St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World

Tim Flight - May 4, 2018

Dragon legends are recorded all over the world, from the seas of Japanese folklore to the icy climes of Northern Europe. Their ubiquity in world mythology is still something of an enigma: how can they be present in the ancient legends of disparate cultures which were not in contact until the last few hundred years? For the fanciful, this suggests that dragons existed or, indeed, continue to exist unnoticed. For the historian, it suggests new possibilities for knowledge being exchanged along trade routes, as travellers voyaged further East or West and encountered others with oral stories passed from further afield.

Scientists have suggested that the legends came from people trying to explain giant fossilised bones which were occasionally dug up; after all, mammoth tusks caught in fishing nets in the English Channel were seen as evidence for elephants on Noah’s Ark. Anthropologist David E. Jones alternatively suggests that evolution embedded an innate fear of predators into the human subconscious, resulting in independent dragon mythologies. As fascinating as the topic is, however, nothing quite beats the stories of dragon-slayers, also ubiquitous around the world. Here we discuss a dozen of the best, including both the most famous and the lesser-known.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
St George depicted on a WWI recruitment poster, London, c.1915. Wikimedia Commons

St. George

Where else to begin our quest for dragon-slayers but the most famous of all, St. George? George is the patron saint of several countries and numerous cities around the world, and numerous churches and monasteries are dedicated to him. The historical George (AD 256-285 to 303) was a Christian soldier of Greek origin. He was an officer in the Guard of the notoriously anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian, who put George to death by beheading for refusing to recant his faith. George was venerated as a martyr, and the earliest records of churches dedicated to him date to the 4th Century.

The dragon episode is not recorded until the 11th Century, and here we will follow the most famous version, taken from Jacobus de Voraigne’s Golden Legend of the 1260s. The city of Silene in Libya was plagued by a dragon that lived in a pond. The dragon would emerge every day, poisoning people with its foul breath, and would only desist when given 2 sheep to eat. Unfortunately, Silene ran out of sheep, and had to start giving the dragon people instead. All the young people were forced to enter a lottery to decide who should be the beast’s dinner.

Alas, one day the lottery was won by the king’s daughter. She was dressed in bridal vestments and left to wait for the dragon. As she shivered in terror by the pond, a young knight by the name of George happened to pass by, and asked what she was doing there. She explained her terrible fate, to which George replied, ‘Fair daughter, doubt not, for I shall help you in the name of Jesus Christ.’ When the dragon emerged, spying its dinner, George made the sign of the cross, spurred his horse, and ran the beast through with his spear.

George instructed the young maiden to tie her belt around the injured dragon’s neck, and it meekly followed them into Silene like a lapdog. The locals fled in fear at the sight of their terrible adversary, but George promised to kill the dragon if they would only agree to be baptised. After 15, 000 accepted the Christian faith, George decapitated the poor dragon, which was so large that it had to be taken away by four carts to be dumped at a safe distance. A church was founded in Silene and dedicated to the town’s saviour and the Virgin Mary.

It is easy to see the appeal of the legend to medieval Christians. The anachronistic tale casts George as a knight of medieval romance, heroically rescuing a beautiful maiden and valiantly defeating a vicious dragon. de Voraigne’s version provided a convenient synthesis of medieval romance and didactic hagiography. For the numerous soldiers fighting in the Holy Land or defending the far-reaches of Christendom, the tale of simple faith allowing victory over a vicious enemy was irresistible. Iconographically, the dragon is Satan, and George the Church or Christ Himself, thus providing a simple message of how God could protect all Christians.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Sigurd kills Fáfnir, by Oliver Rackham, England, 1911. Wikimedia Commons

Sigurd

Sigurd is a central character in the 12th-century Icelandic text Völsunga saga (‘saga of the Völsungs’). Elements of Völsunga saga are familiar to many people, though they may not realize it, for it is the source for Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, and a direct influence on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. In briefest terms, Völsunga saga is the tale of the heroic exploits of Sigmund and the fate of his killer, Gudrun. Like St George, of all his many great deeds Sigurd is best remembered as the slayer of a great dragon.

