Some see a broken stone pillar as evidence that a demon named Zardan visited Prague
The history of Vyšehrad goes back to the very foundation of Prague, and the walled fortress-like area on a cliff above the Vltava has accumulated many interesting tales over the centuries.
For most of the legends of Prague — like the vengeful ghost of a French soldier, or a buried Pagan army ready to awaken, or even a miraculous talking horse — there is no proof. But for the legend of the Devil’s Column there is a marble column broken into three pieces in the field behind the Basilica Church of St Peter and St Paul, plain for all to see. A mural in the church depicts part of the story as well. And in 1861, a church provost wrote that the story was true and that it was “not possible to speak or believe otherwise.” He even named the devil in question as Zardan.
The story has been told many times, so there are numerous slight variations. One is that a priest, possibly named Boniface, had gotten himself into some gambling debt. Zardan promised to get him out of trouble if he won a final all-or-nothing bet with his soul. The priest had to finish celebrating mass before Zardan could return from Rome with a pillar. Zardan, being a devil, is alleged to have cheated.
He didn’t go to St Peter’s in Rome, as was agreed, but only as far as the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which was slightly closer. A pillar has long been missing from that church. St Peter intervened and gave Zardan a penalty delay by throwing him into the sea three times.
Zardan arrived just as the mass ended, and in anger threw the column into the roof of the nave of the church, where it shattered. Eventually, it was moved to just behind the church.
A popular variation is that the priest at the beginning of the story had already lost his soul to the devil but had recently repented and sought St Peter’s help to get out of the bargain. The devil, for some reason, was already collecting stones to build the church at Vyšehrad and St Peter talked him into the deal about letting the priest off the hook with the column race.
It is peculiar that St Peter seems to use the devil as some sort of day laborer on a construction site, and that they are on pretty jovial terms, but authentic legends often have many odd details.
The column in this version gets broken when Zardan is plunged into the sea.
He returns too late, and throws the pieces where they now sit.
Yet a third variation has Zardan as the gambler, and not a good one. He bets a thousand gold coins that he can carry the column back before Boniface says the Lord’s Prayer — not even a full mass. Zardan loses, and Boniface anonymously puts the money in the church poor box while vowing to never gamble again, as the outcome was rather close.
In this version of the tale, Zardan returns sometimes at midnight, howling like a dog and trying to put the column back into one piece. People who say the devil is real point to the column as irrefutable concrete proof. It is there, and fits in with every version of the story.
The broken column is on Vyšehrad still, and it is not made of local stone, but something much harder. Theories about it range from it being part of a pillory, a sundial or a small pagan Stonehenge-type monument. How it was moved there and when is not known, but it has been there for centuries.
More recent scholarship suggests it was from one of several older churches in the area that were torn down or heavily renovated. There was once a Church of the Decollation of St John the Baptist, built in the 14th century, near where the St Martin Rotunda stands, and it may have come from that. There was also a Basilica of St Lawrence, built in the 11th century and destroyed in the 15th century.
The current Basilica Church of St Peter and St Paul was built in neo-Gothic style between 1885 and 1903 on the site of previous churches that had been there since the 11th century, and rebuilt and expanded several times. The column could have been from an earlier church renovation, and have been left over or damaged and then discarded.
When the devil bet took place is not known, but it was certainly before the time of the current building as there are already many references to the column before the end of the 19th century.
The inside wall of the current church has a mural of the devil being plunged into the sea, showing that the tale was well-known at the time the interior was finished.
The church has several other noteworthy possessions including a bone from St Valentine; a painting called Our Lady of the Rains, which pregnant women visit to seek healthy infants; and the empty stone coffin of St Longinus, who was reportedly at the Crucifixion. His bones were lost long ago, and only the coffin remains.
Adjacent to the church is a cemetery with many famous Czech people including painter Mikoláš Aleš, writers Josef and Karel Čapek, opera singer Emmy Destinn, composer Antonín Dvořák, show trial victim Milada Horáková, romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha, artist and designer Alfons Mucha, sculptor Josef Václav Myslbek, poet and writer Jan Neruda, writer Božena Němcová, physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyně, composer Bedřich Smetana, sculptor Ladislav Šaloun and painter Max Švabinský.
A circular design from the main door to the Basilica Church of St Peter and St Paul is used on several cards in the Pentacles suit in The Tarot of Prague, while the Devil of course makes an appearance in the Major Arcana.