The first inhabitants of the Czech lands were prehistoric fish. That’s because the country, at the time, was covered by a prehistoric ocean – thanks to which it is possible to find some very nice fossils of trilobytes in the Czech Republic today.
Today’s Czech Republic was later populated by dinosaurs of all sorts, and later by neanderthals and even by mammoths. The prehistoric settlement of the present-day Czech Republic by people culminated in the fourth century B.C. with the arrival of the Celts, the first modern human inhabitants of this territory that we know of. In fact, the Latin name for the Czech lands, “Boiohaemum” (Bohemia), is derived from the name of the Boii Celtic tribe; and the Czech name for the Moldau River (which flows through the capital city of Prague) is Vltava – which is said to come from the Celtic “Vlt” meaning wild, and “Va” meaning water.
The Czech Celts were in part chased out of the region and in part assimilated by the next peoples to inhabit the area: the Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi tribes from the west and the Romans from the south. (The Romans didn’t actually occupy Czech territory – they only got as far north as the Danube River, which flows from Germany – through Austria along its border with Slovakia – and then over to Hungary before continuing on to Yugoslavia, and so just misses the Czech lands.) During the Migration of Peoples – roughly from the 3d to the 7th centuries AD – Slav colonization spread westward from the Steppes of the East (probably from Panonia) all the way to the territory of the present-day Czech Republic and up to Poland and down again to Yugoslavia. From probably the sixth century AD on, the Slavic peoples settled, in several waves of migration, into the regions which had been conveniently abandoned by the Germanic tribes.
This is the way that it all came to be – according to popular Czech legend: Once upon a time there were three brothers: Czech, Lech and Rus. One day, they decided to find a new place to live, and so they and their tribes set out on a journey. They got as far as the Dnieper River when Rus said, “This is the place for me and my tribe!” and there the Russians stayed. Czech (who is known as “Praotec Cech,” or Ancestor Czech in these parts) and Lech continued. Soon, they came upon a rich land overflowing with milk and honey and Czech climbed to the top of Rip hill in Bohemia and decided that this was the place for him and for his tribe. Lech and his people continued their journey and settled in present-day Poland. Other versions of the legend have 7 brothers in all, with the addition of other Slav nations like the Croats (who have a similar legend about 7 wandering brothers) and some others whose names are not remembered anymore. One modern interpretation of the story has the Czechs spending some time in Greece before finally heading north and settling, and this would actually conveniently explain the similarities between certain Czech legends (like that of Bruncvik’s odyssey or of Sarka and her band of women warriors) with Greek ones.
Czech legend goes on to say that Cech’s people were happy in the Czech lands, and after a few generations and some time had passed, the Slavs of Bohemia had a new leader – a guy by the name of Krok, who lived at Vysehrad (which means “high castle” and is today the site of the Czech National Cemetery). Probably the most important thing about Krok were his three very beautiful daughters, who were named Kazi, Teta and Libuse. The last of these, Libuse, had special powers which allowed her to see the future (Kazi, the oldest, was a healer who knew the secrets of the plants and herbs, while Teta was high priestess).
Libuse’s talent came in particularly handy when it came time for her to marry. According to legend, she inherited rule over the Czech tribes from her father, Krok. As ruler of the lands, she was also the highest ‘court of appeal’ for disputes among the people. It is said that a guy who did not like one of her decisions as judge started a stink about the fact that the Czechs were ruled by a woman. And so Libuse had a vision – and sent her white horse, accompanied by a group of her subjects – to go out and find a guy ploughing in his field. After a journey of some days, the horse and the humans did indeed come upon just such a man (and nobody seemed surprised at all at this – neither the humans nor the horse nor even the man himself) and Przemysl Ploughman (Premysl Orac in Czech) came to Vysehrad and married Libuse and took over the job of ruling the unruly Czechs and he and Libuse together started the Przemyslid Dynasty, which ruled over the Czech lands till the 14th century.
One day, not long after the wedding, Libuse had a vision in which she foretold of the glory of the Czech capital. Standing atop Vysehrad hill, she went into a trance and told her vision to the people even as the gods sent it to her. She said that on the seven hills of Prague a fair city would grow, the fame of which would rise to the very stars. And all that she saw and all of which she foretold really came true. Of course!
Now, while Cech and Libuse are the stuff of imaginative Czech legend, it is believed that Samo – who may or may not have ruled this part of the world in the first half of the seventh century AD – was probably a real person. It’s hard to tell, though, since nobody is sure of minor details like where Samo was from, where Samo lived, or where Samo ruled – if, that is, he existed at all. If he did, he is thought to have been a Frankish merchant who placed himself on the side of the Slavs against the wicked Avar tribes of Hungary. He is mentioned in early chronicles, where his address is given as Wogastisburg Fortress. Nobody today knows where this Wogastisburg Fortress was – but it’s believed by Czechs to have stood on Rubin hill in Bohemia.
Wherever Samo’s home base really was, his rule seems to represent the first successful attempt at uniting the Slavic tribes – and since the Slavs are not exactly known for their brotherly love for one another (then again, who in Europe is?), this was quite a feat. The reason for this unification under Samo was, predictably, quite pragmatic. The Slavic tribes cooperated in order to withstand attacks by the Avars, a powerful Asian tribe whose home was on the plains of Hungary.
Again, reports on the Great Moravian Empire are fuzzy. According to period chronicles, the people living along the Morava River at the time were already known as “Moravians,” and their short-lived empire existed “somewhere” between today’s Slovakia and Germany, and Poland and Austria (that is, somewhere in today’s Czech Republic) in the 8th and/or 9th century. Just like Wogastisburg Fortress, it’s claimed to have stood in different places by all the people who live in those different places.
At some time during the ninth century, Greater Moravia was ruled by the Moravian prince Svatopluk and had grown to include today’s South Moravia, the southernmost bits of present-day Poland and Silesia, the western part of Hungary and, for a short time, the whole of Bohemia. Perhaps the most important thing about the Great Moravians is that theirs was the first legal sort of state structure in the area to accept Christianity, and the cultural development of the Greater Moravian Empire is inseparably linked to the spread of the eastern Byzantine liturgy of Sts Cyril and Methodius, who came to these parts in 863. They were invited by the Moravians – who were interested in Christianity but couldn’t understand the language in which it was preached at the time. Cyril and Methodius were chosen for the mission because they understood and were able to speak in the Slavic tongue (again lending weight to the theory that the Slavs of these parts had not long before been spending some time in Greece).
Some buildings from around about this time still stand – mostly Romanesque basilicas like the one on Rip Hill (the very hill that Great-Granddad Czech liked so much!), at Vysehrad, in Prague’s Old Town, and at other places. It was Cyril and Methodius, too, who brought the written word to the region (the Cyrillic alphabet is named for Cyril even though his real name was not Cyril but Constantine). The beginning of a written Slavic language was to be of enormous importance to Slavic nations in the Middle Ages. On the downside, the introduction of Christianity to this territory was so overwhelmingly successful that we know very little today about the pre-Christian religion of the pagan Slavs.
The Greater Moravian Empire disintegrated thanks to the Hungarian invasion of 903 or 904 and political intrigue in the early days of the Holy Roman Empire. After that, the Slavic mission in Moravia – which had been established by the missionaries Cyril and Methodius – collapsed, and the population reverted to tribal conditions. The Christian heritage of the Greater Moravian Empire, however, was to be preserved with the ascent of the Przemyslid dynasty to the throne of Bohemia.