After his family are killed in a feud, Sigmund is fostered by Regin, who tells him about his family. Regin’s brother, Otr, was a great fisherman who could turn himself into an otter, but one day was killed in his animal-form by the gods Odin, Loki, and HÅ“nir, who had to pay compensation to Otr’s father, King Hreidmar. Loki steals the dwarf Andvari’s treasure to pay the ransom, but the wily dwarf curses one of the rings to give death to its owner. Regin’s other brother, Fáfnir, kills his father to steal the gold, and turns into a dragon.

Regin tells Sigurd to kill Fáfnir in revenge for the murder of his father, Hreidmar. Sigurd gathers the pieces of his own dead father’s broken sword, Gram, and re-forges the legendary weapon. Assisted by Odin, Sigurd digs a pit under a trail taken by Fáfnir each day to drink from a stream, and lies in wait. Fáfnir finally comes down the path, blowing poison around him, and Sigurd drives Gram through the dragon’s shoulder. As he dies, Fáfnir warns Sigurd about the cursed treasure, but the hero ignores him, and eventually the cursed ring does indeed lead to Sigurd’s murder.

As we will also see in the story of Beowulf and the dragon, there is a clear moral to this episode of Völsunga saga. Fáfnir’s avarice turns him into a murderer, then a dragon, and he lives alone with his hoard of cursed treasure. Sigurd’s greed is such that he ignores the dragon’s warning about the treasure, which he also knows to be cursed from Regin’s story about his brothers. Like Fáfnir, Sigurd’s lust for the treasure leads to his death, as the cursed ring is later instrumental in revealing his elaborate deceit to Brynhild, who kills him in revenge.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
‘Hugin’, a reconstructed Viking longboat built in Denmark and sailed to Kent, England in 1949. Wikimedia Commons

 

Ragnar Lothbrok

Of all the many heroes of the Norse sagas, Ragnar Lothbrok is doubtless the most famous today, owing to his story being the subject of the History Channel series, Vikings. Historians however doubt that Ragnar ever existed outside of the literature written about his daring exploits, though many other characters and events in the legends are real. In the sagas, Ragnar is the son of King Sigurd Hring of Sweden, and leads many devastating raids on Francia and Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th century, before being captured and thrown into a pit of deadly snakes by King Ælla of Northumbria.

Though he was chiefly occupied with terrorizing England and continental Europe, Ragnar also found time to kill a dragon. According to Saxo Grammaticus’s 13th-century Gesta Danorum (‘deeds of the Danes’), Herraud, Earl of Götaland, commanded his daughter, Thora Borgarhjört, to raise a pair of serpents he found when out hunting. They grew into a type of dragon called a lindworm, a flightless dragon known to kill people with its poisonous breath, like Fáfnir in the previous section. Thora fed the serpents an ox a day and they soon reached a prodigious size, ‘and scorched the country-side with their pestilential breath’.

Herraud promised the hand of his daughter to the man who could rid him of the out-of-control lindworms. Hearing of this, Ragnar divorced his first wife, Ladgerda, and made his way to Götaland, where many before him had failed. Ragnar dressed himself in a woolen mantle and especially-hairy trousers to repel the serpents’ bites, jumped in water, and let the cold air freeze the garments to make them extra tough. Having tied a spear to his right hand, Ragnar confronted the lindworms, whose poisonous spittle was ineffective against the strength of the special trousers, their fangs deflected by his shield.

Eventually, Ragnar speared the pair of lindworms through their hearts, and was given Thora in marriage. Herraud could not help laughing at Ragnar’s unusual trousers, and gave him the lasting nickname Loðbrók (Old Icelandic, ‘hairy-trousers’ or ‘shaggy-breeches’). Why Herraud thought it was a good idea to make his daughter raise two snakes as pets is unclear, as is often the case in Norse sagas, but there may be a sense that he brought the destruction of his land upon himself, from which a moral can be drawn. Ragnar and Thora had two sons together, but Thora later died of sickness.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Thor and Hymir fish for Jörmungandr, Iceland, 18th century. Wikimedia Commons

Thor

Another Scandinavian dragon-slaying, and another character made famous by recent visual culture, Thor is one of the major figures in the pantheon of Norse paganism. From the archaeological and textual record it is clear that Thor was amongst the most popular and revered of all Norse gods, and it is from him that we get the name ‘Thursday’ (from þors dæg, ‘Thor’s day’). Many are the tales told of Thor’s heroic deeds and exploits with his mighty hammer, Mjölnir; his role as a god was to bring thunder and smash up the giants who made frequent war with the gods.

