the fire breathing wawel dragon

The Fascinating Legend of the Wawel Dragon from Kraków, Poland

Kraków is a city located on the banks of the Vistula River in southern Poland. It is the second-largest city in the country and the most visited destination by tourists. Currently, it is the cultural capital of Poland, and quite justifiably so. Kraków is home to around 60 museums, over 20 higher educational institutes, 30 theatres and some of the finest monuments and buildings in Europe, such as the Wawel Royal Castle, Wawel Cathedral, St. Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, the Old Synagogue and St. Florian’s Gate, among others. Many of these buildings date back to the medieval era. The city also hosts over 500 cultural events annually. And, its historical centre was one of the first places to be enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is all thanks to the city’s opulent history and its role as the former Polish capital that gives Kraków its rich cultural heritage.

Now that we know a little bit about the city, let me introduce today’s topic. Today’s topic isn’t at all about the city. It is instead about a very popular legend from Kraków. The legend sometimes acts as the origin story of the city and, other times, it simply acts as a folktale to be told to the young. I’m talking about the Legend of the Wawel Dragon.

Legend of the Wawel Hill Dragon

According to legend, Kraków city was founded in the 7th century AD by a fictitious king named Krak. Many believe that the word Kraków came from the name of this king. In that case, Kraków translates to Krak’s place, or that Krak was the founder of the city.

King Krak is depicted as a benevolent and heroic king who established the city after defeating a terrifying dragon who used to reside in a cave at the bottom of Wawel Hill.

There are many versions of this legend, but some of the most popular ones are retold below:

Wawel Dragon Legend: Version One

Once upon a time, there was a king named Krak who lived in a castle on Wawel Hill with his daughter, Wanda.

King Krak was generous and kind and the citizens of his kingdom loved him and Wanda. For years, there was peace and prosperity until one day, a large three-headed dragon decided to make the cave under Wawel hill its home. The dragon was grotesque, massive, its body covered in scales and its sharp teeth pointing out.

Its presence terrified everyone as the creature would prey on people, their cattle and sheep. But its favourite meal was virgin maidens. When it couldn’t find anything to eat, it would become frantic, shake the hill and, in its rage, breathe out fire from its mouth. The dragon only brought destruction and chaos. Many tried to fight the creature only to fail and become its meal.

drawing of the wawel dragon in its lair
Illustration of the dragon terrorizing people and preying on sheep. Image Credit: Wikipedia

One day, there came a time when the only virgin maiden left in the kingdom was Princess Wanda, as all the others had been sacrificed to the dragon.

King Krak didn’t want his daughter to become prey to the creature, so he announced that he was searching for a courageous knight to fight the dragon. As a reward, they would receive his daughter’s hand in marriage and get half of the kingdom.

Many came and fought only to fail again and again. Then, finally, a poor, hardworking cobbler by the name of Dratewka approached the king and asked if he could fight the dragon. He wasn’t skilled with weapons or the art of combat, but he was intellectually gifted. Upon hearing his plan, King Krak permitted him to face the beast.

Dratewka procured sheepskin from the butcher, stuffed it with sulphur and stitched it up to look like a whole sheep. He then placed the sheep in front of the cave at night and waited. The next day, the hungry dragon came out of the cave and devoured the sheep outside the cave.

Then, the creature felt his body burn from inside. The burning just wouldn’t stop. To ease the burn, it began gulping down gallons of water from the Vistula. It drank so much water that the river almost dried out. The burning still wouldn’t go away. The beast continued drinking until it burst into tiny pieces with a loud bang!

The kingdom was finally liberated from terror and it rejoiced. Dratewka married Princess Wanda and they once again lived in a peaceful and prosperous Kraków.

Variations to the Story

In another version of this story, the names of the king and princess aren’t mentioned, but the name of the cobbler is Krak. Also in that story, there is no mention of a castle atop the dragon’s lair at the beginning of the story but, by the end, Krak builds a castle, marries the princess, becomes the king, expands the borders of the town to establish a city that he named after himself.

In other versions, the person to defeat the dragon isn’t a cobbler but a tailor. In another version, the cobbler, or tailor, is named Skuba instead of Dratewka.

Wawel Dragon Legend: Version Two

Once upon a time, a large, scaly and frightening dragon appeared in the kingdom of King Krakus. It chose the dark cave beneath the hill as its lair and spent its time preying on people and livestock. The beast would swallow them whole and if it couldn’t find anything to eat, it would burn the town by breathing fire through its mouth.  Seeing his citizens in a state, King Krakus then ordered his sons, Lech and Krakus II to face the fiery beast and defeat it once and for all.

the scary grotesque three headed fire breathing dragon
Ferocious dragon. Image Credit: World Stories

Like in the other versions of this story, Lech and Krakus stuffed a sheep with sulphur and fed it to the dragon. When the dragon felt its body burn, it drank the water of the Vistula till it burst.

However, once they vanquished the beast, both sons began quarrelling over who should get credit for the task. In the heat of the moment, Lech murdered Krakus II and spread the news all over town saying that Krakus II died while fighting the dragon. But, when the people learned the truth, Lech was exiled and the town was named Kraków in honour of Krakus II.

Origins of the Legend

the title page of the Chronica Polonorum
Chronica Polonorum, the Latin History of Poland. Image Credit: Wiki documentaries

The earliest record of the Wawel dragon being mentioned is in the Chronica seu originale regum et principum Poloniae, the Latin history of Poland written by the Bishop of Kraków and historian, Wincenty Kadłubek, between the 12th and 13th centuries. Wincenty Kadłubek’s version tells the story of King Krakus’ two sons slaying the dragon.

