Prague: A Threshold

You may have heard of two magical triangles, one of black, the other of white magic. The origins of that legend are impossible to fathom. The white magic triangle is said to include Lyon, Prague and Turin, while the black one is supposedly composed of San Francisco, London and Turin. Thus Turin is the focal point of both triangles. I have written about this fascinating city and its interplay of light and darkness here. After Lyon, which I wrote about here, it is time to complete the white magic triangle and focus on Prague. Please note that my writing, as always, focuses on myths and legends, which means I do not usually aspire to presenting the so-called historical truth. My focus is on the landscape of the soul.

I. “Since the Middle Ages, Prague had exerted a cultural and political influence that spread far beyond its national borders. The Bohemian capital frequently took center stage in European history, becoming the intellectual focal point of the continent.”

Harald Salfellner, “Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide”

II. “Prague does not let go. This little mother has claws.”

Franz Kafka

III. “And I say: when I seek another word for mystery, the only word I can find is Prague.”

Angelo Maria Ripellino, “Magic Prague”

IV. “Prague is certainly the best place in the world for my music.”


Old Town Square Prague in 19th century with the Church of Our Lady before Týn, via

What makes the city magical? Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance philosopher and scholar, was one of many who attempted to define magic. In Oration on the Dignity of Man, he wrote that magic “embraces the most profound contemplation of the deepest secrets of things and finally knowledge of the whole of nature.” The crucial moment of magic is when heaven, the above, is united with the earth, the below. There are certain places where the distinction between the above and below seems to be obliterated. We can speak here of special places of power. Prague has a reputation of being one.

Charles Bridge and the Castle in the distance

The city swept me off my feet. While crossing the Legion Bridge and entering the city for the first time, I gasped. The towers of the castle and Charles Bridge were visible to the left. It all looked decisively otherworldly. Didn’t Gustav Meyrink write that Prague is a threshold between the life on earth and heaven? Didn’t André Breton call the city the magic capital of old Europe? Not to mention that the contested etymology of the city’s name goes back to the Czech word práh, i.e. the threshold or a gate according to other sources. Absorbing all the beauty of the city, I had another association. I had a feeling I was inside an old music box, hypnotized by all its wonders.

The romantic and evocative name Bohemia is derived from the Boii, the Celtic people who inhabited the area in the 2nd century B.C. Until the 16th century Bohemia was a kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire. It was always a melting pot of cultures, religions and ethnicities. Prague was known as the city of three peoples; the Czechs, the Germans and the Jews. This commingling of influences is easily discernible on the multilingual streets of Prague but also in its cafes and restaurants, where the dishes served are a colourful juxtaposition of various influences. The elegant cafés were especially alluring to me, for the reason that they were frequented by Franz Kafka, who loved Café Louvre, Café Slavia and Café Savoy to name just a few I simply had to visit.

Café Savoy

But going back to the mythical origins of Prague, Peter Marshall thus summarizes the founding legend:

“One legend popular at the time has it that Libussa, queen of Bohemia, sought out a husband. With the help of the gods, she mounted a magic white horse which took her to a place where she met a handsome young peasant called Přemysl. Then, one summer’s evening, while she stood with her new husband and the elders of her people on a cliff overlooking the great Vltava River, she pointed across the water to the wooded hills beyond and was moved to prophesy: ‘I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars!’ She led her people to the spot on the hill where there was a man raising the threshold (prah in Czech) of a house and asked them to build a castle. Together they founded a dynasty and the city of Praha, Prague.” (1)

The legendary spot on the hill, called the mythical cradle of Prague, is called Vysehrad (Czech for higher castle). It is located on the edge of the city, three kilometres away from the medieval Prague castle. It is a quiet spot now with decisively fewer tourists than in the centre. There you can visit the magnificent Peter and Paul Basilica, whose interior enchanted me most in Prague. The surrounding park is full of statues; especially interesting to me was the Devil’s Column:

“There are many theories as to where Devil’s Column comes from. The most famous speaks of a certain local priest who made a bet with the Devil. The Devil was to bring a column from the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome to Vyšehrad before the end of evening mass. So, the Devil flew to Rome, ripped out a column, and started making his way back. But his return trip was hindered by St. Peter (one of the patrons of Vyšehrad, along with St. Paul), causing the Devil to fall into the Venetian Lagoon three times. In the end, he arrived late, and, in his fury, the Devil flung the column through the basilica roof.”


