Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll
WELSH ROMANCES AND ENGLISH LEGENDS
SUPERNATURAL BEASTS abound in the traditions and early records of the British Isles, and stand as ominous shades in the background of modern rural folklore, especially where the population is predominantly of Celtic descent. Celtic invaders from the continent possessed themselves of Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and western Scotland, even before the beginning of the Christian era, expelling or absorbing the previous native occupants, also many savage notions. They brought with them, and all sections share the substructure of, a body of faiths and fancies, poetic and superstitious, engaging demonic creatures, supermen and personifications of nature, that form a more or less unified mythology known to antiquarians as the great Celtic dragon-myth. Its stories, in which prehistoric fiction and legendary or real incidents and personages are inextricably mingled, abound in giants, semi-human ogres, serpents and dragons of land, water and air, sea-monsters, mermaids and fairies. J. F. Cambell has devoted a whole book to this matter, and an awesome belief in much of its mystery still lingers among the peasantry about the Irish lakes, in the glens of wilder Wales, and among the lochs and sea-isles of Scotland. Dreadful ‘warrums,’ half fish, half dragon, still inhabit some Irish lakes, while on others the boatmen will speak with bated breath of monstrous beasts that formerly lurked in their depths; and the ‘water-horses’ of certain Scottish lochs are near cousins to them.
Dragon or demon, raven or serpent, eagle or sleeping warriors, Mr. Wirt Sikes declares in his British Goblins, the guardian of the underground vaults in Wales where treasures lie is a personification of the baleful influences which reside in caverns, graves and subterraneous regions generally. It is something more than this when traced hack to its source in the primeval mythology; the dragon which watched the golden apples of Hesperides, and the Payshthamore, or great worm, which in Ireland guards the riches of O’Rourke, is the same malarious creature which St. Samson drove out of Wales. According to the monkish legend this pestiferous beast was of vast size, and by its deadly breath had destroyed two cities. It lay hid in a cave near the river. Thither went St. Samson accompanied only by a boy, and tied a linen girdle about the creature’s neck, and drew it out and threw it headlong from a certain high eminence into the sea. This dreadful dragon became mild and gentle when addressed by the saint. . . . The mysterious beast of the boy Taliesin’s song in the marvelous legend of Gwion Bach, told in the The Mabinogion, is a dragon worthy to be classed with the gigantic conceptions of primeval imagination, which sought by these prodigious figures to explain all the phenomena of nature. “A noxious creature from the ramparts of Santanas,” sings Taliesin, “with jaws as wide as mountains; in the hair of its two paws there is the load of 900 wagons, and in the nape of its neck three springs arise, through which the sea-roughs swim.”
Cuchulain, the supreme Irish hero, who had to undergo Herculean tests of fortitude, was once attacked by such a beast of magic, which flew on horrible wings from a lake. Cuchulain sprang up to inect it, giving his wonderful hero-leap, thrust his arm into the dragon’s mouth and down its throat and tore out its heart. With figures from such legends as these Spenser embellished his Faery Queene, picturing an
“. . . ugly monster plaine,
Half like a serpent horribly displaide
But th’ other half did woman’s shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.”
A very ancient fragment of the Celtic myth still remembered among Scottish Gaels is the tale of Froach and the Rowan Tree, preserved in the Book of Linsmore, a Gaelic text of the sixteenth century. There was a king in the land whose wife was named Meve, and they had a marriageable daughter, the princess. The rowan (our mountain ash) stood among the ancient Celts as ‘the tree of life’ because wondrous medicinal virtues were believed to reside in its red berries; and the lesson of the tale exhibits the sin and dire consequences of disturbing its growth. The king with Queen Meve and their daughter lived near a lake in the midst of which was an island on which stood a rowan-tree guarded by a dragon, as is told in Henderson’s translation in verse of the old ‘grete’:
A rowan tree grew on Loch Meve–
Southwards is seen the shore–
Every fourth and every month
Ripe fruit the rowan bore:
Fruit more sweet than honeycomb,
Its clusters virtues strong,
Its berries red could one but taste
Hunger they stand off long.
Its berries’ juice and fruit when red
For you would life prolong:
From dread disease it gave relief
If what is told be our belief.
