Séances, Dragons & Chakras: Kraków's Magical Past
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default, Séances, Dragons & Chakras: Kraków's Magical Past, Wawel dragon, photo: Wojciech Pacewicz / Forum, center, full_krakow_smocza_jama_forum_770.jpg
Kraków, Poland’s ancient capital, functions in Poles’ minds as something akin to a noble forebear – a symbol of tradition and merit. But Kraków’s neighbourhoods are fascinating for their dual natures.
On the ‘official’ side, there’s Wawel Castle, with its graves of Polish kings, numerous churches and the Piwnica pod Baranami (Cellar Under the Rams). These symbolic locations hark back to tradition and high culture, the petite bourgeoisie as well as the cultures of Galicia and Austria.
This vision of Kraków embedded itself in the culture. But there is also a mirror image. In the dusk, after hours, the respectable Dr Jekyll transforms himself into his opposite, the criminal Mr Hyde. This Kraków is one of chakras and magic, ghosts and alchemists. No other Polish city has a history so rich in the fantastical and lawless.
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In the beginning – a dragon
According to legend, it all began with a dragon. In his 12th-century work Chronica Polonorum, the writer Wincenty Kadłubek introduces the dragon as a fierce beast who eats animals whole. King Krakus’s two sons kill the dragon by offering it an animal carcass stuffed with sulphur (in other versions of the legend, it’s a helpful cobbler who pulls off this trick). Yet that’s not the end of the story. After defeating the dragon, one brother slays the other, pinning the blame on the dead beast.
The truth comes out, and the killer is exiled. After King Krakus (written as Gracchus in the Latin tale), a princess takes the throne – the germophobic Wanda. The legend doesn’t say whether she had any part in the tragedy, but applying the principle of cui bono, it is certainly she who received the greatest reward.
The legend is similar to the Book of Daniel, as well as the myth of Romus, Romulus and the founding of Rome, which also contains a motif of fratricide. Most mediaeval scholars accept the supposition that Kadłubek’s goal was to ‘enrich’ his country’s history and to bestow an antique splendour and glory upon the Kingdom of Poland. In this light, Kadłubek’s use of the dragon was instrumental to the city’s history, and even if the nearby lands had never heard of such a myth, it would have probably wound up in the Chronica Polonorum regardless.
An important element in Kadłubek’s founding myth is that Kraków is built upon a ‘dragon’s lair’. This brings with it unique consequences, especially in light of Kraków’s magical connections. Powerful beasts like dragons do not show up in a space unbidden, nor do they die without leaving behind echoes of their presence.
In occultist narratives, the dragon appears as a sign of Kraków’s strong magical energy. In Indo-European myths, dragons are guardians of chthonic, ancient powers. When the Greek god of art and light, Apollo, conquered the dragon Python, which presided at the Delphic oracle, he gained access to the fissures that exhaled oracular mists. Does anything other than smog swirl around Wawel?
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The Wawel Chakra, or Poland’s spiritual capital city
The dragon’s origins are intriguing, because in the case of Kraków, the city’s location became a point of interest once again in the 20th century. In the 1930s, a legend emerged about mysterious Hindus who were seeking a chakra, or energy source, at Wawel. I’ve heard a few versions of this local myth – where the seekers of the arcane included people from the East, the Indian ambassador, Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama.
In esoteric Indian tradition, there exists the concept of kundalini, a subtle energy also referred to as ‘serpent power’. It rests coiled in the base of the spine and, through tantric practice, can travel upwards through the remaining chakras. The highest chakra, located near the pineal gland, is associated with the legendary ‘third eye’. In this belief, Wawel, with a dragon living at its base and a chakra at the hilltop, makes a great attraction for a practicing yogi.
This interpretation is not as absurd as it seems. There are plenty of enigmatic structures around the world whose locations or architecture depict different stages of spiritual journeying. The most famous of these might be the Indonesian temple Borobudur. There are also many ties between Slavic and ancient Indian culture, especially on a linguistic level. Figurines of yogis mid-pose belong to a wider Indo-European heritage and can be found, among others, in the art of the Celts, who settled near Kraków long ago.
