When it comes to spooks and spectres and things that go bump in the night, Prague is undeniably one of the richest towns in the world. Its bizarre history, winding streets, and jumble of architecture spanning centuries’ worth of styles make it the perfect setting for tales of the macabre and unexplained. On these streets prowled the golem created by Jewish mystic Rabbi Loew and the socially awkward Iron Knight, still trying to get a young woman to listen to him for a couple of hours so he might be freed of his murderer’s curse. Most famously, Prague was the center of medieval alchemy thanks to the obsession of its one-time ruler, Emperor Rudolf II, who invited mystics and alchemists and wizards from across the world to come to Prague. Deep beneath the cobblestone streets of this most mysterious of cities, at the Speculum Alchemiae, one can walk the secret passages and hidden laboratories where these sorcerers sought to unlock the secrets of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life.
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 history of Prague seems tailor-made to appeal to a vast number of my personal obsessions, among them my fascination with the history of magic and alchemy and the story of Rabbi Loew and the golem. Modern Prague has not failed to capitalize on this history of mystery and magic, as places like the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians prove. Fans of weird and mystical history owe a debt of gratitude to Emperor Rudolf II, the 16th century Holy Roman emperor who, because of his own obsession with the occult, turned his home base of Prague into the capital of European mysticism and alchemical pursuits. Rudolf II’s endless quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, as well as his craving for a potion of immortality, brought such notable alchemists as Edward Kelley and John Dee to the city, not to mention Jewish mystic Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel.
It’s an amazing testament to my willpower that on my latest Frolic Afield over at Alcohol Professor, I did not title the article “Czeching out Czech Whisky” or “The Head of the Cock.” Anyway, On the Prowl for Czech Whisky is my look at two Czech single malts, the low-end Gold Cock and much higher end 23-year-old Hammer Head, as well as one of Prague’s coolest whisky bars, Whiskeria, inside an old medieval tower.
Everyone knows the Czech Republic is the beer capital of the world, but as I discovered for my latest Frolic Afield to Alcohol Professor, the way bars and restaurants contract with breweries means you often can only get one type of beer at a location, and then only one of the macro-brews. But the Prague Beer Museum is a pub dedicated to Czech craft brewing, with thirty Czech beers on tap. Obviously research was called for.
Recently, we posted a look at the films of Czech animator and filmmaker Karel Zeman. Since basically every frame of each of his films is an amazing screencap, we went a little overboard. However, in an effort to keep the article itself from reaching epic lengths and load times, it included only a limited number of pictures. Since the films deserve indulgence, here are all the screenshots we made.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
Nestled with irony between a McDonald’s and a casino is Prague’s Museum of Communism (only the KGB Museum has a more deliciously ironic location, next door to the heavily guarded U.S. embassy). It walks the thin line between being another tacky tourist trap museum (which I love) and an actual educational experience (which I also enjoy), with the over-arching message of, “Communism — that sure did suck.”
If Prague’s Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments proves a little too well-behaved and respectable for you, then perhaps you should switch gears a little bit and explore the two museums that make up the Mysteria Pragensia. Tapping into Prague’s rich occult and magickal history, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians, and its sister museum down the street, The Museum of Ghosts and Legends, offer up all the gruesome wax dummies and delicious strange lore you want from a proper tourist trap museum.
I think every city of even modest size in Europe has at least one museum dedicated to the cruel and imaginative ways Europeans tortured one another during the Middle Ages. Prague, being a city that deals quite cannily with tourists, has a few torture museums. I’ve heard that many of the implements displayed in these types of museums were dreamed up mostly for the museums themselves, but I’m no scholar of medieval torture, so I can’t say. They seem believable enough to me, based on the research I’ve done of watching The Witchfinder General starring Vincent Price.