Uniquely on this list, Thor actually encounters the same dragon three times before he manages to kill it. His draconian adversary was Jörmungandr, son of the god Loki and the giantess Angrboða. He was thrown into the sea by Odin as punishment for his parents’ illicit relationship and because of a prophecy about his role in killing the gods. Like Thora’s lindworms, Jörmungandr grew to such a size that he became troublesome. The great dragon encircled the ocean surrounding the world (Midgard in Norse cosmology), and was long enough to grasp his own tail, a symbol originating in Ancient Egypt.

On the first occasion, Thor travels in disguise to the castle of the giant Utgarða-Loki (not to be confused with the god Loki), who challenges him to pick up his grey cat. Thor succeeds in lifting only one paw from the ground, and Utgarða-Loki later reveals that it was, in fact, the Midgard Serpent which he had turned into a cat by magic. Again in disguise, Thor next encountered Jörmungandr whilst fishing with Hymir the giant. Thor reels Jörmungandr into the boat, raises his mighty hammer, but at the last moment Hymir cuts his fishing line, and the dragon escapes.

The third and final occasion of Thor fighting Jörmungandr is successful, but results in the end of the world (Ragnarök). In Snorri Sturluson’s 13th-century Prose Edda (the definitive text on Norse legends), as Ragnarök begins ‘the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land’. The world will end as ‘Thor shall put to death the Midgard Serpent, and shall stride away nine paces from that spot; then shall he fall dead to the earth, because of the venom which the Snake has blown at him.’

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
John Lambton fights the Lambton Worm, from English fairy and other folk tales by Edward Sidney Hartland, London, 1890. Wikimedia Commons

John Lambton

Don’t be fooled by the name: the Lambton Worm was a large and fearsome beast. The noun ‘worm’ in this instance is an archaic name for a legless dragon which derives from the Old English wyrm (‘serpent; dragon’). The tale takes place in Lambton, County Durham, UK, and centres on the now-dismantled manor house of the Lambton family. It all began when John Lambton was fishing in the River Wear ‘on a Sunday, [and] hooked a small worm or eft [newt], which he carelessly threw into a well’ (Robert Surtees, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham).

Much like Thora’s lindworms and Jörmungandr, the Lambton worm soon grew to a terrible size. Now too big for the well, the worm moved to the river where it spent the day coiled around a crag or a nearby hill around which it wrapped itself nine times, leaving deep grooves in the hillside. ‘It now became the terror of the country, and amongst other enormities levied a contribution of nine cows’ milk… in default of which it devoured man and beast’. John Lambton, in the meantime, had given up his youthful degeneracy and was in Jerusalem fighting on a Crusade.

Upon returning from the Holy Land, John Lambton learned of the worm, and blamed himself for the deed, having caught it whilst fishing on Sabbath day when he should have been at Church. After several failed attempts to kill the worm, Lambton consulted a local witch, who instructed him to arm himself with a suit of armour studded with razorblades. John waited on the crag in the unusual armor, and when the worm arrived he allowed it to encircle him. Yet, as it did so, the Lambton Worm cut itself into pieces, and was washed away by the River Wear.

The story does not end here, however. John had promised the witch that he would kill the first living thing he saw after the victory. He blew his hunting horn to summon his favorite greyhound, with the intention of slaying it but, unfortunately, it was his overjoyed father who arrived first. Refusing to commit parricide, John returned to the witch, who informed him that no head of the Lambton family should die in his bed for 7 generations. This was a small price to pay, however, since the Lambtons were all soldiers, and rather keen to die gloriously in battle.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Beowulf and the dragon by J.R. Skelton, New York, 1908. Wikimedia Commons

Beowulf

Beowulf is the longest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem written in Old English. Dating from between 700 and 1000, Beowulf survives in a single manuscript, the Nowell Codex, and was made the English National Epic in the 19th Century. It presents something of a mystery: it is a tale of a legendary Germanic past in which pagan heroes achieved great things, and yet has what is referred to as ‘Christian colouring’, and is overwhelmingly likely to have been copied into the Nowell Codex by a monk or clerk. Old English scholars make careers through debating the poem’s authorship and date of composition.

