Here There Be Dragons: A Concise Investigation of the Dragon in Western Tradition (with a Note on the Loch Ness Monster)

By August Hunt (December 2010)

(Originally published at stagspirit.wordpress.com and augusthunt.wordpress.com — both blogs now closed.)

First, let me say that I believe whole-heartedly in dragons.  And, ironically, I’m not talking about the symbolic monsters that I will be discussing in this blog.  The prehistory of our own planet was replete with true dragons – the dinosaurs.  Some of these dinosaurs even had wings and either flew or glided.  Although they may not have breathed fire, they were in every other sense true dragons.

My partner Beth H. has pointed out to me a marvelous book by Adrienne Mayor, first published in 2000 and revised in 2011, entitled “The First Fossil Hunters”.  This book and an online article (www.stanford.edu/dept/HPST/MayorFFH2011.pdf) make a compelling case for the ancient Greeks having found the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, remains which in part accounts for the myth of the dragon.  Scientists are now assuring us that there are many other planets in the universe capable of sustaining life.  They also have almost universally proposed a number of parallel universes or dimensions, all of which might also contain a great many planets.  It is not at all inconceivable that on a least a few of these worlds creatures that resemble our extinct dinosaurs currently exist.  I would be bold enough to proclaim that the existence of such creatures is all but a certainty.

Therefore, I can say without exhibiting any intellectual dishonesty that I truly believe in dragons.  They just happen not to exist at the moment here on our particular earth.  The dragon is thus a perfectly acceptable totem beast, as it was (and is elsewhere?) an actual animal.

But although the ancient Greeks and doubtless other peoples may have predicated the existence of dragons based upon chance finds of dinosaur bones, dragons in Western tradition come in all shapes and types, and by far the majority of them are MYTHOLOGICAL in nature.  What I mean by this is that dragons or serpents are primarily used as SYMBOLS for objects or entities or phenomena.

For example, the early Mesopotamian Tiamat is the great female dragon from whose body the entire known cosmos was made.  The Ugaritic Lotan, Hebrew Leviathan, like the Norse Jormungand Serpent, represents the earth-encircling sea, although both monsters are poetically portrayed as being monsters who reside in the sea.

Other dragons take a bit more work to figure out.  Some are more abstract.  The ancients associated serpents or dragons with various deities.  There are instances in which we can assume that the serpent is merely the ‘familiar’ of the deity, in the sense that the deity could appear in the form of a serpent.  If the deity in question is a solar god, it is likely his serpent is solar in nature also.  A lunar goddess, however, would be attended by a moon-snake.  Snakes were used by the Romans (and perhaps by the Greeks) to represent the souls of the ancestral dead (the Genius) or even the guardian spirit of a place or nation.

In Celtic tradition, the snake is a slippery symbol.  There are indications the use of the dragon as a symbol in Celtic religious thought was not that different from what is found in the Germanic.  And for the Germanic we have a great deal more evidence.  For the Germanic and Norse peoples (with the exception of the Beowulf dragon), the dragon was a wurm or orm, i.e. a ‘worm’, in the sense of a wingless and limbless, snake-like monster.  The dragon lived in barrows where it performed the function of treasure guardian.

In my book “The Secrets of Avalon”, I mention the Norse dragon as being lunar in  nature.  I had several good reasons for reaching this conclusion.  Firstly, the dragon in the barrow mound is sometimes said to have been a man (like Fafnir in the Sigurd story) who transformed into a dragon and lay on his gold.  Icelandic sagas also know of a hideous kind of revenant known as a draugr who comes forth from his barrow after death to wreak havoc on the surrounding countryside.  The most famous of the saga draugurs is named Glam, a poetic term for the moon.  In Viking belief, the moon is masculine.  When we read of the Beowulf dragon, it flies from its barrow at dusk and returns to the same place at dawn (i.e. rises and sets into the earth), just as the moon might.  The crescent moon resembles the Viking dragon ship, which was set on fire during ship funerals, and which was also interred with the dead in barrows.  Parts of Scandinavia have ship-settings, essentially stone monuments set in the shape of the outlines of Viking longships.  The man who “becomes” a dragon in his barrow would seem to be a dead man who becomes one with the moon.  This may be part account for the Norse dragon Nidhogg, who is said to course across the sky carrying dead men in its wings.  Although some interpret the name Nidhogg to mean ‘Down-striker’, the Norse word nid means “waning moon”, a definition which would again be our crescent dragon.

