Polish legends: Lech, Czech and Rus / Founding of the Gniezno city


One of the oldest (if not THE oldest) of all Polish legends. Begins blurred in the mists of the past, when ‘all Slavs were inhabitating one land’ and were ‘speaking one language’. That story is put roughly around the year 550 AD by some historians who point at the era of the migration period, but its real origins are still a mystery.

The three brothers from this legend are symbolic founders of three Slavic states – the brother Lech (founder of the early Poland), Czech (founder of the Czech Republic), and Rus (associated with Russia in many popular versions of the legend, but more probably telling about the Ruthenian people).

Here’s how the legend goes:

There were three brothers – Lech, Czech and Rus. They were all living well and sensibly, chosen to lead* their tribes because of their exceptional wisdom. But there came times when the lands could no longer feed their people – there was shortage of animals in the woods and fish in the rivers, and the lands weren’t giving enough crops for everyone.

The brothers gathered together. After long debates they and their families decided to leave the overpopulated areas. They made sacrifices, carefully packed the sacred statues of their tribes and set off. The column of the people was incredibly long. In the middle of it all women, children and elders were riding on horseback or driving on carts, and great herds of cattle were conducted behind them, all guarded by hundreds of armed warriors.

The Slavs were marching fearlessly through dense forests, over forceful rivers and passing mountainous lands, but only rarely encountering human settlements. Eventually, there came the days of parting.

First to bid farewell to the brothers was Rus, who chose the lands of endless steppes, plains and wide rivers in the East.

Soon Czech decided to leave, finding out about rich and fertile lands close to the Říp Mountain. He later established his state there.

Youngest of the brothers, Lech, was still travelling forward with his tribe. One day they arrived in a land covered in old forests full of wildlife, and with clean rivers and lakes shimmering in the sunshine. They decided to take a longer rest in their journey.

Lech looked around carefully and called a gathering of the elders in the late afternoon. He spoke to them:

“We were travelling long months already. Look around, the lands here are beautiful and fertile. This area could feed us and our children easily. I’d like to stay here – but first I want to hear your advice”.

Silence fell by the fireplace. The eldest of the wise men said cautiously: “Your brothers established their fortresses a long time ago and I think it is the time for us to do so as well. You’ve chosen stunning areas, Lech. We should probably stay here and look for a proper place and start building”.

“If only the gods could give us a sign where to start!” – Lech sighed.

Suddenly a noise broke the silence. A huge shadow passed over the glade. People raised their heads and saw a stunning white eagle landing at the crown of a nearby great oak. Its white feathers, shining in the last rays of the sun, were contrasting with the red afternoon sky.

“It’s the sign from the gods” – people whispered.

“It’s a good omen” – said Lech, smiling. “We will settle here and this magnificent bird will be always protecting us”. **

Illustration © Carla Hazard Tomaszewski for: Poland, a childrens book project

They built a settlement with a fortress – according to old manuscripts it was located close to the modern-day city of Gniezno, called the first historical Polish capital city. Name of this city is derived from word ‘gniazdo’ meaning a nest. The fortress was a typical early Slavic gród (known as gord in English). What’s interesting, archaeological excavations held in Gniezno confirmed that there was once a gord on a hill which is coincidally known as Lech’s Hill or Lech’s Mount. Gniezno is famous for its old cathedral, one of the oldest in Poland, that was built precisely on top of that hill – the archaeologists suggest that once there was a pagan Slavic temple and the cathedral was built on top of that old sacred place. If you want to read a bit more about the Gniezno archaeological site, click here.

The white eagle on a red background was the symbol of Lech’s tribe since then. It’s on the Polish coat of arms from the medieval times until nowadays. Below you can see a simplified chart showing several of historical versions of the Polish coat of arms over the last 1000 years. The first symbol included there was stamped on a 9th-century coin:

Polish coats of arms since 9th century [source]

Why ‘Lech’ for the founder of Poland? Name of Poland comes officially from the name of a tribe called Polans (Polanie) who emerged under this name most likely around the 8th century. It is said that Poland had been previously known by an older name derived from the founder Lech or the proto-Polish tribe of Lendians (Lędzianie) and only later was renamed after the tribe of Polans (Polanie). Not much of a difference from a linguistic point of view: both root-words ‘lęda‘ and ‘pole‘ meant a ‘field’, and therefore both ‘Lędzianie’ and ‘Polanie’ could be translated as ‘people of the fields’. What’s certain, Lech gave his name for the ancestors of Poland and the other West Slavic people – a group known as Lechites (Lechici).

Interestingly, there are still some countries that call the state of Poland after Lech (or the name’s variation Lach) or after the tribe of Lendians in their languages. For example, Poland is called Lenkija in Lithuanian and Lengyelország in Hungarian language; it was also commonly known as Lechistan in Persian language. Name of Lech survived also in a linguistic classification – ‘Lechitic languages‘ is a group of West Slavic languages that comprise Polish, Kashubian, Silesian, and the extinct Slovincian, West Pomeranian and Polabian languages. It also survived in many names of ethnic Polish groups, such as Lachy Sądeckie (‘Lachy’ from region around Nowy Sącz) or Lachy Śląskie (‘Lachy’ from Silesia). However, be careful using such forms for example in the countries located to the East from Poland – the ancient word of ‘Lachy’ survived there often as a derogatory form.

An interesting detail to mention here is about the number of brothers. Originally, there could’ve been only two of them: Lech and Czech (Čech). Such a version with two brothers Čech and Lech survived also in the Czech legends and the oldest source mentioning it comes from 11th century (you can read the Czech version of the legend here in the great blog get-to-know-cz). On the other hand, this legend was not known in any East Slavic sources that could possibly ‘confirm’ the existence of the third brother Rus. In the Polish version of the legend the figure of the third brother Rus was added sometime later. Rus appears in the 13th-century Wielkopolska Chronicle and later in the famous 15th-century chronicle of Jan Długosz … but only as a son of Lech. The trio Lech-Czech-Rus became a widespread canon story most likely only in the 19th century, after the Partitions of Poland. Some interpretations claim that it could’ve been an element of propaganda within the Russian Partition, meant to emphasize the image of the Russian invaders as old brothers in the course of spreading ideas of the Pan-Slavism movement.

Details of this story are still uncertain. Nevertheless, the legend is a beautiful example of a tale showing common roots of three different Slavic nations.

* Side note: in the context of early Slavic rulers, Polish legends rarely say that they “ruled” [rządzić] over the people but rather use the word “lead” [przewodzić], what I find quite significant and beautiful.

** There are various versions of the legend that differ in some details and this is the story as I know it since childhood. Feel free to use the comments section, I’d love to know what differences might there be in other versions!

Check also other Polish legends I described on my blog:

  1. Warsaw Mermaid who protects Polish capital city
  2. Wawel Dragon, legend from Kraków
  3. Evil king Popiel and a Mouse Tower
  4. Mr Twardowski, a Renaissance alchemist who made a pact with a devil
  5. City turned into stone
  6. Legends from castles on the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests

Update 30. July 2016: I wrote a short version of this article for the Slavorum website, including also illustrations from Polish children’s books.  You can read it here: http://www.slavorum.org/ancient-polish-legend-about-3-slavic-brothers-lech-czech-and-rus/

My general sources / book recommendations [in Polish only].

Rebloggable version on tumblr: [link].


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