The Wawel Dragon
In issue 6 of Medieval World: Culture & Conflict, Dr. Magdalena Łanuszka authored the article "Wawel Hill: The Real ‘House of the Dragon’" (42-45), which explores Cracow's own dragon legend. This blog offers additional historical context and details about the legend of the Wawel Dragon.
A brief history of the site
In the Jurassic Period a shallow sea spread over most parts of Central Europe, including the areas around Cracow. Sea creatures such as ammonoids or sponges were rock-forming organisms, and so the region is full of limestone formations, with many caves. Wawel Hill, situated by the riverbank, surrounded by marshes, was inhabited by people by the Paleolithic Period. The ancient Roman Empire did not include these lands, but the Celts came here, most likely in the third century BC. During late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, various tribes passed through the Cracow region. By the seventh century, Wawel Hill was taken over by Slavic inhabitants. By the ninth century Wawel Hill was a fortified settlement, and soon it also became the site of the first early-Romanesque buildings, with quite a few churches, including the cathedral (the bishopric of Cracow was established in the year 1000).
In the eleventh century, Wawel became the seat of the rulers of Poland; from the fourteenth century royal coronations took place in Wawel Cathedral, which also became the necropolis of the kings. Wawel Hill housed the Royal Castle, along with the many other buildings necessary to accommodate administration in the capital of the kingdom, until the end of the sixteenth century, when the king and the court moved to Warsaw.
The legend of the Wawel Dragon
For some time, one of the bishops of Cracow was Wincenty Kadłubek (ca.1150–1223), a Cistercian, a lawyer, and a historian. He most likely studied in Paris and Bologna; he was a man of great erudition, and his broad knowledge of medieval and classical literature, Greek, French, and Latin languages, as well as Roman and Canon law, showed in his writing. The result of his life’s work was Historia Polonica (History of Poland) – a Latin chronicle of Poland, starting from legends dating back to ancient and early medieval times. This is the earliest known text telling the story of the Wawel Dragon. It was rooted most likely in some local folk tale related to pagan Slavic beliefs about an archaic chthonic creature of chaos and destruction: a winged serpent, living underground.
Kadłubek’s tale was repeated in chronicles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; an anonymous Franciscan writer noted the similarity of Kadłubek’s story and a Biblical tale from the Book of Daniel (the narrative of Bel and the Dragon, incorporated as chapter 14 of the extended Book of Daniel). The Alexander Romance also served as a source of inspiration, especially the part of the legend that details Alexander's journey to India.
The story about the monster called “holophagus” (i.e. "whole-eater") was later repeated by another famous Polish historian, Jan Długosz (1415–1480), in his monumental Annales seu cronicae incliti Regni Poloniae; this writer was the first to set the dragon’s den precisely under Wawel Hill.
Długosz’s tale was popular among sixteenth-century writers. The oldest surviving Polish version can be found in Kronika świata (Chronicle of the World) by Marcin Bielski, published in Cracow in 1551. Bielski was also the first to provide a date for this event: AD 700. By the mid-sixteenth century, the legend of the Wawel Dragon was also known abroad, and the cave in Wawel Hill was popularly called “Dragon’s Den”. Around the end of the sixteenth century a new vernacular motif was added to this story: it was no longer the legendary prince Krak himself (nor his sons) who came up with the trick to kill the dragon; it was an idea developed by a local shoemaker, called Skub. This addendum appeared in the late-sixteenth century revised edition of Marcin Bielski’s chronicle, created by his son, Joachim. In time, the legend evolved so much that most Polish children now learn that the Wawel Dragon was killed by the trick of a young shoemaker, who as a reward got to marry a princess – a storyline absent from the medieval tale. Another much later addition is a belief that the Wawel Dragon ate mostly (or only) virgins. Interestingly, in early modern times (and certainly by the seventeenth century), the Wawel Dragon’s den was recorded as hosting a somewhat (in)famous inn, and also a brothel – so certainly no virgins were to be found there.
The Wawel Dragon today
By the end of the eighteenth century, as a result of so-called partitions, independent Poland disappeared from the map of Europe until 1918. Quite a revival of popularity of the Wawel Dragon legend occurred in the nineteenth century, when European-wide interest in folklore and regional heritage overlapped in Poland with struggles to keep the national identity alive. Some artists illustrated the legend according to Wincenty Kadłubek; others used it to create a romantic image, merging the story of the Wawel Dragon with traditional depictions of St George fighting a dragon. Another trope was derived from the myth of Perseus and Andromeda – a dragon approaching a bound or chained young woman – which popularized a motif absent from medieval legend: that the Wawel Dragon preferred to be fed on virgins.
In the early twentieth century, a great renovation of Wawel Hill began when the Austrian army left the area (after using the castle as a citadel since 1846). Professor Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, who led the renovation, decided to create a tourist route to the Dragon’s Den, entering through an old Austrian well, with a staircase leading down from the Wawel Hill. An exit was opened down by the Vistula riverbank, outside the castle walls. In 1972 a statue of the Wawel Dragon was placed near the exit from the den; the sculpture was created by a famous Polish contemporary artist, Bronisław Chromy (1925–2017). This dragon actually breathes fire thanks to a gas installation placed inside the statue.
A series of popular children’s books by Stanisław Pagaczewski (1916–1984), adapted into animated movies, created an alternative image of the Wawel Dragon: an elegant gentleman, a very positive hero, a vegetarian (!), as well as a close friend and advisor to Prince Krak. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Wawel Dragon had a well-established status of an informal symbol of Cracow, no longer bearing negative symbolism. For over 20 years every June an outdoor event called the “Great Dragon Parade” (organized by The Theatre of Puppets, Masks, and Actors – Groteska in Cracow) has been gathering thousands of tourists from all around the world.
For over 20 years every June, an outdoor event called the “Great Dragon Parade” (organized by The Theatre of Puppets, Masks, and Actors – Groteska in Cracow) has been gathering thousands of tourists from all around the world. Souvenirs from Cracow are often decorated with a jolly green dragon wearing a crimson four-pointed cap with peacock feather - an element of Cracow folk costume that became a symbol of the city and its residents. It was no surprise, then, that one of the mascots of the European Games 2023 taking place in Cracow was a dragon named "Krakusek".
If you are ever in Cracow, do not forget to visit the ‘real’ House of the Dragon, at least for Central Europe, on Wawel Hill.
Be sure to read Dr. Magdalena Łanuszka's article "Wawel Hill: The Real ‘House of the Dragon’" (42-45) in issue 6 of Medieval World: Culture & Conflict for more information on a legendary prince Krak and a trick used to kill the beast, as well as the so-called dragon's bones and various depictions of the dragon in medieval art on Wawel Hill.
Magdalena Łanuszka is a graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, PhD art historian, and medievalist. She has cooperated with various institutions as an academic teacher (lectures at the Jagiellonian University, Cracow AGH University of Science and Technology, many Third Age Universities, etc.), as a researcher (Glasgow University, Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences), and as a popularizer (e.g. for Polish National Archives, Polish National Library, National Institute for Museums and Public Collections, Radio Krakow, Tygodnik Powszechny). At the International Cultural Centre in Cracow she runs the Art and Heritage in Central Europe column, as well as the Polish editorial office of RIHA Journal. She is author of a blog on searching for curiosities in art: en.posztukiwania.pl.