illustration of wars the fisherman and sawa the mermaid on a boat

Syrenka: The Mermaid of Warsaw- Symbol of Poland’s Capital

Warsaw or Warszawa is the capital city of Poland, a country located in Central Europe. It is a unique city with a blend of elements from modern times and its rough past. Even though the city was literally in ruins after the Second World War, the people of Warsaw have come together and rebuilt the place. Today, the landscape includes the river Vistula, artistic palaces, churches, UNESCO world heritage sites and, lush green parks along with modern architectural marvels such as commercial complexes, museums, sports complexes, urban green areas, cafes, sculptures and more. It has become the cultural hub of Poland because of these cultural spaces, due to the various cultural events and festivals that it hosts, and because of the rich traditions that the Poles have managed to safeguard despite several invasions by neighbouring countries in the past.

the landscape of warsaw at night highlighting the palace of culture
Night view of Warsaw, capital of Poland. Photo by Kamil Gliwiński on Unsplash

But today, I am not here to guide you through Warsaw. I am here to share some of the Warsaw myths and legends that are so important that they have become the identity of the city.

The legends concentrate mostly on Syrenka, the mermaid of Warsaw. The creature has become the official symbol of the city and, though historical evidence doesn’t explain why it is so, the legends surrounding it sure do. In this post, I also share some of the legends about the foundation of Warsaw and you’ll soon see how the two are connected.


The Legends of Wars and Sawa: The Origins of Warsaw

Warsaw was founded on the banks of the River Vistula, with evidence of settlements dating back to the  9th century AD. Initially, the place was just a fishing village by the banks of the River Vistula, which over time grew to become a large city. During this time, the village was known as Warszowa, which was a part of the Duchy of Masovia. In the 16th century, when the last duke died without leaving an heir, the duchy was absorbed into Poland.

There are many theories about the etymology of Warszawa. Some say it comes from the word Warsz, which was the short form of Warcisław, the historical name of the land close to where the Old Town of Warsaw is located today. Others say Warsz was supposedly the name of a knight from the 12th or 13th century who owned a village that is now part of the Old Town neighbourhood.

According to legend, however, the name is an amalgamation of two characters named Wars and Sawa and there are several versions of stories featuring the two. Few of them even involve mermaids.


Version 1 

The first and the most common version of the story goes like this:

Once upon a time, there was a fisherman named Wars who lived in a thick forest by the river Vistula. He was a man of good nature and was extremely hardworking. So much so, that he had built a boat all by himself. That would allow him to catch a lot of fish whenever he wanted to. Wars was quite lucky compared to the other fishermen in the village as he would always manage to catch a lot of fish in his net.

Wars would be busy with other errands throughout the day, but it was in the evenings that he preferred to go fishing. He thought the night was more calm and peaceful. 

While catching fish one night, he spotted a beautiful woman with long hair who happened to have the tail of a fish. Unaware of his presence, the woman began to sing and Wars was instantly swooned by her melodious voice. He had fallen in love with her.

From then on, he would return every night to hear her singing.

One night, in an attempt to get a better look at her, he accidentally showed himself to the mermaid. Furious, she demanded to know why he was spying on her. To answer her question, he politely introduced himself and professed his love for her.

The mermaid then replied saying that she had also been watching him during the day when he worked and saw that he was kinder and well-mannered towards others because of which she too had fallen in love with him. 

Initially, she was worried about their differences, but as they realized they were made for each other, she remembered an old secret. If a mermaid fell in love with someone with reciprocating feelings, they could lose their tail and become human.

illustration of wars and sawa on a boat
Wars and Sawa talking to each other. Image Credit: Puzzle Factory

Wars then asked for her hand in marriage and she agreed. Her scales then transformed into legs and they lived happily ever after.

Later, the land that they lived on was transformed into a bustling fishing village which, the people named after the couple. So, Wars plus Sawa became Warszawa (pronounced varshava).  


Version 2 

Another version of the story goes like this:

Wars and Sawa were a married couple living on the banks of the River Vistula. Wars was a fisherman while Sawa was a homemaker. They weren’t wealthy and lived modestly in a small hut. 

