We're taking a deep dive into dragon lore - the magical world of dragon myth, meaning, and symbolism - some explorations I've done to accompany a new set of colourful medieval and Celtic-inspired dragon artworks...
Dragon lore is a rich tapestry across history and cultures - we've looked at some early dragon myths and legends in part I of this post here - now, we're going to continue (somewhat intrepidly) down our dragon-filled path to find out more about our early British dragons, the role of Christianity in the legend of the dragon, and some dragon fairytales...
You can also explore the folklore and myths around these specific elemental dragons that I look at more closely in the blog posts about each dragon artwork, below... (we'll also come back to these again at the end!)
Early British Dragons
Tolkein’s The Hobbit, as well as Harry Potter, both draw elements from a story, set in Scandinavia, which has also fed heavily into English culture, being one of our earliest works of literature in the English language - the tale of Beowulf.
Our earliest written form of the tale dates to around 1000AD, but it’s argues that it may have been transmitted in the spoken form for up to 300 years previously, before being recorded in its written form – it’s set in kingdoms of Geatland (Gotaland in modern Sweden) and the Danes.
There is more about Beowulf and his battle with the dragon, enraged by the theft of a golden goblet from its hoard of treasure in the sections on fire dragons and earth dragons.
We know from the Old English epic poem Beowulf that dragons were already a part of Anglo-Saxon culture…
The Sutton Hoo ship burial (dating from around the 6th to 7th century) contained exquisite metalwork in the Celtic ‘Hiberno-Saxon’ ‘insular’ Celtic art style and includes the decorations for a large and fine shield ornamented with a flying dragon design.
The dragon also appears on the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. The English King Harold is shown with a banner with a white dragon on it.
The white dragon is known to be a symbol of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, while the red dragon is that of the native British (Brythons) corresponding to the modern Welsh nation…
Nennius, in his 9th century ‘Historia Brittonum’, and Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his 12th century ‘History of the Kings of Britain’, both tell the story of the young wizard Merlin (also known as Emrys, Myrrddin, or Ambrosios) who uncovers two battling dragons, red and white, in a hidden underground pool at Dinas Emrys.
The dragons represent the kingdoms of Wales/the Britons (red) and the Saxons (white). More about this in both the air dragons and earth dragons pages…
The white dragon has been used as a standard in battle by English kings from Richard I to Edward IV, and the red dragon was the standard of Cadwallader, Prince of Gwynedd in Wales, which was also taken up as the symbol of King Arthur of Britain in the legend. The red dragon is even now the emblem of Wales, appearing on the current Welsh flag.
St George & the Dragon
That quintessential Englishman, St George, who famously slay a dragon, thus becoming an English hero, historically has perhaps more to do with the Christian tradition than any innate Englishness…
The story of St George began in his native Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey) around 300AD. A Roman guard of the Christian faith, he left military service when the Emperor Diocletian threatened Christians with the death penalty.
He took his faith to the city of Silene (in modern-day Libya) where a fearsome dragon was terrorising the land. The people began sacrificing sheep to placate the dragon. When all the sheep were gone, a child was selected by lottery and offered to the dragon.
Eventually, the princess of Silene was unlucky enough to be selected. She is left tied to a rock by a lake to await her death in the jaws of the dragon…
George arrives, and wishing to rescue the princess, he fights and subdues the dragon. He leads the dragon into the city of Silene and tells the inhabitants that Christ has saved them from the dragon.
George persuades the king and his men to be baptized in the Christian faith and then slays the dragon.
St George is sometimes identified as the figure of al-Khidr in the Koran, and is said to have killed a dragon near Beirut in Lebanon.
There is an alternative interpretation of the St George story in the section about earth dragons.
We will see more rescuing of princesses from dragons in a bit… Stay with me!
In the medieval Christian church, the dragon was a symbol of evil and of paganism (non-Christianity) – so the slaying of the dragon is a symbol of the victor of Christianity over non-Christian relgions.
The Christian St Margaret of Antioch, Margaret the Virgin, also came from what is now modern Turkey in the early 4th century. She was tortured for her Christian faith, and eventually Satan, in the guise of a dragon swallowed her…
But Margaret was so holy that he had to spit her out again! Unfortunately for Margaret, she was still put to death as a Christian martyr by the Roman governor.
Like George, Margaret’s story spread from her native land through Christian Crusade knights who brought her tale back to England. There are still hundreds of churches and chapels in England dedicated to Margaret the Virgin and she is a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Satan again appears as a dragon when he is cast out from heaven by the Archangel Michael in the almighty battle of heaven described in the Book of Revelations.
Along with St George, St Michael became a popular saint and churches dedicated to both were established on sites of pre-Christian significance.
The tale of St Patrick casting the snakes out of Ireland is also thought to relate to the victory of Christianity over the pagans there – the Druids, who it’s thought did actually decorate their bodies with image of snakes (seen as a form of dragon in these early times). There’s more about St Patrick and dragons in Ireland in the section on water dragons.
The imagery of the Christian hero or knight slaying the dragon was very popular in medieval religious plays and pageants – and the audience would easily have recognised that the dragon symbolised the devil.
