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Polish legends: The Holy Cross / Bald Mountain in Poland - tales about the mountain’s pagan past and tragic history of the Christian monastery

The stone figure [pictured 1st] is one of the main attractions in the village of Nowa Słupia, standing close to the entrance to the Świętokrzyski (Holy Cross) National Park that covers the highest ridge of the Holy Cross Mountains (Góry Świętokrzyskie) in central Poland, one of the oldest mountain ridges in Europe.

According to local legends, the statue was once a knight. During a pilgrimage to the monastery that is located on top of the highest Holy Cross Mountain, he heard bells ringing from afar. Full of vanity, he smirked: “They toll in my honor!”, thus was punished and turned into stone. The legends also say that he’s still trying to reach the monastery and moves forward at a pace of one grain of sand per year and when he will eventually reach the monastery, the end of the world will come.

The mountain shares many other interesting stories. It was once an important pagan cult centre, most likely a place of pilgrimages dedicated to three Polish Slavic gods, what is specified in e.g. the manuscript “Annales seu cronici incliti regni Poloniae" written by the 15th-century chronicler Jan Długosz. He described it also as an ancient fortress which could have been built only by giants, due to the great size of the stones left on the hill. Local legends were also telling about a fearless woman who had a castle there and defended it with great courage, but after the victory she demanded to be worshipped as a goddess Dziewanna (Slavic equivalent of the Roman goddess Diana) and because of that she and the whole castle were destroyed by lightnings (which in the older versions of the legend might have been the Slavic god Perun), leaving only huge stones behind.

After the Christianisation of Poland, the old cult centre was being slowly abandoned and eventually a Benedictine Monastery [pictured 3rd] was founded on the hill around 11th century. It is one of the oldest of Polish monasteries and an important place of pilgrimages for the Catholics. The name of the monastery, the hill and the whole Świętokrzyskie Province come from the old story telling about a fragment from Christ’ Cross (Holy Cross - Święty Krzyż) which was supposedly enshrined in the monastery, gifted to the Polish king by St. Emeric of Hungary. 

The monastery’s history is very turbulent, just like the whole history of Poland. The complex was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the past millenium and its golden age is long over. The worst phases of destruction came with 19th century and the Partitions of Poland, after the Russian Empire took over the region. At first the monastery became an isolated place for the priests and monks opposing the secular authorities and in the second half of the century large part of the ruined complex was converted into a prison to hold the opponents of the Russian Tsar’s regime. It was said to be the worst prison on the territory of occupied Poland, but there are no precise sources to estimate how many Poles might have been kept there until the World War I. After 1918 Poland had regained independence and begun renovating the complex, heavily damaged by the Austro-Hungarian army, though a part of it was still being used as a prison by the new Polish government, holding many “criminals, spies, nationalists and communists” (up to 800 in total over the 1920s and 1930s). During the World War II the area was conquered again, this time by Nazi Germany, who bombed the complex and later used it as an execution site of the Soviet prisoners of war - it is nowadays estimated that around 7000-8000 people perished here in the early 1940s, killed by the Nazi troops. Since the end of the war the complex is a site of a Catholic missionary congregation again (who were brought here already a few years before the war for that purpose) and the buildings are being painstakingly reconstructed by the Poles - again.

Even though the mountain is called Święty Krzyż (Holy Cross) by many, a much older name Łysa Góra (literally: Bald Mountain) had survived, along with many folk stories of it being a place of witches’ gatherings. In the folk traditions of many Slavic countries (particularly Poland, Ukraine or Russia, but Lysá Hora can be found e.g. in Czech Republic as well) the notion of a “bald mountain” was strongly connected to the idea of a sabbath and the witches using the “bald” (deforested and stone run) parts of the mountains as scenes for their wild dances. Poland itself has over 30 mountains and hills called “Łysa Góra” and 6 called “Łysica”.

The only parts reminding about the ancient cult centre on the Holy Cross Mountain are the remnants of a mysterious U-shaped wall surrounding the higher parts of the mountain, with length of about 1.5 km (c. 0.93 miles), coming from 8th-10th centuries. According to archaeologists, the construction of the wall was stopped unfinished around the time of the baptism of Poland (late 10th century), thus it’s often thought of as having ritual purposes.

On pictures:

  1. The stone figure of a “knight”, 1960s [source
  2. An old postcard from the Holy Cross Mountains [source]
  3. The Holy Cross monastery with a transmitter station in the 1990s [source]

[stare historie o Łysej Górze po polsku]

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