Stories and legends

In not so distant times, the people and nature lived in a much closer symbiosis than today. The ancient knowledge and beliefs about the nature and its amazing creatures were told by one generation to another, and those stories were most often connected to the region where those people lived, the region they knew well. Even though the way of life has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and the people turned to lowlands with their professions, Medvednica and its stories remain an inseparable part of their reality. Older people still gladly tell those stories and legends, good and bad things that happened to them, their cousins or acquaintances on the mountain. The stories of Medvednica’s “coprnice” (evil witches), fairies and fairly caverns, mysterious bonfires which would light up and go out by themselves in the middle of the mountain, enchanted plants, animals and snake dens, treasures buried under the wooden cities of known and unknown rulers… Those stories are a constituent part of our mountain’s identity so many of them remained embedded in Medvednica’s toponyms and in the memory of inhabitants of settlements and villages under Sljeme.

Stories from the enchanted woods

Medvednica’s forests have always been very important for the lives of its people. The saying “In the spring I relax you, in the summer I cool you, in the autumn I feed you, and in the winter I warm you” is still well known today. Medvednica’s forests have until recently done all that for the inhabitants of villages under Sljeme. That is where they collected firewood, knowing exactly which wood burns the best and which is the best for making charcoal; in the spring they picked young green vegetables full of vitamins so desperately needed after long winter, in the summer they picked strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, and in the autumn they picked mushrooms and bountiful chestnuts, pomegranates, hazelnuts, Cornelian cherries…

However, people always went into the forest with caution and awe, because they believed many magical creatures lived there, benevolent to those who respect their world, and ruthless to those who don’t recognize it or who harm it. People’s imagination often saw a small forest man called Mucko or Žirek in branches, leaves and floral bushes, who uses mossy stonecrop flower juice to become invisible and merge with the unique shape of the forest. He doesn’t like inquisitive people following him and would always lure the reckless forest visitors to the wrong track, so they would get lost in the forest. Oak forests were considered particularly magical, especially if any type of bellflowers grew in them, because all flowers with bells attract fairies. In early spring, when the snow starts to melt, the elves are also awakened from their winter sleep, and new elves are born from the newly opened bells. The flowers guards those fragile creatures with their lovely scent which causes weird dreams and visions at night, and pushes humans into deep sleep so it’s best to stay away from forests and oak crowns when the bellflowers appear. Some of those fairies have their own weapons: the beautiful hellebore fairy and the tiny lily fairy are amongst the most poisons creatures of the whole fairy world! Some white mushrooms that appear at dawn in a wide ring around the forest meadows and glades where the fairies dance in a round at night can also be poisonous. If the good fairies were in the round, a meal made of those mushrooms feeds the body and protects the man from disease; if the fairies in the round were bad, the meal can even be lethal!

The fairies showered the region they lived in and the people who respected and understood them with many gifts. In dry summers they would call the rain, and would always leave food at the door of poor people, until difficult times passed. They were especially caring towards children who became orphans. They would teach these children the fairy language and discover the secrets of their world to them. The gardens and orchards they visited at night would always have lots of fruits for the people and the fairies, and if someone chased them away from their garden, the garden would never give lots of fruits again.

Just like the people belong under the sun, it was believed the fairies belong under the moon. That is why it is better not to go into the forest or mountain at night, as not to disturb those fragile creatures of darkness, who were often cruel to those who didn’t abide by their rules. And if we accidently see them, we should keep down our heads and continue to walk our way without disturbing them. Even though the golden age of fairies is long gone, we can still find traces of the most faithful ones who still guard the natural world with their magical powers. On old meadows and pastures where there are still fairies we can find the intertwined hairs of dodder (Cuscuta sp.), a parasite plant that according to a legend grows where a fairy’s hair falls on the ground. The fairy’s hair then continues to grow and wrap itself around other plants and grasses, and in the spring it sprouts white flowers.

One could even say that these beliefs were one of the first forms of nature protection – it was often said that some people would get terrible headache, nausea, insomnia, even sickness, if they brought home picked wild flowers. This was attributed to these tiny creatures who would be brought under someone’s roof together with the flowers, and who would then scream with their voice but the people could not hear those screams, even though they were destructive to their peace and health.