St Martha & the Dragon
France, too has its tradition of dragon tales, many shared with the English tradition, and also influenced by the Christian culture. In one Christian dragon tale, the Tarasque dragon terrorised the region of Provence in southern France. The king and his brave knights could not defeat the mighty Tarasque dragon.
St Martha prayed over the Tarasque, sprinkled it with holy water, and was able to tame it with her Christian cross. She led the dragon peacefully into the nearest village – but the villagers, understandably afraid, attacked the Tarasque (who did not defend itself) and killed it.
St Martha preached her Christian faith to the villagers and they regretted their act and renamed their village Tarascon to honour the dragon that St Martha had tamed.
Dragon Fairytales and Folklore
Dragons commonly symbolise evil intent, if not always inherently evil, as this intriguing Northumbrian fairytale of Childe Wynde and the dragon shows…
The story itself, also known as the tale of the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, may have its origins in the sixth century and could relate to the 6th century historical figure of King Ida the Flamethrower, the first king of the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia, who was said to have built Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria where the story takes place.
But it’s also very possible that the story could be an 18th century creation that drew on earlier elements of local folklore and tradition. It was said to have been found as an ancient ballad by the Reverend Robert Lambert of Norham.
The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh
The story tells the tale of the King of Northumberland who remarries and welcomes his new queen to his castle at Bamburgh...
On the wedding night, as the rest of the castle sleeps, the new queen sits and sews a tapestry depicting a sleeping princess. When the daughter of the king, Princess Margaret, awakes, she discovers that she has become a dragon!
Unable to quell her instincts, she ravages the land. The people are afraid…
One wise old man tells the king that he must call back his son, the princess’ brother, Childe Wynde, who is away at war in a distant land, to rescue the princess who has become ensnared by dark magic and trapped in the dragon’s body.
The new queen is locked in the tower and Childe Wynde is sent for and builds a ship of pear wood to protect himself and his men from sorcery. As Childe Wynde returns to the Northumbrian shores, a violent storm is called up by the wicked queen.
Sailing with his men in his ship of pear wood, the dragon flies overhead, under the control of the step-mother queen. Childe Wynde fears his dragon sister will kill him…
But at the last moment, she is able to overcome the queen’s evil magic and whispers to her brother that he must kiss her three times to free her.
The dragon’s scales and spines cut Childe Wynde and pierce his cheek, but he kisses the dragon three times – and the dragon disappears leaving Princess Margaret in his place.
Childe Wynde takes his sister and his men and goes up to the castle where he touches the queen with a piece of pear wood from his ship. She is revealed as an ugly toad and hops away, never to be heard of again!
We see many common fairytale themes here – the sleeping princess, the rescuer’s kiss, the wicked step-mother, the toad, and of course the dragon and the hero!
In Eastern European or Slavic culture, dragons also feature prominently in myths and folk tales, often symbolising the elemental forces of nature and alongside beautiful princesses ….naturally!
The three-headed dragon, Gorynych, of Russian and Ukrainian folklore, was a terrifying beast who could cause an eclipse of the moon or sun by biting a chunk out of it.
The dragon’s uncle was a wicked sorcerer who kidnapped the Tsar’s daughter to make her marry the dragon, so that he could rule all of Russia through them. The princess was imprisoned in a castle in the Ural mountains.
One young man, Ivan, was a palace guard who could understand the speech of birds. He hears some crows talking about a princess hidden in a castle and swears to rescue her. The Tsar presents him with a magical sword to help him rescue his daughter.
After a long and treacherous journey to the castle, Ivan meets the wicked sorcerer in the guise of a giant – the magical sword shoots out of Ivan’s hand and kills the giant, and then swipes at and slashes all three heads of the dragon, killing it instantly.
The Princess, of course, falls in love with her rescuer, and Ivan marries her.
In southern Slavic areas, such as Bulgaria and Croatia, the dragons were less terrifying and sometimes helped humans with their wisdom and magic. Beautiful human women would sometimes become the dragon’s willing wife – and many heroes of Slavic folktales had a human mother and dragon father.
This is also a theme in many modern dragon tales, such as the series of dragon books Dragons of Pern by Anne Mc Caffrey where the dragons are powerful but wise companions.
The themes of power, the forces of nature, of good and evil, death and destruction, wisdom and protection, quest and challenge, all follow the symbol of the dragon thoughout history – from our earliest dragon myths in history, to the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, Dragonheart, Harry Potter, the How to Train your Dragon book series, Game of Thrones, Dungeons and Dragons, and many more in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The dragon is part of our culture and part of our human experience – the ultimate adversary, the battle for humankind against the forces of nature, immortality, or evil – or our own flawed nature.
The dragon is a symbol recognised across time and throughout the globe – a universal experience of being human – everything that’s not human that we need to overcome in our lives, as well as everything that’s human and precious to us that we need to guard as fiercely as the dragon!
Want More Dragons?
If you missed part I of this dragon symbolism, myth, and meaning post, you can catch up with that here - in it, I look more at the symbolism and history of dragons, dragon creation myths, Celtic dragons, and Norse dragons...
You can also delve deeper into the myths and folklores around specific types of elemental dragon in each of my blog posts written for the four dragon artworks below...
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Lludd and Llevelys
accessed 20th May 2021
The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh
accessed 20th May 2021
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