Even if you don’t know who it is, you’ve seen him. Lajkonik is hidden everywhere around Krakow; on the bus seats, in the name of a chain of bakeries, and on the package of a famous Polish savoury snack – paluszki.
HOW THE CELEBRATION LOOKS?
Every year, on the first Thursday after Corpus Christi (which usually falls in June), Krakow holds an unusual festivity. It’s a procession led by a bearded man dressed in the costume of a Tatar leader on an artificial horse. He is followed by musicians and people dressed in traditional costumes. Their route starts in Zwierzyniec and ends in the Main Square. This march has been celebrated since the 13th or 14th century, though its origins are shrouded in mystery. There are several theories about its beginnings.
Tatars are ethnic groups of Turkish origin, living mostly in the area of modern Russia and Crimea. They were known for their cavalry and bravery, and feared for their quality of fighting and brutality. For centuries they were the enemies of Poles, as they were not only fighting in the army of Genghis Khan, but they also made frequent raids into Poland.
LEGENDS ABOUT LAJKONIK
The celebration has several origin stories. The most famous one is a legend connected to real historical events. It is said that in 1287, Tatar troops sneaked to near Krakow. After a night spent in the village of Zwierzyniec, they intended to attack and plunder the city. However, locals saw them and attacked the sleeping Tatars, saving the city from an inevitable bloody battle. To celebrate their unexpected victory, they dressed up in the costumes of their defeated enemies and rode into the city on captured horses. The mayor of Krakow decided that, in memory of this event, a person dressed as a Tatar leader would ride a horse to the city every year.
Another version of the legend states that the Tatars actually managed to attack Zwierzyniec on the holiday of Corpus Christi. When the village was plundered, the people in Krakow didn’t know what to do. Eventually, someone grabbed a banner with the Polish coat of arms and set off towards the village, calling for the others to follow in his footsteps. The closer they got to Zwierzyniec, the more people joined him and, despite being outnumbered, the Polish mass mobilization won. As part of the victory celebration, the commander was dressed up in the outfit of the Tatar leader. He then rode the horse to Krakow, followed by the rest of the warriors.
OTHER THEORIES ABOUT LAJKONIK
There are also other stories about the origin of this celebration. Some historians believe that the horseback rider might be a memento of the defence of Czech Olomouc in 1241. It was then that the (mainly) Czech soldiers defended the city against attack by the Mongolian army. And at the time it included thousands of Tatars! However, many historians now think that the battle itself is a historical fiction, created centuries after the alleged events.
Some ethnologists have spotted a similarity between the Lajkonik procession and the horsemen’s rite that took place on Palm Sunday. It was commemorating Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem, where he was greeted with palm tree leaves.
The custom might also derive from pagan rites. It is possible that the celebration comes from ancient celebrations in honour of Świętowit (the main god worshiped by the Polabian Slavs) or an animal cult.
According to another concept, Lajkonik is a tradition that survived from medieval mysteries organized by religious orders. Then it was taken over by the guilds, which secularized the celebrations. Over time, Lajkonik came to be distinguished as a separate rite.
THE NEWEST CONCEPT
In 1820, Konstanty Majeranowski published the first history of the origins of Lajkonik. It was he who pointed to the genesis in the legends described above. Many people believe that the work was a figment of his imagination, with no evidence or basis in fact whatsoever. At that time, Poland had been split up. Krakow was briefly (from 1815 to 1846) an area of relative independence after the Vienna Congress. It lead to a surge in patriotic feelings amongst the inhabitants. It was a time when new “old” traditions were resurrected and passed off as ancient ones. Evidence in the case was the fact that the oldest written mention of Lajkonik celebration dates back to 1700.
Despite its murky origins, Lajkonik is one of the oldest traditions still celebrated in its unchanged form in Poland. It is fun, colourful and extremely interesting to see. The procession is filled with music, dances and it shows a different side to Cracovians.
If you want to find out more about the mysteries of the Krakow’s past, check out our article about Wawel Castle curiosities!