Yet though it proved a means of life
Peril lay closely nigh;
Coiled by its root a dragon lay,
Forbidding passing by.
In the neighbourhood dwelt a young nobleman named Froach, the suitor of the king’s daughter, who tells him that her mother, the queen, is ill, and that her only cure is in the berries of the rowan growing on the island as gathered by Froach’s hands. Froach protested a little at the extreme peril of the task given him, but bravely agreed to try, and stripping off his clothes plunged in. Swimming to the island he gathered and brought back a goodly quantity of the ripe berries, unnoticed by the dragon. But Meve declared that they were useless–to cure her she must have a branch of the tree bearing fruit.
Froach gave consent; no fear he knew
But swam the lake once more;
But hero never yet did pass
The fate for him in store.
The rowan by the top he seized,
From root he pulled the tree;
And the monster of the lake perceived
As Froach from the land made free.
The dragon then attacked the hero, who had no weapon, “and shore away his arm.” The princess seeing his plight, ran into the water and gave the man a sword, with which he ultimately killed the brute; but his wounds were fatal, and he reached the shore only to deliver the tree and the dragon’s head to the women, and to die at their feet. In another version, however, Froach is nursed in the palace to recovery, outwits a rival, and obtains the princess despite Queen Meve’s illwill.
Very similar and more famous is the romance of Tristan and Iseult, which was written out by Gottfried Strasburger, a German poet who lived early in the thirteenth century. In Ireland, his poem tells us, was once a dreadful dragon wasting the land. The king swore a solemn oath that he would give his daughter, Princess Iseult, to whatever man should slay it. Many knights tried the feat, but lost their lives: always with the candidate rode the seneschal of the palace, but always at sight of the beast he ran away to safety. At last the knight Tristan offered himself, and rode toward the dragon’s den, accompanied by the seneschal, who turned back the moment danger appeared, but Tristan rode on steadily. “Ere long he saw the monster coming towards him breathing out smoke and flame from its open jaws. The knight laid his spear in rest and rode so swiftly, and smote so strongly that the spear . . . pierced through the throat into the dragon’s heart.” The beast was not yet quite killed, however, and fled with Tristan’s spear sticking in its vitals. The knight followed fast, overtook the brute, and a long and terrific fight ensued, “so fierce that the shield he held in his hand was burnt well-nigh to a coal” by the flames from the dragon’s nostrils. Struggling painfully back to the king’s city, the exhausted hero fell into a pond and would have drowned had not Iseult and her mother come by and dragged him out. Then the cowardly seneschat asserted he had done the glorious deed, whereupon Tristan shows the tongue of the dragon as evidence of his own claim to the reward. This is an example of the many mediaeval stories of later birth (progeny of Perseus), in which some untoward circumstance prevents the hero establishing his claim before an impostor has run before him to the court, yet wins in the end by means of concealed evidence.
The terms dragon, drake, serpent, worm, were more or less interchangeable in northern Europe, where even now you may hear described to you a fabulous wurm-bett, or serpent’s bed, as the place of gold with a dragon-guardian. So it was in Britain, where this creature was associated with the exploits of the Round Table; for we find the following among the Arthurian legends which are more particularly Welsh: Merlin, the magician, was asked by King Vortigern (fifth century), how to render stable a tower of his castle which thrice had tumbled down. Merlin explained that the trouble lay in the fact that the tower had been built over the den of two immense dragons, whose combats shook the foundations above them. “The king ordered his workmen to dig,” as Bulfinch tells it, “and when they had done so they discovered two enormous serpents, the one white as milk, the other red as fire. The multitude looked on with amazement till the serpents, slowly rising from their den, and expanding their enormous folds, began the combat, when every one fled in terror except Merlin, who stood by, clapping his hands and cheering on the conflict. The red dragon was slain, and the white one, gliding through a cleft in the rock, disappeared.”
This incident is reputed to have taken place on an isolated rocky eminence in Carnarvonshire, where remains of extensive prehistoric stone-works are still to be seen, says Rhys; in truth it is, of course, purely mythical.