The poem’s action and narration of history are centered around the titular hero fighting and killing three monsters: Grendel and his mother (a pair of cannibalistic giants), and finally a dragon. 50 years have passed after the deaths of Grendel and his mother, and Beowulf is king of the Geats. He has fought many battles, and wisely presides over a peaceful kingdom. However, one night a disgraced slave is banished by his master, and tries to win favor by stealing a cup from a sleeping dragon. The dragon wakes up, and instantly realizes that a golden cup is missing.

Snorting along the ground, the dragon realizes that a man has trespassed and committed the theft. It waits until nightfall, before leaving its barrow and vast hoard of treasure, flying far and wide over the settlements and burning the people alive in their homes. Hearing of this, Beowulf is grimly determined to kill the dragon himself despite his great age, and seems to know that he will die. He summons the cup-thief (who unfairly escaped the dragon’s wrath), and is led to the barrow, where he delivers a rousing speech about his former deeds to his band of retainers.

All at once, Beowulf roars at the barrow, and the dragon flies down to meet him in combat. A fierce battle ensues, and Beowulf’s shield is burned to ashes. His trusty sword, which has served him so well, fails to pierce the dragon’s hide, and his warriors flee in panic. Only one remains, Wiglaf, who runs to Beowulf’s aid, and manages to injure the dragon’s belly. Beowulf himself then delivers the death blow with a dagger. The king, however, is mortally wounded, and dies a noble death after admiring the dragon’s vast treasure hoard and naming Wiglaf as his heir.

The story of the dragon, like Fáfnir in Völsunga saga, is didactic. The dragon was content to sit on its treasure so long as no one stole from it, and had lived peacefully in the same place for 300 years. The desperate slave’s theft alone aroused the dragon’s vicious ire. At Beowulf’s funeral, a solitary woman sings of the coming destruction of the Geatish kingdom, hardly a surprise given how cowardly its soldiers showed themselves to be at the barrow. The poem famously ends with a final superlative adjective to describe the great hero: lofgeornost (‘the most eager for glory’).

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
The Dragon of Wantley receives its fatal blow, England, 1920. WIkimedia Commons

More of More-Hall and The Dragon of Wantley

This bawdy tale from South Yorkshire, England, is rather similar to that of the Lambton Worm, but is an unusually humorous and satirical dragon-slaying story which simply could not be excluded. The story was once very popular, and is first recorded in a 1685 Broadside Ballad, A True Relation of the Dreadful Combate Between More of More-Hall, and the Dragon of Wantley. The ballad begins in a sardonically high register by praising More of More-Hall above Hercules, for ‘with nothing at all/ he slew the Dragon of Wantley’, whereas Hercules had a club to kill the Hydra in Greek legend.

The Dragon of Wantley was a truly awesome adversary. It had wings, long claws, ‘four and forty Teeth of Iron’ and, unusually for a dragon, ‘a Sting in his Tail, as long as a Flail’. Like the dragon of Beowulf, its hide was tough and near-impenetrable. Its appetite was great, and its diet varied: the dragon lived off children, all sorts of farm animals, and even entire forests. Its tastes did not stop there: ‘Houses & Churches were to him Geese & Turkies’, says the ballad. In despair, the hysterical locals turned to a local tough-guy, More of More-Hall.

More demanded ‘a fair Maid of Sixteen’ before he agreed to engage the dragon in combat. Dressing himself in armor festooned with long spikes (looking like ‘some Egyptian Porcupig/…/ some strange Out-landish Hedge-hog’) and downing six pots of ale and a quart of Aqua Vitae, More hid in a well from which he assumed the dragon would come to drink. Discovering More in the well, the dragon ‘turnd, and shit at him’, the disgusted ‘porcupig’ responding with ‘Thou Son of a Whore, thou stinkst so sore/ sure thy Diet is unwholsome’. They fight for 2 days and a night.

