Thursday, July 12, 2012

The legend of king Krak and the Dragon of Wawel Hill

Why is Cracow called Cracow?

Panorama of Cracow from the Nuremberg Chronicles (1493)

The latin name is Cracovia, but in Polish, we call it Kraków, which means 'City of Krak'. I pause here to let you have a giggle at how that sounds… now here's the story.

Krak, or Krakus (Grakhus in the earliest chronicles), was a prince from the 7th century, a tribal leader whose people settled in the area some six thousand years ago. Late 13th century accounts speak of a terrible dragon living in a cavern under Wawel hill.  (the word 'wawel' is said to derive from 'wąwel', meaning 'a rise in the marshes') As is in a dragon's habit, the beast demanded to be fed cattle every week, and would devour people if he was unsatisfied.

In the 13th century work Chronica Polonorum, historian Wincenty Kadłubek wrote that was Krak himself who slew the dragon and built his castle on top of the rock. The 15th century chronicler Jan Długosz attributed the deed to Krak's sons. In the 16th century, poet Marcin Bielski introduced a young tailor called Skuba or Dratewka into the legend.

That is the story I was told as a young child, and it goes something like this:

In the royal city of Kraków, King Krak lived in a castle on top of Wawel Hill. His city was built by the river, on fertile lands, and would have been rich and prosperous if not for the fierce dragon which lived in a cavern below the castle. The dragon would roam the countryside, stealing sheep, cattle, and people, and he delighted in the taste of virgin flesh.

The beast devoured virgin after virgin, until only the king's own daughter, Wanda, was left. It was then that King Krak declared that the brave hero who would slay the dragon would receive half the kingdom and his daughter's hand in marriage.

Knight after knight tried to kill the dragon; all were devoured. One day, a poor young cobbler's apprentice by the name of Dratewka announced that he would try his luck. The boy was no warrior; he had no armour, no  sword. What he did have, however, was his wits.

Dratewka knew he could not destroy the dragon by force, so he tried cunning instead. He took a sheepskin and stuffed it with sulfur, then sewed it back together and left it at the mouth of the cave. As expected, the dragon swallowed the stuffed animal whole. Soon, a dreadful ache started up in its belly. The suffering dragon crept down to the river, and began to drink...and drink...and drink...

...until it had drunk half the river, and burst into a million pieces.

An illustration of the legend from German cartographer Sebastian Munster's
1544 Cosmographia Universalis

It is sometimes said that the name 'Kraków' was derived from the cawing of ravens (in Polish: krakanie kruków) which flocked to eat the remains of the dragons.

So, did the dragon really exist? Well…

The cave under the castle hill is quite real. You can visit it in the warmer months, climbing down a long spiral staircase in a narrow turret. The turret was once a well, drawing water from the flooded caverns.

Dragon's Cave

In the 16th and 17th century, part of the cave was used as a storage room and banquet hall for a tavern and public house built by the river. In 1843, the space was opened up for sightseeing.

Though the cave is no longer home to a dragon, another rare species can be found in its depths: a troglobitic crustacean called Niphargus tatrensis, seen only in underground karst reservoirs. It was discovered in 1887 by Polish biologist August Wrześniowski, and named after the Tatra mountains in which it was found.

After you have passed through all three limestone chambers, you will emerge at the foot of the hill, by the river, where, since 1972 a large statue of the dragon stands guard. Every five minutes or so, the dragon spits fire!


Nearby, the outer walls of the castle bear a plaque which states:

Krakus, Prince of Poland
Ruled between the years 730-750
(Peters, Royal Registers 2nd fascicle page 40)

This is the site of the cavern 
in which having slewn a wild dragon
then settling on the Wawel he founded the city of


When you enter the Cathedral on Wawel Hill, you should look up at the arch. Three large bones hang over the doorway, suspended on chains. For centuries, these were believed to be the remains of the dragon.

In reality, they belong to a mammoth, a rhinoceros, and a whale.

Dragon bones

That should put the silly legend to rest, shouldn't it?

Not quite. In 2007, the jawbone of an unspecified dinosaur was discovered near the village of Lisowice in the South-West of Poland. Dating back to the late Triassic, it was classified as a rather large, predatory Archosaur, and given the species name of wawelski in the genus Smok. A.k.a: the Dragon of Wawel!

And in 1965, author Stanisław Pagaczewski wrote a hilarious series of books for children called "The abduction of Balthasar Sponge" , depicting an alternative reality in which medieval Cracow blends seamlessly with  then modern-day Poland. King Krak is now friends with the sophisticated Dragon, and regularly goes down to visit the cave and play chess or discuss the most recent football match between the two local teams- Wisła and Cracovia. When famous professor Balthasar Sponge is kidnapped, the Dragon and his friends set out to retrieve him... The books featured dramatic adventures, international spies, mythical creatures, and ingenious inventions.

The work was later turned into a very popular and equally amusing animated series: the dragon real?

You'll have to go to Cracow and find out for yourself.

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