Polish legends: Mr Twardowski

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Fragment of cover art of a vinyl audiobook with legend about Mr Twardowski released by the Pronit company.

This legend tells the story of Mr Twardowski (in Polish: Pan Twardowski) who was a Polish nobleman, alchemist and wizard living in the city of Kraków in 16th century, when Kraków was the capital of the Polish Kingdom.

Mr Twardowski (pronounced like Tvar-dov-skii) was initially an aspiring alchemist seeking for formulas that would make his name remembered. According to the legend he eventually made a pact with a devil (or with a chort or bies – Slavic demons comparable to devils) in order to gain wealth and fame, and to possess the wisdom about magic. He was sure that he could outsmart the devil, and included a special clause in their contract. It stated that the devil could take Twardowski’s soul as a payment only when the alchemist will visit Rome – place to which Twardowski never intended to go.

Thanks to the pact he quickly raised in fame and wealth, and was appointed as a courtier to the king Sigismund II Augustus (Pol.: Zygmunt August). The king had lost his beloved wife, Barbara Radziwiłł, and sought consolation in magic and astrology. Twardowski used a magic mirror to summon Queen Barbara’s ghost, and thus gained respect and credibility on the king’s court.

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Mr Twardowski summoning the ghost of the Queen for the king Sigismund. Anonymous Polish painter, 19th century [via ].

Twardowski soon gained the title of a Master (Pol.: Mistrz Twardowski) and became famous across Poland. Many Polish folktales tell about his various adventures. He felt so powerful and confident with his plan, that he started playing small tricks on the devil. For example, he used one of the clauses from the contract stating that the devil has to follow Twardowski’s certain orders, and forced the devil to bathe in holy water – on an excuse of treating it as a scientific experiment.

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Twardowski forcing the weakened devil to bathe in holy water. Woodcut by Aleksander Malinowski, published in 1884 in magazine “Kłosy” [source].

Long years of evading his fate (keeping away from Rome) together with offending the devil naturally put his life into a great danger. One day it was him who got tricked.

The devil requested a meeting in a certain tavern near Kraków, and upon arriving Twardowski felt something strange as if his powers were being overtaken. Devil laughed – the tavern was called ‘Rome’!

Twardowski tried to escape but since the clause of the contract was fullfilled, the devil started growing stronger than him. The Master eventually managed to summon a magical rooster with his remaining powers, and flew off riding on its back.

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Twardowski riding on the rooster is a populat motif representing the legend. Above – a postage stamp designed by artist Witold Chomicz [source].

He is rumoured to have escaped to the Moon, and living there safely up until the modern days – far away from the devil’s area of influence. He keeps there a spider-servant and sends it down to the Earth on a magical web once a month in order to gather the latest gossips from his beloved city of Kraków.

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Mr Twardowski on the Moon. Artwork by Zbigniew Rychlicki for the book “Klechdy domowe”, 1989.

The legend of Mr Twardowski inspired a great number of Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and German poets, novelists, composers, directors and other artists [see a short list here].

One of the best-known literary works featuring Mr Twardowski is the humorous ballad ‘Pani Twardowska’ (Mrs Twardowska) written by Adam Mickiewicz in 1822. In this ballad Twardowski agreed to be taken to hell on one condition – the devil had to spend one year living with Mrs Twardowska. The devil, however, couldn’t stand the woman’s strong character and eventually ran away from her. Mr Twardowski was thus saved. Stanisław Moniuszko, a notable Polish composer, wrote music for the ballad in 1869, and the story is often shown in theatres.

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Mrs Twardowska commanding the devil – picture depicting the humorous ballad, drawn by Tomasz Borowski.

Pictures of Mr Twardowski is also a popular motif in the folk art of the Kraków region. He may be found, for example, during the famous Cracovian cribs competition (Szopki Krakowskie). He is typically depicted as a Polish nobleman either riding a rooster or sitting on the Moon.

There’s a number of restaurants and pubs called Rome (Polish: Rzym) across Poland nowadays, all of which claim to be the one where Mr Twardowski met the devil. The oldest of these inns date back to the late 17th century.

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“Karczma Rzym” (“Tavern Rome”) in Sucha Beskidzka. Image via Polska Niezwykła.
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“Karczma Rzym” (“Tavern Rome”) in Sucha Beskidzka. Image © Domek Beskidy.

There are also two mirrors claimed to be the one used by Mr Twardowski for summoning the ghost of the Queen Barbara. One is held the parish church in Węgrów, second in the Diocesan Museum in Sandomierz. It is said that the mirror lost its powers because it had to be used regularly, drawing the power from its users.

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The ‘magic mirror’ of Twardowski in Węgrów [source].

Mr. Twardowski remains a popular element of modern Polish culture and arts, inspiring many events and stories. In the recent years it gained also international interest, after being used by the team of CD Projekt Red as the main inspiration for the storyline in ‘Hearts of Stone’ DLC for the award-winning game ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’.

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Installation with Master Twardowski in one of the tenement houses in the old town of Bydgoszcz [source].

Side note: 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. Few paragraphs about Mr Twardowski in the arts and culture are paraphrased after the Wikipedia article and supplemented with additional info.

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. Evil king Popiel and a Mouse Tower
  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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