The wingéd, fire-breathing dragon is a particularly English Monster, typified by those slain in Medieval stories such as “St.George and the Dragon”. The story of the evolution of this creature, so well described by Tolkien, in “The Hobbit” is a fascinating one...
The modern word "dragon" (13th c.) derives from the Old French word dragon, which derives from the Latin draco (acc. draconem). This derives from the Ancient Greek δράκων (drakōn) meaning a serpent. This, in turn, derives from drak- ‘to see clearly’ which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *derk - ‘to see’ - dragons were said to have exceptional sight.
Dragons were early-on associated with springs and, in many Indo-European languages the word for spring is the same as for eye. One Old English word for dragon is draca (hence the obsolete term “Drake” - nothing to do with male ducks!). This derives from the Proto-Germanic *draco - an early borrowing from the Latin.
The 'native' Old English term for a dragon was a wyrm. This derives from Proto-Germanic *wurmiz (cf. Old High German wurm, Old Norse ormr and Goth. waurms "serpent, worm"), from Proto-Indo-European *wrmi-/*wrmo- "worm" possibly from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer- "turn".
The dragon is a most complex and near universal symbol; a winged serpent, a composite image of everything inhuman - equipped with scales, claws, wings and fantastic size and strength. However, unlike most chimæric monsters, the dragon has a unity of synthesis, a beauty unique to itself.
In the East the Dragon was a symbol of good (or, at least, neutral) forces of nature, in the West the Dragon symbolises hate, evil, violence, sin and death. The ‘primitive’ dragon is associated with water and life, the ‘evolved’ dragon with fire and death. Its breath no longer brings life but sulphurous burning flame. Killing a dragon is symbolic of winning the fight against evil, of overcoming one’s own “dark side” and gaining mastery of self. Rescuing the maiden from the clutches of the dragon symbolises delivering innocence from evil. The Western Dragon also symbolises sovereignty.
The Dragon can first be recognised in the early Middle East as the Serpent Apep (better known by his Greek name : Apophis), who is slain by Seth at the behest of Ra. Here the serpent symbolises darkness which the sun defeats each morning.
|Battle of Marduk and Tiamat, Neo-Assyrian Cylinder Seal, 900 - 750 BCE|
The Chaos Dragon, Tiamat, is central to the Babylonian creation myth. Here the female dragon-spirit born from chaotic salt water is slain by the Sky God, Marduk, and the world created from her body. (It is interesting to note the resemblance to the Norse creation myth, where the giant Ymir is slain by Oðinn; - the parallels between Babylonian and N.W. European myths being too numerous to be co-incidental.) This myth was re-enacted annually at the New Year Feast.
The Dragon is a familiar image from the Old and New Testaments :-
(JOB 41) (Describing Leviathan)
“...I will not fail to speak of his limbs, his strength and his graceful form.
Who can strip off his outer coat? Who could approach him with a bridle?
Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth?
His back has rows of shields tightly sealed together;
each is so close to the next that no air can pass between.
They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted.This description could have come straight from the pen of the author of ‘Beowulf’.
His sneezing throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.
Strength resides in his neck; dismay goes before him.
The folds of his flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable.
His chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone.
When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing.
The sword that reaches him has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.
Arrows do not make him flee; slingstones are like chaff to him.
A club seems to him but a piece of straw; he laughs at the rattling of the lance.
.... Nothing on earth is his equal - a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud.”
ISAIAH 27: “In that day the Lord with his severe sword, great and strong, will punish Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, Leviathan that twisted serpent, And He will slay the reptile that is in the sea.”
REVELATION 12:3 : “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon ...”It is unlikely that the Beowulf poet was unaware of these biblical references.
REVELATION 12:9 : “The great dragon was hurled down - that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan,”
The late Roman Army used the dragon as a symbol. The Serpent-Standard; the “Draco” was adopted via the Sarmatians in the 3rd Century A.D.
|Draco, from Staatliches Amt für Vorund Frühgeschichte, Koblenz|
Dragon Legends are uncommon in early Celtic Literature and probably date from the advent of the Anglo-Saxon “invasion”. One Welsh word for dragon, ‘Gwiber’, is a late borrowing from the Latin ‘Vipera’, the other is Ddraig. The most famous Welsh legend concerning dragons tells how “Vortigern”, the 5th Century ruler of Britain wanted to build a stronghold but that it kept collapsing. Merlin was consulted, who revealed that two dragons battled each night beneath the site, destroying the walls. The red dragon symbolised Britain and the white, the Saxons. Vortigern never did get his fortress built. Later on Merlin was to meet Arthur’s father, Uther, called Pendragon (-which means “dragon-head” in Brythonic), perhaps because he wore a dragon-crested helm.
|C8th Northumbrian Coppergate Helm, showing dragon-ridge|
|C7th Sutton Hoo Helm showing dragon formed by Nose and eyebrow decoration|
Dragon figures are common on the crested helms of Northern Europe. They are found on the “Coppergate” helm, the Sutton-Hoo helm and various of the Swedish helms from Välsgarde and Vendel. Dragon figures are also found on Scabbard chapes, Seax fittings and various shields including the great shield from Sutton-Hoo Mound-1.
|Sutton-Hoo Mound 1 Shield (British Museum) with dragon applique (left) and small dragon-heads on the boss and rim|
“793 .. In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria, and wretchedly terrified the people. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky”.Given the fearsome reputation of dragons among the English, stemming from biblical sources and from stories such as Beowulf, it is not surprising that the dragon thrived as a mascot for Viking raiders who pillaged the coast of Anglo-Saxon England, beginning with the rape of the Holy Island of Lindesfarne in 793 AD.
