Before the 18th century, Slovakia had no literary language. Without any way of writing stories down, Slovaks were reliant on the word of mouth to ensure that their rich and varied folklore was passed down. As folklore is often inspired by the surroundings and lives of those telling it, in this beautiful land along the Danube, with its unforgiving forests, imposing mountains and haunted castles, it’s no surprise that many of the most famous slovak folk tales deal with the uncanny or the supernatural. Many of the key themes of these tales are loyalty, family and love, and as such, it is possible to gain an insight into the culture of Slovakia, and the historic values of the country, especially given that most of the stories have a clear moral.
One of Slovakia’s most famous folk stories is that of Juraj Jánošík – the Slovak version of Robin Hood. Naturally, he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. According to legend, he was only caught because an old woman threw peas on the floor and he slipped on them. He was imprisoned and tortured before being executed by being pierced through the heart, and strung up by a hook placed through the wound. The legend of Juraj is actually based in fact – he was a soldier in the revolt from 1703-11 against the Habsburg monarchy who were trying to gain more control over Slovakia. He left the army in 1711 and became a bandit until his execution in 1713. This story experienced a revival during the 20th century, and Juraj’s life has since been the inspiration for many films and books.
Other Slovak folk tales such as the fox and the golden egg, show the importance of trust and care in Slovak culture. In this story, a crow cries out that she is dying and that her three eggs need to be looked after. A bear and an eagle take two of the eggs, and eat them. The fox, who the crow did not want to look after her eggs, was the only one who cared for the egg, until it hatched. This story shows how the Slovaks value doing the right thing above all else.
In the Three Roses, a father goes on a long voyage. He offers to bring back each of his three daughters a gift – two ask for expensive dresses and jewels, the third asks for a rose branch with three flowers. The older sisters mock the youngest for her simple choice of gift. On his journey, however, the father is unable to find the roses his youngest daughter asked for. Various misfortunes befall the father on his journey, and he loses the expensive gifts for two of his daughters. Eventually, in a castle, he finds a rose tree with three flowers growing on a branch. He picks it and a bear appears, threatening him for having stolen from the castle. In return, he is forced to send his youngest daughter to the castle. She goes to live with the bear, despite her two sisters mocking her, and the two eventually become friends. One day, the youngest daughter finds the bear dying, and kisses him in order to save him. He turns into a handsome prince, and of course, the pair live happily ever after. This story teaches of the value of humility, and kindness.
There are far more examples of wonderful Slovak folk tales, but so little time or space to go in to them all. From these stories, which have been passed down for generations, you can get a clear insight into the Slovak people and their key values – humility, kindliness and a sense of camaraderie.
By Charlotte Brett