Celtic Dragon History

archived 11-05-99
Archive file# h110599a
donated by L. Savage

Celtic Dragon History



# 701: The European dragon was often synonymous with the Ouroboros or Earth Serpent. In Brittany he was 'the dragon of the Bretons.' Each May Day, it was said, he uttered a terrible scream that could be heard underneath every hearth fire, demanding burial of a tub of mead as an offering to him. The official emblem of Wales is still the red dragon, derived from the Great Red Serpent that once represented the old Welsh god Dewi.

# 161: The Celtic dragon represents sovereignty, power or a chief, such as Pendragon, the Celtic word meaning 'chief'. The Red Dragon of Cadwallader or Cadwaller is the emblem of Wales - 'upon a mount vert, a dragon passant, wings expanded and endorsed gules - the Red Dragon Dreadful'. It was blazed on King Arthur's helmet in battle, later it was associated with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Owen Glendower. The Saxons had the white dragon as a royal standard. In early Britain it depicted supreme power.

The Heraldic dragon varies greatly, especially in the shape of its ears, but the wings are always those of a bat; the tongue and tail can be barbed; it breathes out fire and is a symbol of power, wisdom and one who has overcome an adversary or fortress. The Tudor Red Dragon indicates Welsh origins. Dragon Tygre and Dragon-Wolf are composite creatures and support the arms of the City of London.

# 454: The Dragon appears in much more than its classical forms within British mythology. It is sometimes a worm and is derived from northern European prototypes (Lindorm). It is sometimes a waterserpent or monster. In all instances, the dragon exemplifies elemental power, especially of the earth. The dragon which Saint George overcomes is symbolic of paganism, but such obvious symbolism overlays a great deal more subtle imagery. The two dragons which Merlin Emrys releases from under Vortigern's tower are emblematic of the vitality of the land which is chaotic unless tamed or wielded by a true ruler. In a story about the origin of Samhain Eve we read that the dragon is symbolic of the Cailleach who holds the power of winter over Brigit's lamb, symbolic of spring.

# 100: The Dragon slain by St George was an heraldic dragon, wit bat's wings, a sting in its tail and fiery breath. We find it in some of the English fairy-tales, and it is to be seen in church carvings and in many of the Italian pictures of St George, such as the Carpaccio painting, where the dragon is pathetically small. Most of the British dragons, however, are Worms after the Scandinavian pattern, wingless, generally very long, with a poisonous rather than a fiery breath and self-joining. Nearly all the Celtic dragons are worms. Worms and dragons have some traits in common. Both are scaly, both haunt wells or pools, both are avid for maidens and particularly princesses, both are treasure-hoarders and are extremely hard to kill. It seems as if the model on which both are founded is the fossilized remains on prehistoric monsters. In England there are legends of a few winged, fiery dragons, the Dragon of Kingston for instance, who 'cooked his meat to a turn' according to the tradition picked up by Ruth Tongue in 1911 from Cothelstone harvesters and recorded in COUNTY FOLK-LORE, VOL.VIII. He was choked by a great boulder rolled down the ridge into his mouth as he opened it to belch out flames. The Dragon of Wantley was a true dragon, typical in his attributes, behaviour and the method of killing him, though this was also used against worms. A condensed version of the rhymed account given by Harland and Wilkinson in LEGENDS AND TRADITIONS OF LANCASHIRE is representative. One item worth noting is the anointing of the champion by a black-haired maiden, for maidens played a large part in the dragon legends: This dragon was the terror of all the countryside. He had fourty-four iron teeth, and a long sting in his tail, besides his strong rough hide and fearful wings. He ate trees and cattle, and once he ate three young children at one meal. Fire breathed from his nostrils, and for long no man dared come near him. Near to the dragon's den lived a strange knight named More of More Hall, of whom it was said that so great was his strenght that he had once seized a horse by its mane and tail, and swung it round and round till it was dead, because it had angered him. Then, said the tale, he had eaten the horse, all except its head. At last the people of the place came to More Hall in a body, and with tears implored the knight to free them from the fearful monster, which was devouring all their food, and making them go in terror of their lives. They offered him all their remaining goods if he would do them this service. But the knight said he wanted nothing except one black-haired maid of sixteen, to anoint him for the battle at night, and array him in his armour in the morning. When this was promised, he went to Sheffield, and found a smith who made him a suit of armour set all over with iron spikes, each five or six inches in length. Then he hid in a well, where the dragon used to drink, and as it stooped to the water, the knight put up his head with a shout and struck it a great blow full in the face. But the dragon was upon him, hardly checked by the blow, and for two days and a night they fought without either inflicting a wound upon the other. At last, as the dragon flung himself at More with the intention of tossing him high into the air, More succeeded in planting a kick in the middle of its back. This was the vital spot: the iron spike drove into the monster's flesh so far, that it spun round and round in agony groaning and roaring fearfully, but in a few minutes all was over, it collapsed into a helpless heap, and died.

The Serpent of Handale in Yorkshire seems to have been half-way between a serpent and a dragon, for it had fiery breath and a venomous sting. It was a devourer of maidens, and a young man called Scaw killed it to rescue an earl's daughter. The dragon, who haunted Winlatter Rock in Derbyshire was said to be the Devil himself, taking that form, and was driven off by a monk who planted himself on the rock with his arms outstretched in the shape of a cross. So great was his concentration that his feet sank deep into the rock and left the impression of two holes there. In the second part of the tale, a concerted effort of the neighbouring villagers drove off the dragon. He sought refuge down Blue John Mine and the Derbyshire springs have tasted sulphurous and warm ever since.