“Whence came the red dragon of Cadwaladar? Why was the Welsh dragon in fables of Merddin (Merlin), Wennius, and Geofrey described as red, while the Saxon ‘fenris’ was white?” asks Mr. Sikes. He expresses his belief that there is no answer outside the realm of fancy, but notes that in the Welsh language draig means ‘lightning,’ while the Welsh-English Dictionary asserts that it symbolizes the sun. These might account for the ruddiness, but the facts are needless, for blood-red is the natural choice of warriors, and these fiery Welshmen seem to have preempted it in Britain. The dragon itself was perhaps that of Froach, the great Celtic hero–at any rate it was the device on the banners of the old Welsh kings, legendary and real, and was carried by Cadwaladar (or (Caedwalla), king of North Wales, in his battles with Northumberland in the seventh century A.D. Those old warrior-kings had the title Pendragon, as Tennyson knew when in Guinevere he referred to the royal headquarters in the field–
The dragon of the great Pendragon
That crowned the state pavilion of the king.
And Shakespeare writes: “Peace, Kent. Come not between the Dragon and his wrath.”
This is the red, or sometimes golden, dragon that has been so closely associated with British royalty. The Black Prince flourished it over the heads of his soldiers at Crecy, and so it came to be recognized for many years as the badge of the Principality. New honours for the historic symbol naturally followed the accession of the Welsh Tudors to the English throne, for Henry VII, on his entry into London after his victory on Bosworth Field, offered at the altar in St. Paul’s cathedral a standard with the fiery dragon of Wales “beaten upon white and green sarcener.” This king then granted formally to King George, then Prince of Wales, and to his successors, a second badge, namely: “A red dragon with elevated wings, passant thereon, for difference a silver label of three points.” This grant was continued by Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth–the last named preferring as the supporter of her arms a golden figure with a narrow red back.
But the device on the Welsh flag was not invariably red–or perhaps the variation to be mentioned designated the South Welsh as distinct from those of the North; at any rate we read among the Arthurian legends that in the time of Arthur’s father, Uther, there appeared a star at Winchester of wonderful-magnitude brightness, “darting forth a ray at the end of which was a flame in form of a dragon.” Uther then ordered two golden dragons to be made, one of which he presented to Winchester, and the other he carried with him as a royal standard. Arthur himself, it is stated, wore a dragon on the crest of his helmet–a tradition Spenser knew:
His haughty helmet, horrid all with gold,
Both glorious brightness and great terror bred,
For all the crest a dragon did enfold,
With greedy paws.
In historic times, the Roman soldiers in England carried images or pictures of dragons as ensigns in their wars with the native Britons. If these were mainly white that fact might account for the whiteness of the emblems used by the ‘Saxon’ armies of the South (Sussex), with which, after the Roman troops had quit England, the west-central kingdom, Wessex, was incessantly in conflict. Wessex, supported by the southern Welsh, fought under a ‘golden’ banner, and the adoption of a white-dragon flag by the Sussex men may have been merely a matter of useful distinction between the opposing forces.
It was the Wessex men under Harold that finally expelled the Norsemen by the victory gained at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire, in September, 1066. Hardly had the young king of the united English accomplished this momentous task when he was called upon to defend his country against the invasion of a new foe–the Normans led by that William who so soon was to become ‘the Conqueror.’ Harold had been preparing to resist William’s threatened landing. The time had arrived, and when ready to march towards Hastings, he enters the headquarters of the army, where his officers are assembled, and issues the orders so picturesquely phrased by Tennyson (Harold, Act iv, Sc. 1)–
Set forth our golden Dragon, let him flap
The wings that beat down Wales!
Advance our standard of the Warrior,
Dark among gems and gold; and thou, brave banner,
Blaze like a night of fatal stars on those
Who read their doom and die.
Alas for the outcome of this brave boast!
But we have run somewhat ahead of the historic march of events. Long before the rise of Wessex to the control of all England, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ settlers from northern parts of the continent had begun to cross the channel and recover from the barbarous Britons the fertile fields abandoned by the Romans. They brought with them many a wonder-story and superstition to add to the native stock and Celtic accretions, among them the narrative of the exploits of that noble and romantic Jutish hero Beowulf, who thus became an English hero by adoption; but of him I shall speak more fully in the next chapter. Hardly emerging from the legendary obscurity of Beowulf and his time–say in the fifth century–one finds traces of several other imported dragon-tales inherited from remote Teutonic sources and more and more tinctured as the centuries advanced with the theological notions and interpretations brought by early Christian missionaries to the British people. Thus in The Antiquary (vol. 38, 1902) I find an account by E. Sidney Hartland of such a trace in Gloucestershire.
