A friendly green vodník used to be a regular in pubs near Kampa Island
There is a particular type of Bohemian supernatural being called a vodník, or water sprite. They are related to elves, fairies, leprechauns and similar beings with roots deep back into local folklore and pre-history.
In many Slavic nations the water sprites are a pretty evil bunch — giant frogs who lure people to their watery death and steal their souls.
But Bohemian ones can go either way. They are more human in appearance. While their skin is green like algae, they have regular arms and legs, and wear patchy clothes, usually an old-fashioned jacket with tails. The pants are green and the shoes can be red. A common touch is an old, crumpled top hat or straw “boater” hat. When on land, they drip water. Some vodníks can cause drownings but others actually try to help fishermen and others who live on and near the water. They do keep the souls of drowned people in jars, but nobody is perfect.
One of Prague’s favorites is a vodník called Kabourek, and he used to be a pretty nice guy, according to all accounts, though lately he has been sulking. He lived in Čertovka, the mill stream near Charles Bridge that goes around Kampa Island.
Kabourek would hang around pubs on the island, passing his time with strangers over beer, which was his favorite beverage. For the price of a beer, he would tell fishermen where the schools of fish were on any given day. Most pubs set a short stool aside for him with a water bucket on the floor so he could keep his feet nice and wet.
He would reward those who showed him kindness with a free fish, usually a pike, and some interesting, if convoluted, stories.
He also had a sense of humor. One pub was not to his liking. He declared publicly that the beer was very close to water, which he could drink at home for free — and then he hopped in the stream and swam under. The pub quickly improved its selection as word got around and the pub lost many of its regulars. The pub in fact came close to going under as well.
But times change. The popular oom-pah and polka music that used to be heard in pubs was replaced with jazz, swing and other such noise that hurt the gentle-spirited vodník’s sensitive ears. His friends also had grown old, and many had passed away. The younger generation wasn’t so generous in buying him beers. He went to pubs less and less. Once when he showed up after a long while, nobody remembered him and nobody offered him a bucket for his feet. He returned to Čertovka and has seldom been seen since.
Perhaps he will come back, now that pubs near Kampa offer much better beer and people feel nostalgic for times gone by. He probably won’t like the music though. If you see a short green man dripping a bit and speaking old-fashioned, Germanic-sounding Czech, offer him a beer and a bucket, and request some polka music. He will likely reward you.
A statue of Kabourek was erected in 2010 next to the mill wheel at the Grand Priory Mill (Velkopřevorský Mlýn). The statue is by sculptor Josef Nalepa, who is famous for his bust of Salvador Dalí.
Vodníks, or more properly in plural vodníci, are staples of Czech fairy tales. Antonín Dvořák even wrote a symphonic poem titled Vodník, based on a poem by Karel Jaromír Erben in the collection Kytice. The symphonic poem is called The Water Goblin or The Water Fay in English. Vodník turns up as a character in Dvořák’s opera Rusalka.
They are also staples of folk illustrations, with several appearances in the works of Josef Lada. His are often seen smoking vintage long-stemmed pipes. They also appear in Czech fairytale films, a popular genre. Sculptor Josef Nalepa used Lada’s illustrations for inspiration for his Kabourek sculpture.
The stream that goes through the area is called Čertovka, or the Devil’s Channel, with several explanations as to why. Aside from vodníci that are supposed to be along the waterfront, there are legends of the usual assortment of ghosts with romantic broken hearts and a demon.
Čertovka is an artificial waterway made specifically to provide power for mills, and two wheels remain, a popular spot for tourists’ photos and even for film crews.
The mill wheel that can be seen in Čertovka from a vantage point under Charles Bridge is at Velkopřevorský mlýn. The name refers to the original owners of the mill, the Order of Maltese Knights. The mill was built in 1597 to 1600, under the reign of Emperor Rudolf II. A dispute over ownership between the knights and the administration of Malá Strana ended in 1795 when the order sold the mill. Most of the mill is behind the John Lennon Wall and not easily seen by the public.
The name Kampa comes from the area having been a tent camp for Spanish soldiers during the Battle of White Mountain in 1621.
The name vodník is used in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Bulgaria and Macedonia use the same name but in Cyrillic letters. Poland uses wodnik, while Russia and other Eastern European countries have variations on vodyanoy. Slovenia is an exception with its povodni mož, or underwater man. Germany follows suit with Wassermann, and also uses Hastrman and has a similar water spirit called Nix. Some countries substitute the water sprite for the Aquarius zodiac sign. Czech does not, and uses Vodnář, roughly water person.
While the Czech Republic is now known for good beer, that was not always the case, and some cheap pubs had poorly made beer. Many small local brewers went out of business after 1989 when they were faced with new competition from large brewers who were no longer limited by government restrictions on where they could sell. The market has also long been dominated by just Pilsen-style lagers. In recent years, there has been an explosion of high-end microbreweries and minibreweries making IPAs, flavored beers, and seasonal beers and ales. The Czech Republic has the highest consumption of beer in the world at 142.6 liters per person per year, but some of that is boosted by tourism. The figure has also been dropping slowly. Consumption of non-alcoholic beer has been rising, but so has consumption of alcoholic ciders and similar flavored fruit-beverages.