The iconographic motif of sun-eagle in the top of the sky-tree, with the moon-dragon at its root is found in times and places are remote from each other as the Mesopotamian huluppu tree, with the Imdugud-bird in its crown and the Snake that Knows No Charm in its root, and the Nose ash tree Yggdrasill, with the eagle in its crown and the serpent Nidhogg at its root.  The Gaulish – and hence Celtic – Jupiter Columns repeat the motif.  The sky-god rider is shown atop the sky pole/tree, trampling beneath the horse’s feet a serpentine monster.  The horned serpent found in Celtic iconography, like the one gripped by the Cernunnos figure on the Gundrestrup Cauldron, is a lunar beast whose crescent shaped horns are the horns of the moon.  As always, the moons ability to wax and wane and then wax again was seen as a process of death and rebirth, and the same cycle was observed in the aging of a snake’s skin, followed by its shedding and becoming “new”.

It is probable that the snake or serpent or dragon stood for other aspects of Nature as well.  The dragons of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for instance, seem to be intimately linked to flashes of lightning within roiling storm clouds.  As described by the author(s) of the Chronicle, such dragons are not strictly lunar.  They may have been thought of as flying about in the storm clouds, breathing heavenly fire.  As such, they would be the tremendously powerful and fearful generators of destructive lightning.

For Christians, the old pagan dragon – no matter what it may once have symbolized – became something entirely different: the bestial form of Satan (“the Adversary”), and thus the Devil Himself.  He took on Freudian characteristics he may not otherwise have possessed, e.g. he can be viewed as the phallus that “devours” maidens.  He also had a stellar aspect, one inherited from a reading of the Old Testament passage on the fall of the ‘Day Star’ into Sheol (the word used in the original Hebrew is Helel, but the Day Star = Lucifer and hence was applied to the Fallen Angel Satan) and the other from the New Testament description of the Evil One as a great red dragon in heaven, who was cast down onto the earth and became a river in spate.  As the story of the Red Dragon’s fall happens at the same time as the birth of the Christ child, it is both an image for the “Adversary” Rome and its heavenly counterpart, the constellation Hydra, a dragon with seven heads, each head standing for one of the seven hills of Rome.  We know the identification with Hydra the Water Snake is correct, as Dr. Ernest L. Martin (www.askelm.com/star/index.asp) has done a nice job of placing the birth of Christ at a time of the year when Hydra surrounds the sign of the Virgin, etc.

In later medieval usage, the gaping maw of the Satanic dragon was used for the portal to hell.  This suggests a derivation from a sort of earth dragon, whose mouth could be visualized as any cave or similar opening to the underworld.  Christian tradition also binds the serpent Satan within hell, and we are reminded of pagan prototypes such as the Greek Prometheus and the Norse Loki.  Loki himself is bound to three round stones in the underworld (quite possibly three lunar stones) with the snake-like intestines of his own murdered son, and a venom-spitting serpent is hung up over his head.  His wife must catch this venom in a basin, but each time she has to dash out of the underworld cave to empty the basin, the venom falls on Loki’s face and his agonized writhings produce earthquakes.  As there is now some evidence for a correlation between moon phases and the occurrence of earthquakes (news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/05/0523_050523_moonquake.html), I’m guessing the basin Loki’s wife uses to catch the venom is itself a lunar symbol, and the serpent’s venom is the light the causes the various phases of the moon.  This would mean, of course, that our so-called primitive ancestors had observed a relationship between full moon and high tides and the occurrence of earthquakes!

[I have surmised that Odin’s winning of the mead of poetry tells a similar story: the solar god Kvasir is killed and his blood or, rather, “sunlight”, is poured into three lunar basins.  These basins end up inside an earth-mountain.  The light in the basins is then drunk by Odin as the solar-eagle, who flies off.  He later spits the mead into three identical basins, once again filling the moon.  If my interpretation of this myth is correct, the famous mead of poetry is the light of the sun as reflected from the moon.  The moon, of course, as the Nine Muses of Greek tradition, was the source of poetic inspiration.  The Muses were all under the putative control of Apollo the patriarchal sun god.  Apollo had slain the lunar Python which lived inside of the temple of Gaia, i.e. the earth.  The prophetic gift properly belonged to the lunar serpent until the sun god stripped her of that prerogative.]

A confusing species of dragon is the lake monster – a creature found in many places in Europe, including the United Kingdom.  I say confusing because it is often difficult to tell what exactly such monsters signify.  They are almost always the opponents of pagan heroes and later, Christian saints.  Often they are female, and so are also in opposition to the usual patriarchal forces.  In Celtic tradition, lakes were portals to the Otherworld.  We find human sacrifices as well as weapons and other valuable items deposited in lakes, and I’ve shown in “The Secrets of Avalon” that some cauldrons in the early stories were literally symbolic of sacred lakes.  A lake monster could be the protective Genius or goddess of the lake, or it could be a celestial deity like the moon.  We are reminded of the Lake Nemi sacred to the moon goddess Diana.  Real aquatic monsters cannot be discounted; the first account of the Loch Ness Monster, found embedded in the Life of St. Columba, runs thusly:

“Chapter XXVIII.

How an Aquatic Monster [aquatilis bestiae] was driven off by virtue of the blessed man’s prayer.

On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.”

People continue to search for a real Loch Ness Monster, of course – despite the fact that our first account of the creature occurs in an account of a miracle in a hagiographical context.  In my opinion, it would be better to interpret this monster metaphorically, as being akin to the snakes St. Patrick is supposed to have driven out of Ireland.  As such, it may be the emblem of a pagan deity of the lake to whom men in pre-Christian times were occasionally offered up as sacrifices.  As all scientific investigations of the Loch have failed to produce real evidence of a monster, I think it is likely a mythological construct has been mistaken for a physical entity.

The Ness of Loch Ness, originally the name of the River Ness, may be from Indo-European *ned– + –st– > Early Celtic *nestā-, British *nestā-; cf, from a-grade *nad-, German nass ‘wet’, Greek nótios ‘wet’, Sanskrit nadī ‘flowing water, a river’.

According to the Scottish Place-Name Society, this is an ancient hydronymic word.  We may also find it as a personal name, Nessa, belonging to the mother of the famous Irish king Conchobar.  Nessa was an early sovereignty goddess of Ulster and her association with springs and rivers is made manifest in her story:

Once, Cathbad went to Mag Inis to talk to Fachtna Fathach. Ness began to go into labour on the journey. ‘If it is in your power,’ said Cathbad, ‘don’t give birth until tomorrow, for then your son will be king of Ulster, or even of all Ireland, and his name will be remembered in Ireland forever.

‘I’ll do that,’ Ness agreed. ‘Unless it comes out through my side, it won’t come out any other way until the time is right.’ She went into a meadow on the banks of the river Conchobar and sat down on a flagstone by the river’s edge. There the pangs of childbirth came upon her. Cathbad prophesied the birth of a king who would command the hosts of Ireland, whom heroes would yield to and whose glory would be great.  Although he was not his own son, he would love him as if he was, because he would help him gain great influence.

Then Ness gave birth to the glorious, illustrious child, the promised son whose fame would spread throughout Ireland. The stone where he was born is still there, to the west of Airgdech. He was born with a worm in each hand. As soon as he was born he tumbled head over heels into the river, and the river carried him backwards, but Cathbad grabbed him and lifted him out. So he was named Conchobar, son of Fachtna Fathach, after the river.

Might it not be that the worm of Nessa, i.e. a water-serpent or dragon, is remembered in ‘Nessie’ of Loch Ness?

In summary, what can be said of the dragon in Western tradition?  Well, the dragon AS A SYMBOLIC MONSTER could stand for many things.  There is not just one dragon, nor one type of dragon.  The serpent or dragon could be put to many uses in religious story and iconography, and images of the creature or actual living snakes were doubtless employed for various ritual purposes.

So to repeat my earlier statement: I believe in dragons.  And this is true whether we are talking about real monsters or merely symbolic ones.

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