Whether you believe in these stories or not, do not pick early spring bell-shaped flowers on Medvednica. Even though sometimes it seems there is so many of them, those plants are endangered, and many of them are protected, so apart from the fairy’s curse, those plants might get you a fine. Also, watch out how you behave in forests – with excess noise, cutting woods, throwing rubbish and polluting the environment you could chase the fairies away forever, also chasing away all the blessings they bring into the region they inhabit.

Did you know?

Yew is considered to be one of the most magical plants on Medvednica. This noble conifer can reach very old age – the age of the biggest yew trees in Croatia is estimated to be more than 2000, and in Scotland there is a yew tree that is even 5000 years old! The legend says that little Pontius Pilate, whose father served as an officer near Fortingall, played near that yew tree. Objects made of hard yew wood are very durable: the oldest preserved wooden object found in Europe is a tip of an arrow made of yew which is 50.000 years old. Slow growth and excess exploitation of its appreciated wood are the most significant reasons this plant is endangered in nature. On the other hand, yew is one of the most cultivated plants in the cities because it tolerates pollution well.

Yew is one of rare conifers that can regenerate itself by drooping branches form cut trees. Maybe this ability is the reason yew is given magical powers in many parts of the world. In some parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina it is believed yew chases away curses and evil spirits, so cradles and sticks for casting spells were made of yew wood. This tradition has continued in fantasy literature: the evil wizard Voldemort from the Harry Potter books has a magical stick made of yew wood!

Medvednica’s coprnice

In ancient times, before the arrival of Christianity to our lands, the people worshipped gods of Nature, as their lives were completely dependent on them. Mother Earth gave and took away life, and her temper was interpreted by talented priestesses – women who were skilled in all knowledge about nature. People respected them as they were afraid of their powers. They used them to win over the mighty powers of nature, and they taught people how to live with them.

But the times changed; new rulers and new armies came into our mountains, and with them came new beliefs. The ancient priestesses were prosecuted and humiliated, so many of them went into hiding, not giving up on their ancient knowledge, oftentimes using black magic and enchantment to survive in the new world which haunted them and called them witches – or as we here say – “coprnice”.

Living in the shadow for centuries, “coprnice” took on many features of the creatures of darkness and the people who used to respect them started to fear them, avoid them and blame them for many evils that happened to the people. The list of evil characteristics that were ascribed to them seemed endless: “coprnice” allegedly met regularly in the forests of Medvednica, where they would go wild and bring young girls from the village to “note them with the devil”, right there on Medvednica. The places that were to be avoided, especially at night, were crossroads, wells, bridges and small stream dams, where the women washed the laundry during the day, and where “coprnice” would meet at night, dressed in black rags, with faces covered with scarfs, so that no one would recognize them. If some accidently had to pass by, the wisest thing to do would be to keep their head down and pass without saying a word. If some village hero dared to see these witches, recognize any of them and call her by her name, there was no salvation to him – the called-out witch would curse him and his family, and against such a curse there usually was no cure. That is why crosses were placed on many crossroads, to chase the witches away, but the safest thing to do was to stay at home when the night falls and when the mysterious creatures of darkness take over the world. The most important gathering of witches was in the summer solstice night, when they would gather around crosses and light fire, getting ready to fly to the mountain of Klek. Those who didn’t know how to fly would ride horses and mules, which were thought to be enchanted people who would find a witch along the road accidently that night. For this reason children jump over fire in the summer solstice night: the fire protects them from the witch’s curses, and the men shoot at the sky with blessed gunpowder which chases the witches away and knocks them down from the air. That was particularly dangerous for witches who applied the magic of invisibility: when such a witch fell to the ground, no one would be able to find her, so she could easily die on the forest ground. Bright red mushrooms called “the witch’s heart” would grow for a long time on such places, because they were the only ones who could degrade a dry and hard witch’s heart.

By crossing over to the dark side of natural forces, many witches had a feud with forest fairies and fairy creatures. In the spring they would seed bellflowers and lure the fairies, and then they would pick the flowers and sell it on markets to naive buyers, giving them dangerous fairy magic.

Even though“coprnice” may have crossed over to the evil side, they knew how to make medicines and cure serious illnesses and curses, so almost every family had a strange old aunt who was skilled in this ancient knowledge.  Although everyone avoided them, people respected them and came to them for help in many strange situations when evils curses were suspected.

