I’ve found it interesting to look at cases when fossil megafauna bones were mistaken for those of human giants, and I found an interesting reference to a case that occurred in Krakow, an area of Poland where my ancestors lived. It does not involve human giants but something slightly different: the bones of a dragon. Our story concerns the Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill, the most important Polish cathedral and the place where the kings of Poland were consecrated. The extant structure was built from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries atop the ruins of two earlier cathedrals and beside a medieval castle, itself also rebuilt many times.
The cathedral stands atop a hill tradition associated with the Wawel Dragon, a medieval reflex of an ancient dragon-slaying myth. In this version the eponymous hero of Krakow, the shoemaker Krakus (Latin: Graccus or Cracus), was said to have slain the fire-breathing dragon who lived in a cave beneath the hill by feeding it a ram stuffed with sulfur, which caused the dragon so much thirst that he exploded from drinking the Vistula river. The story is probably early medieval in date, but a slightly different form of it is first recorded only in the twelfth century, in the Chronica seu originale regum et principum Poloniae of Wincenty Kadłubek. As Daniel Ogden noted in Drakon: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2013) the story seems to parallel, if not derive from, the apocryphal Biblical text of Bel and the Dragon in which Daniel feeds cakes of pitch to a dragon until it explodes (Daniel 14:23-27). Similar stories occur in Jewish folklore (e.g. B’reshith Rabbah sec. 68) and the Alexander Romance (Pseudo-Callisthenes, Syriac Alexander Romance 3.7). Indeed, the version in the Alexander Romance is so close to the Polish version that I have a hard time thinking them independent.
Here is Sir E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of the passage from the Alexander Romance. In the translation Alexander is the speaker:
Then we set out from the country of Prasiake, and set our faces straight for the east. And when we had gone a journey of ten days along the road, we came to a high mountain; and some of the people that lived on the mountain said to us, ‘King Alexander, thou art not able to cross over this mountain, for a great god in the form of a dragon lives in it, who protects this country from enemies.’ And I said to them, ‘In what place is the god?’ They said to me,’ He is a journey of three days from here by yon river.’ And I said to them, ‘Does this god change himself into another form?’ And they said to me, ‘Enemies never dare to come to this country through fear of him.’ And I said to them, ‘Is he able to keep off enemies from all your coasts?’ And they said, ‘No, only on that side where his dwelling is.’ And I said to them, ‘Has this god a temple? and do ye go to his presence and know him?’ And they said, ‘Who can go near unto him that can swallow an elephant by drawing in his breath?’ And I said, ‘Whence know ye this, since ye go not near him?’ And they said,’ We know that a number of people are swallowed up by him every year, besides two oxen which they give to him regularly every day for food from our land, and he also kills men.’ And I said, ‘How do ye give him these two oxen to eat?’ They said, ‘He that is set apart for the service of the god selects oxen from the land, and takes two of them each day in the morning, when as yet he has not come forth from his temple, and goes down to the bank of the river; and he ties the legs of the oxen, and throws them upon the bank of the river, and he goes up to the top of the mountain; and when the god comes forth from his temple, he crosses over that horrible river, and swallows up those oxen.’ And I said to them, ‘Has this god one place for crossing, or does he cross wherever he pleases?’ And they said,’ He has but one place for crossing.’ Then I bethought me that it was not a god but a phantasy of wicked demons. I took some of the people of the land (with mc), and set out from thence, and came to the bank of that river. And I commanded them to place the oxen as they were accustomed to do, and I and my troops stood upon the top of the mountain. And we saw when the beast came forth from his den and came to the bank of the river. When I saw the beast, I thought that it was a black cloud which was standing upon the bank of the river, and the smoke which went forth from its mouth was like unto the thick darkness which comes in a fog. And we saw it crossing the river, and when as yet it had not reached the oxen, it sucked them into its mouth by the drawing in of its breath, as (if cast) by a sling, and swallowed them. When I had seen this, I gave orders next day that they should put two very small calves instead of the two big oxen, that the beast might be the more hungry on the following day. After it had found the two calves, it was obliged to cross over again on that day; and when it had crossed over for the second time, by reason of its hunger, it went wandering from this side to that but found nothing. And when the beast desired to come on towards the mountain, all my troops with one voice raised a shout against it; and when it heard the shout, it turned and crossed the river. Then I straightway gave orders to bring two oxen of huge bulk, and to kill them, and to strip off their hides, and to take away their flesh, and to fill their skins with gypsum and pitch and lead and sulphur, and to place them on that spot. When they had done this, the beast according to its wont crossed the river again, and when it came to them, it suddenly drew both of the skins into its mouth by its breath and swallowed them. As soon as the gypsum entered its belly, we saw that its head fell upon the ground, and it opened wide its mouth, and uprooted a number of trees with its tail. And when I saw that it had fallen down, I ordered a smith’s bellows to be brought and balls of brass to be heated in the fire and to be thrown into the beast’s mouth; and when they had thrown five balls into its mouth, the beast shut its mouth, and died.
