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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Polish Memories: Wawel Castle and Its Dragon


"Krakow in Winter," flickr.com
A friend emailed me this afternoon with a wonderful link to a weather site, which was featuring a series of pictures entitled "Snowy Castles."  And I was looking at them with great enjoyment, when I realized I had seen some lovely European sights in wintertime myself, not much more than a year ago.  My husband and I traveled to Poland to see the country where he is a dual citizen and the place where he spent many years growing up, near the city of Kraków.  We stayed in Kraków for one week, visited the village where he lived and still has family by bus, and then traveled by train to Warsaw and stayed on there another week.

I thought it was a very nice idea, as the season begins to wear the nerves a little thin, to contemplate some other place for a while.  I'll confine myself to the parameters of places and things I have actually seen myself, since there are so many beauty spots all over Poland.  I will commence on this journey with Wawel Castle, in Kraków.

"Wawel-winter 2," krakow4you.net


Wawel Castle is the royal castle in Kraków, which was for centuries the capital city and the residence of royal figures.  It is a beautiful old castle, as one can see.
Most of the nice pictures of Wawel, like the ones above, are taken from across the river which runs just down the hill from Wawel, the Vistuła River.  Wawel, like any good fortress, is situated on decidedly high ground, and overlooks a body of water: a wide bend of the Vistula, as I said previously.  This high place is of limestone and karst geology, to which fact it owes the many caves that lie beneath it.  According to legend, the founding of Wawel was on this wise:

Now it happened that in bygone days of yore, a loathsome dragon of terrible aspect lived for centuries below this hill in a cave.  He would terrorize villagers, farmers, yeomen, all alike with his propensity to pillage and burn... poor thing, a dragon can't help his nature, can he?  

Now this particular dragon had a flaw deeper than pillaging and burning... he developed the strange delicacy of appetite many such mythical monsters often seem to develop- a sweet tooth for delectable young girls.  And this appetite must be appeased or he would pillage and burn some more.  So from time to time one was left for him outside his cave.

Now there was a king even in those times, one king Krakus (whose name and fate both curiously resemble, maybe by a trick of language, another story about another monster, the Kraken).  Krakus was the founder of the city, and it was for him Kraków was named.  He was a laid-back, forgiving sort of fellow, willing to live and let live provided it was on the daughters of other men, but when it came to his daughter, the princess Wanda's turn, enough was enough.  It was really too much to ask that a king lay down the life of his darling, a beauty beyond her peers (and this says much, for Polish people pride themselves on the beauty of their women).  Should she die that mere farmers might live? No, a thousand times, no!!!  Did not the great Greek poet write the veriest truth who said, "Beauty is its own defense"?

So the handsome reward was offered, which is traditionally offered on such desperate occasions, to wit the hand of one princess in marriage and one kingdom after death.  To inherit, viz. and so forth.  And naturally we know the princess secretly looked upon each potential suitor with the discerning eye of youth, to determine for herself whether this or that man for life was better than being eaten by a dragon.  And the breath of this one, and the rude manners of that one, and the way that other one ate his asparagus, made her shudder and think: I shall have to face the dragon, and take what comes, for I am the daughter of a king, and beautiful beyond compare... and that man has the worst-looking teeth I have ever seen.  Meanwhile she would smile, and wave as they went off to fight the dragon, and sagaciously wait to see if they survived before she proceeded to do anything rash.

But no one came back, which was in some ways a relief... until one day, a handsome young devil with snapping eyes and the resourcefulness of the lower classes applied for the job of taking Lady Wanda to wife, not to mention the kingdom, by assailing and disposing of the dragon.  Wanda sighed and smiled and nodded as heretofore, but took an extra glance out her bower window at the smooth, easy gait and cheerful walk (not to mention the ignobly burly biceps) of the cobbler's apprentice (for such is the fairy tale tradition, and this young plebeian was quite traditional).  His shoes were very fine, at least, for was he not a cobbler by trade?

However, the young man had thought his life over pretty thoroughly, and although he was brave, he was economical.  It would be foolish to throw away a good, steady living at a respectable business establishment for some pie-in-the-sky American dream of a personal kingdom and princess to wife... why die for foolishness? And he had really no intention of conversing with a dragon up close, and anyway, he had to finish six pairs of boots that day and couldn't miss work, for he was saving his vacation days for something really special.  So he thought, if he could kill the dragon long-distance, well and good, and if it didn't work, he always had his old fall-back.  
Therefore, since missiles had not been invented yet, and he was not quite that resourceful, he must needs use a sheep stuffed with sulfur.  Which naturally, left baa-ing sadly outside the dragon's front door that morning before work, was  the perfect before-breakfast snack for a hungry dragon, despite the fact that it was really craving princess.  So poor dragon and poor sheep!! Done to death by the resourceful young man for his own profit!  The dragon naturally ate the sheep, bones, sulfur, and all, and got so thirsty he drank up half the river Vistula in desperation and burst his insides... and was still thirsty too!

So our cobbler became a prince, and married the princess Wanda, and built a castle over the dragon's lair, to commemorate his great success, and also to frighten the children into behaving themselves.  And the story was so convenient at keeping unruly little half-royal urchins in order, that even after the country left off the habit of kings altogether, they keep a dragon in the caves below Wawel to this very day.

And his name (that is, the dragon's) if you would like to know it, is Smok Wawelski, the Dragon of Wawel Hill.

from Cosmographiae Universalis, Sebastian Munster.
europeisnotdead.com
wawel dragon sculpture, squidoo.com
Note: This story, like most legends, has a plethora of different versions, featuring variations that eliminate the clever young man and attribute the dragon's defeat to King Krakus himself, or eliminate the dragon and discuss the princess Wanda as having saved the country and refused to marry a man she didn't want, or else having committed suicide in order to avoid marriage with said gentleman.  In all the stories however, run the common threads of good old -fashioned storytelling, and many common ploys of fairy tale conflict and tragic or happy resolution.  I have not attempted a particularly scholarly version, because it is a well enough known story that one can trace it pretty easily if desired, and also because it is not a particularly unusual example of a common legend.  My telling is more or less, just for fun. :)

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