Peter and Paul Basilica

This kind of apotropaic magic permeates numerous Prague legends, the most famous being the creation of Golem. According to a legend, Golem, the being from Jewish folklore, made of clay or mud, was created through magic to protect the Jews from persecution. The legend kept returning in many iterations. Rabbi Judah Loew was believed to have created Golem out of the mud of the Vltava river. Ultimately, the creature had to be destroyed because it went out of control. His heart is said to be resting in the Old-New Synagogue in Prague.

Monument of Rabbi Judah Loew

The Middle Ages was also the time when the iconic Charles Bridge was constructed. This happened exactly on 9 July 1357 at 5.31 a.m,

“… a time chosen carefully for its propitious astrological and numerological associations. At that very moment a conjunction of the Sun with Saturn occurred, with the great luminary of the sky overpowering the gloomy influence of the malefic planet. … In addition, the setting sun on the summer solstice lined up Charles Bridge with an architrave of the Castle’s cathedral.” (2)

As the Dark Ages were drawing to a close, another celebrated Prague marvel was constructed – the astronomical clock. Unlike other similar clocks un Europe, this one showed the time in both Old Bohemian time and Babylonian time.

Renaissance was without a doubt the golden age of Prague. Under the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the city attracted a lot of luminaries, especially adepts of hermeticism, alchemists, astrologers and magicians. Rudolf II had a profound impact on the cultural history of Europe:

“He provided an island of intellectual security at a time of growing religious conflict, especially between Catholics and Protestants. By encouraging religious tolerance and the freedom of enquiry, he helped lay the foundations of the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, as well as the Age of Reason which eventually forced it underground.” (3)

Upon his birth, Rudolf’s parents had Nostradamus cast a horoscope for the future emperor. He was to become known as “the Recluse of Prague,” since he would spent most of his time in the castle and its gardens. The sombre, brooding atmosphere of the city suited his melancholic temperament. Shunning political machinations, he devoted his time almost entirely to hermeticism in all its forms. He established an alchemy workshop, to which he attracted the greats such as John Dee, Edward Kelley, Michael Maier and Martin Ruland.

John Dee and Edward Kelley evoking a spirit, via

Rudolf II engaged the illustrious Tycho Brahe as his court astronomer and astrologer:

“Rudolf was particularly fond of a lion given to him by the Sultan of Turkey in a rare lull in the fighting between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. It was reported that Tycho Brahe, who became Rudolf’s court astronomer, declared that since they shared similar horoscopes they would suffer a similar fate. The prophecy proved to be accurate: when the lion eventually died, Rudolf locked himself in his chambers, refusing all medicine and help, and died three days later.” (5)

In 1600, Johannes Kepler joined Tycho Brahe in his work for the emperor. He spent the next twelve years in Prague, during which time he wrote Astronomia Nova as well as cast horoscopes for Rudolf II. There are a lot of imagination-stirring stories associated with those colourful characters of the Rudolfian Era. Back in Denmark, Tycho Brahe had had his nose cut off in a duel. He fashioned a number of prosthetics to replace the precious organ: the ordinary every day one made of brass and silver and gold ones for special occasions. Kepler had a lot of disagreements with the eccentric Brahe. Nevertheless, his Prague period was the most creative and productive of his life.