The church at Deerhurst in that county, he informs us, is one of the oldest in western England; its tall square tower may have “witnessed the Norman conquest, is it unquestionably heard the clash of arms . . . on that bloody field by Tewkesbury.” Two stories in the tower still bear some uncouth resemblance to the head of a mythical monster, and may be connectcd with a legend of a local dragon– “a serpent of prodigious bigness” that plagued the neighbourhood, poisoned the inhabitants and slew their cattle. The people petitioned the king, who offered a crown estate to anyone who should kill the beast. This was achieved by John Smith, a blacksmith. He put a large quantity of milk in a place frequented by the monster; and the ‘snake’ having swallowed the whole “lay down in the sun with his scales ruffled up,” whereupon John advanced and, by striking it between its scales with an ax, chopped off its head. Mr. Hartland “believes that the protruding, jaw-like figures set in the tower of this Deerhurst church have reference to this legend; he refers to several similar carvings in continental- churches that are known to commemorate the local deliverance of communities from dragon-rage. “One of the most ordinary Anglo-Saxon sculptures,” he remarks, “is that of a dragon. All sorts of Anglo-Celtic work bear this figure.”
Scandinavians strengthened the general belief in reptiles as demons by inventing the theory of a great world-serpent, stories of which abound in the Edda and the sagas of old Norseland, and many evidences remain that this notion was well domesticated in Britain during the long domination of the ‘Danes’ in the north and east of that island. The ‘Pollard Worm,’ described so fully by Henderson is an example, although this demon was a wild boar–all such pests in the ‘north countree’ were ‘worms’!–killed by a member of the Pollard family. A similar tradition belongs to Sockburn, and here the offender had the form of a serpent. Galloway has a legend of a snake which was accustomed to lie coiled around Mote Hill at Dalry–probably the site of an early Norman palisaded fort–a folk-tale outlined by Andrew Lang (Academy, Oct. 17, 1885) as follows:
The lord of Galloway offered a reward for its destruction; but one of his knights was swallowed up by the monster, horse and armor and all, and another was deterred by evil omens. The adventure was then attempted, as at Deerhurst, by a blacksmith, who devised a suit of armor for himself covered with long, sharp spikes, which could be drawn in or thrust out at the wearer’s will. The snake of course swallowed him whole, like his predecessor, but as the smith slipped down his throat he suddenly shot out his spikes, and rolled about violently; nor did he cease until he had torn his way out through the monster’s carcass!
This is not the only nor the earliest example of conquering the dragon from the inside: it was thought of hundreds of centuries before that. When Heracles undertook the deliverance of Hesione, daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy, from the sea-monster to which her father had exposed her, he sprang full-armed down the creature’s gullet and hacked his way out of its maw. A similar folk-tale is related by Rumanian gypsies. One such story, indeed, has received ecclesiastical sanction to the extent, at least, of being incorporated in The Golden Legend and represented in stone among the sculptures adorning many European sacred edifices. The heroine here is that St. Margaret who was thrown into a dungeon after tortures of the kind that churchmen ascribe to their martyrs and have with equal piety and relish inflicted upon their opponents. “And whilst she was in prison she prayed our Lord,” as Caxton recounts in his translation of The Golden Legend, “that the fiend that had fought with her He would visibly show unto her. And then appeared a horrible dragon and assailed her, and would have devoured her, but she made the sign of the cross and anon he vanished away. And in another place it is said that he swallowed her into his belly . . . and the belly broke asunder so she issued out all whole.”
This miracle was denounced as apocryphal by critics centuries ago, yet the same set of adventures are related of Saints Martha, Veneranda, and Radegund. What troubled the minds of the monks was the difficulty of believing that the Devil had ever been killed! A ridiculous, but celebrated yarn of this class is that of the Lambton Worm, which I quote from the concise narrative by Hartland:
This was a creature caught by the heir of Lambton (in England on the banks of the Weir) one Sunday morning when fishing, and, to add to its iniquity, using very bad language. He threw it into a well, where it grew and grew until it outgrew the well and resorted to the river, lying coiled by night thrice around a neighbouring hill. Meantime, the heir of Lambton, having repented of his evil life and spent seven years in the wars, returned, and determined to rid the land of the curse his wickedness had inflicted upon it. A wise woman whom he consulted advised him to get his suit of mail studded thickly with spearheads, and required him before going forth to the encounter to vow to slay the first living thing that met him on his way homeward, warning him that if he failed to perform the vow, no lord of Lambton for nine generations would die in his bed.
