The Legend of Walther and Wisuav

We have previously presented some of the legendary tales from the various chronicles of the Slavs.  These included the legends of:

Another legend is that of Walther of Tyniec (and Wisuav of Wislica) found in the Greater Poland Chronicle (also known as Boguphal’s Chronicle).

Tyniec is a former village about seven miles southwest of Cracow center (it’s now been incorporated into Cracow).

Tyniec Benedictine Abbey

Wislica is a town on the River Nida northeast of Cracow on the road to Sandomierz.

Wislica fort – courtesy of the local museum and of Google

This story bears a resemblance to the various Walther sagas of Western Europe.  In most Polish versions the protagonist is referred to as Walgierz.  The curious fact that this should have been Walcerz but may have been influenced by a reference in the Chronicle of Regino of Pruem speaking of a certain Walager we’ve already discussed here – where we also pointed out the identification of that Walager with Theodoric the Great.

That last one’s “adventures” became the adventures of  Didrik af Bern (Dietrich of Verona) and also happen to contain a bridal drama.  Curiously, the Dietrich von Bern saga contains references to Osantrix the king of the Wilzen (Wilzenkoenig) or Osantrix von Wilzenland which is clearly a reference to the Veleti.  The fact that we know from Ptolemy that: “Back from the Ocean, near the Venedicus bay, the Veltae dwell, above whom are the Ossi” makes these references all the more curious.

Another curious fact is that Thomas Nugent in his “The History of Vandalia” mentions no less than three Vandalic king by the name Wisislaus (an idea of uncertain provenance). This is the same name as Wisuav or Wislaw.

Some Slavs, some Germans

About some of the similarities between all these tales you can read in “Origin and Development of the Walther Saga” by Marion Dexter Learned PMLA Vol. 7, No. 1, The Saga of Walther of Aquitaine (1892), pp. 131-195 (published by the Modern Language Association).

Here is the tale – for ease of use we use the name spelling Walther and Wisuav.

The Legend of Walther and Wisuav
Or Of the Betrayal of the Town of Wislica

“In those days there was in the kingdom of the Lechites a very famous town, surrounded by tall walls, called Wislica.  Back then, in heathen times, its lord was Wisuav the Fair who was descended from the clan of King Pompilius [Popiel].  A certain lord, who also came from the same family, great in strength, by the name of Walther the Strong, who in Polish was called Walther the Comely and who held the town of Tyniec in the vicinity of Cracow where these days there is the abbey of Saint Benedict founded by Casimir the Monk [Kazimierz Mnich or Casimir the Restorer – Odnowiciel] the king of Poles, that is of Lechites, took him [that is Walther took Wisuav captive] in some campaign, threw him into prison and ordered that he be held under close guard in the depths of the Tyniec tower.”

Wisuav was in the one on the right

“This Walther had for his wife a certain noble lady, by the name of Helgunda, the betrothed of the son of a certain duke of the Alemans and who was also the daughter of the king of the Franks; whom, as they say, he secretly spirited away to Poland at great personal danger.”

“For when the son of that certain duke of the Alemans – in order to learn good manners – was being raised at the court of the Frankish king – the father of the aforesaid Helgunda – Walther, a man who was clever and crafty, seeing that the princess Helgunda returned the feelings of the son of the duke of Alemannia, on a certain night climbed the walls of the town, paid off the guard such that this one should not reveal him [or his name] and sang so loud and sweet that the princess awoke and hearing the sweet sound of his voice, came out of bed and, together with other maidens, forgetting about her nightly rest, she listened for as long as the singer intoned his melodious voice.”

Walther’s serenades were irresistible

“And when morning came, Helgunda ordered to bring in front of her the guard and urgently queried him who it had been [that gave the concert].  This one, did not dare to name Walther, assuring her that he knew not who the singer was.  But when the young Walther during the two subsequent nights, from a hidden place proceeded as before [to serenade], Helgunda unable to withstand this, with threats and intimidation tried to force the guard to reveal the singer[‘s name].  And because he nevertheless refused to do so, she ordered him put to death.  Thus, when the guard confessed that it had been Walther signing, she burning with hot love, succumbed completely to his [Walther’s] wishes, completely spurning the Aleman prince.”

Walther & Helgunda’s escape

“The Aleman prince seeing thus that Helgunda had foully rejected him and that in his place in the game of love she chose Walther, burning with great wrath at Walther returned to his father, and had all the crossings over the river Rhine be held and guarded such that no one should traverse it without paying a gold price for the ferrying across.  And when some time had passed, Walther and Helgunda see an opportunity to flee and escape upon the long-awaited day.  But when, in accordance with their plans, they arrive at the Rhine shore, the boat masters demand a golden price for the crossing but receiving it, they refuse the crossing until the Aleman prince should arrive.  Seeing that the delay brings danger, [Walther] gets on a mighty horse, orders Helgunda to sit behind him and spurring the horse into the river, crosses it faster than an arrow.  And when he had left Rhine somewhat behind, he hears behind him the pursuing Aleman’s voice: ‘Foul traitor!  So, you have skulked away with the king’s daughter and crossed the Rhine without paying the duties!  Halt now and stand so that I can duel you – and he that should triumph shall keep the horse, the arms and too Helgunda.'”

“Walther, fearlessly answers as follows: ‘Tis a lie, what you say, for I have given the boatmen their gold and the princess i did not take by force but made her my companion for she willingly wanted to come with me.’  And after these words they boldly strike each other with spears.  And when these shatter, they fight with swords testing their manly prowess.  The Aleman seeing Helgunda stand in front of him, aroused by her glances, forced Walther backwards until, that is,  this one retreating cast his eyes on Helgunda.”

