Who Are Wars and Sawa?

December 6, 2008

Wars and Sawa are the legendary characters whom Warsaw took its name from. The legend has so many versions that if we combined them all together we’d come up with twins (one of them a mermaid) in a very insestuous relationship. When seen separately, however, they’re all very proper:

Long time ago, when the Polish countryside was still wild and beautiful, there was a small village on the banks of the Wisła river, inhabited by kind people, who spent all their days occupied with fishing.

One evening, when Wars was collecting his web and fish before going home to retire, he heard a quiet song coming from old willows, the branches of which washed in the river. He sat again and listened. It was a beautiful song. Mysthical. As if not sang by a human being. Wars could not understand the lyrics, but he sensed it was a song about wildness, life, and the beauty of nature. He was mesmerised. So much that he forgot about the world around him.

Suddenly the song stopped. It felt as if a busket of cold water was thrown on his head. Wars realised it was deep night, he had to go back home, across a wild and dangerous forest, to his small house at the end of the village. But anyway, he told himself he would come back the next day. He must hear this song again. And again…

The next evening, when his work was accomplished, Wars sat at the bank of the river and waited.

Suddenly he heard that song. Nearer than the day before. And more beautiful. So beautiful that he had to stand up and go there. Closer to the sound. He must see the owner of the silver voice.

He did not know where he was or how found himself there. Or even what time it was. But finally he saw the singer. It was the most beautiful lady in the world. She had long golden hair, and skin as white as snow. It shined in the moonlight, as did her… fish tail.

When he saw that tail, his first thought was to RUN! But the second one told him to stay.

Unfortunately she heard the rustle of leaves, and disappeared beneath the water.

Wars waited for her every evening, hoping she would come back, but she did not. She must have thought him dangerous.

After several years, when Wars lost all hope and almost forgot his eerie adventure, his ears were reached by the almost forgotten sound. He took his web and hurried to the spot where the song came from. Once more he saw the most beautiful woman in the world. This time he was prepared for her appearance, so he did not move when she exposed her silver tail.
At a convinient moment he caught her into his web. She screamed and cried, trying to escape, but she could not.

Wars took her to his house and began to wonder why actually he caught her. What told him to do that?

Silver tears went down the siren’s face. She looked at him with so much sadness in her blue eyes. “Let me go,” she whispered. “Please, let me go. Why did you do that?”

Wars wondered and wondered, and finally the answer came to him. “Because I love you.”

“If you truly love me, you must let me go. I cannot live without water, without swimming and nature. I will die here, imprisoned.”

“But I cannot live without you.”

“So I will die because you want to have me inside your house? I can come to you and sing every evening, if you want me to. I can defend you and your village so that no harm will come your way. But let me go.”

Wars could not stand her tears anymore. He took her to the river and let her go.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Sawa,” she answered and disappeared in the waters of the Wisła river.

From that day on Sawa sang to Wars and his children, and then their children. And defended them from any danger. Today there is the city of Warsaw in that place, named after the two lovers: WarsSawa.

The city’s coat of arms features a siren with a shield and sword.

The Coat of Arms of Warsaw

The Coat of Arms of Warsaw

Warsaw’s coat of arms includes the order Virtuti Militari, awarded to the city after WWII to honour the bravery of its citizens, and the motto Semper invicta (Always invincible).

For a different and funnier version of the legend, written with expats in mind, go to Warsaw-life.com.

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8 Responses to “Who Are Wars and Sawa?”

  1. [...] Are Wars and Sawa? Posted in December 5th, 2008 by in Uncategorized Who Are Wars and Sawa? Wars realised it was deep night, he had to go back home, across a wild and dangerous forest, to his [...]

  2. island1 said

    Nice peaceful retelling of the story. Before coming to Poland I had never heard of the concept of river mermaids before. It’s hard to get used to the way rivers take the place of the sea in Polish culture.

    • Sylwia said

      When sea is wanting the true philosopher will derive benefit from rivers! There is the idea that she’s the daughter of Neptune and came from Gdańsk, so she’s not so much a river mermaid, but we take her for granted, and only when foreigners question her presence we give any thought to it.

      The English we are sea people attitude is something not realised by Poles in turn. I once read Norman Davies arguing that Poles shouldn’t feel their connection to sea because they didn’t have any for over 100 years at some point. I thought it interesting that he should think so, because to us sea is just sea, one of our borders, without any special meaning (apart from the economical and strategic), while it seemed that to him sea was a serious thing, with no small amount of pride attached to it. In a way I think of Britain more as an isle than a land surrounded by sea, lol. It always takes me a moment to realise that one can’t cross a border there with their feet dry.

  3. mochafueled said

    Very nice blog and wonderful story about Warsaw. I just visited Ian (20 East) and Jamie (Island1) during my recent visit to Poland. I will have to say Warsaw grew on me over my weekend there; noise and chaotic traffic and all. I wish I had read your blog before my trip. But now I understand the fish statue I saw in the little plaza in the Old Town (in front of a large Christmas tree near big Church). Beautifully told. I will drop back to read some more as you post.

  4. Sylwia said

    Hi, I remember reading about your visit at Polandian. I’m glad you liked Warsaw!

    The monument at the Old Town is from the mid-19th century, the siren/mermaid featured here is a pre-war one, but there are more of them to spot in Warsaw. One day I might write more about them all.

  5. mochafueled said

    I guess you could make a sport of spotting the mermaids around town. Depending on what direction my life takes in the next couple of months I may pass through Poland again in May and this time a little more informed.

    I guess you could do a little blog map… kind of like following all the obelisks around Rome.

  6. Canan said

    Thanks for this beautiful legend, it helped me a lot with my translation homework. :)

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