At the height of his era, Rudolf’s castle was surrounded by magnificent gardens with plants and animals brought from all over the world, while the castle became

“a unique centre of learning and an inspirational milieu for creative and original work. He opened the doors of its chambers and vaults and built galleries, workshops, laboratories and studios for anyone who could help him in his grand project to unveil the mysteries of the world.” (6)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Portrait of Rudol II as Vertumnus (the Roman god of seasons, change and plant growth)

Rudolf II was also an indefatigable collector. His vast Kunstkammer included paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, the vast proportion of which was dedicated to alchemy and astrology. The emperor even managed to acquire the mysterious Voynich manuscript. He amassed a great number of scientific instruments, telescopes, globes, astrolabes, weapons and a plethora of clocks, which especially captured his heart. What is more:

“Rudolf valued precious stones and crystals for their secret virtues and he always carried one next to his heart to calm his palpitations, an inherited Habsburg weakness. His magical arsenal, which he increasingly drew on when normal methods to influence the course of history failed, included dried roots of mandrake, bizarre foetuses, a basilisk, parrots’ feathers, corals, fossils, ancient stones with indecipherable markings, whales’ teeth, rhinoceroses’ horns, the jawbone of a Greek siren, a fur fallen from the sky and a crystal lion. He also had such wonders as unicorns’ horns and dragons.” (7)

After his death, the emperor’s collection was dispersed and gradually sold off. But the legend of Prague as the city of alchemy remained. There is a tiny street with Lilliputian houses right next to Prague Castle. It is called the Golden Lane. The name most probably stems from its association with goldsmiths, who used to work there. However, there is a widespread belief that once alchemists inhabited those tiny houses. Whatever the truth may be, in 1916 one of the greatest literary alchemists lived at number 22 of the Golden Lane. His name was Franz Kafka. The eerie atmosphere of the street and the looming castle above it is depicted in Kafka’s’ unfinished novel The Castle.

Golden Lane with Kafka’s house (the blue one)

Martin Stejskal described the Royal Way from the Powder Gate to the Castle in alchemical terms:

“The Royal Way enters the Old Town from the east, at the Powder Gate, which symbolises the threshold of the alchemical way … and continues … near the House of the Black Madonna, the source of the primary matter to the Great Work. … The route … to Old Town Square … passes through a forest of symbols. … Next comes The House of the Black Sun, …, the House at the Two Golden Bears recalls that, as matter can be controlled, the bear, too, can be mastered. … The sgraffiti of the Virgin’s gushing breast milk on The House at the Minute symbolise the beginning of… albedo. … On Charles Bridge, the gestures of the row of saints clearly show the traveller the way to the west. … On the final stretch, the House of the Golden Apple symbolises the philosopher’s stone, which is now very close.” (4)

The House of the Black Madonna
The House of the Black Sun

In his book Stejskal does not mention the second Black Madonna of Prague, who is to be found quite near the castle, at the very end of the Royal Way. She is in the Baroque Loreta chapel. Like in the image of the uroboros, the beginning of the Great Work meets here the end to renew the cycle eternally.

Loreta Chapel

When I attempted to probe the symbolism of Prague in my ruminations, all I knew with certainty was that this is a feminine city. Prague unveiled herself to me as a woman. It seems that others shared the same impression, since

“a number of writers belonging to the early twentieth-century “Secese” (Secession or Art Nouveau) movement portrayed the city on the Vltava as a tempting and treacherous woman, a capricious harlot. Oskar Wiener, compared her to a “dark Salome.” (8)

I think Prague constellates both dark and light side of the feminine archetype. The predominance of Art Nouveau architecture with its undulating forms and organic feel contributes to this impression. There is so much intricate detail everywhere; plant and floral elements, the constant interplay of light and shadow and the ubiquitous stained glass windows create a mesmerizing effect. It is impossible not to be charmed. Alphonse Mucha is the epitome of this esthetic.

A. Mucha, “The Samaritan”
A. Mucha, “Evening Reverie” (Nocturnal Slumber)

The night seems to be the most natural time for Prague. It makes it look even more otherworldly but also very tender. I delighted in that aura of nocturnal mystery and its starry veil. If I were to assign a Zodiac sign that I associate with the city, I would go for Cancer. Even Prague’s coat of arms resonates with this energy, as it emphasizes the highest level of protection.

