We’re delighted to announce the return of guest columnist Richard H. Fay. He will be writing all three of this week’s posts, as he continues to give us his very well-researched take on the odd and the occult. You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store, and artwork referred to this piece can be found here.
Most folks, when you say the word “dragon”, envision a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, reptilian monster. In actuality, although many dragons of both modern popular culture and traditional lore fit snugly into this description, draconic creatures of European myths, legends, and folklore exhibited an amazing variety of forms. Some bore wings, while others went wingless. Some crawled on four or even six legs, while others made due with only two or none at all. Some sported scaly hides, while at least one surprisingly hirsute beast wore a shaggy, stinger-laden coat. Some breathed fire, while others exhaled poisonous fumes or spewed water. The majority possessed just one head, but a few had several.
The English word “dragon” ultimately derives from the Latin draco and the Greek drakōn. The Greek drakon and the Roman draco displayed decidedly serpentine traits such as legless bodies, flickering tongues, and ever-gazing eyes. At times, the eternally watchful monster serpents of ancient Greek myths guarded sacred locales or fabulous treasures. Derived from these Greek models, Roman dragons retained the serpentine appearance of their forebears. Roman artists depicted their draco as an enormous bat-winged serpent. Such depictions would occasionally show the draco breathing fire. A mid twelfth-century bestiary gave the draco the additional attributes of a crest upon its head and the ability to emit a dazzling luminescence. In the astronomical realm, Ptolemy (AD 100?-170?) immortalized the serpentine-style Greco-Roman dragon when he named a sinuous northern constellation Draco.
Moving from the sun-drenched Mediterranean to the mist-shrouded north, draconic creatures of serpentine form featured in Germanic folklore and beliefs. The Old English wyrm, Old High German wurm, and Old Norse ormr, all translate as “snake”. Norse mythology spoke of the Midgardsormr Jörmungandr, the great serpent that, with tail-in-mouth, encircled the middle world of men. The Teutonic epic poem Das Nibelungenlied contained the story of Fafnir, a greedy dwarf metamorphosed into a hideous wingless dragon. Scandinavian sagas and Germanic epic poems also told tales of heroic warriors facing monstrous winged serpents called lindwurms. With hides armored in radiant green-gold or green-silver scales, these draconic beasts of northern Europe guarded golden hoard or beautiful maid. It seems accounts of encounters with lindwurms were not restricted to Germany and Scandinavia, however, since Marco Polo claimed to have sighted such serpents during his journey across the Central Asian steppe.
Medieval bestiaries and psalters frequently contained images of loathly worms, wingless oftentimes two-footed serpentine monstrosities that spread blight and devastation. One such beast of northern England, the Lambton Worm, was said to have had the ability to wrap its loathsome body around its victims in the manner of a constrictor. As described when first found by the truant John Lambton, who was fishing when he should have been attending mass, this worm possessed the rather unique characteristic of nine holes on each side of its mouth. This sounds akin to the seven holes used for respiration found in the eel-like lamprey. A relative of the Lambton Worm, the Wode Worm of Linton, ravaged the northern English countryside until slain by a hero who thrust a blazing block of peat down the worm’s throat and burned it from the inside out.
Another draconic creature depicted in the illustrations of medieval bestiaries, as well as emblazoned upon heraldic arms, was the rapacious wyvern. Looking much more like what most people nowadays think a dragon should look like, the wyvern had a dragon’s head, a bat’s wings, two feet equipped with a raptor’s talons, and a serpent’s body and tail. Oftentimes the tail was tipped in a venomous barb. This particularly nasty dragon breathed poison and spread destruction wherever it went. It also became, according to the language of heraldic symbolism, a representation of might, envy, pestilence, and war.
