In our recent article about the Rabbi Loew/Golem trail in Prague, we mentioned the statue of the Iron Knight (or Iron Man) that stands vigil over Prague’s Old Town from a corner in the city hall building. Because the other corner is occupied by a statue of Rabbi Loew himself, and because the legend of the Iron Knight is relatively obscure outside of Prague, an overwhelming number of publications — including many that should be respectable enough to check their facts, like a 1938 issue of Life – misidentify the statue as Rabbi Loew’s golem (a few also identify it as Darth Vader, but what can be done about that?). Of course, it looks nothing like the golem, but with Rabbi Loew hanging around on the other corner, most people assume any strange monstrosity must be his golem.
Which is perhaps why the Iron Knight still hasn’t been able to lift the curse placed on him over four hundred years ago.
The statue, designed by Ladislav Saloun, the same artist who created the statue of Rabbi Loew, and installed in its corner at the same time as well, is of a knight by the name of Jáchym Berka. As the legend goes, Berka left Prague to fight in a war somewhere, and upon returning home heard that the women he’d loved and to him had been betrothed had bedded another man. Enraged and perhaps not thinking clearly, Berka sought revenge in that most classic of ways: by finding another woman and marrying her out of spite. He probably should have checked out the veracity of the rumors about his betrothed before going the whole “grudge marriage” route, however, because the rumors turned out to be lies. She had faithfully awaited his return the whole time. So heartbroken was Berka’s former lover that she drown herself in the Vltava River. Her father, swept up in the shame game, threw himself from a high tower.
When news of this reached poor, dumb Berka he reacted with all the clarity of thought and careful consideration as he had when first he heard the rumors about his betrothed’s infidelity. First, he strangled his new wife because..well…I mean. OK, he strangled her because he was in a rage and kind of colossal asshole. He then went on to hang himself, which is about the only reasonably justifiable death in whole tragic affair.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought Berka’s behavior demanded punishment. For his cruelty, the knight was turned to stone. His ghost was cursed to wander Platnéřská Street, with freedom from his spectral fate coming only when he can convince a kindly maiden to sit and talk to him for an hour. He gets his chance at this once every hundred years. It doesn’t seem that tall an order, at least not until you remember this is a guy who grudge married a woman to spite a fiancée who then committed suicide, to which Berka responded by strangling the wife he’d used to mistakenly seek revenge against said fiancee. So I would guess he’s not the greatest conversationalist when it comes to chatting up women on a dark Prague street.
His most famously retold chance at…well, not redemption, since he doesn’t seem to ever redeem himself. Let’s call it his most famous chance at freedom came a couple hundred years ago when a family with young, pure, innocent daughter moved into the home in front of which his statue had been placed. She happened to be nearby when the knight was freed from his bond for his centennial chance at talking to a woman. However, the woman’s mother found out and forbade her daughter from talking to the murderer. When Berka entered the house for his fireside chat and found the angry mother waiting for him instead of the daughter, he irritably complained, “Another hundred years!?!” His most recent chance came in 2009, and by all accounts, he blew it. Maybe he gets mad because everyone opens conversation with him by asking, “Aren’t you the golem?”
Then again, maybe if he just said yes, he’s the golem, someone would stop and talk to him.
Today, the statue of Iron Knight Jáchym Berka stands watch over Platnéřská Street, the road his ghost is said to haunt. How did such a ghoulish character from Prague’s dark folklore come to occupy such a prominent position outside the city hall? It really had to do with the location, and with the artist wanting to incorporate into the building some of Prague’s rich history of magic and legends. Said Saloun, “…on the corner of Platnéřská Street [I created] the Iron Man figure, which was well-known to locals and foreigners, enveloped in myths and a typical feature of not only the picturesque medieval Platnéřská Street, in which the legend took place, but also of the entire Old Town.”
Not well-known enough, apparently, since so many people think doomed, murderous Berka is the golem created by his statuary neighbor, Rabbi Loew. So the next time you find yourself stalking down narrow, dimly lit Platnéřská Street, and someone points to Jáchym Berka’s statue and says it’s the golem, you can push your glasses up your nose, sniff knowingly, and explain to them the sinister tale of the Iron Knight who just loved over-reacting to rumors. Correct enough people about the statue, and I guarantee you your conversation will be as much in demand as Jáchym Berka’s himself.