comfortably into the house, especially since on the first morning he found in one of the rooms a small black dish containing a silver coin called a thaaler.
Incidentally, a coin made of silver from a silver mine in a place in Moravia, called in German Joachim’s Thaal, became so popular in 17th century Europe that people brought it with them to the New World, which was how the word ‘dollar’ came into existence.
The next day, the student discovered another brand new shiny thaaler in the small black dish to his delight and utter amazement, and since another silver thaaler would then magically appear in the small black dish every morning, the student slowly made himself comfortable in the old, abandoned house, reading Dr. Faust’s fascinating books about black magic and spells while wood logs cheerfully burned in the chimney and kept him warm and cozy. At the same time, the formerly penurious student was becoming gradually more and more affluent.
In the end, however, the student becomes too greedy, dares to invoke the Devil to ask him for gold instead of silver, and as you may have guessed already, the Devil uses the opportunity to take the poor student’s greedy soul with him instead of making him rich – through the handy hole that was waiting for just such an event in the ceiling.
This story has fascinated me for a long time, ever since I read it as a teenager about half a century ago. If I could find me a spooky, abandoned old house full of forbidden books, where every morning I would also find a reasonable sum of cash in a little dish made of black onyx, that would be a dream come true for me.
I am pretty sure that had that happened to me, had I been that student, I would have been perfectly happy for the rest of my life with a single silver thaaler a day and would never have provoked the Devil like the cocky student in the old legend.
We all come into this world naked, hurting, hungry and crying. As we grow up, we discover the power of money and just like the student in the story, eventually we begin to understand that we simply have to figure out a way to make a silver dollar appear magically in our little black dish, which is called making a living in modern parlance.
Whether the Devil exists or not, those of us who become too greedy are always in mortal danger of losing our souls, depending mostly on what it is that we do for a living and who we happen to work for.
Just like the student in the legend about Faust’s house on Karlovo námĕstí in Prague, we probably need to pay a little more attention to old legends.
Especially when we are really comfortable, engrossed in our favorite book while the fire is pleasantly raging in the chimney of our favorite room on a cold evening – we need to make sure that we are not sitting directly under a hole in the ceiling whose purpose may not be quite clear to us.