Compare this to the Polish story. Kadłubek’s version was translated, though I know not by whom, and widely reproduced on Polish-interest websites:
In the tunnels of a certain rock there lived an immensely dreadful monster, whom some used to call the whole-eater. Every week his voracity called for a fixed number of cattle. If the settlers had not supplied the cattle (as sacrificial beasts) they would be punished by losing the equivalent number of human heads. Grakch [Cracus] could not tolerate the shame of this [...] and he secretly called his sons, told them of his intention and presented a solution [...] To which they answered: [...] ‘It is you who has the power to give orders, and we are here to obey’. Having experienced many, and generally futile, skirmishes, they were forced to use deception. In the place of the cattle they put cattle’s skins stuffed with ignited sulphur. And when the whole-eater swallowed it with great appetite, he suffocated from the outburst of an internal fire. Immediately after this, the younger brother attacked and killed the older, his partner in victory and in the kingdom, treating him not as a companion but as a competitor. He lied that it was the monster who was guilty of the killing, and his father happily accepted him as a winner. Thus the younger Cracus succeeded his father, benefiting from his crime! But he was tainted with fratricide longer than he was awarded with power. Soon after, the deceit came to light, and as punishment for his deed, he was banished forever[...] And it was indeed on the rock of the whole-eater that the famous city was soon established, named Cracovia from Cracus’ name, to commemorate him forever. The funeral ceremony finished only when the city was completed. Some named it Cracow because of the crowing of the crows, who flew in attracted by the carcass of the monster.
By the sixteenth century, the story had changed to make Krakus the dragon-slayer, and as late as the early nineteenth century encyclopedias and dictionaries like the Encyclopædia Metropolitana still described Krakus’s dragon-slaying as “well-authenticated.”
Now why might that be?
It might be because in the Middle Ages some fortuitous excavation beneath Wawel Hill, inhabited since the Stone Age, in a cave, turned up the bones of the “dragon,” which were kept on display on Wawel Hill: Tradition held them to be guardian bones, and their presence was said to guarantee the survival of the cathedral. Apparently, though, the bones’ location wasn’t quite fixed between the cathedral and the abutting medieval Wawel Castle since travelers and scholars give the location of the set of bones alternately as within the cathedral itself, at its gates, in the doorway of the cathedral, at the castle chapel of Wawel Castle (probably a confusion the cathedral as the “Castle Church”), or within Wawel Castle (which I would guess was confused with the cathedral as part of the same compound). It would at first seem that they were repositioned from time to time, though I could not say why, except that the castle was repeatedly altered and rebuilt during the Prussian and then Austrian occupations of Krakow, and the cathedral frequently restored and renovated. Perhaps this necessitated moving the bones. Or, more likely, some of the writers succumbed to the failings of secondhand sources and faulty translations. If read carefully, almost all the descriptions seem to point to the bones having rested to the left of the main entrance, suspended on a chain; bad translations and imprecise language seem to be behind some of the misconceptions about where they were. They still may be viewed today, hanging by a chain from a hook in the wall high above the doors.
French physicians Pierre Émile Launois and Pierre Roy mentioned the bones in a note in their 1904 book on giants, quoted from Karl Langer, an Austrian anatomist who viewed them in the 1870s and remarked in his 1884 volume on anatomy, “All the bones regarded as the remains of enormous giants were the object of great popular veneration and often placed at the door of a cathedral. At the door of the Castle Church [i.e., Wawel Cathedral] in Krakow, one can still see the bones of a mammoth, the skull of a Rhinoceros tichorhinus, and half of a mandible of a whale” (my trans.). Apparently, at least in Langer’s time, the bones seem to have been claimed as those of a human giant, perhaps due to the decline in belief in dragons during the middle nineteenth century. Langer, though, wasn’t the first to have identified the bones as fossils. In the 1860s, a certain Prof. Seuss reported that the bones were suspended by a chain from the ceiling of the cathedral, and he identified them as a rhinoceros skull and some type of fossil rib and femur.
Modern scholars who examined the bones and determine that they were the skull of a wooly rhinoceros, the tibia of a wooly mammoth, and the rib bone of a whale. However, some sources state that the rhinoceros skull is actually a kneecap, and the whale rib a mandible. Archaeologists have discovered beds of fossil rhinoceros and mammoth bones in Krakow, and on Wawel Hill itself there is evidence that the Stone Age settlers used such bones as tools as much as 50,000 years ago. (Note: Because of these excavations, some guidebooks wrongly state that the “dragon” bones themselves were excavated in the twentieth century.) The origins of the bones, except perhaps the whale rib, are therefore quite clear.
Down to the middle nineteenth century, common people widely believed the bones were those of an actual dragon, much like the people of Klagenfurt in Austria, where another extinct rhinoceros skull, found in 1335, was put on display at the Rath-Haus (City Hall) and believed by the citizenry down to the middle nineteenth century to be the head of the legendary dragon of the city. The skull is now at the Landesmuseum where Frommer’s Austria says it is the most impressive of the museum’s exhibits.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.