My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about some of the similarities and differences between the ways that Christmas is celebrated in America versus in Poland. This is his account:
“Okay so, there’s a mermaid, and the Polish word for mermaid is Syrena. I don’t think she has a name. She’s just, like, “the mermaid.” And she frolics the world’s seas, and like waterways, I guess, with her mermaid family, because her dad is the ruler of water. He’s like, the king of water. And then one day she’s just swimming around, and she almost gets caught in a fishing net, and she needs to swim to shore to seek refuge because she’s hurt. And when she gets to the shore, she asks the river—because she can talk to all the waters—she asks the river, “Where am I right now? What’s going on?” And the river’s like, “Oh, you’re in Poland.” And the mermaid is like, “Oh. Okay.” And then the river offers to like, show her the lands, basically. She’s like, “Yeah, just swim upstream, and I can show you the beautiful lands that Poland has to offer.” And the mermaid’s like, “All right. That sounds awesome.” Um… so then they’re swimming, and eventually they swim towards like, a village. It’s called Mazowsze, and she just starts talking to the people there, and they’re all really friendly and hospitable. And she likes them and she decides to like, live with them. So then one day, the tribe is doing a hunt in honor of the prince, for whatever reason. And… But the prince has these golden arrows, and he’s on his last one, and he lost it, and he’s looking around for it on the banks of the river, and he meets up with the mermaid, because the mermaid, it turns out, had the arrow. And so she points him in the right direction of where she saw the reindeer that he was like, tailing. And then they get to this hut of the guy named Mr. Warsz, and he’s very hospitable and gives them food and shelter for the night. So they’re very grateful. And they’re in this beautiful clearing that this guy had like, set up. And then, because the prince was so grateful to this dude, he named the clearing Warszowa, which later became Warszawa, which is the Polish word for Warsaw, which is now the capital of Poland. So that’s the story of how Warsaw came to be.”
Analysis: My informant remembers this story from the times his mother told it to him when he was younger. He thinks she must have learned it from her parents; as he explained, “I mean, it’s a very culturally significant story, so I’m sure she heard it growing up.” This story is classified as a myth because it takes place essentially “before” or “outside” the real world. It has a sacred truth value because it is supposed to be an account of the formation of a nation’s capital; the mermaid likely did not literally exist, but she is accepted as “truth” and as an integral part of the narrative. It can be categorized as an origins story, for, like many myths, it explains how something came to be. These stories are, as my informant says, “culturally significant” because they provide an explanation for why the way the world is the way it is. The fantastical elements—golden arrows, talking mermaids—make the story intriguing, especially for children. Indeed, my informant was a child the first time he heard it. Yet it is also a story for people of all ages; children may be fascinated by the prince and the mermaid, whereas adults may take nationalistic pride in the fact that it is a story about Poland and its capital.