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European dragon
(Wyrm, Worm)
Ljubljana dragon.JPG
The Ljubljana Dragon, protector of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia
Creature
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Dragon
Similar creatures Other dragons
Data
Mythology Germanic, Celtic, etc.
Region Europe
Habitat Lairs, caves

European dragons are legendary creatures in folklore and mythology among the overlapping cultures of Europe.

In European folklore, a dragon is a serpentine legendary creature. The Latin word draco, as in constellation Draco, comes directly from Greek δράκων, (drákōn, gazer). 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 that identifies it as an ancient creature of earth. Likely, the dragons of European and Mid Eastern mythology stem from the cult of snakes found in religions throughout the world.

In Western folklore, dragons are usually portrayed as evil, with the exceptions mainly appearing in modern fiction. In the modern period the dragon is typically depicted as a huge fire-breathing, scaly and horned dinosaur-like creature, with leathery wings, with four legs and a long muscular tail. It is sometimes shown with feathered wings, crests, fiery manes, ivory spikes running down its spine and various exotic colorations.

Many modern stories represent dragons as extremely intelligent creatures who can talk, associated with (and sometimes in control of) powerful magic. In stories a dragon's blood often has magical properties: for example in the opera Siegfried it let Siegfried understand the language of the Forest Bird. The typical dragon protects a cavern or castle filled with gold and treasure and is often associated with a great hero who tries to slay it, but dragons can be written into a story in as many ways as a human character. This includes the monster being used as a wise being whom heroes could approach for help and advice, so much so that they resembled Asian dragons rather than European dragons of myth.

Contents

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.[1] Perhaps the distinctions between dragons of western origin and Chinese dragons are arbitrary, since the 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 Parthian and Dacian Wars of Trajan in the east, the Dacian Draco military standard entered the Legion with the Cohors Sarmatarum and Cohors Dacorum (Sarmatian and Dacian cohorts) — 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.[2] This signum is described in the surviving epitome of Vegetius De Re Militari 379 CE:

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'[3]

and in Ammianus Marcellinus, xvi. 10, 7[4] It is hard to resist giving this Romanized 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, midgårdsormen (Swedish and Danish), Midgardsormen (Norwegian), 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.

Of these, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

And dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant. If we omit from consideration the vast and vague Encircler of the World, Miðgarðsormr, the doom of the great gods and no matter for heroes, we have but the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir, and Beowulf's bane.[5]

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.

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.

Though the Latin is draco, draconis, it has been supposed by some scholars, that the word dragon comes from the Old Norse draugr, which literally means a spirit who guards the burial mound of a king. How this image of a vengeful guardian spirit is related to a fire-breathing serpent is unclear. Many others assume the word dragon comes from the ancient Greek verb derkesthai, meaning "to see", referring to the dragon's legendarily keen eyesight. 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

The Welsh flag, showing a red dragon passant

In Britain, the dragon is now more commonly associated with Wales, as its national flag features a red dragon (Y Ddraig Goch). This may originate in Arthurian Legend where Myrddin, employed by Gwrtheyrn, had a vision of the red dragon[6] (representing the Britons) and the white dragon (representing the invading Saxons) fighting beneath Dinas Emrys. This particular legend also features in the Mabinogion in the story of Lludd and Llefelys.[7]

According to Fox-Davies, the red dragon of Wales originated with the standard of the 7th century king Cadwaladr, and was used as a supporter by the Tudor dynasty (who were of Welsh origin).[8] Queen Elizabeth, however, preferring gold, changed the royal mantle and the dragon supporter from red to gold, and some Welsh scholars still hold that the dragon of Wales is properly ruddy gold rather than gules.[8] There may be some doubt of the Welsh origin of the dragon supporter of the Royal arms, but it certainly was used by King Henry III.[8] It has also been speculated that the red dragon of Wales may have even earlier origins in the Sarmatian-influenced Draco standards carried by Late Roman cavalry, who would have been the primary defence against the Saxons.[citation needed]

The Welsh flag is parti per fess Argent and Vert; a dragon Gules passant. Welsh rugby teams include the Newport Gwent Dragons and the Cardiff City Blue Dragons.

