Friday, December 4, 2009

Dragons! Creatures of Worldwide Mythology

Many European stories of dragons have them guarding a treasure hoard. Both Fafnir and Beowulf's dragon's 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 drakon, "serpent dragon," the Greek word derives from Indo-European "derk-,"to see," and many originally have meant something like "monster with the evil eye." Not withstanding their folkloric associations, there is no etymological connection between dragons and the ghoulish figures known as draugr in Old Norse.

The emblem books popular from late medieval times through the 17th century often represented the dragon as an emblem of greed. The prevalence of dragons of 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 dragon comes from the Old Norse draugr, which literally meant 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 derkethai, meaning "to see," referring to the dragon's legendary 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.

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 venemous bite; all of these indicate a snake-like form and movement rather than 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 have a red dragon (Y Draig Goch) as its emblem and their national rugby union and rugby league teams are 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. This particular legend also features in the Mabinogion in the story of Lludd and Llefelys. (Mabinogien-is the title given to a collection or prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The tales draw on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, international motifs, and early medieval historical traditions.

According to Fox-Davies, the red dragon of Wales originated with the standard of the 7th century king Cadwaledr, and was used as a supporter by the Tudor dynasty (who were of Welsh origin). 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 with gold rather than gules (gules=in heraldry gules is the tincture with the color red). There may be some doubt of the Welsh origin of the dragon supporter of the Royal Arms (the official coat of arms of the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II), but it certainly was used by King Henry II (1 October 1207-16 November 1272-reigned for 56 years from 1216 to his death).

It has also been speculated that the red dragon of Wales may have even earlier origins in the Sarmatian (Persian-ancient Iranians) influenced Draco standards (a Roman cavalry military standard borne by a draconarius. Thought to have originated with the Dacians, it took the form of a gaping wolf's head and mouth formed from cast metal, to the end of which was attached a 'body' of cloth or silk fabric in the form of a woodsock), who would have been the primary defense against the Saxons.

Dragons in Slavic Mythology: Dragons of Slavic mythology hold mixed temperment towards humans. For example, dragons in Bulgarian mythology are either male or female with each gender having a different view of mankind! 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, while the male is usually a fiery creature. In Bulgarian legend, dragons are 3-headed, winged beings with snakes bodies.

In Bulgarian, Russian, Belorussian, Ukranian and Serbian lore, a dragon is generally an evil 4-legged beast with few if any redeeming qualities. Zmey (Russian for dragon) are intelligent, but not very highly so; they often place tribute on villages or small towns, demanding maidens or 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, 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 Krakow and lived in caves on the Vistual 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 sulfur 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 Krakow. It is very stylized, but to the amusement of children, noisily breathes fire every few minutes. The Wawel dragon also features on many items of Krakow tourist merchandise. Other dragon-like creatures in Polish folklore include the basilisk (from the Greek basiliskos, "little king," Latin (Regulus) is a legendary reptile reputed to be King of Serpents and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance), living in cellars in Warsaw, and the Snake King from folk legends.

Thanks for all of your thoughtful and intelligent comments! Best to anyone stopping by! The first image is of a statue called the "Dragon of Llubjana" and the second image is the flag of Wales with its famous red dragon.


Jon said...

think there something to this...

the dragon in Beowulf, for example, is more that just a childish figure that the poet decided to toss in there... there's a reason for the dragon...


what might this be?


there's a bunch of good scholarly articles on the dragon, at least in the Beowulf sense, that you can find on JSTOR...

thanks for the heads up on this site Devin... I'll have to add this to the list of sites I follow too...


** word verification asks for "doomed"

now how can that be random!?!

Devin said...

Jon-thanks so very much for your comment!
I will look at Beowulf-sorry for not actually knowing this part of the dragon story-or series-as it were-I relied on wikipedia accuracy for some of this-In doing this first set of posts about dragons I wanted to provide a backdrop of history about dragons for a series of stories/myths about dragons-that thank the Creator I had already written down-as I want to work more on my other blogs than this one for awhile-If I can find Beowulf on the net or library it sounds like it would fit in with these stories.
wow-are you an early riser? or are you one of my "furriner" friends:-)
i was shocked to get comments at this time of the day
all the best to you my friend and I hope to chat very soon-thanks so much for taking an interest in the history blog!!
Oh Duuhhhh-haha I am out of it-tired mixed with pain meds sheesh
I didn't look far down enough at your comment-will check out JSTOR--uh I hate to sound cheap/broke all the time but it will have to be free for me to use it-but thanks either way for the heads up on it!!
I also am into the wv's along with a few others around here-gosh-i hope the "doomed" isn't for me unless it is the final doomed-i can't take any more plain ole slap in the face dooms:-)
thanks again my friend and all the best to you!!!