The climax of the fight is crudely funny. Just as the dragon seems to have the upper hand, ‘Moore of Moore-hall/ like a valiant Son of Mars/ As he came like a Lout, so he turnd him about/ and hit him a Kick on the Arse’. The boot to the fundament proves a masterstroke, as it is the dragon’s only weak-spot: ‘With the Thing at thy Foot thou hast prickd my Arse-gut/ and I am undone for ever.’ The poor dragon’s end is especially undignified: ‘First on one Knee, then on Back tumbled he/ so groand, kickd, shit, and dyd.’

Beyond the scatological humor, there is a serious point to the Dragon of Wantley. The ballad probably commemorates a 1573 case brought by George More of Sheffield on behalf of the burghers of the city against George Talbot, the local Lord of the Manor. Talbot was accused of misappropriating the funds derived from Sheffield’s waste land, which had historically been used to help the poor. This explains the consumption of livestock, houses, and even children by the cruel and malodorous dragon, which receives a sound and undignified beating by More at the end of the ballad after a prolonged struggle.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Dobrynya Nikitich rescues Zabava from Zmaj Gorynych, Soviet Union, 1941. Wikimedia Commons

Dobrynya Nikitich

As for Ragnar Lodbrok, we find a mixture of fact and fiction in the tales of Dobrynya Nikitich. Dobrynya is one of the bogatyrs (knights-errant) of East Slavic legend and folklore, a type of character known for great strength, patriotism, and bravery. However, he is based on the great real-life warlord Dobrynya, uncle and tutor to Vladimir the Great (c.958-1015), who forced the Novgorodians he ruled over to convert to Christianity ‘by fire’. It is easy to see why this obscure but vicious and patriotic figure from the legendary Russian past provided the basis for a folkloric bogatyr.

The fictional Dobrynya who slew a dragon is a frequent character in Russian byliny (epic narrative poetry, in the vein of Beowulf and Homer). He is a trusted confidant of the royal family of the fictionalized Vladimir the Great, a great archer, swimmer, and wrestler who is adept at playing the gusli (an ancient stringed instrument). He is also known for his courtly manners and cunning. Most Dobrynya tales have the frame narrative of Vladimir setting the bogatyr a near-impossible task which he always completes, encountering many other fantastic adventures along the way there and back to the court.

The dragon story, however, begins with Dobrynya ignoring his mother’s warning not to bathe in the Puchai River or travel through the Sorochinsk Mountains. Ignoring her, Dobrynya was bathing in the Puchai when the dragon Zmaj Gorynych appeared and challenged him. Zmaj Gorynych was a huge, green, fire-breathing creature who had made her nest in the Sorochinsk Mountains. Unarmed, Dobrynya cursed himself for not listening to his mater, but spotted a wizard’s hat lying on the riverbank. He used this to take off the dragon’s head, but spared her life after she promised not to terrorise locals ever again.

Returning to Kiev, Dobrynya was praised made a bogatyr. However, Zmaj Gorynych soon reneged on the deal, and kidnapped Vladimir’s niece, Princess Zabava. Vladimir gave Dobrynya two options: rescue Zabava or die. Opting for the former, Dobrynya sought his mother’s advice, and went to meet the dragon on an old mare, armed with a magical silken whip. At the cave, Dobrynya killed Zmaj Gorynych’s dragon-children, and then began a bloody battle with her. When the horse grew weary, a stroke of the magic whip across her flank revitalised her, and Dobrynya was able to continue the fight for three days.