Dragons in Slavic mythology

Dragons of Slavic mythology hold mixed temperaments towards humans. For example, dragons (дракон, змей, ламя, (х)ала) in Bulgarian mythology are either male or female, each gender having a different view of mankind. The female dragon and male dragon, often seen as brother and sister, represent different forces of agriculture. The female dragon represents harsh weather and is the destroyer of crops, the hater of mankind, and is locked in a never ending battle with her brother. The male dragon protects the humans' crops from destruction and is generally loving to humanity. Fire and water play major roles in Bulgarian dragon lore; the female has water characteristics, whilst the male is usually a fiery creature. In Bulgarian legend, dragons are three headed, winged beings with snake's bodies.

In Bulgarian, Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Serbian lore, a dragon, or "змей" (Bulgarian), zmey (Russian), smok (Belarusian) zmiy (Ukrainian), змај/zmaj (Serbian) is generally an evil, four-legged beast with few if any redeeming qualities. Zmeys are intelligent, but not very highly so; they often place tribute on villages or small towns, demanding maidens for food, or gold. Their number of heads ranges from one to seven or sometimes even more, with three- and seven-headed dragons being most common. The heads also regrow if cut off, unless the neck is "treated" with fire (similar to the hydra in Greek mythology). Dragon blood is so poisonous that Earth itself will refuse to absorb it. In Bulgarian mythology these dragons are sometimes good, opposing the evil Lamya /ламя/, a beast that shares a likeness with the zmey.

The most famous Polish dragon is the Wawel Dragon or Smok Wawelski, the Dragon of Wawel Hill. It supposedly terrorized ancient Kraków and lived in caves on the Vistula river bank below the Wawel castle. According to lore based on the Book of Daniel, it was killed by a boy who offered it a sheepskin filled with sulphur and tar. After devouring it, the dragon became so thirsty that it finally exploded after drinking too much water. A metal sculpture of the Wawel Dragon is a well-known tourist sight in Kraków. It is very stylised but, to the amusement of children, noisily breathes fire every few minutes. The Wawel dragon also features on many items of Kraków tourist merchandise.

Other dragon-like creatures in Polish folklore include the basilisk, living in cellars of Warsaw, and the Snake King from folk legends.

Dragons in Iberian Mythology

Dragons in Asturian mythology

The Cuélebre, or Culebre, is a giant winged serpent in the mythology of Asturias and Cantabria, in the north of Spain. It usually lives in a cave, guards treasures and keeps nymph-like beings called xanas as prisoners. They are immortal, but grow old. They can be tricked in particular ways, especially on certain days.

Dragons in Aragonese mythology

There is a legend that a dragon dwelled in the Peña Uruel mountain near Jaca. It says that it could mesmerize people with his glance, so the young man who decided to kill the beast equipped himself with a shiny shield, so that the dragon's glance would be reflected. So, when the young man arrived the cave where the dragon lived, he could kill it easily because the dragon mesmerized itself. This legend is very similar to the Greek myth of Medusa.

The king of Peter IV of Aragon used a dragon on his helmet to show that he was the king of Aragon, as a heraldic pun (Rei d'Aragón, dragón).

Dragons in Basque mythology

Herensuge is the name given to the dragon in Basque mythology, meaning apparently the "last serpent". The best known legend has St. Michael descending from Heaven to kill it but only once God agreed to accompany him in person.

Sugaar, the Basque male god, is often associated with the serpent or dragon but able to take other forms as well. His name can be read as "male serpent".

A. Xaho, a romantic myth creator of the 19th century, fused these myths in his own creation of Leherensuge, the first and last serpent, that in his newly coined legend would arise again some time in the future bringing the rebirth of the Basque nation.

Dragons in Catalan mythology

Vibria in a parade in Reus (Catalonia)

Dragons are well-known in Catalan myths and legends, in no small part because St. George (Catalan Sant Jordi) is the patron saint of Catalonia. Like most dragons, the Catalan dragon (Catalan drac) is an enormous serpent with two legs, or, rarely, four, and sometimes a pair of wings. As in many other parts of the world, the dragon's face may be like that of some other animal, such as a lion or bull. As is common elsewhere, Catalan dragons are fire-breathers, and the dragon-fire is all-consuming. Catalan dragons also can emit a fetid odor, which can rot away anything it touches.

