The Legend of the Polish White Eagle
The Story of Lech and Gniezno
Many, many years ago, even many centuries ago, there lived in the Polish lands a Duke named Lech. It was long, long ago, and some say it was even before the time of Alexander the Great. Be that as it may, in the land of Poland there was as yet no town of Poznan, nor of Kruszwica, nor were there any large cities in Greater Poland. The country was wild, with few people; men lived together in small communities, greatly fearing the savage Goths who invaded them from the West and the wild Huns who came in from the East. Death and desolation came in the wake of these invaders, and the peaceful, agricultural Slavs were obliged to become warriors, that they might defend their homes and families from destruction.
Lech was the first Duke of Poland. He it was who first established a Dukedom on the soil of Poland and assumed the leadership of the Western Slavs. He united the tribes, and from the time of his reign, Poland developed and grew prosperous. Better strongholds were built to resist the raids of the savage neighbours, the fields were tilled and hides were cured, and with the arrival of more settled times, men grew more civilised and turned to the making of pottery, agricultural implements and furniture, the pattern and style of which has changed but little, and even to-day utensils can be seen in use, very similar to those which were used in the time of Lech.
In order to ensure the defence of his country against invasion, Lech kept a strong army. This was well-equipped, well trained and vast. It covered itself with glory and indeed the name of Lech, its captain became so famous throughout the world, that his fiefs were called Lechici, and the Muscovites often called the Poles Lachi, and the Turks named Poland Lechistan, or the country of Lech. His power stretched over so wide an area of country that the Hungarian Lengyel also almost certainly comes from Lech.
The Duke was in every way an outstanding man. He was very tall and broad sholdered, and such was his strength that he could wield a battleaxe which ordinarily took two men to lift. He was handsome, with fair hair, blue eyes, and well-defined, acquiline features. Not only was he a fearless warrior, he was also a wise ruler and, unlike most men of his stamp, had a taste for learning. He had this in common with most princes: he loved hunting, and his leisure was generally devoted to the sport. As in battle, he led the field, and always claimed the first stroke at bear or boar, when the beast was brought to bay. He had a true, brave heart and valued courage in another, be it man or beast.
Lech also loved falconry, and had many goshawks and peregrine falcons, some of which he had trained himself. He had tried to train a young buzzard, but the bird, after giving great promise, had died. The Duke had expressed the wish to train an eagle, and though his falconers had advised him that it was impossible, he still persisted in hoping that he might capture and train a young golden eagle, for he thought that it would be swifter and stronger, in the flight after its quarry, than any goshawk.
One fine spring day, the Duke and his court went hawking. A goodly company set forth from the castle, each one mounted, and each dressed in the green hunting habit which Lech had commanded should be worn by all those who joined the chase with him. The Duke rode at the head of the cavalcade, with his favourite hawk on his wrist, closely followed by his Master of the Hunt. He seemed to be in thoughtful mood, and paid little heed to the conversation which was taking place around him. Then without preamble, he gave his bird to the Master of the Hunt, saying curtly, "I would be alone"; and, setting spurs to his horse, he galloped off. His company were surprised and troubled, but no man attempted to follow the Duke, for sometimes he was given to strange moods and at such times it was better not to approach him.
Lech urged his steed forward, he knew not why, but feeling an irresistible desire to reach a hill which he espied in the distance. After galloping a while, he reached it, and reining in his steed, looked around him. At first he could discern nothing, but soon he perceived a nest, perched on a rocky crag. It was the nest of a white eagle, who sat with her young around her. She was a noble bird, with curved beak and powerful talons, and wings to bear her aloft in strong and graceful flight. This was the eagle that Lech had dreamed to possess; this was the bird which would make falconry a delight, which would rouse the envy of every prince in Europe and beyond. He resloved to capture one of the young, take it home to his castle, and train it with all the care and skill at his command. What a rare prize this would be ! What pleasure lay in store for him if he could but obtain one of those eaglets!
He leapt from his horse and climbed towards the nest. The white eagle watched him intently, while her fledgelings, surprised by the approach of a stranger, crept under her wings. Lech shouted and waved his arms, thinking to frighten the bird from her nest, but she stirred not. The Duke came nearer, and put forth his hand, and the eagle, with a swift movement, pecked him as though in warning. But Lech heeded her not. Reaching for his dagger, he held it aloft, so that the bird must wound herself if she approached him too near. With his hand, he again attempted to grasp one of the eaglets, but the mother-bird was upon him once more and this time neither Duke nor bird escaped unscathed. Lech persisted; he ardently longed for one of the eaglets and was loath to abandon a prize which he thought he could capture with ease. The struggle continued. Lech, using his dagger more freely, was making desperate attempts to approach the nest. But he was beaten off by the sharp beak and powerful wings of the mother. The eagle had been wounded several times, and blood was staining the white feathers with dark, crimson splashes. She defended her nest, and her freedom, and the liberty of her little ones. The Duke's brave and generous heart was touched by this unyielding defence and by this noble courage; and the sight of the blood which trickled down the bird's white breast made him ashamed of his desire to deprive of its' freedom, the offspring of so valiant a mother. He turned away abruptly, and descended the hill, deep in thought. A brave bird, who spilt her blood for her freedom and for that of her eaglets!
Then Lech sat down at the foot of the hill and looked at the scene before him. As far as his eye could reach stretched the fair lands of Poland, his country that he loved with all his heart. Would he not defend her, just as the eagle had defended her nest? And the thought came to him: let that brave, white eagle become the badge of Poland, let her be the token of freedom for which all those worthy of the name of Pole should shed their blood, and the eagle's blood be the symbol of bravery. Poland is immortal; so shall the White Eagle be immortal. Thus to this day, on the shield and banner of Poland, is blazoned the white eagle on a crimson field.
And the place was pleasing to Duke Lech. He loved that hill where he had found the eagle's nest and which still bears his name. He took his counsellors to the spot and showed them, saying, "Let us build our nests here, as do the eagles"! So a castle was built, and then a city, and it was called "Gniezno", which, in in the Polish of those days, meant "nest". And in those far-off times Gniezno became a fair city, and was the capital of Lech's Dukedom, lying on the hillside which bears his name.
The White Eagle has always been on the banners of Poland and when, as has occured many times in history, Poland has been attacked, her sons have defended her no less bravely than the eagle who long ago shed her blood in the defence of freedom.
From the book Old Polish Legends
as retold by F.C.Anstruther
171 Madison Avenue, New York, USA.