The Real Smaug

If you're a friend of dragons tales, Krakau has a great one:

It seems a cruel mean dragon named Smok (what a coincidence - Tolkien’s dragon was named Smaug) terrorized the town for many years (though frankly, to judge from the Smok-souvernirs on sale for tourists, that dragon looks pretty snuggly and sweet to me). Finally a cobbler’s apprentice named Krak figured out a way to kill it. He took a sheep and stuffed it with spices, sulfur and saltpeter and set it up at the mouth of the cave. The next morning the dragon quickly devoured the sheep, and when the horrible contents of the sheep hit his stomach, the dragon desperately tried to quench his thirst by swallowing half the Vistula River – the dragon drank so much water, in fact, that he exploded. For his reward, Krak received the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage and a large part of the kingdom, including the city now called Krakau.

This legend reminds me a lot of one of the earliest legends of the Southern Rhine German town of Worms, which also celebrates a craftsman, as opposed to a strong-arm action figure, as the hero. Worms is connected to the legend of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, who, in the Nibelungenlied, slays a dragon not in Worms but in the North somewhere. But Worms has its own dragon tale (the word “Worms” may come from “Lindwurm” or dragon), which I will try to reproduce here without referring to the original text:

The dragon terrorized Worms until the residents built a wall around the town and never left it, appeasing the dragon by throwing a virgin over the wall every morning. Finally a trio of blacksmith brothers came up with an idea. They put together a suit of armor that had spikes and sword blades sticking out from it at all angles. One of the brothers got into it, then they dressed it up in a dress like a girl, and threw him over the wall in the morning when the dragon showed up. Without hesitating, the dragon devoured it. Now the blacksmith was in the dragon’s belly and he started kicking his spear-point feet and waving his knife-blade arms, cutting up the dragon from the inside and finally killing it.

I love that story, it’s the most imaginative dragon-slaying story I know. But there’s another interesting thing about it. First, the oldest record of the tale is written in a Jewish book from the old Jewish quarter. Second, there is a similar story in ancient Greece. That brings the question to mind: where does the story come from? Did the Jews in Worms hear it from the Germans, or did they bring it with them when, generations before, their forefathers wandered into Europe from the Mediterranean to set up trading posts? Could it be that one of Germany’s oldest myths – perhaps the Siegfried myth itself – came not from the Germanic tribes, but from the Jews?

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