# 725: Aldrovandus gives fifty-nine folio pages to dragons, and turns up much interesting material in the process. He deals with humans of the name of Draco, with sea-serpents, tarantulas, plants, trees, stars, devils, quicksilver, mountains, traps, fistulae, sirens, Hydras, anacondas, whales, leviathan, fossils, heiroglyphs and even with an early form of aircraft called a Dragon, though not manufactured by De Havilland, which flew. He adds that it is possible for unscrupulous people to forge a dragon, by plastic surgery on the cadaver of a Giant Ray. But his main point is that the words 'dragon' and 'serpent' are interchangeable. He points out that the reptile which attacked Laocoon is called by Virgil a serpent in one place and a dragon in another. 'Why', wrote Kingsley in 1849, 'should not these dragons have been simply what the Greek word dragon means-what ...the superstitions of the peasantry in many parts of England to this day assert them to have been- "mighty worms", huge snakes?' This is the proper way to regard them. 'Dragon' was simply the medieval word for a large reptile, and the more one regards it as not being a joke from the fairy stories, the more interesting the tales about the Dragons may prove to be.

# 49: Welsh Dragon Lore: Dragon stories can be found in many parts of Wales and it would seem that they played a large part in the folklore of the Middle Ages. Many of the stories seem to have some connection with the origin of ancient sites of worship. Church paintings and carvings traditionally interpret the dragon killings as a symbolic battle between the forces of good and evil. The Christian heroes were generally knights in shining armour such as St George and St Michael, and they always managed to slay their dragons after long and dangerous battles. The mythical dragons were often given the responsibility of guarding treasure secretly hidden in deep caverns in wildest Wales. Even up to the end of the nineteenth century there were country folk who firmly believed in their existence. In the Vale of Neath there was a story of a dragon or winged serpent that was thought to frequent the area near the waterfalls of the Pyrrdin, Mellte, and Hepste Rivers. It concealed itself in the rocky gorges around Pont Nedd Fechan and apparently made a general nuisance of itself in the neighbourhood. Trelech at Bettws in Dyfed was once the home of a winged serpent. It was usually seen on or near a tumulus known as Crug Ederyn. When this was excavated a stone-lined grave covered with rough slabs was found. It was reputed to be the grave of Ederyn, an early prince or chieftain of Wales. - Dragons and winged serpents were also reported around Lleyn and Penmaenmawr in Gwynedd, the ravines of the Berwyn Mountains, Cadair Idris, the wilds of Cardigan (Dyfed), Radnor Forest (Powys), the Brecon Beacons, the marches of Carmarthen and Worm's Head, Gower. In South Glamorgan, Llancarfan was haunted by several winged serpents and reptiles. The woods near Penllyne Castle concealed winged serpents which terrorized the neighbourhood. An eye witness described them as very beautiful, saying: 'Some of them had crests sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow. When disturbed they glided swiftly, sparkling all over, to their hiding places. When angry they flew over people's heads with outspread wings like feathers in a peacock's tail.' He denied that it was an old story to frighten children but insisted that it was fact. His father and uncles had actually killed some of them for they were 'as bad as foxes for poultry'. - Stories of winged serpents were told in the neighbourhood of Radnor Forest and several parts of North Wales; they were exterminated by local farmers. It is of interest that the Griffin, like the dragon, once had a prominent place in the folklore of Wales. The strange beasts is often depicted on inn signs and such names as The Griffin or even Three Griffins were popular for wayside pubs in the nineteenth century.

We end this chapter of dragons, with a briefing from Janet Hoult's DEFINITION OF THE DRAGON.

# 323: The dragon is a well known symbol all over the world, and although there are slight variations in its usual depiction (i.e. basically that of a large lizard with ears and wings), several main features are constant throughout. As the symbol is so widespread, I wondered when I first started to research the subject whether dragons could have actually existed on the earth at some time in the past, but had now become extinct. However, several years further on, I have found that there is no evidence for a theory of that kind at all. Dragons are not even a race memory dating back to the days of the cavemen and their encounters with dinosaurs, as over 60 million years separate the end of the dinosaur age with the beginning of mankind. In previous centuries the case for dragons, as with many other mythical beasts, was more plausible, for nature was accepted unquestioningly as the work of God, existing solely for the use of teaching of man, and stories of fabulous foreign beasts, although only dubious hearsay, were taken as truth. Early discoveries of fossilised dinosaur bones, and travellers' tales of Komodo dragons would have added further proof. Medieval bestiary writers such as Topsell, Gesner and Aldrovandi knew people who knew other people who had seen a dragon, and there was a thriving trade in fake baby dragons. These 'Jenny Hanivers' as they were called were lizards with bats' wings attached to them, and were imported from several countries, those from Japan being considered the best. The Anglo-Saxon word 'drakan' is probably a Greek derivative, either from 'draco' meaning a dragon or large snake, or from the verb 'derkein', which means to see clearly. Dragons were credited with clear sight, wisdom and the ability to foretell the future.


The curious natural formation below the white horse of Uffington is said to mark the site where St George killed the dragon. The top of the hill is said to have been so poisoned by the blood of the dragon that it will no longer grow vegetation - in fact the top soil has long been eroded, to leave the chalk surface open to the skies. From historically-based mythologies we learn that the founder of the West Saxon kingdom, Cerdic, slew Natanleod at this spot, along with 5,000 of his soldiers. Natanleod was called the 'Pendragon'.

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