All men have to learn
This is shrouded in myth. The story of Sarka and the war between Czech men and women fifteen hundred years ago was first written down in the eleventh century, and historians are divided over whether there is any truth in it.
Some say that the story is based on the ancient tales of the Amazonian warriors, while others say that it may have its roots in a pagan matriarchal society that predated the arrival of Christianity in Bohemia by thousands of years. We will probably never know the truth, but in much the same way as the tale of Robin Hood in Britain, Divoka Sarka has become part of Czech culture, and was used during the Czech National Revival to boost the role of Czech folklore in the Czech Lands…
To find the roots of the legend of Divoka Sarka, we need to go back to the sixth century, or perhaps the seventh century, no-one knows for sure. It was a time when Prague didn’t even exist. There were several settlements of the Slavic tribe, the Czechs, who had recently settled in the country, in what are now the suburbs of Prague. But the centre of Prague as we know it now was completely unsettled. The main settlement in the area, according to most historians, was in a narrow valley which today bears the name Divoka Sarka, to the west of today’s city centre. At this time, or so legend has it, the Czechs were a matriarchal society, and were ruled by women for many generations. The last of these matriarchal rulers was Libuse.
For when she died, says Vaclav Ledvinka, the director of Prague’s city archives, the country’s men made their own bid for power: “When Libuse died, the matriarchal system of power came to an end, and a patriarchal system was introduced, with the arrival of Prince Premysl, the forefather of the Premyslid dynasty, which later ruled the Czech Lands for several hundred years. The women were apparently furious at this change, and this led to a civil war between Czech women and men.“
The war between the men and women was vicious and long. The women were led by a fierce and fabled warrior, Vlasta. But the main role in the legend belongs not to Vlasta, but to Sarka:“Libuse’s right-hand woman in the war against the men was a young girl named Sarka. She decided that the best way to inflict the greatest loss on their opponents was to entrap their bravest and strongest fighter, a young man named Ctirad, using feminine wiles, and then kill him.” Sarka and Ctirad arranged a rendezvous in what is now the Divoka Sarka valley. According to the legend, Sarka then applied her feminine charms to Ctirad, with a little bit of help from some alcohol: “Sarka proceeded to get Stirad drunk with mead, which was the favourite drink of most Slavs at that time, he fell in love with her, but being drunk he fell asleep. While he lay sleeping in her arms, Sarka, so the legend says, murdered him.”
The murder of Ctirad was apparently a great blow to the male opponents of Vlasta’s warriors, and for a while the loss of their greatest fighter helped the women to continue their fight, but only for a short while. In the end, the women lost the war, and a patriarchal, feudal system, under the rule of Premysl, and later on the Premyslid dynasty, was installed. Rather than surrender to the men, so the legend says, Sarka decided to take her own life, and jumped off a cliff in the Divoka Sarka valley. Today, one of the rock formations in the valley is called Divci Skok, or Girl’s Jump, as this is, according to some, the site of her suicide.
Whether or not Libuse, Vlasta, Sarka or Ctirad were ever real figures in Czech history, will probably never be known, as, says Vaclav Ledvinka, there’s no proof that the war ever took place: “There is no historical or archaeological evidence to suggest that the war ever happened. It is a piece of mythology that was most likely created in the eleventh, or at the beginning of the twelfth century by the chronicler Cosmos, based on the ancient Greek tale of the Amazon warriors and the war against the Amazons.”
The majority of Czech historians today believe that the legend of Divoka Sarka is entirely down to the chronicler Cosmos, who was the first to write a history of Bohemia, and that there was no matriarchal society in the Czech Lands in the sixth century. They dismiss the story as merely a rehashing of the Amazonian tale, which is not to be taken seriously.
But, as with almost every period in history, says Vaclav Ledvinka, there are a few dissenting voices:“There are some historians who have, in my opinion, a somewhat fertile imagination. They claim that this women’s war could actually be a throwback to a much older historical fact, that early on, in prehistoric times, there could have been a matriarchal society, that women had primacy, and that they were overthrown by men. This could be true, but then the same could be said about the ancient Greeks. So it seems most likely that Cosmos took the basis for the tale of Sarka and Ctirad from those ancient texts.”
But the importance of the tale of Divoka Sarka may not lie in whether or not it has any historical basis, but in what it meant for the Czech people during the Czech National Revival. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, the Czech language, culture and folklore were gradually replaced by those of Austria. German was spoken in towns and cities, and Czech became relegated to villages and hamlets. It was not until towards the end of the eighteenth century that a group of Czech patriots set out to re-establish Czech as a language and to renew the idea of a Czech nation, and tales like that of Divoka Sarka played an important role in this process:“During the Czech National Revival, all of these old tales and legends were romanticised to emphasise Czech culture and history. They were written into books, operas were made out of them and thus they became part of our national consciousness and cultural heritage. There is even a symphonic poem written by our national composer, Bedrich Smetana, called Sarka in honour of this tale, which shows how important it was during the nineteenth century to be aware of our past.”
Although there is no longer the same pressing need to emphasise Czech culture and heritage, Divoka Sarka still has importance today. The valley named after her is a nature reserve, and from the early spring to late autumn, the people of Prague flock there in their droves, and if you ask any Czech in the city to tell you about Divoka Sarka, they will be able to regale you with tales, of varying descriptions, of how she lured Ctirad to his death. But it’s not just in Prague.
The legend is an integral part of the culture today, and Czechs learn about Sarka from their early childhood: “The tale about Sarka, Ctirad and the women’s war is part of our culture, and is part of the collection of legends that forms part of the foundations of Czech literature. It is taught in schools and everyone knows the story, even younger people, who are not as interested in it as they used to be. Many people go to the Divoka Sarka valley mainly because of the story and because of the romance it lends to the surrounding area.”