He met the worm and challenged it to the conflict by striking a blow on its head as it passed. It turned upon him and, winding its body around him, tried to crush him in its folds; but the spikes pierced it, and the closer its embrace the more deadly were the wounds it received, until with the flowing blood its strength ebbed away, and the knight with his sword cut it in two.
The knight failed to fulfil his vow because his eager old father was the “first living thing met,” and he could not bear to strike him down, so the curse remained on the Lambton family until worked out nine generations later by the death of Henry Lambton, M.P., in 1761.
Another and more burlesque comedy identified with a place and local families in England, and frequently spoken of, is that of The Dragon of Wantley. Its history is preserved in Bishop Percy’s Reliques under the title–An Excellent Ballad of that most Dreadful COMBATE FOUGHT Between Moore of Moore Hall, and the Dragon of Wantley.
This title-page bore also a picture of a scaly, lion-bodied monster “sharp, fierce and hungry-looking, with wings at his sides, an enormous tail, and two of his feet are hoofed, while the other two are strongly ‘clawed’!” When the ballad was written is not known, but it refers to Sir Thomas Whortley, who aroused the hatred of the people by destroying a village on a hill at Wharncliffe in Yorkshire. He was a great aristocrat, serving as ‘body-night’ to Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII, and Henry VIII, and died in 1514. He was vastly wealthy, jovial and hospitable, and was extravagantly fond of stag-hunting for which he kept a pack of hounds widely admired. Among his possessions was the village of Wantley, which gave him only partial satisfaction, for, as we read: “There were some freeholders within it with whom he wrangled and sued until he had beggared them and cast them out of their inheritance, and so the town was wholly his, which he pulled quite down and laid the buildings and town fields even as a common, wherein his main design was to keep deer, and make a lodge, to which he came at the time of the yere and lay there, taking great delight to hear the deer bell.” Remains of this destroyed town were said to be visible not long ago on a lofty moor between Sheffield and Peristone, including the romantic cavity still known as the ‘dragon’s den,’ and near it are a ‘dragon’s well’ and a ‘dragon’s cellar.’ The cruel and highhanded ejection of farmers, and destruction of good houses, just for sport, so disgusted and angered the people that they cast about for some means of redress. Near the castle of the wicked Whortley was Moore Hall (still standing), whose owner was far from friendly with the Whortleys. To the head of the Moore family, therefore, the distressed people went for a champion–
Sighing and sobbing, came to his lodging
And made a hideous noise,
Oh, save us all,
Moore of Moore Hall,
Thou peerless knight of the woods!
Do but slay this dragon–
He won’t leave us a rag on–
We will give thee all our goods.
Thee champion refused the goods, but asked for
A fair maid of sixteen, that’s brisk
And smiles about the mouth,
. . . . . . .
To ‘noint me o’er night ere I go to fight
And to dress me in the morning.
This is rather a reversal of the rescuing of maids customary in dragon-stories! The ballad–which is given in full in The Reliquary (vol. 18, London, 1878), and is discussed in Yorkshire local histories–relates the amazing combat in which the dragon was killed. Briefly, Moore, the doughty knight, clad in a suit of armour studded with long, sharp spikes, hid in a well to which the dragon was wont to come when thirsty; and when the beast arrived, and lowered its head into the well, Moore kicked it in the mouth, where alone it was vulnerable, and so accomplished its death. This method reminds us how, according to one account, Siegfried managed to kill the Nibelungen serpent Fafnir by hiding in a pit over which it must pass, and stabbing its belly as it crawled across the trench over the hero’s head. In all these stories the dragon appears to be a wofully stupid and defenceless beast, agreeing with the foolish Devil of folklore.
