Celtic Culture

 

 

 European Dragons

 European dragons are legendary creatures in folklore and mythology amongst the overlapping cultures of all of central and southern Europe.

 Dragon

 

The word for dragon in Germanic mythology, and its descendants, is worm (Old English: wyrm, Old High German: wurm, Old Norse: ormr), meaning snake or serpent.

In Old English wyrm means "serpent", draca means "dragon". Finnish lohikäärme means directly "salmon-snake", but the word lohi - was originally louhi - meaning crags or rocks, a "mountain snake".

Though a winged creature, the dragon is generally to be found in its underground lair, a cave identifying it as an ancient creature of the earth. Likely, the dragons of European and Mid-Eastern mythology stem from the cult of snakes found in religions throughout the whole world.

Roman dragons

Roman dragons evolved from serpentine Greek ones, combined with the dragons of the Near East, in the mix that characterized the hybrid Greek/Eastern Hellenistic culture. From Babylon, the musrussu was a classic representation of a Near Eastern dragon.

John's Book of Revelation — Greek literature, not Roman — describes Satan as "a great dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns". Much of John's literary inspiration is late Hebrew and Greek, but John's dragon is more likely to have come originally through the Near East. Perhaps the distinctions between dragons of western origin and Chinese dragons are arbitrary.

A later Roman dragon was certainly of Iranian origin: in the Roman Empire, where each military cohort had a particular identifying signum, (military standard), after the Dacian Wars and Parthian War of Trajan in the east, the Draco military standard entered the Legion with the Cohors Sarmatarum and Cohors Dacorum (Sarmatian and Dacian cohort) — a large dragon fixed to the end of a lance, with large gaping jaws of silver and with the rest of the body formed of colored silk. With the jaws facing into the wind, the silken body inflated and rippled, resembling a windsock.

(The first sign of the entire legion is the eagle, which the eagle-bearer carries. In addition, dragons are carried into battle by each cohort, by the 'dragoneers') and in Ammianus Marcellinus, xvi. 10, 7 (Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898: 'Signum'). It is hard to resist giving this Romanicized Parthian dragon a distant Chinese origin.


Dragons In Germanic Mythology

The most famous dragons in Norse and Germanic mythology are:

  • Níðhöggr who gnawed at the roots of Yggdrasil, or Jörmungandr the giant sea serpent which surrounds Miðgarð the world of mortal men;
  • The dragon encountered by Beowulf;
  • Fafnir, who was killed by Sigurd. Fafnir had turned into a dragon because of his greed.
  • Lindworms are monstrous serpents of Germanic myth and lore, often interchangeable with dragons.
  • A dragon is slain by legendary hero Sigurd (or Siegfried) from German medieval epic poem Nibelungenlied.

Many European stories of dragons have them guarding a treasure hoard. Both Fafnir and Beowulf's dragon guarded earthen mounds full of ancient treasure. The treasure was cursed and brought ill to those who later possessed it.

English “dragon” derives (via Middle English, Old French, and Latin) from Greek dracon, “serpent, dragon”; the Greek word derives from Indo-European *derk-, "to see," and may originally have meant something like “monster with the evil eye.” Notwithstanding their folkloric associations, there is no etymological connection between dragons and the ghoulish figures known as draugar in Old Norse, who haunt rich burial mounds.

Dragons in the emblem books popular from late medieval times through the 17th century often represent the dragon as an emblem of greed. The prevalence of dragons in European heraldry demonstrates that there is more to the dragon than greed.

In any case, the image of a dragon as a serpent-like creature was already standard at least by the 8th century when Beowulf was written down. Although today we associate dragons almost universally with fire, in medieval legend the creatures were often associated with water, guarding springs or living near or under water.

The poem Beowulf describes a draca (= dragon) also as wyrm (= worm, or serpent) and its movements by the Anglo-Saxon verb bugan = "to bend", and says that it has a venomous bite; all of these indicate a snake-like form and movement rather than with a lizard-like or dinosaur-like body as in later belief.

Dragons In Celtic Mythology

In Britain, the dragon is now more commonly associated with Wales due to the national flag having a red dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) as its emblem. Their national rugby union and rugby league teams are also known as the dragons.

This may originate in Arthurian Legend where Myrddin, employed by Gwrtheyrn, had a vision of the red dragon (representing the Britons) and the white dragon (representing the invading Saxons) fighting beneath Dinas Emrys. The red dragon was linked with the Britons who are today represented by the Welsh and it is believed that the white dragon refers to the Saxons who invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. This particular legend also features in the Mabinogion in the story of Llud and Llefelys.

It has also been speculated that the red dragon of Wales may have originated in the Sarmatian-influenced Draco standards carried by late Roman cavalry, who would have been the primary defence against the Saxons. In Welsh language the word "Pennaeth" means also a chieftain, apparently due to the Roman draco standards.

Dragons In Italian Mythology

The legend of Saint George and the dragon is well-known in Italy, but other Saints are depicted as also fighting dragons. For instance, the first bishop of the city of Forlì, named Saint Mercurialis, was said to have killed a dragon and saved Forlì, so he often is depicted killing a dragon.

Likewise, the first patron saint of Venice, Saint Theodore of Tyro, was a dragon-slayer, and a statue representing his slaying of the dragon still tops one of the two columns in St. Mark's square. St. Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers, is also frequently depicted slaying a dragon. Many dragons of the European Middle Ages were thought to be demonic or of evil status.

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