The Aleman proved more of an annoyance than any serious challenge to Walther

“And seeing her he halted, filled both with the greatest shame as well as with limitless love for her.  Regaining his strength he boldly charged at the Aleman and immediately killed him.  Then, taking his horse and arms, he set out home to his fatherland, twice honoured by the happy and  praiseworthy victory [that is, the winning of Helgunda and the defeat of the prince of the Alemani].  Arriving at the town of Tyniec after successfully navigating many adventures in his travels, he spent some time in rest so as to regain his strength.”

“It was there that he learned from the complaints of his people that Wisuav the Fair the duke of Wislica during his [Walther’s] absence caused them certain wrongs.  Having become aware of these, with great regret he challenges Wisuav to avenge them [the wrongs] and eventually he fights him, wins and then, as already, he puts him in chains to be guarded in the dungeon of the Tyniec Castle tower.”

“After some time has passed, he crosses far away lands on military campaigns as is the knightly custom.  And when two years have passed of his absence, Helgunda greatly disturbed by her husband’s absence, felt forced to confide in a certain girl, her confidante, announcing with a downcast face that they are ‘neither wives nor widows’; and by that she meant those [women] who are bound in matrimony with men of an entrepreneurial spirit who seek opportunities for military skirmishes. And her confidante, trying to ease her lady’s miserable wretchedness which she endured so long a time, immediately set aside the shame which comes with betrayal, states that Wisuav, the duke of Wislica [and a man] of a refined appearance and a comely body, beautiful to the eye, sits imprisoned in the tower.”

Usually Helgunda was not so easily impressed but this time was a little different

“And the wretch urges her [Helgunda] to order him removed from the tower during the silence of the night and having satiated herself with the much coveted embraces then to send him back carefully to the tower dungeon.  This one [Helgunda] applauds her confidante’s persuasions, and though frightened of the perilous consequences nevertheless not fearing to wager her life and good name, orders that Wisuav be brought out of the depths of the prison; and upon seeing him she delights in his beauty, filled with great admiration.  And she did not order that he be sent back to the prison dungeon but rather she chose entirely to leave the bed of her own husband and to flee to the town of Wislica with that one with whom she had bonded in friendship and united in an inseparable knot of love. In this manner Wisuav returns to his own town thinking that he had achieved a double victory – though this [victory] in the course of dangerous events was to bring both of them a deadly end.”

“After a short time the returning Walther is asked by his townspeople why is it that, in this moment of [his] joyful return, does Helgunda not rush to his side at the very least to the castle gates.  [It is] from them that he learns how Wisuav, trusting in the help of the guards, carried Helgunda with him.  Himself imbued with terrible wrath, he immediately hurries to Wislica and without fear for himself or his fate in unexpected adventures, he suddenly enters the town of Wislica at a time when Wisuav outside the town was busy on a hunt.”

“Helgunda seeing him in the city rushes quickly towards him and falling face down in front of him she complains that Wisuav kidnapped her by force.  She urges Walther to enter an out of the way part of the dwelling promising that if he so desires, she will forthwith bring Wisuav there so that he [Walther] should seize him.  Trusting this fraudster and ensnared by the deceptive persuasions he enters a fortified chamber, where, due to trickster’s efforts, he falls into Wisuav’s hands.  Joyful are Wisuav and Helgunda, happily applauding this auspicious result which now for the third time brought fortune; they do not ponder how this happiness may come to an end though ones such as these often do happen to be taken by a sad death.  He [Wisuav] did not wish to keep him [Walther] under prison guard but rather he wanted to oppress him with something worse than prison muck.  Instead, he ordered to have him bound in irons to the dining hall’s wall, with arms outstretched, with his neck and feet completely straight.  To the same hall he ordered be brought a bed in which during summer time he and Helgunda would lie devoting themselves to love’s pleasures.”

Walther’s anguish knew no limit

“[But] Wisuav had a sister of his own blood whom no one wanted to take as wife by reason of her ugly looks.  Her watchfulness did Wisuav trust more than that of Walther’s other guards.  But this one greatly sympathizing with Walther’s sufferings, [and] entirely casting aside a maiden’s timidity, asks whether Walther would have her as his wife should she come to his aid in his misfortune by freeing him from his chains.  He solemnly swears and confirms the same with a promise that so long as he should live, he will give her marital love and will not fight with his sword against her brother Wisuav, as per her wishes; and asks her to take his sword from her brother’s bedchamber and to bring it here forth so as to cut away his fetters with it.  [And] she, bringing the sword, then in accordance with Walther’s command cut away the peg at the very end on each of the iron cuffs and the sword she placed between Walther’s back and the wall so that he could remove himself at an opportune moment.  And he waits till noontime of the next day.”

Wisuav’s sister with friends

“And when Wisuav with Helgunda reveled in their embraces in the dining hall bed, Walther, uncustomary, speaks to them with these words: ‘How would you feel, should you gaze upon me in front of your bed, freed from my binds, holding my melodious sword in my hands and threatening to take revenge for [your] crimes?’  At his words, Helgunda’s heart stopped and shivering she spoke to Wisuav: ‘Oh woe my lord!  I had not seen your sword in the bedroom but engrossed by your kisses I forgot to mention this to you.’  At this Wisuav replied: ‘Even had he ten swords to aid him, without the adroitness of smiths he would not be able to rip apart his irons.’  When they so spoke with one another, they note that Walther, free of his chains, jumps forth and brandishing his sword stands by their bed; and soon tossing curses at them, raises his sword hand high and drops WIsuav’s own sword onto them both; this falling cuts both in the middle.  And so each of them ended their miserable life in an even more miserable manner.  And this Helgunda’s tomb, forged in a rock is to this day shown in Wislica town to all those who wish to see it.”

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May 9, 2017

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