Viking Longships were known as Dragon-Ships, “Drakkar”, probably because of the Dragon/Serpent prow carvings. Finds such as the Osberg Ship support contemporary descriptions. These vessels must really have looked like fabulous monsters as they glided through the early morning mist to attack, their heads and tails glistening and their stout bodies filled with fierce men intent on destruction.
|Viking dragon-head from the Osberg Ship|
Norse Mythology does mention Dragons and Serpents, though passingly. The Thunder-God, Ðor, fights the World-Serpent Jörmungandr on several occasions - this probably being a degenerate account of Marduk’s fight with Tiamat (q.v.). The one true dragon mentioned in Voluspa (The Seeress’s Prophecy) is Niðhögg, and it is of some interest that this dragon is found in the Land of the Dead, Nifelheim, where it rends at the third root of the world tree Yggdrasil.
39 : “...there Niðhögg sucks the bodies of the dead”
66 : “...There comes the dark dragon flying, the shining serpent, up from Dark of Moon Hills; Niðhögg flies over the plain, in his wings he carries corpses, now she must sink down”.
|Thor and the Midgard Serpent|
In Norse poetry there is a kenning for a king /war-leader. This is “Hater of the fire-bed of the serpent”.
The “fire-bed of the serpent” is itself a kenning for gold because gold shines like fire, and serpent-dragons are said to lie on golden treasure in burial mounds. A king must be open-handed with gold in order to retain his warrior-corps, so must not become to attached to it.
Unexpectedly, the Lay of Fafnir does not give any details of Sigurd’s fight with the dragon. Sigurd and Regin journey to Gnita-heath, where they locate Fafnir’s tracks where he crawls down to the water to drink. On the advice of a One-Eyed Stranger (guess who?), Sigurd digs a pit in the path and hides there until Fafnir crawls over him. Sigurd then simply stabs him in the heart with his invincible sword, Gram. Hardly the stuff of heroes!
Back in England, our relationship with the dragon has been immortalised through the christening of various places with dragon-associated names. Most of these contain the element “worm”, and include;
Worminster, in Somerset. (< Wormester 946 <Wyrmtorr “Rocky hill of the dragon”)Interestingly, dragons are associated with barrows in the north of England and with wells or hills in the south.
Wormelow, Herefordshire (< Wyrmhlaw- “Burial Mound of the Dragon”)
Wormley, Herts. (< Wrmeleia c.1060 < Wyrm + leah “Woodland clearing of the Dragon”)
In Gnomic Verses we find the statement “....dragon is in ...habit of dwelling in a barrow”. The English Fire-Dragon is usually the guardian of the grave-goods of a burial mound, being so described in “Beowulf”:
“He is doomed to seek out hoards in the ground, and guard for an age there the heathen gold: much good does it do him !” (2275-77)
|Dragon from St Bee's Priory, Cumbria|
As has already been mentioned, one of the words used in Old (and Middle) English for a dragon is “Wyrm”. In Line 2287 of “Beowulf” the Dragon is called “a worm”. The “Lambton Worm” and the “Sockburn Worm” from County Durham and the Linton Worm from Roxburghshire are Medieval examples of such dragons.
A “Worm” was generally a wingless, poison-breathing dragon. Other Old English words to describe a dragon are Niðdraca - literally evil/hell-dragon (compare Old Norse “Niðhögg"), and Ligdraca - “fiery dragon”(- which is the term used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).
From the description in “Beowulf” of the dragon it is clear that by the time of the poem’s composition the picture of the Dragon was fully formed - A huge, bat-winged, scaled lizard, with a poisonous bite (Beowulf; line 2523 and line 2711 onwards.) and “flame-thrower breath”.
We may ponder why the Dragon should so ‘evolve’ in England into the form we know today as so vividly described by the writer of “Beowulf” and so lovingly recreated by Prof. Tolkien.
Hilda Ellis-Davidson* postulated that the dragon is a symbol of devouring death, of the funeral pyre which destroys both the dead man’s body and his treasures. Perhaps we all need this archetype, an alien, devouring beast, that lurks in the cavernous depths of our psyches. Long live the Dragon!
Holy Bible, New International Version.
“Late Roman Infantryman 236-565 AD" , Warrior Series, Osprey Military Books.
“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, trans.Anne Savage. Bramley Books.
“The Poetic Edda”, trans. Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press.
“A Dictionary of English Place-Names”, A.D. Mills. Oxford University Press.
“In Search of Lost Gods” -A Guide to British Folklore”. Ralph Whitlock. Phaidon Press.
* “Gods and Myths of Northern Europe”, H.R. Ellis Davidson. Penguin Books 1964.
“Beowulf”, Ed. C.L.Wrenn & W.F.Bolton. Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies.
“Beowulf”, trans. Michael Alexander, Penguin Books.