Autumnforest said...

I've always liked the dragons from Britain rather than Asia. It was interesting to hear how they "evolved" in our mythology and art. Thanks so much!

Julie said...

Very good post about dragons. I do believe that some have been reported sited in various parts of the world till this day. They are described slightly different, but still referred to as a dragon. I have seen some specials on dragons and found the stories fascinating. Even Josh Gates from Destination Truth has gone on the hunt of the elusive dragon.
Hope all is well with you, take care.
~Above the Norm~

Anadæ Effro said...

Or, Devin, you can go with Jon's Beowulf citation & watch the CGI film version on DVD, rather than dredge through the book … here's the Wiki page on it … and thank you so much for doing this series on the dragon. I'm awed. It's outreal, really. Once you find a subject worthy of your attentions, you really do give it the appropriate treatment. Thanks again!

The father of a new kitty cat,
Anadæ Effro (•8-D

nolocontendere said...

I've thought for some time that the dragon myths that popped up all over the world, like the flood myths, are rooted in something material, and the reptilians of UFO lore fit the bill nicely.

Just one piece of the puzzle - the Sumerians. If any ancient civilazation can be said to be tied to the heavens, it's them. They said again and again that everything they knew was taught to them by "those who from the sky fell". The Annunaki looked like lizards. And of course there's this famous figurine.

Middle Ditch said...

A fascinating read Devin.

Where did those creatures come from and where did they go?

Thomas said...

Much like vampires, dragons are one of those beasts that seem to crop up, in one form or another, in the folklore and mythology of virtually every human society.

I'll have to meditate for a while on what primordial aspect of the psyche this particular creature addresses.

X. Dell said...

I must confess to knowing nothing about dragons. It strikes me, though, that the prevalence of this creature throughout European folklore would have come from a common, or external source. Yet, if there were dragons running around all over the place, you'd think some archeologist would have dug it up by now.

I've seen old maps where someone writes on unknown territories "there be monsters here," or words to that effect. Perhaps one could see the dragon as a cultural manefestation signifying fear of the unknown?

Devin said...

Autumnforest, Julie,Anadae,nolocontendere,Middle Ditch,Thomas and Xdell-thank you all so very much for stopping by!!
I really appreciate it and sorry it took so very long to get to comments -if I have done things right -people should be able to comment here now and have their comments appear immediately in posts not older than 1 week
-I just didnt think it was fair to keep having people wait for me to "moderate" haha as it's called-I hope to get caught up at all your blogs very soon -I have a bad cold right now so have been in bed last two and a half days more or less
it should be gone in a day or two if it follows the normal pattern
there is a bit i have saved to drafts that may take just a little work to post
it is kind of out of order in the way i was going to do this series but i don't think terribly so
all the best to each and every one of you and I very much appreciate your fantastic comments-and thanks also for the links Anadae and nolo!!
I hope to visit all of your places in a day or so-I hope you are all having a beautiful holiday season too-

Alex Robinson said...

What a mixed bag dragons are - thanks for all the in-sight Devin!
I see have two more articles to catch up on too - sorry, it feels like I've been riding on an express train - definitely need to swap for one with a scenic route :)

I hope your cold is gone & that you are feeling far, far better :) xxx

Devin said...

Hey Alex-so very sorry -I almost missed this comment as I did another on my history blog-i am not used to looking to see if commnents have come in yet -but I think this did go to my email as an alert-but I promptly got distracted by answering something else or doing something else and forgot-so maybe it would have been the same anyway!
just take your time looking at anything here-i know you are during your workweek and such and busy -there is never a hurry as like i have said even if i stop or take a long break i definitely intend to leave all the blogs up
btw loved your new article tonight/this am i shoud say!!
really debating on introducing a new subject in between these "monsters" now:-)
the thing is i dont want to confuse people but i would think my readers are used to me being confused!!
all the best to you my friend and thanks for your thoughts on my health -i am really going to have to watch stress in the coming week/weeks
i hope you are doing great and have a beautiful day tomorrow -and don't let "god" get in your way-he's one of the "lesser" gods anyway:-)xx