The deeper one delves into the history of Poland’s oldest city, the deeper one delves into one of Europe’s most labyrinthine entanglements of fact and fiction. The Polish folk-lore tradition has long held sway in Krakow, and today the city’s tour guides wrestle daily with a history that is tangled in a mythical ball of various narratives – from heroic townsmen and vengeful brothers, to animorphing wizardry and, of course, the ubiquitous dragon.
At the foot of the Wawel hill in Krakow, one of the city’s ancient legends still stands in monument. The cast bronze statue of the 1970s depicts one of Krakow’s most infamous mythical inhabitants, the Smok Wawelski. His story is one that captivates and awes; a tale of heroism and cunning, now fixed in the minds of every Cracovian. It is under the shadow of this statue that many of the Old Town and castle tours come to a close, hoping to cow their group with one of the dragon’s trademark bursts of flame that still issue sporadically into the air at the whim of a remote text message service that’s open to the whim of tourists.
Like much of the Cracovian Apocrypha, the tale of the Smok Wawelski is dislocated in time. But, in the absence of date, suffice to say that Krakow was still a small town when the legendary dragon ravaged the farmlands that surrounded the hitherto uncultivated Wawel Hill. For years the beast destroyed the locals’ crops, stole their young and struck fear into all of the dwellers on the Vistula banks.
Offering his own daughter up as a prize to any knight that could rid the Wawel of the Dragon, the king watched hopeful after hopeful perish in the lair of the beast, their shields shattered and swords snapped in two. But, one day, a young cobbler’s apprentice names Krak (to add yet another contender for the title of Krakow’s eponymous hero) approached the King, and said he could defeat the dragon using only a dead sheep, a needle and thread, and some sulphur.
Naturally the King was curious and agreed to let the young boy do battle with the dragon. So, the next day Krak approached the lair of the Smok Wawelski , but when he got close, simply dropped the sheep’s carcass at its entrance. The boy then hid, and before long the dragon emerged and quickly devoured the sheep. Inside, Krak had packed bundles of poisonous sulphur that quickly made the dragon intensely thirsty. He ran down to the Vistula River and began to drink greedily, swelling and swelling, more and more as he drunk.
Before long the dragon had imbibed so much he exploded, and Krak was hailed as the cunning adversary that had proved too much for the beast. He was paraded as a hero, married the King’s daughter, and the locals – now free to build atop the Wawel Hill – honoured him in the name of the city that he had made possible.
Today, the Dragon of Krakow story is something like Krakow’s Trojan-horse. Around it has grown up a veritable cult of the dragon, and visitors still flock to the foot of the castle hill where the subterranean lair of the beast can still be explored, it’s entrance just behind the imposing bronze statue of Smok himself. Hanging in the vestibule of the Wawel cathedral, the dragon’s bones like a national trinket are said to emanate magical protection that has shielded Krakow from destruction at the hands of foes since Krak, the cobbler’s son, first freed it from perhaps its most formidable.