The character of Skuba, the heroic cobbler, was introduced through a rendition of the story by poet and historian Marcin Bielski in the 16th century.

Representation of the Wawel Dragon  

The legend of the Wawel Dragon is an extremely popular folktale in Poland and the story has been represented in both Polish and international culture.

Here are a few examples:

Smoczna Jama

inside the dragon's den at the foot of wawel hill
Inside the smoczna Jama. Image Credit: Wawel Royal Castle

This isn’t a representation of the legends, but actually a part of the stories. This is the dragon’s den, the very cave where the dragon decided to set up its lair in the stories. This is a very real 270-metre long limestone cave by the River Vistula and at the foot of Wawel Hill.  And a part of it is open for public viewing. An interesting fact about the cave is that it was used as a tavern and brothel in the middle ages.

Smok Wawelski Statue 

6m bronze statue of smok wawelski breathing fire
Statue of Smok Wawelski. Image Credit: Jerzy N. via Flickr

The Polish name for the mythical beast is Smok Wawelski, literally translating to Wawel Dragon. In honour of the dragon and the various versions of the legend, a statue of smok wawelski was placed just outside Smocza Jama. It is a 6-metre tall bronze statue of a standing dragon that breathes actual fire at 5-minute intervals. The statue is fuelled by natural gas which helps produce the fire. The statue was created by Polish sculptor, Bronisław Chromy and it was opened for public viewing in 1972.

Magical Dragon Bones

set of massive bones hung by a chain
Set of bones hung near the entrance to Wawel cathedral. Image Credit: manastir2014 via Flickr

Just outside the entry point to the Wawel Cathedral, one can find a set of gigantic bones hanging at a height on the left side of the main door. For many years, the locals believed that these were the bones of the dangerous smok wawelski. However, scientific research showed that the bones perhaps belonged to either a blue whale, woolly mammoth, rhinoceros or they could come from all three.

Nevertheless, the bones are believed to possess magical abilities that many believe helped protect Kraków from the turbulent events in history that the city has faced. Events such as World War II and the Polish partition.

The Great Dragon Weekend

Dragon floats and fireworks at the great dragon parade
The Great Dragon Parade. Image Credit: Mosquito Hostel

The Great Dragon weekend or Great Dragon Parade is an annual event that usually takes place on a weekend at the end of May. The weekend-long event is organized every year in honour of the legendary story. People from all over Poland and even from outside the country, gather in the Main Market square, where the 2 days are packed with activities. The event usually starts at around 9 pm on a Saturday and ends on Sunday.

At the event, actors from the local Groteska theatre re-enact the legend of the Wawel dragon using puppets at a spectacle that they organize by the river. There is also a magnificent light and sound show on Saturday night. On Sunday, kids from all over the country partake in a children’s parade. For this day, they design their own gigantic dragon floats, wear colourful and creative costumes and display them at the parade as they compete for holding the title of the best float.

Overall, the parade is vibrant, lively; full of laughter, entertainment, music, dance, colours and lights.

In 2020, the parade would have celebrated its 20th anniversary but, it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the parade is scheduled to take place in early September.

Dragon Awards

logo of krakow film festival with dragon
Logo of Krakow Film Festival. Image Credit: Festagent

Some of the awards presented at the Kraków Film Festival have the word dragon in them, presumably because the creature is one of the primary symbols of the city. Examples of some of the award names are Golden Dragon, Silver Dragon, Bronze Dragon, and Dragon of Dragons Special Prize.

The Kraków Film Festival is a seven-day film festival that begins at the end of May and ends at the beginning of June.

Name of an Archosaur

bones of smok wawelski the archosaur
Model of Smok wawelski, the Archosaur. Image Credit: Wikipedia

In 2007, the jawbone of a certain type of Archosaur was found in Lisowice, a village in Southwestern Poland. In 2011, the species was named Smok wawelski, after the dragon from the legend of the Wawel Hill Dragon.

What does Smok Wawelski Represent?

Why exactly the legend of the Wawel dragon became so popular isn’t clear, but its popularity has made the dragon a symbol of Kraków. The legend is also a story that is passed on to the future generation and thus, it is a part of Polish cultural heritage.

Many scholars have attempted to analyse the legend to understand its significance, but so far, there is no concrete solution. Many believe that the evil dragon represents the malevolent people initially living on the hill. Some believe that those people that the dragon represents were actually the Avars people, a tribe from the Northern Caucus region who had apparently settled down on Wawel Hill in the late 6th century. Others believe that the story is derived from a more ancient myth from the region.

a fire breathing dragon
Image Credit: Pinterest

In mythology around the world, the character of the dragon often comes up in stories but they are interpreted differently. Generally, the Occident associates dragons as a symbol of evil, whereas the Orient associates the dragon with power, wisdom and mystic powers.

In many of these stories, there is usually a hero involved, who either slays the dragon or gets it under their control, showing the hero to be the ultimate saviour from evil.  And the act of slaying represents the clash between good and evil. Perhaps the legend of the Wawel dragon also represents the victory of good over evil?

What do you think the legend of the Wawel dragon means?

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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One thought on “The Fascinating Legend of the Wawel Dragon from Kraków, Poland

  1. Én a Bükki Bűbájosok című fantasy egyik főszereplőjévé avattam, aki hazajár töltekezni. A lengyel sárkányok ereje és a magyar boszorkányok furfangja győzi le a gonoszt, segíti a fiatalokat a jó meglelésére. Sokat olvastam Krakus herceg történetéről, és a könyvben meg is jelenítettem. 🙂 Tölgyesi Lívia

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