Enter the Dragon!

12 August 2022

The Wawel Dragon is a symbol of Kraków, just like the Mermaid of Warsaw and Neptune of Gdańsk. That’s why Kraków abounds with dragons… and this year there will be even more! 

By Ryszard Kozik

Dragons have been captivating humankind’s imagination for thousands of years. Terrifying beasts combining features of many domesticated animals were reported by Ancient Egyptians (3000 BC), Sumerians (2500 BC), Babylonians (2000 BC) and Mayans (between 500 BC and 900 AD). 

According to the Dictionary of Polish Language, dragons are “monsters, usually with many heads, wings, talons and massive tail, resembling a huge lizard, found in folk beliefs and fairytales”. And although they are known by many different names – lung in China, zmaj in Serbia and Croatia, lohikaarme in Finland, tatsu in Japan, Lindwurm in Germany, and in many cultures simply “monster” – they have always stirred a mixture of fascination and terror. 

Turning legend into history
The earliest reports of the Wawel Dragon are found in Wincenty Kadłubek’s Chronicles of Poland, penned at the turn of the 13th century. According to his story, the monster is defeated by sons of King Krak (Grak); the younger brother kills the older son, blaming the dragon. Although he inherits the throne, he is exiled when the murder is revealed. 

Jan Długosz modified the legend in the 15th century, putting the king himself in the fight with the dragon. Towards the end of the 16th century, the royal secretary Joachim Bielski replaced the king with the cunning cobbler Skuba, and that’s the way the story has been told ever since. The cobbler fed the dragon a sheepskin stuffed with sulphur and saltpetre. The monster gobbled it up, and when the mixture started to burn, he drank and drank and drank from the Vistula – until he exploded. In the mid-18th century, Benedykt Chmielowski in his New Athens dated the event as 770 AD, and the legend became history.  

When the fountain spouted fire 
Kraków’s most famous dragon stands in front of the Dragon’s Den at the foot of Wawel Hill by the river, breathing fire every three minutes. However, the original design was for a fountain.  

Bronisław Chromy, project of a dragon fountain submitted to a competition for new fountains in Kraków in 1964
photo from the family archive, courtesy of the Bronisław Chromy Foundation

On 16 April 1969, “Echo Krakowa” revealed the results of a competition for new fountains to be installed in Kraków: “Musicians designed by Bronisław Chromy will stand at Wolnica Square, followed by a fantastic dragon at the Dragon’s Den, also designed by Bronisław Chromy.” On 13 January 1970, “Gazeta Krakowska” added, “The greatest revelation will be the six-metre tall statue of a dragon. (…) His maw will spout water, pumped from a pond.” 

The dragon was placed on a large stone in late autumn 1972 (we’ll be celebrating his 50th birthday this year!), although the official launch was held some time later. On 5 April 1973, “Dziennik Polski” reported: “This Sunday, Kraków will gain a brand-new tourist attraction. Wawel’s Dragon’s Den gains a new permanent resident: a statue of the Dragon.” The dress rehearsal of the dragon went perfectly. 

photo by Jacek Kabziński

The 50 anniversary of the Wawel Dragon statue will be accompanied by an exhibition of outdoor sculptures The Dragon’s Garden. Bronisław Chromy’s Works at Wawel in the gardens of Wawel Castle. The Bronisław Chromy Gallery in the Decjusz Park presents an extensive exhibition of the artist’s works. 

photo by Jacek Kabziński

Celebrating with dragons
Ever since 2000, Kraków’s streets have hosted the Dragon Parade organised by the Groteska Theatre, including a family picnic by the Vistula and the finale featuring dragons floating on and above the river, flown from 30-metre barges.  

Kraków also has dragon awards. Held since 1961, the Krakow Film Festival awards Dragon statuettes in a range of colours (with the Golden Dragon as first prize, of course) to winners of the International Short Film Competition. Since 1998, the competition has also been awarding the Dragon of Dragons for lifetime achievement. In mid-May, the conference organised by the Kraków Technology Park for the tenth time awarded the most important prizes of Poland’s videogame industry: the Digital Dragon Awards. 

The Wawel Dragon is also depicted on a postage stamp and an FDC envelope, launched on 21 April. They were designed by Maciej Jędrysik for a competition for the most beautiful stamps in Europe, following this year’s theme of fairytales and legends. The stamp depicts the dragon, the cobbler carrying a lamb, with Kraków and the Dragon’s Den in the background. The envelope also features the royal couple. 

Summertime dragon surprises
The 50th anniversary of the dragon statue is marked by a nationwide tourist campaign organised by the Kraków City Office in co-operation with the Małopolska Tourist Office, Wawel Royal Castle, the Bronisław Chromy Foundation and the Good Lood ice cream brand. 

After the parade in June, dragons return to the city space on 14 August, this time to a specially-made village on Błonia Common. Created by a group of fans of historical reconstruction, it will take us on a journey to the past to the days of King Krak, his daughter Wanda and the plucky cobbler Skuba. Kids and adults will be able to (literally) touch history: there will be a mediaeval band, a blacksmith, a potter and a ropemaker will talk about their work, and visitors will be able to take part in folk games – if they dare! 

The celebrations include two challenges. The first will be the creation of a living picture of a dragon – the more participants, the greater the chance of breaking Poland’s record! The second will be the announcement of the results of a poll conducted among locals and tourists in May, voting for the perfect flavour of dragon ice cream. 

In June, July and August, a friendly version of the Wawel Dragon takes children and adults on guided walks around Wawel and its treasures, on the trail of famous Cracovian women and exploring local ideas and businesses. 

You’ll also be able to send dragons all over the world in a traditional format from Post Office stands selling commemorative postcards and dragon postage and rubber stamps, or as a 3D animation made using an app letting you grow your own dragon. 

How to spot a dragon 
In Kraków, dragons lurk at every corner: they stare down from reliefs and panels on façades and portals of buildings and tenement houses, and they decorate gargoyles. You’ll find them at the Royal Castle and the Cathedral Basilica at Wawel, the Collegium Maius, the Church of St Adalbert at the Main Market Square, the Academy of Fine Arts at Matejki Square… And that’s just some examples – you’re bound to find plenty more! Just take a look around, and don’t forget to look up. 

photo by Jacek Kabziński

And if you’d like to learn more about the legend, don’t miss the Underground Rynek branch of the Museum of Krakow. But be careful, because dragons are always on the lookout. When the website of the Museum of Krakow encounters an error, it displays the message “oops… this page has been eaten by a dragon”.

Ryszard Kozik

photo by Jan Graczyński
Great fan of Cracovian culture, author of numerous publications and veteran journalist at “Gazeta Wyborcza”. He currently works at the Museum of Krakow. He is a Nowa Huta native and lover.  

The article published in the 2/2022 issue of “Kraków Culture” quarterly.


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