The Story of Syrenka - Symbol of Warsaw

23 Jan 2019
Feisty, beautiful and busty. Her image has bewitched millions, and you’ll find her film star looks printed on everything from flags to mags, from buses to beer cans. Who is this godless Jezebel you ask? None other than the Syrenka - the fresh water mermaid who’s been representing Warsaw since before you’d remember. Firmly established as an icon of the Polish capital you’ll find no less than three mermaid statues in Warsaw, specifically on the Old Town Square, Świętokrzyski Bridge and on ul. Karowa. The original mermaid – or 'syrena' in local parlance – stands in the Historical Museum, and was crafted from bronze by the expert hand of Ludwika Nitschowa.

The first known mention of a mermaid as the symbol of Warsaw can be traced to a royal seal dated from 1390, though this one certainly wasn’t much to look at; depicting a hideous looking bloke with a dragons tail was as close as you’d come to seeing a marketing blooper in medieval times, so it’s no surprise that over the next few centuries this rather grim form was given a bit of plastic surgery – man was turned into woman, and the dragon became a fish.

The legend has been debated and disputed scores of times, and it’s safe to say short of inventing time travel we’re not going to become any of the wiser. Until that time content yourselves instead by familiarising yourself with the myth. First off is the one you’ll find espoused within these humble pages; Prince Kazimierz, while hunting in the marshlands that are now Warsaw, lost his bearings and faced a night in the open. Miraculously, a mermaid emerged and guided the prince to safety by firing burning arrows into the sky. Warsaw was founded out of gratitude, and the mermaid adopted as its emblem.

Story B, however, suggests that the Warsaw mermaid originally hailed from foreign climes. Accompanied by her twin sister the pair swam across the Baltic Sea, arriving in Gdańsk. Here the sisters split, one swimming to Copenhagen and the other down the Wisła, finally wriggling out of the bit of water bordering the old town. Local fishermen soon noticed someone tampering with their nets, freeing the fish in the process, and teamed up to catch this pesky vandal once and for all. They soon changed their minds once they saw her, and her siren like singing voice soon made her a firm favourite among the lads. All except for one, a greedy merchant who decided to trap her and take her on tour, Elephant Man-style, round the sideshows of Poland. His plan was soon foiled though after the son of a fisherman heard her haunting voice wailing from a shed. Alerted to her kidnap the fisherman hatched a daring plan to free her, and in thanks to the townspeople who rescued her the Syrenka swore to make it her life's mission to protect Warsaw. It’s this defensive stance of hers which explains why you’ll see her armed to the teeth with a sword and shield.

Finally, you’ve got a third story to believe: back in ancient times the city was defended by a noble griffin who would frequently accompany fishermen on their forays to the Baltic. It was during one such journey he met a mermaid. Love took its course and she returned to Warsaw where the two lived happily in the company of the locals. When the Swedes invaded Poland the griffin was mortally wounded during the siege of Warsaw, and it was left to the Syrenka to pick up his arms and join the defence of the city. Out of gratitude the people of Warsaw chose to appoint her as the icon of the town, placing her image on the city coat of arms.
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