The Catalans also distinguish a víbria or vibra (cognate with English viper and wyvern), a female dragon with two prominent breasts, two claws and an eagle's beak.

Dragons in Portuguese mythology

In Portuguese mythology, coca[9] is a female dragon that battles Saint George on the Corpus Christi holiday. The fighting has a symbolic meaning: when the coca defeats Saint George the crops will be bad and there will be famine and death. When Saint George defeats the coca he cuts off her tongue and ears; the crops will have a good year and it announces prosperity. Still, she is called "saint" coca just like George is called saint and the people cheer for her. Another dragon called drago is also represented in Portuguese mythology and used to take part in celebrations during the Middle Ages.

Dragons in Italian mythology

Saint Margaret and the Dragon, alabaster with traces of gilding, Toulouse, ca 1475 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The legend of Saint George and the dragon is well-known in Italy, but other Saints are depicted fighting a dragon. 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.

According to the Golden Legend, compiled by the Italian Jacobus de Voragine, Saint Margaret the Virgin was swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, from which she escaped alive when the cross she carried irritated the dragon's innards. The Golden Legend, in an atypical moment of scepticism, describes this last incident as "apocryphal and not to be taken seriously" (trans. Ryan, 1.369) - which did not prevent the legend from being popuar and getting artistic treatments.

Thyrus, the dragon of Terni

But many more are the legends about dragons in Italy, particularly in Umbria. One of the most famous dragons of Italian folklore is Thyrus, a wyvern that besieged Terni in the Middle Ages. One day, a young and brave knight, tired of witnessing the death of his fellow citizens and depopulation of Terni, faced the dragon and killed him. From that day, the town assumed the creature in its coat of arms. Also a Latin inscription supports this: "Thyrus et amnis dederunt signa Teramnis" that stands under the banner of the town of Terni.

"Saint Silvestro resurrects two magicians, and the Fornole dragon", Vernio Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce (Florence)

Another poem tells of another dragon that yet lived near the village of Fornole, near Terni in the south of Umbria. Pope Saint Sylvester arrived in Umbria and freed the population of Fornole from the ferocity of the dragon, making him become mild. In gratitude, the population built, in the XIII century, a little church dedicated to the Saint on the top of the mountain, near the dragon’s lair. In the apse of the church there is a fresco representing the iconography of the Saint.

Notes

  1. ^ The various Near Eastern sources for the dragon and the Beast are summarized, for example in Howard Wallace, "Leviathan and the Beast in Revelation" The Biblical Archaeologist 11.3 (September 1948), pp. 61-68; the origins of draco in mistranslations of the Septuagint and Jerome's Vulgate, engendering shifts in emblemmatic significance for Christians, are analyzed in Nicolas K. Kiessling, "Antecedents of the Medieval Dragon in Sacred History" Journal of Biblical Literature 89.2 (June 1970), pp. 167-177.
  2. ^ Helmut Nickel, "Of Dragons, Basilisks, and the Arms of the Seven Kings of Rome" Metropolitan Museum Journal 24, (1989:25-34) p. 25.
  3. ^ Primum signum totius legionis est aquila, quam aquilifer portat. Dracones etiam per singulas cohortes a draconariis feruntur ad proelium (Vegetius, ii, ch XIII. 'De centuriis atque vexillis peditum').
  4. ^ Harry Thurston Peck, Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898, s.v. 'Signum' .
  5. ^ J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Proceedings of the British Academy, 22 (1936), 245–95.
  6. ^ Thomas Jones, ed. and trans., "The Story of Myrddin and the Five Dreams of Gwenddydd in the Chronicle of Elis Gruffydd," Etudes celtiques 8 (1958-59:315-345).
  7. ^ The dragon is one of three plagues in the land, which "can be seen as variants on the theme of the historical invaders who threatened the sovereignty of the Island of Britain" (Sioned Davies, tr. The Mabinogion [Oxford University Press, 2007) "Introduction" p. xii); see also Sabine Heinz, Celtic Symbols, 2008, s.v. "Dragon".
  8. ^ a b c Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1909). A Complete Guide to Heraldry. New York: Dodge Pub. Co. ISBN 0517266431. LCCN 09-023803 pp. 225-6.
  9. ^ [1]

See also

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