One time a king, on his way to the city, had stopped in the middle of his journey, in search of food and accommodation. That day, Wars and Sawa were preparing fresh fish for their meal and the delicious aroma had diffused across the neighbourhood. Attracted by the smell, the king decided to visit their house and asked for hospitality.

illustration of the couple wars and sawa accommodating the king by sharing a meal of fish, bread and milk
Illustration of the king dining with Wars and Sawa. Image Credit: My Warsaw Dream

As per Polish custom, the couple was very hospitable and welcomed him in, offered him a share of their meal and a bed to rest in. Impressed by their hospitality and by the fact they accommodated a stranger and shared their meal, the king promised to make sure no one would forget their names, so he named the land surrounding their hut, Warszawa, in their honour. 


The Legends of Syrenka – The Protector of Warsaw

The name syrenka sounds similar to the Greek mythological creature called the siren. Both creatures live in the water and have melodious voices. However, the siren has half-avian and half-human features, whereas the syrenka is closer to a Melusine or a mermaid. The translation of the Polish word is closer to a mermaid than it is to a Melusine. Also, the siren is depicted as an evil creature, while the syrenka is depicted to be agreeable and heroic. She is always depicted wielding a sword with one hand and holding a shield in the other.

The creature has, however, evolved over time. In fact, seeing its early versions, it can be assumed that it was inspired by a Greek character.

The Syrenka has been the symbol of Warsaw since as early as the late 14th century. Wax seals found from the 15th century showed that it was even in their coat of arms. Initially, the mythical creature had the monstrous features of a dragon, a bird and a human, slightly closer to the Greek siren. It had the head of a man, the wings of a gryphon and the claws and tail of a dragon. By the 16th century, the human part had been changed from a man to a woman.

depiction of a creature with a gryphon's body, a dragon's tail, a man's torso
Earlier depiction of the Syrenka. Image Credit: Sadurski

It wasn’t before the 17th century that Syrenka was illustrated as a creature of beauty. Evidence of the new version was found in literary works at the time. However, it still retained some of the features of the dragon. The reptilian features were finally replaced by fishlike ones by the 18th century.


This could have been because of the following legend:

Medieval Warsaw was said to be protected by the gryphon. One time, the gryphon had gone to the Baltic Sea in northern Poland where he met a beautiful Mermaid and fell in love. The mermaid returned his feelings and she accompanied him back to Warsaw. Together, the couple would protect the city.

Then when the Swedish attacked Poland, the gryphon died in battle, after which, the mermaid took over as the protector of the city, holding his shield and sword in her hands.

Note: Sweden did indeed invade Poland between the 17th and 18th centuries.


That was one of the earlier versions of the syrenka legend. The most common version is retold below,

Once upon a time, there were twin mermaids who came from the Atlantic Ocean and swam to the Baltic sea. The twins reached Gdansk, a city by the Baltic Sea in northern Poland, and chose to split.

One of them swam to Copenhagen in Denmark while the other stayed in Gdansk. She seemed to like the city but, what she liked the most was the river. The River Vistula.

Drawn to it, she swam in the river, curious to know where it would lead her. She swam till she was tired, then decided to stop and take a break. Upon reaching shore, she realized she really liked the place and decided to stay. She loved the natural landscape, the air, and the ambience. This place was Warsaw.

Note: In some versions of the story, the place where she stopped was the same place where the descendants of Wars and Sawa stayed.

Soon, the local fishermen in the area noticed that the fish caught in their nets were being released which, upon investigating, they found the mermaid responsible. Furious, they decided to catch her but as they came close, they were mesmerized by her beauty and melodious singing voice and decided against her capture.

One time, a crooked merchant was passing by and, upon seeing her, he realized he could profit by capturing her and displaying her at festivals and fairs. He devised a plan, tricked her and successfully captured her. He even went on to make the fishermen believe that the mermaid was a threat to the city, which is why she had to be caught.

the mermaid crying after being captured and locked by a hut
Syrenka crying after being captured by the merchant. Image Credit: Wlacz Polske

In her captivity, the mermaid would cry and shout for help. Finally, one day, a fisherman heard her cry and, with the help of his friends, managed to liberate her. The mermaid was thankful and upon her release, she promised the people that she’d be there to help them whenever they were in trouble. So, she wielded a sword and a round shield in her hands and prepared herself to protect the city and its people forever.


