Pigeons — Krakow’s winged knights

They are everywhere — on Rynek Glowny, on the roofs of homes, at the railway station.

Every nook of Krakow has pigeons. If you drop a crumb, dozens descend on it.
Many people consider them pests.
But in the past they were the subject of myths.
One myth involves pigeons helping a prince set out on a pilgrimage to Rome in the 13th Century.

Tourist guide Katarzyna Janos says the story begins with the prince of Silesia, Henry the Fourth Probus, falling under the spell of an enchantress. He believes her story that a trip to the Vatican is the key to his being crowned king of Poland.
The problem is that the Pope demands an enormous contribution in exchange for blessing Henry?s plans for the crown.

So the prince turns to the enchantress for help. He agrees to leave his knights at her disposal in return for riches she promises.
She turns the knights into pigeons. The birds peck thousands of pebbles from St. Mary?s Tower. As each falls, it turns to gold.

Henry picks up the gold to finance his journey. On the way to Rome, however, he lives it up, spending lavishly on food and drink and diversions.
Before reaching Rome he is penniless. There is nothing to do but return to Krakow. No one knows if the enchantress would have turned the pigeons back into knights if Henry had returned with a mandate for the crown. But that didn?t happen.
So Henry never got his knights back. They still hovered around their liege ? but as pigeons, not men.

Another myth involves pigeons giving Krakow?s defenders the courage to fight off an army they were ready to give in to.
The story goes that the city?s inhabitants were holding their own in defending themselves against their enemy, but as each day passed, the city?s provisions became smaller and smaller.

In fact, hunger became so widespread that Krakow?s residents began catching pigeons to eat. Soon pigeons started disappearing from streets, roofs and squares.
Although some residents were staying alive by eating the birds, there was a hunger-related downside to their disappearance. Each day the birds flew over the city?s wall, bringing back grain, herbs and other food in their beaks.
Residents could catch them and take their food, meager though it was. If all the pigeons were eaten, however, it would end this source of food.

So the Town Council issued a decree forbidding the killing and eating of the birds.
About this time, the defenders? plight became so dire that they began saying goodbye to each other, sure that the end was near.

Then a young man took a heroic step. He sneaked out of the city and through the enemy camp, taking six pigeons with him, each in a different color.
A few days later, some residents saw a brown pigeon with a message tied to its wing. They caught it and looked at the piece of paper. ?Relief is on the way,? it said. ?It will be there in six days.?

Although starving and exhausted, Krakow?s defenders took heart from the message,  repulsing the enemy?s attacks with determination and watching the skies for another bird carrying a message. A gray pigeon arrived with a message in its beak, but no one saw it. Then the enemy decided to mount an all-out assault. Krakow?s residents held them off with fierceness and courage. In the end, the enemy had taken such heavy casualties in the battle that it withdrew.
?Victory! Victory!? residents shouted.

While the city was celebrating, someone noticed the message in the gray pigeon?s beak. He caught the bird and opened the piece of paper.
?Floods are preventing the relief force from coming. You must surrender,? the message read.

Thank God no one saw the message before the enemy?s final assault, residents told each other. They realized it was no accident that they could see the one pigeon?s hopeful message while being unable to see the message on the other bird that would have crushed their hope.

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