On the first Thursday after Corpus Christi, a rather peculiar procession makes its way through the streets of Kraków. A bearded horseman in quasi-oriental costume wanders around the backstreets of the Zwierzyniec district and the Old Town, administering symbolic blows with a mace to restaurateurs, shopkeepers and random passers-by, and collecting tribute in baskets. He is accompanied by a band of musicians and a group of men in Tatar-style costumes. At the end of the procession, a grand stage awaits him in the main square, where crowds of citizens greet him like a rock star.
The Lajkonik parade is one of Kraków’s best-known traditions, included on the national List of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2014. The Lajkonik, known as Tatarzyn or Konik zwierzyniecki, has also become one of the informal symbols of the city. The streets of Kraków are frequented by trams bearing Lajkonik’s image, and a well-known factory producing finger foods and salty snacks in Skawina near Kraków is named after him, as well as travel agencies and artistic groups.
What is the origin of this folk entertainment and what is it all about?
The Lajkonik parade – origins
The origins of the ‘Lajkonik’s Frolics’ are shrouded in a fog of legends. Researchers have linked the name of the rider to the Old High German word lai meaning guild brotherhoods, or the colloquial ‘beat!’ indicating the handing out of blows with a mace. Undoubtedly, the origin of the tradition was influenced by the memory of the brutal Mongol-Tatar invasions that Central Europe suffered during the Middle Ages. We know that one such invasion in 1241 ravaged Krakow. However, some historians, such as Józef Łepkowski, have speculated that the parade actually commemorates the defence of Olomouc in Bohemia, which took place around Corpus Christi that year.
The most important elements of the Lajkonik legend were first written down by Konstanty Majeranowski in 1820 in an article in his magazine Pszczółka. In it, he mentions a battle that was supposed to have been fought by the Kraków Włóczkowie against the Tatars around 1281. These were former rafters who floated timber down the Vistula, among others to the salt mines in Wieliczka and Bochnia. The Włóczkowie lived mainly in the area of today’s district, and the then village of Zwierzyniec.
In a spectacular battle, the rafters crushed the invaders, who were unprepared for such an attack, and their leader donned the costume of a Tatar khan and set off on his conquered horse towards the city. The figure of Lajkonik was thus created as a symbol of victory over the enemy and a figure to capture his magical powers. A symbolic blow with a mace is supposed to ensure good luck, as is the payment of a tribute. Reducing the invader’s foul practices to a folk game helped tame fears of the various dangers facing the city in the following centuries.
Survival of tradition
Crucial to the survival of the tradition was the involvement of the rafters themselves as its guardians. For a long time it was considered a folk, ‘inferior’ form of entertainment – at the end of the 18th century, the Bishop of Kraków was said to have banned the Lajkonik from the city, obliging the organisers of processions during the Corpus Christi period to carry them out without any fancy or over-the-top costumes, or to make them risible. In the second half of the 19th century, the organisation of the procession was handled by the Micińskis, a family of gardeners from Półwsie Zwierzynieckie, who were descendants of the former rafters.
The Romantic era and the birth of the modern concept of nation created a new context for the Kraków pageant. At a time when Poland did not exist as an independent state and Kraków became a symbolic bastion of polish identity, the parade began to symbolise the strength and continuity of local traditions. In time, the Society of Lovers of Kraków’s History and Monuments undertook patronage of the event and cooperation with the rafters.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Lajkonik acquired a new costume, created by Stanisław Wyspiański himself. The great Polish artist of the Art Nouveau era introduced into the design the characteristic fiery red hue and a lighter-coloured headdress, contrasting with the blackened face and ravenous beard of the rider. As Karolina Targosz wrote, Wyspiański, using old Polish costume elements, thus preserved the eastern cut of the robes in which the Lajkonik had performed in the previous century (Karolina Targosz, Rodowód Lajkonika, Kraków 2019).
In the first half of the 20th century, the Lajkonik parade was already a city’s official symbol. In 1936, the Kraków authorities declared the event to be the centrepiece of a new several-day festival called the Days of Kraków, which is held in a similar form today. Today, the parade continues to be supervised by the Kraków Museum, which remains in regular contact with its participants.
It is to the rafters – representatives of successive generations of families connected with Zwierzyniec – that we owe the continuation of this peculiar tradition. Many of them work today at the Kraków Waterworks, from whose headquarters the parade traditionally departs. In 2022, as a result of a special election, a new performer of the role of the Lajkonik in the parade was appointed. He turned out to be Mariusz Glonek, son of Zbigniew Glonek, who wore the Lajkonik costume for 34 years.
The Lajkonik parade – route
The Lajkonik parade takes place every year on the first octave after Corpus Christi. In practice, this means the first Thursday after this spring festival. In addition to the ‘Tatarzyn’ himself, the parade is attended by rafters (‘włóczkowie’) dressed in Tatar-style costumes and the ‘Mlaskoty’ band – folk musicians mostly from Wola Justowska. Kraków melodies played on the flute, trumpet, clarinet, accordion, drum and a pair of violins accompany the march to the very end.
The parade traditionally sets off from the headquarters of the Kraków Waterworks on Senatorska Street. First, the participants visit the marketplace at Plac na Stawach, collecting tribute from the merchants there. The second stop is the Norbertine Monastery in Salwator, where the legendary battle was supposed to have taken place. In the courtyard of the monastery, the Lajkonik performs a ritual dance during which the flag bearer dramatically wraps a large white and red flag, and the Lajkonik tries to hit the eagle situated in its centre with his mace.
The parade then heads towards the Old Town, always taking the same route, visiting roadside shops and battering passers-by with the baton. The procession finishes on a special stage by the Town Hall Tower in the Market Square, where the Lajkonik, together with the Mayor, raises a toast to the prosperity of the people of Kraków by performing a dance called urbem salutare (‘salute to the city’).
The future of the parade
The growing attendance of the Lajkonik parade year after year gives us reason to be confident about the future of this tradition. In 2014, it was inscribed on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage as one of the first five cultural phenomena in Poland. This paved the way for efforts to have the procession included on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, where the Lajkonik would join the Kraków nativity scene.
We keep our fingers crossed for the success of these plans!