The Legend Tying the Two Stories 

The following legend is a version of the Syrenka story that also connects the legend of Wars and Sawa,

Long ago, a fisherman named Wars lived by the banks of River Vistula. One day while catching fish, he heard the sweet and melodious voice of a woman singing and challenging him to present himself. Fearless, he started rowing his boat towards it, when suddenly a storm stirred up. The voice continued to sing but turned violent, threatening to drown him and sink his boat, but he rowed so quickly that the storm and lightning couldn’t catch up to him.

wars rowing his wooden boat through a rough sea storm
Wars rowing through the sea storm. Image Credit: Z Bajka Przezswiat

Mid-water, he suddenly saw a strange creature who was part fish and part woman. It was a mermaid. Confused and curious, he swam closer to her and reached out his hand. Impressed by his bravery, the mermaid handed him a shield and a sword and made him in charge of protecting her, the river and the city. The mermaid had turned into a woman by then and soon, the two of them got married and lived happily ever after. The fishing village was named Warszawa, honouring their union. 


Symbolisms and Cultural Significance

As mentioned earlier, the syrenka has been the emblem of Warsaw since the 14th century, at a time when Warsaw wasn’t even part of Poland, let alone it being the capital. The icon serves as a symbol of protection and the values of the Varsovians.

The fish symbolizes the city’s proximity to a water body which in this case refers to River Vistula. This could also suggest that the place was originally dependent on a fishing economy.

The shield and sword are the symbols of the defensive nature of the city and its people. The action of wielding the sword symbolizes the preparedness for a fight. It shows spirit, courage, hope, freedom, sovereignty and, the willingness to never give up. And justly, the Varsovians did fight, they did rebel, especially against Russian imperialists in the 19th century and against the Nazis during World War II.

Symbols of the shield are seen all over the city. The heritage buildings of Warsaw usually have an oval plaque in front, containing the information regarding the monument. The oval shape is symbolic of the shield that syrenka holds. Suggesting that the shield protects the heritage of Warsaw.

Lastly, in many of the syrenka legends, there is often an element of love, hospitality, camaraderie, marriage and family. These elements are highly valued in Polish society especially, marriage and family; which are given priority over everything else.


Signs of the Mermaid around Warsaw

The most popular spot to find the Mermaid would be in the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Warsaw, the Old Town square. However, if looked closely, it is everywhere.

First of all, it is part of Warsaw’s coat of arms.

warsaw coat of arms a syrena holding a round shield, a sword and hair tied up into a bun
Warsaw coat of arms. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Secondly, it can be found in buses, trams, metro, taxis, public buildings, and even on the gates of churches, like the one on the gates of St John’s Archcathedral.

Lastly, there are around 10 statues dedicated to the mythical creature. The most popular one is placed in the Old Town square and was designed by Konstanty Hegel in 1855.

the zinc statue of syrenka in old town warsaw
The syrenka wielding her sword and shield in Warsaw’s Old Town square. Image by adamsky73 from Pixabay

During that time, Varsovians were forbidden to honour any of their heroes so, the sculptor chose the symbol of the city instead. It was removed and moved around different locations for 71 years before restoring it to its original place. Unfortunately, it was moved again in 2008 and a replacement was erected in its stead. The original is housed in the Museum of Warsaw.

Another popular sculpture is the one at Powiśle, made by sculptor Ludwika Nitschowa and erected by the river in 1939.

syrenka statue at powisle by the vistula river
Statue of Syrenka by the Vistula River at Powisle. Image Credit: AFAR


Were they the Same?

Though the city was rebuilt not long ago, this symbol is proof of Warsaw’s long history and tradition. After it has been part of the land for nearly 800 years.

Before I end this post, I wanted to share a thought. When I first heard the story of Wars and Sawa and, the story of Syrenka, I couldn’t help but wonder, whether or not they were the same mermaid.

What do you think?


Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below and click here for more articles like this.



Wasilewski, J. & Kostrzewa, A., 2018. Syrenka Tattoos Personal Interpretations of Warsaw’s Symbol. Shima, 12(2), pp. 144-162.


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