Polish legends: King Popiel and the Mouse Tower

Polish legends: King Popiel and the Mouse Tower
Grzegorz Rosiński’s cover art (fragment) for a comic dedicated to the legend about Popiel – part of the bilingual series “Legendy polskie” / “Polish legends” released in 1970s.

This is a legend coming from c. 9th century and takes place in the town of Kruszwica, where a medieval Slavic fortified settlement (gród – gord) was once located. Popiel II was one of semi-legendary proto-Polish leaders, the last one from the dynasty of Popielids.

Popiel was a cruel, unjust and corrupt monarch. After death of his first wife, he married a German princess who was beautiful but had a cold heart and craved for power. Together they ruled over the lands around the Lake Gopło with iron fist.

Everyone knew very well about their crimes, but people were too afraid to take an action for a long time, fearing Popiel’s well-equipped mercenaries, and most likely hoped for the king to realise how bad the influence of his new wife was growing.

Then came grim years after the queen gave birth to a child. 

Eventually, Popiel and his wife took measures as drastic as poisoning an entire council of tribes’ leaders and Elders that gathered in Popiel’s castle on his invitation for a wiec (public assembly), and murdering Popiel’s sons from his first marriage. After all the “mysterious” deaths they also refused to burn the bodies in accordance with the Slavic customs, and threw them to the deep waters of the Lake Gopło instead.

People couldn’t bear it anymore, because the crimes offended the Slavic gods and broke the most respected Slavic laws, customs and principles. Their anger, the shed royal blood and the curses thrown by the Elders before death resulted in unusual events, seen by the people as the anger of the Gods.

One day, not long after the massacre, people witnessed an unexpected sight. Thousands and thousands of mices started emerging from the lake and approaching Popiel’s castle. Those were strange mices, unusually big and with sharp teeth, not afraid of the people. King’s soldiers tried to kill them but from each mice cut in half two new ones were emerging. 

Soon the castle’s residents started fleeing in panic. The king and his family got on a boat and escaped to the defensive tower located on an island in the middle of the lake. But the mice followed them, swam across the water, climbed up the high walls to the king’s chambers, and bit through the barred doors.

People heard terrible screams from far away, and for a long time no one dared to approach the island, fearing of the Gods wraith. One day they entered the site but discovered nothing but bare bones inside the tower. Until nowadays it is believed that Popiel lost his royal crown while swimming towards the tower and it will bring luck to a person who’ll find it in the bottom of the lake.

Horrible was the death the last from the Popielids dynasty – punishment for the murders and for disregard of the old customs.*

The tower was destroyed sometime later, but nowadays you can visit a similar one in Kruszwica, which was rebuilt together with a small castle in 14th century and became a local symbol reflecting the legend:

Polish legends: King Popiel and the Mouse Tower
The ‘Mouse Tower’ in Kruszwica [image via Wikimedia Commons].

The legend about Popiel and the Mouse Tower is known across Poland, and inspired many other stories.

It is particularly known from the novel “Stara Baśń” (”An Ancient Tale”) written by the popular Polish writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski in 1876, in which Popiel and his wife are the main antagonists.

The book was adapted for screen and directed by Jerzy Hoffman in 2003 – it was released in US under the name “An Ancient Tale: When the Sun Was a God”.

Polish legends: King Popiel and the Mouse Tower
Popiel with his wife and their son as depicted in the 2003 movie [image via Filmweb].

The legend inspired also the quest “A Towerful of Mice” in the game “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”, in which we get a backstory about a local ruler who got eaten by mice in a tower located above a lake on the Fyke Isle (called “Kłomnica” in the Polish version).

Polish legends: King Popiel and the Mouse Tower
View of the tower in the game “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”.

[Po polsku: polecam analizę legendy]

*There are many various versions of the legend that differ in some details, and this is the story as I know it since my childhood.

Check also other Polish legends I described on my blog:

  1. Lech, Czech and Rus, legend about founder of Poland and the first Polish capital city
  2. Warsaw Mermaid who protects Polish capital city
  3. Wawel Dragon, legend from Kraków
  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

Click here for a rebloggable version of this article on tumblr.

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