Interestingly, Rudolf II was a Cancerian and so was Franz Kafka. C.G. Jung associated the symbolism of all cities with the mother:

“The city is a maternal symbol, a woman who harbours the inhabitants in herself like children. It is therefore understandable that the three mother goddesses, Rhea, Cybele, and Diana, all wear the mural crown.” (10)

This makes Prague the ultimate city in symbolic terms.

František Hudeček, “Street at the Time When Women Go to Sleep”

Wandering the streets of Prague during the day, my thoughts frequently returned to Franz Kafka, who apparently adored walking and spent hours strolling the numerous lanes of Prague. (9) He wrote the following poem about Charles Bridge and dedicated it to his friend Oskar Pollak:

“People who walk over dark bridges,

Past holy stone saints

With feeble light upon them.

Clouds that wander over grey skies

Past churches

With fading towers.

Someone who leans on the stone parapet

And looks into the evening water

His hands resting on old stones.” (11)

Two striking monuments in Prague offer a unique look into the heart of Prague. They both feature emptiness, which is perhaps the ultimate symbol of mystery. One is the statue of Kafka by Jaroslav Rona. A small Kafka figure rides on the shoulders of a large man, or rather a large and empty suit, which has no arms and no head. The artist was inspired by Kafka’s short story Description of the Struggle. The theme of the story is anxiety about not being able to fulfil societal expectations. This early story of Kafka shows his insecurities, the inner turmoil and struggles to find his place in the world. The second statue is by Anna Chromy and has the title Il Commendatore. It is a hooded figure, a spectre with no body – just a cloak. Il Commendatore is a character in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, which had its premiere in Prague. The spectre was the father of one of the women seduced by the opera’s main character, Don Giovanni. Il Commendatore appears in the opera as a statue, brought to life by supernatural forces in order to exact vengeance on Don Giovanni. This statue is related to other works by Anna Chromy, which she labelled collectively as The Cloak of Conscience. She explains:

“Designed as a place to rediscover one’s inner self, Anna created an interior space for meditation, which allows people to consult their conscience, the lost faculty to perceive the hidden, eternal truth.”


The symbolism of the cloak seems to go hand in hand with that of Prague. The cloak, as Cirlot puts it in his Dictionary of Symbols, is like “a veil cutting off a person from the world.” Taking the habit means withdrawing from the world and focusing on the inner world, where the divine dwells. Prague’s sacred womb enables the visitor to do precisely that. As Reiner Maria Rilke, who was born in Prague in 1875 and spent his youth there, wrote in Letters on Life, “Where does the soul begin that subsists on its own mystery?”


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(1) Peter Marshall, The Mercurial Emperor: The Magic Circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Martin Stejskal, Secret Prague

(5) Peter Marshall, The Mercurial Emperor: The Magic Circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Angelo Maria Ripellino, Magic Prague

(9) Harald Salfellner, Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide

(10) C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation (CW 5), par. 303

(11) Harald Salfellner, Franz Kafka and Prague: A Literary Guide

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7 Responses to Prague: A Threshold

  1. msjadeli says:

    Such a well-written travelogue on a place I knew next to nothing about before reading it. The pictures really bring it to life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. litebeing says:

    Your writing intensifies when you are enamored, as is the case here Monika. It is interesting that early on you use the phrase place of power to describe Prague. Near the beginning of my blog I began writing about sacred places : portals to the Divine, where I coined the term power places to describe where I was more likely to transcend.

    I am very visual, so your use of imagery helped evoke the mood of this city. Thank you for sharing your appreciation and wisdom with us.

    love, Linda

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lampmagician says:

    Fascinating! This a beautiful and fabulous article as a feminine can be. Thank you, Monika. I was once in Prague and was amazed by its beauty and, of course, Kafka. 🙏🥰🤗💖

    Liked by 1 person

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