There is no escape – Warsaw’s mermaid is everywhere you look. This month, the Insider examines the root of this city’s obsession…
With over 300 kilometers of land mass separating Warsaw from the sea, you might wonder just why the mermaid has been adopted by the capital to serve as its mascot. Well, there’s a few legends out there that attempt to shed light on this, with some claiming that it was a mermaid that once came to the aid of Prince Kazimierz. Having been separated from the rest of his hunting party, the Prince found himself lost deep in the marshland that once spanned the region. Luckily for him a mermaid materialized out of the bog and guided him to safety by firing burning arrows into the evening sky. Overcome with gratitude, the Prince decided to found Warsaw and adopt the mermaid as its symbol.
Other versions of this story exist, with some elaborations going as far as to claim the Warsaw mermaid has a twin sister in Copenhagen (yes, that one) – for their part, the Danes tend to downplay this tenuous link. So with all these conflicting stories and subtle embellishments it’s not too much of a surprise to find that official tour guides have opted to stick to one story in particular…
An abridged version goes thus: having flipped her way down from the Baltic, our heroine was heading down the Wisła when she stopped for a rest on the riverbank. “This place is alright,” she thought, and decided to linger around. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the nearest settlement would later grow to become Warsaw. But whilst she was happy, the local fishermen were not. Each morning they’d head down to work only to find their nets tangled and their catch released. A vigilante group was formed and set a trap to ambush the perpetrator who, as you’ve probably guessed, transpired to be the mermaid.
However, plans to punish her quickly went awry. Why? Because they all fell in love. Spellbound by her voice, the fishermen decided they’d be far better off living in harmony with the singing mermaid. But news of this local celebrity traveled fast, and it wasn’t long till she found herself the target of a stalker. Realizing he could earn a mint by forcing her to perform at traveling fairs, a wealthy merchant hatched a plot to kidnap her. A rescue party was assembled and, attracted by her plaintive calls for water, soon found the mermaid held captive in a barn. On being freed the grateful damsel promised the fishermen to guard their town whenever it was under threat. It’s for this reason that the Warsaw mermaid is usually depicted wielding a sword and shield.
Now, suspend your disbelief that a mermaid incapable of defending herself should be installed as the honorary defender of the town, and focus on other points instead. For instance, that the earliest depictions of the Warsaw mermaid actually show it to be a bloke: one with the legs of a chicken… By 1459, however, royal seals show that the mermaid had slowly started to assume feminine characteristics and the doorway of St. John’s Cathedral in the Old Town is decorated with varying representations of the mermaid’s evolution: all the way from her early days as a half-dragon / half-man boobed thing to her incarnation as a feisty stunner.
It is, perhaps, how people have chosen to interpret her looks that is the most compelling aspect of the mermaid’s story. Most famous of all is probably the statue found in the Rynek. Designed by Konstanty Hegel, it first appeared in the Old Town square in 1855, but was relocated with such frequency that locals nicknamed it ‘the walking statue’. In 2008 it was finally decided to retire the original to the Historical Museum and replace it with a faithful copy.
Another favorite of photographers is that found on the Stanisława Markiewicz viaduct at the bottom of ul. Karowa. Opened in 1904, this curvy, winding street has an ornate elegance and finds itself crowned by a mermaid that brings to mind a Manga character, what with her sultry look and curvy blade. Yet for sheer defiance and girl power poise, it is the statue at the mouth of Świętokrzyski Bridge that wins our vote. Cast in bronze, it’s alleged to be the last monument to be unveiled in Warsaw before the Nazi occupation. The sculptor, Ludwik Nitschow, used a 23-year old poetess, Krystyna Krahelska, as his model, though it’s been suggested he used considerable artistic license to beautify the work. Serving as a medic in the Home Army, Krahelska was shot on the first day of the Warsaw Uprising and died the next day. The statue, meanwhile, just about survived though 34 bullet holes can still be noted.
While it is these three monuments that are the best known, there’s simply no escaping the mermaid and her likeness. Looking more gregarious than her twins around town, the one at Królikarnia ditches the sword in favor of what’s either a bugle or a goblet of wine – whichever it is she’s having a good time. At the other end of the scale, prowl about the epic Żelazna Brama tower blocks behind Hala Mirowska to find Warsaw’s saddest mermaid. Unveiled in 1972, it was the only decorative element to be added to the housing estate. Alas, she looks pretty abject with her broken shield and overgrown birdbath.
It would be wrong to presume Warsaw’s icon is just remembered in stone. For years she adorned the badge of the Syrena car. Produced in Poland from 1957 until 1972, the first batch of this nippy motor came with a wooden framework. Yet not all of them were a catastrophe. In 1960 test models of the Syrena Sport were unleashed for test drive. Dubbed ‘the most beautiful car ever manufactured in Poland’ they never saw mass-production after party leader Władsyław Gomułka personally intervened to put the brakes on the project. Deemed too bourgeois for his taste, only a few models survive, among them one to be found in the Palace of Culture’s Museum of Technology.
As lamentable as that is, for ‘the best mermaid you never saw’ then you should listen to this. During his 1948 trip to Warsaw Picasso was taken on a tour of a model housing estate in Koło. Surprising his hosts he climbed a ladder and drew a giant hammer waving mermaid. “My God it was huge,” reported one witness, “her bosoms were like two balloons.” Soon after the completion of the apartment a couple moved in but grew increasingly irritated by the number of fans wanting a glimpse of this private Picasso. At their wits end, they hired a handyman who obliterated all trace. Oh well, it was only a Picasso.