Kraków, many agree, is Poland’s most beautiful city. The centerpiece of Poland’s second-largest city would be the Gothic Wawel Castle, built in the 1300s. And, just outside the inner castle walls stands Smok Wawelski, the dragon of Wawel Hill.
The story of the Krakow dragon of Wawel Hill (Smok Wawelski in Polish) is quite famous in Polish folklore. Wawel (VAH-vehl) Hill is in located in the Polish city of Kraków, which used to be the capital of Poland, and is on the bank of the Vistula River.
The story of Smok Wawelski goes like this:
Deep below Wawel Hill, a formidable dragon which breathed fire (don’t they all?) lived in a cave (also don’t they all?).
When the dragon chose to leave its lair, it went through the countryside wreaking all kinds of havoc. It ate the livestock, killed villagers, and scared the farmers to the point where they wouldn’t allow their sheep and cows to graze in the field next to the Vistula River. Many versions of the story say that the Wawel Dragon especially enjoyed consuming young girls and was content only if the townspeople sacrificed a girl once a month by leaving her in at the mouth of his cave.
Many brave knights had attempted to slay the beast, but were burned to death by the dragon’s fiery breath the second they got too close. In those versions of this tale where the dragon was appeased by a girl as a sacrifice, the dragon devoured all the maiden women in the town until the only one left was the princess, Wanda. At this point, the king promised knights and noblemen alike that whoever killed the dragon could marry his beautiful daughter and assume the throne as King of Poland when he died.
All kinds of men attempted to slay the dragon, for their town’s safety and/or to marry the beautiful princess (as she may have been the only woman left in town, she was beautiful no matter what). The dragon destroyed each and every one of them.
One day, towards what seemed was to be the inevitable end of the town, a poor, young cobbler’s apprentice named Krak (Krakus) asked the king if he could make an attempt to slay the monster. The king was leery as the boy had no armor, weapons, or even a horse, but had no choice but to give him a shot.
Krak had a plan.
He purchased a dead sheep from a butcher and some sulfur from a miner. Krak cut the sheep open with a sharp knife, gutted the animal, and stuffed it with the powdered sulfur. After sewing the sheep closed with his handy shoemaker’s thread, he dragged the package over to the dragon’s lair and hid while waiting for the beast to appear.
Soon after, the dragon came out from his cave, smelling the freshly-killed carcass of the sheep. Since the Wawel dragon was quite large, it ate the sheep basically whole, finishing the entire animal with a ravenous appetite. Because of the dragon’s fiery breath, the sulfur, now in the beast’s stomach, sparked like the matches it was intended for. The dragon’s stomach expanded as it burned, and he ran towards the nearby Vistula River to put out the fire. However, the dragon gulped down so much of the river’s water that his stomach continued to expand. He fell to the ground, sick.
Following in the footsteps of David against this Polish version of Goliath, Krak came out from his hiding spot and started hurling stones at the dragon. The dragon tried to blow its fiery breath at Krak, but all that came out was steam. Still expanding with the contents of his stomach, the dragon finally exploded and died.
The townspeople rejoiced as they were finally rid of this menace. Krak and Princess Wanda married, and Krak took over the throne after the King died, in fulfillment of the promise he had made. A castle was constructed for King Krakus and Queen Wanda on the top of Wawel Hill, directly over the dragon’s lair, where the kings of Poland ruled from for the next few centuries. As the city recouped and the population grew back healthily, the townspeople named the sprawling settlement Kraków, in honor of their new king and his great feat.
Some versions of the legend say that the original King’s name was Krakus, and that the shoemaker apprentice’s name was Skuba, the city already known as Kraków.
Another version says that instead of Krakus being a cobbler’s apprentice, he was some sort of wizard or magician who was asked to rid the town of the dragon. This magician Krakus was a knowledgeable healer of the sick, using all sorts of combinations of herbs to do what he needed to do. He got the people to fetch him a sheep, on which he applied an explosive paste he concocted.
Some accounts of the story state the dragon gulped down half or all of the Vistula River as he tried to quench the burning in his stomach.
Kraków’s Wawel Castle still stands on Wawel Hill, along with the Wawel Cathedral, which now features a metal sculpture of the Dragon of Wawel Hill, designed by Bronisław Chromy in 1970. There is a plaque commemorating the dragon’s defeat by Krak. The cave of the dragon is real, and sits below Kraków’s Wawel Castle as a popular tourist destination.
The dragon sculpture’s mouth spits fire every few minutes, and it can even be signaled by visitors via a text message (SMS) with the word “SMOK,” sent to the number 7168! The fire that comes out of the beast’s mouth now is fueled by natural gas, much cleaner and more pleasant on the olfactory senses than sulfur.