What’s a Wawel Dragon?
Last summer we participated in the Battle of Grunwald, and on our way there stopped by Krakow where we heard an amazing story – The Legend of the Wawel Dragon.
Long story short – under Wawel hill lived an evil dragon who tormented the people, until one day he was slain by a poor but cunning tailor who fed the dragon with a poisoned sheep carcass. The tailor’s name was Krakus, so after he married the king’s daughter, the town was named Krakow after him.
Inside the castle on top of Wawel hill – the Royal palace and the Cathedral of St Wenceslaus
A Story With Many Faces…
As a Balkan child, I’ve heard this story in thousands of variations and it contains pretty much the same elements regardless of where you heard it. Furthermore, I did some research on mythology on the Balkans from the 16th to the 18th centuries and there are many songs and tales that tell the same story – the greedy evil dragon, the deep dark cave of treasures, the countless failed attempts to slay it, the clever but poor hero, and the grateful king who gives him his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Until that moment I had never wondered about the origins of that story because it’s so popular, but once you connect the dots, an interesting image emerges.
The one thing that makes this story fascinating are the remains of the dragon. On top of Wawel hill, where the medieval part of Krakow was built, stands the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus where you can see the bones of the dragon. High above the entrance of the cathedral hang several monstrous massive bones on display. So every time you go there you are reminded of that heroic and legendary deed. They were put there in the 14th century – which is also one of the most prosperous periods in the city’s history. Now the bones themselves are probably from a whale or a mammoth, but they are still very impressive. And on top of that, there is actually a real cave under the hill – from the top of the hill (within the citadel) there is a tower with a staircase that goes down about 100 meters into the depths of the earth and into a magnificent underground cave that leads to the river just outside the castle.
The “dragon bones” hanging at the entrance of the Cathedral
How the Wawel Smok Legend Influenced Europe
Now, I don’t want to go very deep into the subject because it’s really vast, but thanks to my research in post-middle-ages folklore on the Balkans, and my research on trade routes in the 14th century, I have reached a hypothesis which can be quite interesting and entertaining.
For starters, I want to explain why the legend is so powerful and influential. The first appearance of this legend comes from the Chronicle of Master Vincent from the end of the 13th century. The cathedral was built and destroyed in the 11th century, it was rebuilt in the 12th and destroyed again in the 14th century (1305). By the end of the 14th century it was rebuilt and it’s still standing. Now we don’t know where the bones came from or if they were hung in front of the earlier cathedrals, but according to research the cave under the hill has been inhabited in prehistoric times (50 000 BC.), so it’s very likely that they found the fossilized bones there or somewhere in the area.
So, when you have a strong story and evidence to support it – (like the bones, the tunnels, and the cave), this makes a pretty strong prerequisite for a medieval blockbuster legend. There are at least two written sources of the legend remaining to this day, so it has obviously been popular in the middle ages.
The 14th century is known as one of the most successful periods of the history of Krakow – trade relations improved, culture soared, and not surprisingly the legend spread through Europe. Now, the 14th century was a good time for many kingdoms including those on the Balkans where local rulers invested a great deal in education and learning, and since the oldest legends on the Balkans date from roughly that time period – it is not very surprising to see some of them resembling the Wawel dragon story.
The Dragon’s Den or “Smocza Jama” (Смоча яма)
What I’m trying to say is, that with the growth in culture and trade in eastern and central Europe, this fascinating and compelling story, might have been the source of inspiration for hundreds of similar stories on the Balkans. This assumption is also supported by the fact that most kingdoms south of Krakow speak very similar languages on the foundation of the Cyrilic alphabet.
The Wawel dragon depiction from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographie Universalis from 1544
So, what does it matter if the story has had such a great influence? What difference does it make?
Well, as a medievalist I feel a little joy knowing that the European kingdoms in the middle ages have had more in common then we might have expected. It’s the common ideas and stories that help bring people from different nations together and that’s very important for me. We know a great deal about western Europe and its history in details, whereas the Balkans and the eastern parts of Europe are still a bit obscured, un-researched and veiled in myths. So, every light we shed on our common history, is a step toward understanding our ancestors, and that’s worth the effort.
I hope you like this article, and if you ever have a chance – you should definitely visit Krakow! It’s magical!
Krakow in the 16th century