Culture Beat
By Dorota Dziedzic
KRAKÓW’S myths, legends and history

Kraków will soon be celebrating its 750th anniversary. The city’s Act of Location was signed on 5 June 1257. But Kraków is much older than that. The history of its founding and early days are intertwined with myth and legend. These became a part of Kraków’s cultural heritage and are deeply rooted in its life and customs.

The Dragon’s Lair
Long ago, when there was still no castle and only a few peasants’ huts huddled around Wawel Hill, a terrible dragon lived in a lair next to the River Vistula. The monster terrorised the nearby villages, attacking live-stock and people alike. Some say that its favourite food was the local virgins. Many brave knights tried to defeat the beast, but they all failed.

One day a wise local leader named Krakus had a brilliant idea. He ordered a sheepskin to be stuffed with sulphur and placed near the dragon’s lair. Fooled by the sheepskin, the beast devoured the bait and soon felt an unbearable burning sensation in its belly. The dragon rushed to the river and began drinking to douse the fire it felt inside. It drank and drank until it burst – and that was the end of the dragon. The grateful villagers made Krakus their king. A splendid town was erected around Wawel Hill and it was named Kraków after the wise ruler. Krakus built his castle on the Wawel and ruled justly and wisely for the rest of his days. 

But this is just one version of the story. Some locals believe it was not the king who had slain the dragon. They say it was the clever shoemaker Skuba who fooled the monster and that he was allowed to marry the king’s daughter as a reward for his noble deed.

Today the infamous dragon’s lair is accessible to tourists who visit Wawel Hill, and the dragon has become the icon of the city. In front of the dragon’s lair is a sculpture of the beast and it even spits fire every other minute. There are innumerable dragon mascots and dragon T-shirts sold on souvenir stands. Each year during the anniversary celebrations of the founding of the city is a parade of colourful dragons made of anything from papier-maché to empty soda bottles.

The Mysterious Mounds
According to historical sources, Krakus really lived and was probably a tribal leader and king at the Kraków stronghold around the first half of the 8th century AD. There is no evidence of the dragon, but who cares? Although time seems to have made the dragon, not Krakus, the hero of Kraków, the city’s founder was not forgotten. After he died his subjects buried him with all honours on Lasoty Hill and built a large mound over his grave. The mound still exists today.

Archaeological excavations confirmed that the site was occupied as early as the 7th century AD. The mound dates from the 8th century and is the oldest construction in Kraków. The mound was built with great care. Earth was brought from below Lasoty Hill and placed around wooden scaffolding. It was most probably a site for pagan rites related to the cult of the dead. A large tree had once grown on the top of the mound, but was later replaced by a building of some sort. Pagan practices took place on the hill as late as the 19th century.

There is another mound with a legendary background in Kraków. Local people say it marks the location of the grave of Wanda, Krakus’ daughter, who ruled the kingdom after his death. She is said to have been a very beautiful and wise queen. Despite many proposals from the lords of neighbouring lands, she refused to marry because she wanted her kingdom to remain independent. A German prince named Rytygier threat-ened to invade and take both the queen and her country if she did not agree to marry him. Wanda again refused and prepared her army to do battle with Rytygier.

When the two armies met, Rytygier sent envoys to Wanda and repeated his ultimatum, but with a fiery speech she refused again. It seemed that war was inevitable, but upon seeing and hearing the beautiful and courageous Polish queen, many of Rytygier’s knights refused to fight her and abandoned the German prince. Rytygier couldn’t bear the humiliation and Wanda’s refusal and killed himself. The queen returned to Kraków and ruled in peace and prosperity for many years. At the end of her days, Wanda wished to thank the gods for her prosperous reign and offered herself in sacrifice by throwing herself into the River Vistula. Her loyal subjects built a mound for her grave like the one that covered the grave of her father.

The people of Kraków cultivated the tradition of building mounds in honour of highly respected men and women. Eight mounds were built in various places around Kraków and six of them still exist. Wanda’s mound was on the verge of destruction when in Communist times it was feared that it might serve as a lookout for CIA agents spying on a nearby steel factory!

The Hourly Trumpet Signal
The dragon and the German army have not been the only threats in Kraków’s long history. Invasion took place several times by hoards of Tatars, the feared warriors from the east. Once in 1287 a trumpeter playing a melody from the tower of Mariacki Basilica spotted the approaching Tatar army and wanted to warn his fellow citizens. So he repeatedly played the trumpet signal – hejnal – until the people realised that danger was approaching and the man was sounding the alarm. 

They had time to prepare for their defence, but unfortunately the approaching Tatars saw the trumpet player and wished to silence him. An arrow was shot that pierced his throat and the melody stopped abruptly. To remind the people of the heroic trumpeter who died when warning his city, the same trumpet signal, which is probably of Hungarian origin, is played from the tower each hour to each direction of the compass and it always breaks off at the same place as it did when the trumpeter died. At 12 o’clock the signal is broadcast live on the radio nationwide. It is the oldest melody of its kind in the world.

There are six trumpet players who take turns playing the signal. They no longer need to protect the city from invasion, but they are all firemen and sometimes, when there is a fire, they help their colleagues locate it by looking for smoke from the tower. Their job can be sometimes dangerous, especially during a thunderstorm. There have been situations when lightning struck the tower as the hejnal was being played. Fortunately no one has been hurt.

The Tatar invasion was successfully repelled by the people of Kraków. They even managed to kill one of the leaders, a Tatar Khan. One of the victorious defenders dressed up in the Khan’s clothing and triumphantly rode into the city. To commemorate this victory, each year on the first Thursday after the religious holiday of Corpus Christi (this year it took place in the beginning of June, in 2006 it is planned for June 22) the Lajkonik, a man dressed up as a warrior from the east rides a prancing white horse through the city streets from the Norbertine Convent in Zwierzyniec to the Market Square. On his way he touches spectators with his golden mace and collects money for the traditional ransom. Being touched by his mace brings good luck. At the Market Square the Mayor of Kraków awaits him with a pile of ransom money and a chalice with which they make a toast to the wellbeing of Kraków and its inhabitants.

[5. 7. 2005 1:31:57]