Krakow and the Legend of the Wawel Dragon

by JoHarrington

Everywhere we went in Krakow, we found souvenirs involving a green dragon. But no explanation as to what it was all about! Let me tell you a story.

It was the extremely knowledgeable taxi driver, on the way back to the airport, who finally enlightened us.

As we passed under the great walls of Wawel Castle, he regaled us with the legendary tales of Poland's dragon. A huge, fiery creature, which had terrified the Medieval occupants of the city.

"Everyone in Krakow feared for their daughters. It fed on female virgins over sixteen years old."

"Oh dear. What happened?" I asked, perfectly setting him up for the punchline.

"It starved to death!" We giggled. But that was only the unofficial version. There's also a famous story, which tour guides and folklorists are more likely to tell.

The Green Dragon of Krakow

It doesn't take a great detective to work out that a fire-breathing beast once lived beneath Wawel Castle.

Image: Smocza JanaBeneath the castle there is a cave. It's a place of beauty not danger now, but that wasn't always the case.

The clues are there.  The walkway leading into it is called Ulica Smocza - Dragon Street. The cave itself is named Smocza Jana - Cave of the Dragon.

Outside the gaping mouth of Smocza Jana is a huge art installation. Twenty feet tall and built out of bronze, it was sculpted by Bronisław Chromy.

It is a dragon. And every fifteen minutes - or sooner, if someone activates it with a text message - the statue breathes real fire.

Patently something went on at the foot of Krakow's Wawel Castle. Something deadly enough to have left its mark in the place-name evidence and its likeness all over the souvenir stalls. That something had once terrorized this neighborhood.

It is Smok Wawelski! Or, for the non-Polish speaking amongst us, it's the Dragon of Wawel Castle.

Be afraid.

Wawel Dragon of Krakow Plush Toy

The Story of Smok Wawelski - the Wawel Dragon

It's a tale dating back to the very foundation of the city of Krakow. The oldest written telling comes from the 13th century.

Image: Woodcarving of the Krakow DragonKing Krak was desperate. The settlement that bore his name was in great danger.

A dragon had taken up residence beneath the monarch's own castle.

Krakow was so young back then. Little more than a village, the people were still pouring in and staking their claims to homes and businesses. But the burgeoning new capital city of Poland was rich pickings for more than mere humans.

Smok Wawelski emerged from its den each day at sunset. Its almighty roar shook the foundations of the royal dwellings above, and sent the Krakow people scurrying indoors. Yet there was always some unwary soul trapped outside, or livestock not herded fast enough into barns and stables.

The dragon fed well every night. The people screamed at King Krak to do something!

What could the king do?  Every knight he sent against the beast was fried in his armor. His weapons merely clattered against the dragon's tough scales and fell harmlessly away. The story spread far and wide, attracting adventurers from distant provinces. But the same terrible Fate befell them all.

King Krak upped the stakes. He offered his own crown, and his beloved daughter Wanda's hand in marriage, for any who could defeat the dragon.  Many tried. All failed.

Skuba: The Hero Shoemaker of Krakow

Sometimes it's not swords and spears, but a good needlework hand that saves the day.

At the gates of Krakow came a young man. No knight, but a humble shoemaker, apprenticed and ready to ply his trade in the new city.

The guards sent him to the king's chamberlains to give his name and gain permission to enter.

It was here that the shoemaker Skuba first learned about the dragon, and an even bigger opportunity for prosperity than he had envisaged in coming to Krakow.

He persuaded the officials to allow him to set up in the city. Then he astounded them all by volunteering to take on the dragon too.

They naturally thought him insane. Yes, Princess Wanda was very beautiful, but not worth certain suicide. He was not a knight.

Skuba could not be dissuaded. He asked for just three things - the carcass of a lamb, some mustard seed and a quantity of sulfur. Intrigued, King Krak ordered that he be given his supplies.

The shoemaker hurriedly rummaged through his own belongings and extracted a few key items. Collecting them all together, he strolled down to the very edge of the River Vistula, just below the cave where the Wawel Dragon slumbered.

Skuba cut open the belly of the lamb and prepared the cavity inside. He placed a quantity of pitch, the sulfur and the mustard seed into the stomach, then took out his twine and carefully stitched the carcass closed.

He was a shoemaker. His needlework was neat. By the time he'd finished, nobody could even see the join. They were all watching, from the castle's windows or hidey-holes along the river bank.

Twilight was already falling and the great roar sounded within the cave. Skuba looked up, startled, then fled behind the nearest bush.

Out in the open, the dead lamb lay, its belly filled with poison.

Smok Wawelski stomped from its cave, hungry and after sustenance. Its gaze couldn't miss the bait left out for it to devour, and it did. With one swoop of its might head, it had the whole lamb between its jaws and swallowed it without a bite.

Everyone waited. Smok Wawelski seemed ready to take to the skies, after more supper, more meat. But then it stopped dead. Roaring, shrieking, stomping on the spot. Suddenly the beast plunged forward, down towards the River Vistula. It seemed possessed of an unquenchable thirst. It drank and drank and drank.

Then the dragon stood upright on its haunches. Its mouth gaped wide, as everybody steeled themselves to witness the terrifying burst of fire. It came louder and more startling than any but the shoemaker had anticipated.

With a horrific scream of pain, Smok Wawelski exploded.  Krakow's ordeal was over.

King Kraw was an honorable man and good to his word. Skuba the Shoemaker married Princess Wanda and became king of Krakow in his turn.

Wawel Dragon Souvenirs on Amazon

The Dragon of Krakow and Other Polish Stories (Folktales from Around the World)

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Poland Wawel Dragon - Adult Crew Neck Sweatshirt

Show off your Polish Pride with this ready to wear graphic crew neck sweatshirt printed with environment friendly, water based ink. When you place an order, your sweatshirt is c...

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Ink Pen - Wawel Dragon Figure

Ballpoint ink pen from the Krak&#243w Series featuring a hand-painted resin figure of Smok Wawelski, the Wawel Dragon, on the top of the pen. Famous in Polish folklore, the Wawe...

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More Polish Travel Articles from Krakow

Certain districts of Krakow may seem very familiar, even to those who've never stepped foot in Poland before. Steven Spielberg filmed 'Schindler's List' there.
Catholic Krakow was the home city of Pope John Paul II. Tourists seeking to honor and discover more about that notable pontiff will not be disappointed.
Nowa Huta was Stalin's gift to Poland. A shiny new steelworks and model homes steeped in the ideology of Communist architecture. Crazy Guides Tours take you there.
The Jewish Ghetto in Krakow was the last stop before transportation to a concentration camp. Its final clearance was immortalized in 'Schindler's List'.
Updated: 01/10/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 10/17/2013

*shudders* That would be absolutely awful!

MaggiePowell on 10/17/2013

Oh! Great Story!!! (let's just hope Disney doesn't turn it into something dorky with a lot of songs and a badger sidekick)

JoHarrington on 10/17/2013

Glad you liked it. And glad that we finally found out the story! I know we could have asked in the street (the Polish are very friendly), but it was quite fun trying to guess. We were close enough.

jptanabe on 10/16/2013

What a great dragon tale!

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