Austrian tales told of unlucky alpine travelers meeting the fearsome tatzelwurm, a draconic resident of high mountain crags. Cat-faced but otherwise reptilian in appearance, the tatzelwurm was described as having four legs, or just two, or none at all. Descriptions also differed regarding the tatzelwurm’s pelt, which might have been smooth, or lumpy, or scaly, or even hairy. One attribute that seems to remain consistent throughout the accounts is the tatzelwurm’s terrible aggressiveness; it was said that the beast attacked humans without provocation. Swiss traditions featured a similar cat-faced mountain-dwelling wurm known as the stollenwurm, while lore from the French Alps contained a comparable creature known as the arassas It is remotely possible that tales of encounters with the tatzelwurm and its kin arose out of real-life sightings of an alpine cryptid reptile.
In the minds of many people today, the most familiar form of European dragon must surely be the four-footed winged kind as exemplified by Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon displayed on the Welsh national flag. However, a certain legendary she-dragon of the Rhône river valley, the Tarasque, was said to have prowled about on six legs! This six-legged wingless river monster also possessed a lion’s head, a bear’s paws, a serpent’s tail equipped with a lethally-sharp barb, and a tough leathery carapace adorned with formidable spikes. According to medieval legend, the ravenous Tarasque was the terrifying product of an unholy union between Leviathan (the enormous primordial sea monster described in the Old Testament) and a bonnacon (a mythological horned bovine said to have been endowed with the ability to expel prodigious amounts of scorchingly-hot excrement).
Surprisingly enough, beyond a varying number of legs, draconic creatures of European myths and legends also had a varying number of heads, from one to one hundred or more. In Greek myths, the multiple-headed lava-spewing Typhon acted as a monstrous foe to the Olympian gods. The hundred-headed fiery-eyed Dragon of Ladon served as guardian of the golden apples of the Hesperides. The many-headed dog-bodied hydra poisoned the air and despoiled the land around the Lerna marshes in Argolis. In later times, the Greco-Roman hydra became analogous to the biblical apocalyptic beasts and came to be depicted as a wyvern with several heads. Romanian folk and fairy tales featured Balaur, a finned-and-footed dragon that had as many as twelve serpent’s heads.
Although steely scales formed the typical integument of most dragons of European lore, one rather hirsute beast of medieval French legend bore a shaggy coat. Said to have been a monstrous survivor of the Great Flood, the hair-covered serpent-headed Peluda (also known as La Velue, “the hairy one”) terrorized villagers, destroyed crops, and devoured maidens. To protect itself from attackers, it had the ability to launch lethal stingers from its hairy green pelt. Incredibly invulnerable, the Peluda could only be killed by cutting its serpentine tail in two.
Another dragon of medieval French legend, in this case, one that spewed water, gave its name to ornamental gutter spouts carved in the likenesses of grotesque monsters. The Gargouille of the Seine marshes would churn the waters and create waterspouts to overturn fishing boats and feast on drowned fishermen. It would also drag off and consume livestock. According to the legend, Gargouille’s depredations were ended by Saint Romain, Bishop of Rouen, who cowed the dragon with his crucifix and bishop’s stole and then led it into town to be slain by the townsfolk. As for those grotesquely carved gutter spouts, they came to be called gargoyles.
Draconic creatures of European myths, legends, and folklore, certainly came in a wide variety of forms with a diverse array of traits. Most did share one key attribute, however; whether it be a serpentine head (or heads), body, or tail, they all seemed to have something of the serpent about them. Of course, it could be said that they all shared another characteristic. Whether they had six legs or none, whether they were winged or wingless, whether they had one head or one hundred heads, whether they were scaled or furry, they were all truly awesome beasts.
Big Book of Dragons, Monsters, And Other Mythical Creatures by Ernst and Johanna Lehner.
The Book of Dragons & Other Mythical Beasts by Joseph Nigg.
Giants, Monsters & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth by Carol Rose.The Mythical Creatures Bible by Brenda Rosen.
A Wizard’s Bestiary by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Ash “LeopardDancer” DeKirk.