Despite all the terrible stories about the witches who “copraju” people in forests and villages, people with pure hearts and scruples needn’t fear the witches. They only have power over those who wish to usurp something that doesn’t belong to them – the witches then see such people as rivals and  would want to enchant and destroy them.

Did you know?

The forests of Medvednica hide many other stories and inexplicable phenomena. Allegedly, during dark nights it is possible to see a weird shiny flame wrapping some tree crowns. The villagers call this phenomenon “divlji ogenj” (wild flame), and old people say that “the devil showed himself” and that the “devil’s teeth are shining”. If a green flame would appear on the meadows and fields, the people said that it was the treasure the devils had buried there. If someone wanted to dig out that treasure, he needed great courage and knowledge, because the devils were cruel to the people they caught stealing their money.

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Crna Kraljica (Black Queen)

In ancient times, one unhappy young queen liven on Medvedgrad. She was married off as a young girl to the mighty Hungarian king Sigismund. She was very beautiful, but also very cruel. She had long black hair, she rode a wild black horse and always wore black clothes. Her best friend was an evil black raven with a mighty beak and shiny feathers. The raven would attack anyone who did something wrong to the queen, ripping his eyes out and injuring him with sharp clutches. Due to all darkness that surrounded her body and soul, the people started calling her the Black Queen. Many terrible stories can still be heard about her in the villages under Sljeme. Trapped in an early marriage with a mighty king in his fortified castles, the young queen discovered an interest in astrology and alchemy, and she was allegedly in a relationship with the Count Vlad Dracula of Transylvania. She became a vampire. It is said she would take baths in the blood of young girls and boys to stay young and beautiful forever. She caused her husband many problems because of her many lovers, whom she would allegedly throw off a fortress when she would get tired of them. Her name was tied to dark political intrigues and a violent family. Barbara’s father was Herman Celjski, the head of the most power noble family in the region. The Celjski family ruled almost all of Hrvatsko Zagorje, and came into possession of Medvedgrad in the early 15th century. Even though that mountain town was built to protect Kaptol and the surrounding villages from the Tatars, the citizens always feared its cruel rulers who secured the existence of their mountain possession by attacking the surrounding villages and pillaging people. Counts Celjski were no exception. Medvedgrad was ruled by Barbara’s brother Fridrik and his son Ulrik, who made history as the cruellest ruler of Medvedgrad of all times.

However, of all the rulers of Medvedgrad, the people will always remember the Black Queen who allegedly, to save her treasure from the Turks, sold herself and Medvedgrad to the devil! Even though she later regretted her words and wanted to break the fatal agreement, as the legend says, the devil cannot be fooled! So the unfortunate Black Queen died in 1451 of plague, the “black death” of the Middle Ages. But due to the devil’s curse she couldn’t find peace in death either – she turned into a snake queen, and her servant snakes still guard her enormous treasure. The legend says that it is still buried somewhere in Medvedgrad and no expedition or treasure hunters have managed to find it yet.
Even though the Black Queen is in north western Croatia though to be Barbara Celjska, it is not completely sure which medieval queen was called that by her people. Two more queens called Mary also lived on Medvedgrad – the wife of Bela IV, and the first wife of King Sigismund. It is known that both of these queens wore black clothes. In many Croatian regions there are legends about black queens, who were mostly evil women, connected to black magic, intrigues and malice. A rare exception is the Black Queen from Velebit, who created the delightful Plitvice Lakes as a response to the prayers of people who were battered by drought.

Did you know?

The name of Barbara Celjska was involved in one of the most famous legends of Hrvatsko Zagorje. Barbara’s brother Fridrik fell in love with the beautiful Veronika from the noble family Desinić and killed his wife Elizabeta Frankopan to be able to marry Veronika. Barbara hid him from the revenge of the Frankopans, but she couldn’t save him from her own father who threw Fridrik into a dungeon, where the unfortunate lover spent five years. His innocent mistress’ fate was even worse – when the court acquitted her from the accusation of being a witch, the old Count Herman sent killers who drowned her in the small pond of Castle Ojstrica in Slovenia. When he got out of the dungeon, the bitter Fridrik ruled Slavonia in a cruel way, and it is said he wrote his own epitaph: “This is my door to hell. What I will find there I do not know, I know what I leave behind. I have had a bountiful of goods, but I take nothing with me, except what I have eaten, drunk and sucked in by unfailing greed”.