Meet Poland’s Most Famous Monster: The Wawel Dragon

 

The Dragon of KrakowIn many ways, Krakow is a town taken right out of a medieval storybook. Quaint narrow roads, towering cathedrals and an imposing castle greet anyone fortunate enough to visit this famous hub of Polish culture.

No medieval story, however, is complete without a fire-breathing dragon, and Krakow does not disappoint. Below Wawel Castle lies a natural limestone cave. Upon entering this “Smocza Jama,” or dragon’s den, one cannot help but be overcome with the coldness of the stone walls and the primal feeling that pervades this ancient expanse. Legend has it that the Wawel dragon made its home in this very cave. Here is the story.

Centuries upon centuries ago, Krakow’s inhabitants were being terrorized by a bloodthirsty dragon living in the limestone cave under Wawel Hill. No one knew where this beast had come from, only that it wreaked havoc on the town, destroying  livestock and feasting on young Polish virgins.

The king was desperate for a solution. He offered all sorts of riches and his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever could slay the monster. Soon knights arrived from across the country to face the beast in the hopes of collecting the reward. Their weapons were useless against the dragon’s thick scales; however,  and they all suffered agonizing deaths. It seemed the dragon was there to stay.

Now, there was a young boy named Krak living in the city, a shoemaker’s apprentice, who claimed he could slay the dragon without any sword or armor. Naturally, everyone laughed him out of the room (even though sword and armor had proven useless up to this point), except for the king. By this point, the king had no place to turn to. He was willing to try anything to save his kingdom from the Wawel dragon.

Smok Wawelski
16th century drawing of the Wawel Dragon under the castle

Krak requested two items to slay the beast: a dead sheep and sulfur. Confused, but desperate for a solution, the king supplied the materials. After cutting the carcass open, Krak stuffed it with sulfur and sowed it back up. He then placed the sheep in front of the dragon’s cave in the middle of the night.

The next morning, the dragon emerged from its cave to begin a typical day of murder and destruction. When it saw a sheep just sitting in front of the cave, (apparently this didn’t seem odd at all), it gobbled it up. Big mistake.

Soon, the Wawel dragon began suffering the mother of all belly aches, as the sulfur in the sheep caught fire in its stomach and began exploding. Somehow, a ruptured gastrointestinal tract was not enough to kill the beast. Instead, it flew as fast as it could to the Wisła River and began drinking water to try and extinguish the fire. The water didn’t help, but apparently made the situation worse. Shortly after, the dragon exploded, its remains sinking to the bottom of the river.

sheep
The Polish weapon of choice against dragons

Krak became an instant hero for killing the dragon in such an ingenious way. The king gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. Eventually, Krak became king, built a castle atop the dragon’s den, and named the city Krakow.

When I was a kid visiting Krakow, I would always peer into the Wisła River, hoping to spot the bones of the Wawel Dragon at the bottom. I was never lucky enough to find them. Although, some bones of a mysterious large beast were found not far from the city.

Over the centuries, the Wawel dragon has become a major staple of Krakow’s culture. The limestone cave draws thousands of tourists each year. Outside the cave, near the river, a fire breathing statue of the Wawel Dragon was erected in 1972. Most visitors, especially  kids, have a photo climbing it.

Many cultures have legends of dragons and dragon slayers, but this one is definitely unique. While other dragons are typically slain by swords, arrows or magic, the Wawel dragon went down from an exploding sheep carcass. Hmm, must be a Polish thing.

The Dead Are Out Tonight

All Souls Day Poland, Dziady
“All Souls Day” in ancient Polish times

If you want a treat in Poland on Halloween, you’d better be ready to play some tricks because America’s spookiest holiday really isn’t a big deal there (although that’s slowly changing).

Instead, Poles strongly observe the two religious holy days immediately following Halloween–“All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” (Dzien Zaduszny)—which have more than their share of traditional ghostly customs.

It all begins on the eve of “All Souls Day,” November 1. Traditionally, entire families would gather for a large dinner in the evening. Now, when I say entire families, I mean living……and dead. Extra spaces would be reserved at the table for deceased family members and other wandering spirits that would emerge from the netherworld on that night. Indeed, the entire point of “All Souls Day” is to offer prayers for restless spirits trapped in purgatory, stuck between heaven and hell. Traditionally, on that night, families would chant:

Holy sainted ancestors, we beg you
Come, fly to us
To eat and drink
Whatever I can offer you

Special food would  then be served such as buckwheat groats, kutia, and  “soul bread.” The “soul bread,” known as zaduszki, would be made of rye and shaped into a long loaf to represent a dead person. Naturally, the food would be shared with the deceased at the table, and vodka (probably what the spirits were actually after in all this) would be  poured out for them as well.

Zaduszki
Hundreds of candles burn in this cemetery for “All Souls Day.”

Following the meal, Poles made, and continue today to make, pilgrimages to local cemeteries to honor their dead. They light candles and place them on the graves; this custom goes back to pagan times, the idea being that the heat from the candles will warm the forlorn spirits wandering the earth. They typically attend Mass at this time as well.

On this night, centuries ago, Poles would also give leftover food to beggars (called dziady) who would pray for deceased loved ones in return. These mysterious beggars acted as intermediaries between the living and the dead.

Driving through the Polish countryside on  the night of “All Souls Day” can be a truly magical, surreal experience. As the candles from thousands of individual graves burn in the distance, you cannot help but feel a mystical connection to the supernatural. You can understand why on this night the lines between the realms of the living and the dead are blurred and why it’s the opportune time to pray for those lost souls, whom we may one day join.

Today, many Polish superstitions have died along with those who observed them, but the religious significance of the holy days remains stronger than ever. Poles often tend to group “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” into one giant observance meant to honor and pray for the dead. People don’t work and schools are closed on those days.

These holy days are not unique to Poland. Catholics around the world observe them to some extent. Poles just happen to add their own unique and interesting flavor to them. It’s a beautiful custom that not only fosters a common religious experience, but also adds to Poland’s national identity.

So during this mystical week, you won’t see many trick-or-treaters in Poland. You might, however, run into a wandering spirit. In that case, you’d better have a bottle of Smirnoff on you.

See Also

http://www.polamjournal.com/Library/Holidays/Zaduszki–All_Soul-s_Day/zaduszki–all_soul-s_day.html

Polish Customs Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab