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

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 Kadłubek’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


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

de Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend, trans. by William Caxton. London: Dent, 1931.

Westwood, Jennifer, and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London: Penguin, 2006.