The Dragon: A Necessary Monster. Part I

With the Dragon through the Ages

By Wawel Royal Castle

Michał Kuziak, Magdalena Młodawska

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.  
Jorge Louis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, Preface to the 1957 Edition. 

Jorge Louis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, Preface to the 1957 Edition.

Holophagus (2015) by Grzegorz WojtasikWawel Royal Castle

From where did dragons become so popular in the Middle Ages? 

European culture – folklore, myths, religion – made this non-existent hybrid being, the dragon, on the one hand a symbol of fears and aspirations, and on the other – the archetypal obstacle that must be overcome in order to live and develop. 

More than once the beginnings of communities, cities and states have been linked with it. Perhaps, then, maybe so important an object that is not there allows us to imagine a lot, and it turns out to be especially important?

Kadłubek,  "The Polish Chronicle" 

Here was once in the crevices of a certain crag a terribly fearsome monster that they used to call the whole-swallower. His gluttony demanded every week as many head of cattle as there were days. 

If the people did not deliver the offering, the monster would punish them by taking as many human heads.

Once dreaded, today tame and subjugated, the dragon has made its way into children’s cartoons.
The friendship between the Wawel dragon and Prince Krak, shown by Stanisław Pagaczewski in the 1965 iconic The Abduction of Baltazar Gąbka, can be considered symbolic. The former conflict ended in reconciliation. The dragon, at the request of the prince, leads a rescue expedition, going to the land of the rainforests in order to find the kidnapped Professor Gąbka.

Animated film from the series Abduction of Baltazar Gąbka based on the novel by Stanisław Pagaczewski, drawing by Alfred Ledwig. Production of the Animated Film Studio in Bielsko-Biała, 1969

An interesting example of the reactivation of the Wawel dragon can be the short film Dragon, filmed by Tomasz Bagiński in 2015, as part of the series ‘Polish Legends – Allegro’.

Still from the film ‘Polish Legends. DRAGON film. Allegro’ (2015)Wawel Royal Castle

The title character is Adolf Kamchatkov, terrorising Krakow and captivating Polish women, resembling a mercenary in the film. He is opposed by a young robot toy builder who wants to rescue a kidnapped girl and offers the dragon a robot-trap. 

In this case, this story, marked with self-irony, reflects Polish fears – the mercenary is a Russian and a German, and also critically shows the world of politics and social media, unable to cope with a difficult situation.

The Great Dragon Parade by Jan GraczyńskiWawel Royal Castle

The dragon, already friendly to people, visits modern Krakow every year. He wanders the streets and the town square of the Great Dragon Parade. It becomes a challenge to the imagination of artists who give it various shapes. 

Creative colourful monsters have a spectacular fight with each other in the bend of the Vistula, near the Wawel and the Dragon’s Den.

The Statue of Wawel Dragon by Chromy Bronisław (1925-2017)Wawel Royal Castle

The existence and popularity of the legend of the Wawel dragon is demonstrated by the sculpture by Bronisław Chromy. The multi-headed dragon, located right at the entrance to the Dragon’s Den, has become an important point in the tourist topography of the city.

The vibrating, rough texture of the metal makes the monument more dynamic and brings out what is perhaps the most important in the imaginations of dragons, their extraordinary energy and power.

The Krakow sculptor took up various topics, but it was the statue of the Wawel dragon that became his most famous realisation, as well as one of the most recognisable sculptures of post-war Poland.

Holophagus (2015) by Grzegorz WojtasikWawel Royal Castle

The story of the Wawel dragon, one of the oldest legends related to Polish prehistory, has its own written source.

It was first recorded by the famous myth-maker, Wincenty Kadłubek, in his Polish Chronicle, written at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Wawel dragon – recounts the chronicler – is a monster that devours the victims in their entirety, and is dangerous to the community and the authorities.

This clue clearly shows the link between the dragon and materiality. Prince Gracchus, who decided to annihilate him, distinguished himself by his Roman pedigree, which inscribed him in the sphere of Latin culture, is in turn a legislator. After defeating the dragon, a city is founded – Krakow – whose name was to come either from the surname of the ruler or from ravens coming down to the body of the slain monster. Kadłubek’s story recounts the triumph of civilisation.

Master Wincenty used the topographic motif known since antiquity, locating the story of the "holophagus" whole-eater around a cave in the swampy area of the Vistula backwaters.

In the construction scheme of dragon myths, monster lairs are often located near water or somewhere at a crossroads, outside of human settlements, separating the space that belongs to nature from that controlled by man.

Interestingly, it was not the knightly fight that turned out to be the way to defeat the dragon – the attempts undertaken in it did not help - but a trick. Gracchus’ sons tossed the dragon an animal stuffed with sulphur, which ended, more mysteriously, with the monster burning.

Vault Boss with St. Michael the Archangel, Tadeusz Stulgiński (1911-1994), From the collection of: Wawel Royal Castle
Vault Boss with St. Margaret of Antioch, Tadeusz Stulgiński (1911-1994), From the collection of: Wawel Royal Castle
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It is also worth mentioning the temples of the dragon slayers - St. Michael the Archangel and St. George – on the Wawel Hill. Nor should we forget about St. Margaret, who was to overcome Satan with the sign of the cross, whom appeared to her in the form of the dragon; a chapel dedicated to her was built at the beginning of the construction of the gothic cathedral in Wawel.

Sarcophagus Lid from the Tomb of Ladislaus Jagiełło by Tadeusz Stulgiński (1911-1994)Wawel Royal Castle

In this way, the ancient archaic story of the defeat of the dragon gains a Christian and chivalrous framework.

Kadłubek writes that Gracchus sent his sons against the dragon, because he cared more for the fate of his motherland than for them. Relations between brothers also proved difficult. The younger, insidiously, kills the older one, blaming the dragon for it. In this way, he undermines his status as a hero. 

When this fact was revealed, the power in Krakow was taken over by Gracchus’s daughter, Wanda.

Holophagus (2015) by Grzegorz WojtasikWawel Royal Castle

Credits: Story

Text and concept of the exhibition: Michał Kuziak, Magdalena Młodawska
Editorial office:  Paulina Semianchuk, Piotr Rabiej
Exhibition catalog notes were used: ("Two faces of the Dragon", Wawel Royal Castle, 2015): Agnieszka Janczyk, Beata Kwiatkowska-Kopka; editorial office: Maria Podlodowska-Reklewska; translation: Sabina Potaczek-Jasionowicz  
Photographs: Wawel Royal Castle and lending institutions

We would like to thank the institutions that contributed to the creation of the exhibition:
Bronisław Chromy Fundation
Faculty of History, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań
The Andrzej Kaube Regional Museum in Wolin
The Jagiellonian Library of the Jagiellonian University
National Museum in Warsaw
The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków     
Special thanks to: 
Jana Graczyński – for the photos from the Great Dragon Parade, 2022
Animated Film Studio in Bielsko-Biała – for sharing the episode "Smok Expedition"
Allegro – for a film frame ‘Polish Legends. DRAGON film. Allegro’

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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