How Brno mashed up its city legend with a taxidermy crocodile.
Imagine a map of the city of Brno. Today, it’s a mix of industry, university, and tourism which reminds my British roots of Manchester. But, for the story I have to tell you, the map you need is much older. Imagine a pirate map like the ones we used to make by splodging tea bags onto paper and singeing the corners. A map like that is only appropriate when you have to go back 400 years.
Right in the middle of the map, there’s the Old Town of Brno. There are a lot of spires here, between the town hall, many churches and a 13th-century cathedral. The Cabbage Market will be important to our story later and you can identify it as the large, sloping square in the midst of it all. To the east, there’s a steep mound with a castle on top. The map should probably point out that there are cannons here and that it has been used on and off over the centuries as one of the most secure prisons in Europe. The prison became so infamous that it was known as the Dungeon of Nations within the Austro-Hungarian empire. The map advises you to give the castle a wide berth.
Now follow the map south. We’ll pass some more churches, lower houses and narrower streets. The river Svratka is getting closer. The markings on the map are becoming less detailed. The land on the other side is blank.
In a scrawl at a bend in the river, the map says, ‘Here Be Dragons.’
Like many cities in central Europe, Brno’s origin stories involve the eradication of a scaly, fire-breathing pest which terrorised the locals and feasted on the livestock. Brno is unique, however, in that it’s not just a legend. They believe they have a body to prove it. And here it is:
‘No, friend, lay off the delicious Czech beer,’ I hear you say. ‘That’s clearly a crocodile.’
I say, ‘Listen to the story first. It’s definitely a dragon.’
Brno was a prosperous market settlement when their dragon took up residence by the river, or so the story goes. Very quickly, people stopped coming to the city to trade. The Cabbage Market was too open. It was exposed and vulnerable to ambush. The market thrives today, but imagine it in the 16th or 17th century, with just a few brave traders selling what they could get from within the city boundaries. Odd customers would dart out to make their purchases and then run back inside. They tried never to go by themselves
Even if they braved the trip, there was very little meat to be had in the market. The butchers had nothing because the dragon had eaten the sheep and the cows. There was no fish because no one liked fish enough to risk approaching to the dragon’s lair by the water. There was a smell, because what produce there was went unsold and turned in the sun. The people were twitchy. Surely the smell would attract the beast.
Desperate, hungry, someone from the city offered a reward of 100 gold coins to anyone who could slay the dragon.
A butcher from another town, who we assume was either brave, reckless, or calculating enough to realise that he could make a killing on lamb if he came to a starving city, passed through. He decided to take up the challenge.
The butcher took an animal carcass and filled it with caustic lime. Pleased to find an easy meal, the dragon ate the carcass whole and became insatiably thirsty. It fled back to the river and drank its weight in water. Unluckily for the dragon, the lime expanded in its stomach until (and there is no way to say this delicately) it exploded.
The dragon was dead, the butcher was rich and Brno was free to grow in peace.
We can’t say for certain when the Brno dragon made its way into legend. What we do know is that, with this story, Brno has something in common with many other cities in central Europe.
Perhaps most famously, Ljubljana, Slovenia is known as the City of Dragons. Its legend is also one of the oldest. The story goes that Jason, of the Argonauts fame, vanquished the dragon in the river by binding its mouth and stopping its nostrils while it slept. When it stirred and saw them, it breathed fire and cooked itself from the inside.
Across the border in Austria, it’s Klagenfurt which has the well-known dragon story. Before the settlement was built, people were afraid to set foot on the land because a ravenous monster (technically a Lindworm, rather than a winged dragon, in this case) lived in the hills. A group of soldiers captured the Lindworm by enticing it to eat a bull attached to a giant fishhook. When the Lindworm was trapped on their chain, they clubbed it.
Of all these European dragon legends, however, it’s Krakow’s story which shares the most with Brno’s. In this story, the settlement which would become the second city of Poland stood next to a hill where the beast known as the Wawel dragon lived. The dragon terrorised the people until our hero, Krakus, appeared. Like the Brno butcher, he used Trojan Horse tactics to trick the dragon into eating sulphur. Like the Brno dragon, the Wawel dragon drank until its stomach burst.
It’s curious how cities which were then so far removed from one another ended up with such similar legends, but the idea of killing a dragon from the inside would have been familiar to people at this time. The story of Bel and the Dragon in the extended book of Daniel (part of the catholic apocrypha) sees Daniel slaying a dragon in a very similar way. The dragon in question was worshipped by the Babylonians. Daniel baked tar, fat and hair into cakes which, when eaten, also caused the dragon to burst open. Czechia, Slovenia, Austria and Poland are all historically catholic countries, so we can assume that Daniel was an influence when each of their dragon stories was first being passed around.
‘That’s all well and good,’ I hear you say, ‘but that thing in Brno town hall is still a crocodile.’
I’ll admit that the current hanging statue, which is a replica of a larger taxidermy crocodile given as a diplomatic gift to Brno in the late 1500s, has a lot more in common with Tick-Tock from Peter Pan than it does with a Hungarian Horntail. But I offer some evidence which might just explain why the people of Brno were so quick to link this body with the legend of the dragon.
Firstly, the modern ‘dragon’ is completely rigid. This was not always the case. The original crocodile was longer, more bloated, and its head loomed down over the road which passed through the arch. Its jaws were open, its eyes would have followed you, and that short tunnel is surprisingly dark. In the original arrangement, passing under the crocodile would have been an experience much more like escaping from the rogue firework at the beginning of Lord of the Rings than it is today. It’s no wonder people were frightened and assumed it was more otherworldly than it really was.
Secondly, the dragon legends are old. The statue in Klagenfurt depicting the dragon and the battle which killed it was dragged to its present location in 1593. The story itself is older than that. As a child of the 90s, I grew up watching Steve Irwin. I can tell the difference between a saltwater crocodile and a Nile crocodile just by looking at it (from a safe distance). 500 years ago, only the tiniest number of Europeans would have seen a crocodile in the flesh. When the crocodile arrived in Brno, they weren’t sure what they were seeing and, from scales, teeth, claws and a long tail, they drew a logical conclusion.
Finally, as uncommon as they were, crocodiles do seem to have influenced the mythological art of the period. My current hometown of Vienna sadly doesn’t have a dragon myth, but it does have artifacts from a house on Singerstrasse which was known as ‘Zum Drachen.’ A shield on the wall of the house depicted Mary and Jesus and, beneath them, a 16th-century rendering of a lindworm. The original house has been dismantled, but the shield is preserved in the Wien Museum. Take a look and tell me that that ‘dragon’ doesn’t look familiar.
Looking at this shield, and at other depictions of dragons or lindworms from the time, the conclusion that Brno first drew when confronted by the body of the crocodile is much easier to understand.
Whether dragon or crocodile, myth or the actual body of the creature which once menaced the city, Brno has taken their monster to heart, albeit with their 21st-century tongue firmly in cheek. Most of the local sports teams are known as the dragons. The exception is the American football team who are the Brno Alligators. A stuffed baguette sandwich is called a Krokodyl in the city, and the local radio station is Krokodyl FM. Even the train which has connected Brno to the capital city of Prague for 100 years is called the Brno Dragon. To a native Scot like me, this is not quite the level of hysteria (and marketing) that surrounds our favourite monster, Nessie, but it does come close.
And whichever way you look at it, the body hanging in the town hall is one heck of a warning to any dragons which might have their eye on Brno today.