It is probable that this Wantley ballad is founded on some incident of long-past feudal oppression, vengefully perpetuated by the Yorkshire peasantry by aid of this allegorical narrative –safer as a form of publication than would be an accusing statement in bald prose. Evictions of that sort have occurred far more recently than in the reputed era of the master of Wantley; and disagreements between neighbours still arise, leading third persons to take up arms in behalf of the oppressed, especially when the oppressor happens to be a rival or enemy of their own. So here was a nice dramatic situation ready to be turned into a pathetic (and saleable) ballad by some would-be historical verse-maker clever enough to invent a ‘dragon’ to carry the somewhat dangerous burden of his song.
But the best of these legends, and one which carried nothing burlesque in the estimation of its hearers, or to the minds of those who now read its ‘saga,’ is the story of Beowulf. It is true that its scenes have not the background of British landscape or habits; yet, as Bulfinch has said, “The splendid feat of Beowulf appeals to all English-speaking people in a very special way, since he is the one hero in whose story we may see the ideals of our English forefathers before they left their continental home.”
Beowulf, a prince of the Greatas (probably a Swedish coast tribe, but possibly Jutes) gathered a band of dauntless vikings and sailed away to offer aid to Hrothgar, king of the Western Danes, who was in great distress because of the long-continued ravages of an unconquerable dragon–an allegory that seems to refer to certain historical happenings on the lower Rhine in the sixth century, A.D.
Grendel this monster grim was called,
match-reiver mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness; fief of the giants
the hapless wight a while had kept
since the Creator his exile doomed.
On kin of Cain was the killing avenged
by sovran God for slaughtered Abel. . . .
Of Cain awoke all that woful breed,
etins and elves and evil spirits,
as well as the giants that warred with God
The ‘etins’ mentioned here (Norse, jotuns) were giants, or ogres; and ancient tradition says they descended from the murderous Cain, whose progeny were thus cursed for his sin. This Grendel, whose home was in a great morass, is imagined as a nocturnal, man-eating monster in human form, with diabolical strength and ferocity. At frequent intervals he came in the night to Hrothgar’s palace-hall, ‘gold-bright Hereot,’ where his Danish warriors slept, and seized, killed, and carried away as many men as he pleased as food for himself and his even more savage mother.
The Danes were cowed to powerlessness, and welcomed Beowulf and his band with a royal feast, where Beowulf declared his purpose to kill the giant, and to do it unarmed by wrestling-strength alone, boasting of past deeds of victory so obtained. The feast over, Hrothgar and his gracious queen retired to safer quarters, and the wine-bemused courtiers lay down to sleep on the benches and floor of the great hall. Grendel had knowledge of these doings, and gloating over the increased food supply, came that very night on one of his raids. Bursting the ‘forge-bolts’ of the door with a blow of his fist, he seized, tore to pieces and devoured the first man he came to, then advanced upon another victim–the watchful Beowulf, who sprang up and clutched the cannibal’s arm. Grendel tried to escape, but Beowulf held on:
The house resounded,
Wonder it was the wine-hall firm
in the strain of their struggle stood, to earth
the fair house fell not.
A hundred lines of the saga scarce suffice to tell of that prodigious, weaponless, struggle of hero against fiend; but at last Beowulf tears the giant’s arm from its shoulder, and Grendel creeps away to die in the noisome fen. Great rejoicings and rewards follow, but the glorification is short-lived, for a few nights later Grendel’s mother, burning with ferocious vengeance, murders in the midst of the slumbering Danes the King’s favourite sage and warrior, and terror returns to the kingdom. Thereupon Beowulf prepares to finish the job by extinguishing this dam of a hellish brood. Sword in hand, this time, he marches to the ‘horrid mere’ where she hides, walks alone into its loathsome depths, and in a magical, submarine hall finds and destroys in a magical combat the last of the murderous tribe.