Finally, Zmaj Gorynych lay dead, marinating in her own blood. Dobrynya’s ordeal was not quite over, however. Zmaj Gorynych’s blood flowed around the mountain, but it was thick and sticky, and would not be absorbed into the earth. Dobrynya was stuck fast for three whole days, and was on the point of giving up. Finally, a voice from heaven told him to plunge his spear into the earth and say an incantation, and finally it soaked up the dragon’s blood. Free at last of treacly-blood, Dobrynya rescued Zabava and saved his own life, riding back to Kiev for adventures new.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World

Tokoyo

From the stock heroic figures of Russian folklore, we now travel to legendary Japan and our only female dragon slayer. Tokoyo lived in the Shima Province in the early 14th century. Her father was a famous samurai named Oribe Shima, who taught his daughter great skills in jujitsu and fencing. She was also adept at swimming and fishing. Oribe Shima was the envy of many because of his superlative martial skills, and when Tokoyo was 18 the samurai was framed for making Emperor Hojo Takatoki fall sick. Oribe Shima was banished to the Oki Islands, far away from poor Tokoyo.

Tokoyo could not bear living apart from her father, and determined to be reunited with him in the Oki Islands. She sold all of the family’s possessions to pay for the long and arduous journey across Japan. Reaching the coast, she could see the islands, but her money was running low and she was unable to bribe local fishermen to ferry her across. Undaunted, Tokoyo found a leaky old vessel, and made the perilous crossing herself. She was unable to find Oribe Shima on the island, but as she lay disconsolate, she overheard the sobbing of a young girl.

The girl was being sacrificed to a dragon by a priest. Like many dragons, this one blackmailed locals into feeding it by threatening violence against them, its price a single virgin girl each year. Convinced she would not find her father, Tokoyo valiantly took the girl’s place. Quickly praying to Buddha for help and clamping a dagger between her teeth, Tokoyo dived into the sea, and found the dragon’s cave. Oddly, a statue of the emperor lay outside the cave, which she forbore from smashing in anger at his foolishness, tying it to her belt instead. Suddenly, the dragon appeared.

The dragon, Yofune-Nushi, tried to seize Tokoyo, but she parried the attack, and stabbed the dragon in the eye. Yofune-Nushi retreated to his cave in agony, but Tokoyo followed and killed him after a prolonged struggle. Tokoyo returned with the dead dragon to the shore, and the locals who nursed her back to health spread the great news. The emperor, who had recovered from his illness, heard the tale, and realised that he had been cursed by the dragon (hence the statue). He recalled Oribe Shima, rewarding him handsomely, and made the brave Tokoyo a samurai at his court.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Heinrich von Winkelried and the dragon by Adolf Ehrhardt, Leipzig, 1852. Old Book Illustrations

Heinrich von Winkelried

The tale of Heinrich von Winkelried is another blend of historical fact and fantastic legend. Of the historic Heinrich, all we know is that he was a German knight who died sometime around 1303, and a witness to several important documents, where his name was signed as Heinrich von Winkelried, genannt Schrutan (‘Heinrich von Winkelried, called The Giant’). It is unclear whether the nickname was a reference to his size or a self-adopted sobriquet to link him to the figures of German legend who were often called giants. Regardless, the Heinrich of history was clearly an important figure at court.

The legend is first mentioned in a Swiss chronicle of 1507, and is said to take place around the year 1250 (NB the discrepancy with the historical Heinrich). A dragon lived in a cave near the city of Stans, on the Mueterschwandenberg ridge (the supposed site of the dragon’s lair is still known as Drachenloch, ‘dragon’s hole’, today). The dragon killed and ate people and their cattle, as most dragons do. The dragon had been ambushed several times by people wielding crossbows, but when it realised it was in danger, it would run back to its cave like a lizard.

Heinrich von Winkelreid, who had been banished from the area for manslaughter, saw an opportunity for redemption, and went alone to confront the dragon. The cowardly beast, seeing that he was alone, came running at him with open jaws. Heinrich, who in the story is every-inch the giant, shoved his spear down the dragon’s throat and, having skewered it in place so it could not resort to its tactic of valiant retreat, hacked it to death with his sword. Thanking God, with his sword held aloft, dragon’s blood dripped on Heinrich, and he died from poisoning a few days later.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Woodcut of the Wawel Dragon, Germany, 1544. Wikimedia Commons

Wawel Dragon

The Wawel Dragon was a beast that is said to have inhabited the Wawel Hill, a limestone outcrop in the city of Krakow, Poland. When the dragon lived, Krakow was the capital of country, and home to the first king of Poland, King Krakus, who founded the city according to legend in 700AD. He first developed the Wawel Hill, despite the dragon living in a cave in the rock face. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, indeed it was, as Wincenty KadÅ‚ubek’s Chronica Polonorum (‘Chronicle of Poland’), a Latin text written between 1190 and 1208, reveals in detail.

