Interesting facts about the Wawel DRAGON

Anybody visiting a souvenir shop in Krakow is sure to find themselves surrounded by images of dragons – as magnets, figurines, puppets, snow globes, mascots, and many more. The Wawel dragon is one of the most important symbols of the city, but why is it so popular? And how did it become so deeply engrained in the city’s history? It all started with an old tale…

THE MOST POPULAR VERSION OF AN OLD TALE

According to the most popular version of the legend, during the reign of King Krak, the dragon lived in a den under Wawel Hill. However, he wasn’t the sweet character that we know today, but a bloodthirsty beast terrorising the inhabitants of the nearby villages. From time to time, like any typical dragon, he would kidnap an innocent virgin to have for dessert.
The legendary king, worried about the situation in his city, decided to rid himself of the problem so he offered a reward to anyone who could slay the dragon. It was a standard reward for those times – gold, some land and the hand of the princess in marriage. Many brave souls came to Krakow to fight the beast, but each one ended up being killed.
Just as the king was losing hope of being free to live in peace, the city shoemaker, Skuba, came to him for an audience and presented his idea of how to get rid of the dragon. He said they would have to employ a trick. Skuba suggested to Krak that he should stuff a ram’s hide with sulphur and then toss it into the dragon’s cave in order to poison it. So that’s what they did! As soon as the dragon noticed the ram inside its den, it immediately devoured it whole. The sulphur then started to burn the dragon from the inside, so the beast rushed towards the Vistula, where it drank and drank and drank until it finally… exploded!
This is the version of the story that was presented by Joachim Bielski in the Polish Chronicle of Marcin Bielski, published in 1597. In earlier versions, for example the one contained in the Annals of Jan Długosz written in the 15th century, the person who had the idea about the ram, and who actually threw it into the den, was Prince Krak himself. And after freeing the city from the dragon’s terror, he became the first king at Wawel. That version of the legend is still not the oldest one, however.

Sulfur-stuffed lambskin is a common element in several versions of the legend

THE OLDEST MENTIONS OF THE WAWEL DRAGON

The first written references come from the turn of the 13th century – in a work by Wincenty Kadłubek. The story as told by this early chronicler differs from the one we know today as it is somewhat darker (as befits the Middle Ages), although it does also explain the name and fate of the city. The legendary King Krak is referred to by Kadłubek as King Gracch (although he is presumed to be the same person). The castle was named after him, of course – Gracchow. Gracch ruled the country wisely and fairly. He had two sons and, as tradition dictated, the first-born would take over from him when he died. At this point in the story, the chronicler introduces the character of a dragon which was tormenting the kingdom. Wanting his sons to prove their bravery, the king ordered them to slay the dragon. After several hard fights, they realised that the only way they could win was to trick it, so they also used sulphur to kill the beast, as in the other versions of the legend.
But then there was a twist – the younger son took the opportunity to kill his older brother as well. He then lied to his father and his subjects that the heir to the throne had died in a heroic battle with the dragon. The truth eventually came to light, however, and the lying brother was condemned to eternal exile. When the king eventually died, he was succeeded by his daughter Wanda, who is associated with another famous Krakow legend. According to Kadłubek, the city came to be called Krakow because that was the sound made by the ravens that flew down to peck at the dragon’s carcass.

THE DRAGON’S DEN

Another famous spot related to the legend of the dragon is the Dragon’s Den under Wawel Hill, which is the very place where the beast is said to have lived! You can enter it through one of the turrets within the walls of the castle, and then climb 135 winding stairs. There are three chambers for tourists to visit, but the entire complex is much larger. Interestingly, in the 15th century, the cave was an inn that became famous across Europe as a place of entertainment – hence the remains of the brick fortifications inside the cave. Supposedly, even the kings would visit this place late at night, incognito. But it was later closed down due to the many quarrels and fights that disturbed the peace of the night, and the vagrants and beggars who would gather in the vicinity. This situation did not last long, however, and it soon opened again. In fact, it was operating off and on until the 18th century, when the entrance was walled up during the fortification of the city. Later, when Krakow fell under Austrian rule, the cave was reopened – although this time for strictly tourist purposes.

The Dragon Cave was once a place of entertainment for residents and visitors. Even kings are said to have sneaked up on her!

THE DRAGON THAT STILL BREATHES FIRE

In front of the entrance to the cave is a bronze sculpture by Bronisław Chromy. But it’s no ordinary sculpture – it’s a dragon which breathes real fire every three minutes. Interestingly, in 2005, an additional option was introduced for extremely impatient tourists whereby they could speed up the process by sending an SMS. But that proved to be only a temporary “convenience”, however, and now you have to wait a whole 180 seconds for it to come round again. According to one idea, the dragon sculpture was supposed to stand in the Vistula, but that proposal never came to fruition.
Not many people know that on Kornel Makuszyński Street in Nowa Huta there is a second, forgotten, dragon statue. Unfortunately, it’s on private property and the owner doesn’t seem too interested in the monster.
DRAGON BONES NEAR THE ENTRANCE TO THE CATHEDRAL
While visiting Wawel Cathedral, go to the east entrance and you’ll see some bones hanging up on the left. They were said to be the bones of the dragon… but it later turned out they belonged to a mammoth from the Jurassic period. What’s beyond dispute is the fact that these bones have been hanging there since at least the Middle Ages. They’re protected with iron chains, and legend has it that if one of the chains breaks and a bone falls onto the steps of the church, then the world will fall into an abyss. That presumably explains why the maintenance work on them is carried out with such great care!


The fire-breathing dragon is a sight that can be found walking down the Czerwienski Boulevard, the statue of Chromy emits a fiery explosion every three minutes

THE WAWEL DRAGON IN POPULAR CULTURE

Over the centuries, the Wawel dragon has softened and turned from a terrible monster into a hero of children’s stories. It has appeared in a number of books and comics, but the most famous version is probably the one created by Stanisław Pagaczewski. In his book, the dragon becomes a detective who, on the orders of Prince Krak, sets off to the Land of the Rainforests to find the missing Professor Baltazar Gąbka on a rescue mission that mysterious spy Don Pedro aims to thwart. This book, and the subsequent cartoon series The Kidnapping of Baltazar Gąbka, kept many children happily entertained during the time of the Polish People’s Republic.

Frame from the animation “The Abduction of Belshazzar Sponge”

SEE THE DRAGON PARADE

The Great Dragon Weekend takes place in Krakow every year, at the end of May or early June, and features two days of pageantry, large-scale puppetry and fun for all the family. On the Sunday, there is a huge parade through the Main Square of colourful dragons made by schoolchildren, while on the Saturday there is a light and sound spectacular with huge inflatable dragons floating and “dancing” down the Vistula River, accompanied by music, fireworks, lasers and smoke. It’s an annual delight for local residents and tourists alike. Throughout the weekend, there is also a family picnic taking place on the Vistula River boulevards, with lots of fun attractions. If you’re thinking of going to Krakow in early summer, it really is an event not to be missed!