Libuse

Here is the traditional Czech story about an early woman leader and the way she lost her power (written here by Madronna Holden)

Libuse and her two sisters were daughters of the Krok, beloved leader of the Czech people, and Libuse assumed leadership after her father’s death. As a seer, she used her visions to guide her people. One of Libuse’s sisters was an accomplished herbalist and healer, and the other frequented wild places to make ceremonies for the spirits. Libuse often consulted with her sisters, and during her reign, harmony and abundance prevailed in the Czech lands.

But one day a man brought suit before Libuse’s council against his younger neighbor, whose land he wished to usurp.  When Libuse and her council found against the greedy man, he arrogantly defamed her, declaring that only weak men would allow a woman to stand in the way of their ambitions.  The Czechs, he said, should be ruled by men as were their neighbors.

The stunned silence that followed his words affected no one so much as Libuse herself.  It was said that if only one man had spoken out in her behalf at that moment, the coming tragedy might have been averted.  But Libuse, who had always listened to the voices of her people, now listened to their silence. She left the fateful council and spent some time in isolation, praying.  Then she re-emerged to tell her people she would take a husband. Thus they would have a man to rule them. But she also delivered this visionary warning:

“You do not value your freedom. I will rule you no longer, for in your hearts you demand that you shall be ruled by a man. You long for a chieftain, who will press your sons and daughters into service until your burdens become heavy and bitter.”[i]

Libuse piled her white horse with clothing fit for a prince, and directed her messengers to follow the riderless horse to locate her future bridegroom.  Libuse’s horse led them to Premsyl, who was plowing his fields with his immense oxen.  But as the courtly messengers came on the scene, the oxen turned and left, disappearing forever into a hole in the earth. Premsyl told the messengers that if they had not come in such haste, he would have been able to finish his work.  Then there would never have been want in the land of Bohemia.

Premsyl set out a lunch for the messengers, using his iron plow as a table.  With such iron, he declared, the Czechs could both work their land and defend themselves—and he promised to institute this reign of iron among them. He donned his princely robes and rode back to the castle astride Libuse’s horse, taking his peasant shoes along to remind him of his origins.

Libuse and Premsyl were married amidst great celebration, and afterwards Libuse took her husband to a chamber deep in the earth to show him her treasures, which were now his to share. In the days that followed, Libuse advised Premsyl’s rule with her wisdom and kindness as he designed laws for the kingdom.  Thus it seemed for a time as if all might be well in the land of Bohemia.

But one day Libuse was traveling with an official retinue when she stopped to bless the land and the riches that lay under it.  As she did so, she saw the dangerous gleam of greed in the eyes of some who watched her and warned them of the demise of those who let “the holy fire of love to burn out” in their quest for wealth. [ii]

Shortly thereafter, her women found Libuse weeping before her vision pool on the Vltava River, at the bloody scene of battle her Sight revealed to her. She would only be consoled when her companions brought her the former cradle of her son, which she cast into the swelling waters as a refuge for the child who would return her people to a reign of love.

The years passed, until it was Libuse’s time to leave this life.  She gathered her people together, blessed them, and exhorted Premsyl to exercise patience.  Then she returned to her first mother, the earth.

After her death, the men of Bohemia ridiculed Libuse’s former companions, declaring that women’s words were worth nothing.  The women responded by withdrawing to their own castle.  Rumors of the anger of the sequestered women only brought guffaws of laughter from the men—and finally the women decided to attack the men to assert their rights.  Premsyl could not restrain his men from making full scale war on the women in return.  Ultimately, he led them in this war, in which both violence and sexual wiles were used to overcome members of the enemy camp.

When the men finally subjugated the women, order was restored.  But though the male soldiers were stronger in physical power, the women had other powers they continued to use against the men.  In the years to come, there were many stories of Czech witches who subdued soldiers inside and outside of the Bohemian legions.


[i] Libuše’s warning is given in these words by Alois Jirásek, in his Legends of Old Bohemia, (London and Prague:  Paul Hamlyn, Ltd: 1963), p. 44 (from Bohemian folklore he collected in the nineteenth century).

[ii] Ibid, p. 56.

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