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Proponents of the chakras include bioenergy therapists, diviners and New Age believers – who all conclude that Wawel contains one of the most powerful spiritual centres on Earth. Some believe the Wawel Chakra played an integral role in Poland’s history. Poles know the end of the Golden Age coincided with the end of Zygmunt August’s rule, while Zygmunt III Waza, who moved the capital to Warsaw, was, to put it lightly, a figure of great controversy. Raids, rebellions, Swedish floods, the end of religious tolerance, ignorance and wild anarchy – all of these afflicted the country at its new seat.
In all, it’s a rather optimistic theory. The end of the First Republic of Poland didn’t come about because of the gentility’s oppressive behaviours, the weakening of the bourgeoisie or the lowering of education standards as well as international trade. From these heaps of terrible decisions, it was the capital’s move to Warsaw, away from the chakra’s spiritual power, that ultimately led to the country’s defeat.
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The enigma of the oldest crime
In Wincenty Kadłubek’s telling of history, Kraków’s founding went hand in hand with fratricide. Archaeological remnants indicate that a crime did indeed take place around the time of Kraków’s rise. The murder occurred in Maszycka Cave, 16 kilometres from town. In 1883, the archaeologist Gotfryd Ossowski discovered an authentic Palaeolithic treasure there – a notched bone, used to measure time, as well as a weapon and numerous decorations. Among the latter was ochre, a red pigment used in religious and magical ceremonies.
The few dozen owners of these treasures, including women and children, were brutally murdered. Their bones were cracked open – and, with certainty, eaten. The puzzling question remains why the killers didn’t help themselves to the goods. Why would they have killed their victims, if not for those items?
The answer to the puzzle comes from anthropology and religion. Many cultures participated in cannibalism, believing it to be sacred. According to one theory, by eating the brain, heart or leg of an enemy, the killer took on his strength and valour; eating the body was also a sign of respect.
The mystery in the cave has many meanings. It lends Kraków another layer to its tradition of occult energies and chakras. It could also have been an attempt to appease gods or release magical energy. The murders could have been an attempt at ‘consecrating’ the city, analogously to the fratricide that consecrated Rome. To this day, after all, we smash bottles on the prows of ships.
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Before the Slavs, Kraków and its regions hosted many people. Intriguing in this regard is the documented presence of the Celts. Knowledge of their stay in Silesia, in Lower Poland, improves day by day, depending on discoveries of archaeological sites. Most recently, there have been digs in Tarnów and Nowa Huta. Much of the findings point to Kraków existing long before Poles did – with druids cutting down mistletoe near Wawel.
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Twardowski & Dr Faust
Another facet of Kraków’s mystery comes from the 16th century. In this ‘golden’ era, King Krakus’s capital was known as a place of magic and mystical arts. You could say that it reigned in this domain – in the same way that in the 15th century Mikołaj Kopernik’s heliocentric discoveries led the way in astronomy and mathematics.
In Zygmunt Stary’s court, the alchemist Michał Sędziwój searched for the philosopher’s stone, a fictional item capable of turning inferior metals into gold as well as donning immortality. According to legend, the last of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Zygmunt August, supposedly made use of the mage Jan Twardowski’s services. This is the same mage who, in Adam Mickiewicz’s ballad, sold his soul to the devil, whilst in other versions of the tale he escaped from the deal by fleeing to the moon.
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‘Twardowski Wywołujący Ducha Barbary Przed Zygmuntem Augustem’ (Twardowski Summoning the Ghost of Barbara Before Zygmunt August) by Jan Matejko, 1884, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
Twardowski arranged séances for the king, during which he summoned the ghost of the monarch’s beloved wife, Barbara Radziwiłł. For her, he sacrificed – though in the opinion of some, squandered – many promising political aims. The writer Mariusz Wollny describes the séance in his tale Kacper Ryx. Twardowski wrote a manuscript describing his magic, though the document did not survive. The famous Twardowski’s Mirror, which he used in his séances, however, did. To this day, it is kept in a church in Węgrów. Supposedly, a careless fellow may accidentally see his own death staring back at him in it.
