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Krakow’s Foundation Myth: An Indo-European theme through the eyes of medieval erudition

Krakow’s Foundation Myth: An Indo-European theme through the eyes of medieval erudition

By Juan Antonio Álvarez-Pedrosa

The Journal of Indo-European Studies, Volume 37, Number 1 & 2 (2009)

Abstract: Vincent of Krakow is the most important intellectual figure of Poland in the beginning of the thirteenth century. His Chronica polonorum siue originale regum et principum Poloniae is a literary composition in four books, written as both a chronicle and dialogue. The first book narrates the legendary origins of Poland, and contains the mythical story of the foundation of Krakow discussed in the present article, the struggle between the hero and the dragon. This myth has attracted the attention of various researchers, whose approaches to the above-mentioned narrative have ranged from stressing the Indo-European origin of the myth to underlining the Classical sources from which the retired bishop of Krakow may have taken his inspiration. In general, the arguments for Indo-European origin seem stronger than the arguments for medieval erudition.

Introduction: Vincent of Krakow, also known by his Polish name Wincenty Kadlubek, or its Latinized form Magister Vincentius, was born in Karwów (c. 1161) to a noble family. He received a high degree of education, certainly studying in Bologna and possibly in Paris. Upon the death of Fulk, twelfth bishop of Krakow, he was elected to the vacant see (1207); in 1218 he resigned and took vows as a Cistercian monk in the monastery of Jedrzejów. He died in 1223. In 1764, he was beatified by Pope Clement XIII. His Chronica polonorum siue originale regum et principum Poloniae is a literary composition in four books, written, in generic terms, as both a chronicle and dialogue. The first book narrates the legendary origins of Poland, and contains the mythical story of the foundation of Krakow discussed in the present article. The second book is intended as a continuation of Gallus Anonymus’ Chronica polonorum. The third and fourth books narrate events contemporary with Vincent himself. Book Four closes with the rule of Mieszko III the Old, which ended in 1202, on this basis the most plausible date for the work’s composition. The first three books are written in dialogic form between Bishop Matthew of Krakow (1145-1165), who narrates historical events, and Archbishop John of Gniezno (1148-1165), who extracts the moral lessons from the narration. The work was an extremely popular one, and had an extraordinary impact upon the political ideology of Low Medieval and Renaissance Poland.

The myth of the foundation of Krakow as told in the Chronica Polonorum I.5-7 narrates the return of the hero Graccus I from a mythical land to Poland, to give laws to the natives of his country. He is accordingly a typical culture hero. Graccus I has two sons, the younger of whom also bears this name, so that it is necessary to distinguish between Graccus I and Graccus II. The chief obstacle to the well-being of the kingdom is the monster Holophagus — the name simply describing his voracity — who is devastating the region. The monster lives in the cliffs of a mountain, and the inhabitants of the surrounding area are forced at intervals to sacrifice to him a set number of livestock in order to gratify his appetite for flesh. If this toll is not met, the monster consumes an equivalent number of human beings. Given the gravity of the situation, Graccus I proposes to his sons that succession should fall upon the one who defeats the monster. The sons then defeat the monster by means of a ruse that takes advantage of his voracity: in place of the livestock that is normally the monster’s due, they set a skin full of burning sulphur that the Holophagus greedily gobbles; the Holophagus then dies of suffocation from the smoke of the flames inside. The younger son, however — Graccus II — then kills the elder, and claims the merit of having defeated the monster. When the deceit is exposed, he is punished and condemned to perpetual exile. Archbishop John’s moral reflections upon the tale then follow, and occupy all of chapter I.6. These are then followed in turn by the tale of the foundation of Krakow on the site where the monster had lived.

This myth has attracted the attention of various researchers, whose approaches to the above-mentioned narrative have — as the title of the present article indicates — ranged from stressing the Indo-European origin of the myth to underlining the Classical sources from which the retired bishop of Krakow may have taken his inspiration.

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