The dragon was ferocious, and instantly set about picking off the people who had moved onto its patch. Once again, the dragon somehow agreed a price for peace, in the form of a weekly ration of cattle which it greedily devoured whole, to the locals’ disgust. King Krakus was disgraced by the beast’s unchecked tyranny, and together with his two sons set about trying to kill it. After several unsuccessful attempts, the sons stuffed cattle skins with ignited sulphur, and left them for the dragon. Its habit of swallowing its meals whole was fatal: the sulphur suffocated the unsuspecting dragon.

One of the sons, also named Krakus, killed his older brother in order to claim credit for the victory, and blamed the dragon. The king believed him, and the young Krakus succeeded his father, but was banished when the deception came to light. The Wawel Dragon still looms large in the modern city of Krakow. Beneath the castle on Wawel Hill is a cave, known as the Dragon’s Lair, where it supposedly lived. In the introduction we mentioned the influence of fossilized megafauna on dragon legends, and outside Wawel Cathedral hang ‘dragon bones’ which are actually mammoth or whale remains.

St. George and Beyond: 12 Dragon-Slayers from Around the World
Făt-Frumos depicted on a stamp, Romania, 1987. Allnumis

Făt-Frumos

Another knight-errant, in the tradition of Dobrynya Nikitich, Făt-Frumos (‘handsome son’) is a heroic figure in Romanian folklore. He is a cognate of the ‘Prince Charming’ figure in Western European fairy tales, being courageous, just, physically strong, loyal to his king, and romantic. He is usually depicted as the youngest son of a king, who has to prove his worth through a variety of challenges, and usually outdoes his older brothers. Often on his quests he has to choose between different ordeals, said to evoke the history of Romania, which has often been forced to choose between unpleasant diplomatic alliances.

Most tales of Făt-Frumos describe him fighting dragons. Romanian folklore has two principal types: the zmeu and the balaur. The zmeu is an anthropomorphic dragon, with legs, the ability to make and use human weapons, and a love of precious things. It frequently kidnaps young maidens to marry them and must be defeated by a knight, making it a useful narrative device in folk stories. The balaur is a more straightforward monster, being large and ferocious, albeit with between 3 and 12 heads like the Greek Hydra. Wallachian folklore also holds that the balaur can make jewels with its saliva.

The stories of Făt-Frumos give us a chance to review the archetypal features of dragon-slaying legends generally. The livestock-stealing, maiden-kidnapping, dragons of Romanian folklore personify evil and greed. Their selfish behaviour negatively affects others, and cannot be tolerated. Heroes like Făt-Frumos are successful because of their bravery and fidelity, be it to their ruler or a deity. The idea is that evil can be defeated by good, a central tenet of world religions. There is also a warning to the selfish and avaricious, encapsulated by the zmeu and Fáfnir: excessive love of wealth can turn you into a reviled dragon.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints. Gallery Books, 1990.

Byock, Jesse L., trans. The Saga of the Volsungs. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Cotterell, Arthur, and Rachel Storm. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Lorenz, 1999

Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Jones, David E. An Instinct for Dragons. London: Routledge, 2000.

Kaplan, Matt. The Science of Monsters. London: Constable, 2013.

Klaeber, Friedrich, ed. Beowulf and the fight at Finnsburg. New York: D.C. Heath, 1936.

Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes, Trans. by Peter Fisher, ed. by Hilda Ellis Davidson. Cambridge: Brewer, 1979.

Snorri Sturluson. The Poetic Edda. Trans. by Jesse L. Byock. London: Penguin, 2006.

Stromberg, Joseph. “Where Did Dragons Come From?” Smithsonian Magazine.

Surtees, Robert. The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham. Sunderland: Hills and Company, 2015.

A True Relation of the Dreadful Combate Between More of More-Hall, and the Dragon of Wantley. 1685

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