In the second half of the 16th century, Kraków languished in the aftermath of changes in global politics. Yet the city’s magical obsessions hardly stood out in this era.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Western European belief in magic reached its apogee. For example, the famed physician William Harvey, who discovered the circulatory system, was forced to carry out ‘scientific’ studies on captured witches. This growing interest in magic had many motives. It certainly had its link to the unease that afflicted Europe in the face of violent change, medical and geographical discoveries as well as religious and societal conflicts. In Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Doctor Faustus, the breakneck speed of progress served as a direct sign of a deal with the devil – which, in the play, led to the main character’s downfall.
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Doctor Faustus’s specialty, according to the dramas of Marlowe and Goethe, was summoning ghosts – something his student, Twardowski, also specialised in. Not only did Faust perform his black magic in Kraków, he supposedly also taught at the Kraków Academy.
The academy, which is now Jagiellonian University, was distinguished across Europe for its courses in astronomy and mathematics, though it also offered classes in astrology and alchemy. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, people sought out calendars, horoscopes and prophecies just as much as Kraków’s most famous export of the time – the long-toed shoes known as crakows. According to sources writing long after the time period, there was even a magic cathedral. The writer M. Wawrzeniecki referred to the cathedral somewhat flippantly in his work Szkoła Magji w Krakowie (Magick School in Kraków) from 1927:
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Secretly or openly, people learned magical lessons brought from the West by the Jews – becoming acquainted with Satan, curses and the power of Chaldean, Persian, Arabian and Greek words, as well as the corresponding signs, symbols, prophecies, etc.
It is likely, however, that alchemy was considered a real science during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Contemporary rationalists like to oppose studying religion and ‘dark arts’, yet for many pioneers, the mystical and hermetic nature of their studies was often incredibly important – even for men such as Kepler or Newton, or even the angel-seeing Swedenborg.
Even half-mythical figures like Twardowski and Faust function as fascinating examples of Renaissance pop culture, reflecting the obsessions and dreams of a bygone age. In the same way, Spiderman and Batman will one day become a treasured part of our age.
‘But is it really possible’, someone might ask, ‘that in God-fearing Kraków, magicians once walked with their heads held high?’ After all, we’re talking about an era when one could be burned at the stake. It turns out that the easiest measure of security for a magician was his status and gender. Rulers did their best to stamp out medicine men and herbalists. The church looked at this knowledge as a relic of paganism; after all, the Latin paganus originally referred to a villager. On top of those fears, religious phobias and misogyny entered the conversation as well.
Male mages, especially alchemists, could boast greater authority and oftentimes official protection. Two such cases were Sędziwój and Twardowski. Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages shows that amongst the aristocracy, black magic was a common pasttime. France’s Gilles de Rais was known to practice dark arts, though he is also known as ‘Bluebeard’ for his monstrous serial killing of children.
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Discrimination based on gender linked together with discrimination by the state. Confessions often came after torture, something the nobility could not be subjected to. Class triumphed over gender in the case of the noble-born Elżbieta Batory from Siedmiogród, who bathed herself in children’s blood to regain her youth. She received a light sentence, whilst the servants who carried out the orders were tortured and killed.
These tales beg the question: how much of this incredible history still remains? Does Kraków still pulse with magic?
Perhaps the answer depends on how we define it. In the 20th century, Kraków’s esoteric legacy transformed into a ‘magical land of artists’: the Young Poland movement, the Green Balloon cabaret and Piwnica pod Baranami. Since the time of the communist regime, it has also had a flourishing counter-cultural and hipster scene.
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Nowadays, Kraków presents itself as a respectable city – a composite of its past, focussed on tourism. The ‘magic’ is little more than a gimmick for gastropubs and commercials. It’s no longer up-to-date in education, as Jagiellonian University is rather conservative and doesn’t seem to have any plans for a new cathedral of magic.
Despite this, something from Kraków’s unique aura still sticks in the minds of its artists. They often deal with unearthly themes, ghosts and death. The poet Marcin Świetlicki and the writer Jerzy Pilch quickly come to mind – or even Łukasz Orbitowski, the metaphysical horror writer. There’s fantasy writer Wit Szostak, who runs philosophy lectures by day, and metal band Mgła (Fog), cherished by connoisseurs of the genre (not only in Poland).
Could it be that art is the last sign of Kraków’s magic? The last sigh of the mythical Wawel dragon?
Originally written in Polish; translated by Alicja Zapalska, Nov 2019
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