As this adventure was not the first so it was not to be the last of this righteous hero’s battles with supernatural foes. Fifty years later Beowulf, now become a king in his own land, learns that in a certain part of his realm a fiery dragon–now not an anthropomorphic cannibal but an enormous serpenth–has gone on the rampage. For three hundred years it had lain quiet in an antique stone grave, protecting there an immense treasure of heirlooms and coin “which some earl forgotten in ancient years, left the last of his lofty race, heedfully there had hidden away, dearest treasure.” In hundreds of vivid verses we read what the old king was told, and how he goes forth to free his land from the rage of the fire-breathing dragon–majestic verse recounting an age-old legend of the guardian-dragon and utilizing it in a drama of heroism as Noldic bards conceived it in the height of its glory. One of the latest editors of this stirring epic summarizes and interprets this part of the narrative thus:
We have the old myth of a dragon who guards hidden treasure. But with this runs the story of some noble, last of his race, who hides all his wealth within this barrow and there chants his farewell to life’s glories. After his death the dragon takes possession of the hoard and watches over it. A condemned or banished man, desperate, hides in the barrow, discovers the treasure, and while the dragon sleeps makes off with a golden beaker or the like, and carries it for propitiation to his master. The dragon discovers the loss and exacts fearful penalty from the people round about.
These burial-places of the inhabitants of western Europe, or of their chiefs, at least, known in Britain as barrows, and on the continent as dolmens, are small grave-chambers sunk in the ground and walled and roofed with stones; or, as in many cases, built on the surface of huge stone-slabs, the whole structure finally concealed beneath a mound of earth. Hundreds of such interments have been exposed by the washing away of the soft or by the sacrilege of robbers, as in the famous necropolis of Karnac in Brittany; and it is plain that many of them had a secret entrance into the tomb, as intimated in the poem. It was customary to bury with a great man not only his arms and accoutrements of war but often much or all of his wealth, and to try to render the sepulchre and its contents safe from molestation by publishing fearful curses and fictions about guardian spirits of frightful mien, usually clothed in dragon shape.
The fiery dragon
fearful fiend, with flame was scorched.
Reckoned by feet, it was fifty measures
in length as it lay. Aloft erewhile
it had revelled by night, and anon came back,
seeking its den; now in death’s sure clutch
it had come to the end of its earth-hall joys.
By it there stood the stoups and jars;
dishes lay there, and dear-decked swords
eaten with rust, as, on earth’s lap resting,
a thousand winters they had waited there.
For all that heritage huge, that gold
of bygone, was bound by a spell,
so the treasure-hall could be touched by none
of human kind.
The robbery of graves filled with such treasures must have offered a strong temptation, and superstition surrounded the crime with every sort of danger. Lifting buried gold is still an uncanny business, and everywhere folklore teaches that its possession brings the worst of luck.
Old though he was, and feeble as compared with the strength that had torn Grendel’s arm from its socket, King Beowulf, despite the remonstrances of his court, goes against the poison-breathing, fire-belching ‘worm’–that mighty serpent who nightly ‘rages’ through the burning grain-fields and at dawn retreats to his castle-like den in the barrow. There Beowulf attacked the beast alone, bidding his followers stand away. The battle was long and terrific, until finally one warrior, Wiglaf, could stand it no longer, but rushed to his sovereign’s side, for Beowulf’s sword had been broken by a too mighty stroke.
Then for the third time, thought on its feud,
that folk-destroyer, fire-dread dragon,
and rushed on the hero, where room allowed,
battle-grim, burning; its hitter teeth
closed on his neck, and covered him
with waves of blood from his breast that welled.
It was then Wiglaf reached the midst of the fray–
Heedless of harm, though his hand was burned,
hardy-hearted, he helped his kinsman.
A little lower the loathsome beast
he smote with sword; his steel drove in
bright and burnished; that blaze began
to lose and lessen. At last the king
wielded his wits again, war-knife drew,
a hiting blade by his breastplate hanging,
and the Weders’-helm smote that worm asunder,
felled the foe, flung forth its life.
Here, as in many another tale of the period, where the dragon has the form of a serpent, victory is gained by the hero only when he is able with dagger or short sword to pierce the under side of the beast, where the belly and throat are unprotected by the tough scales that make its back and head invulnerable.
Beowulf’s noble and unselfish fight for his people is his last. His wounds are fatal, and he dies; and the glittering wealth of gold and polished steel, so hardly won, are buried with him in that royal tomb whose site no man knows.
THE DRAGON AND THE HOLY CROSS
IT IS noticeable in scanning the legends thus far recited, as purposely grouped, that the supernatural apparitions described, requiring superhuman feats for their extermination, were killed off because they were destroying human life and property, particularly cattle, or possessed desired treasures; not, as in the East, because they were maliciously withholding rain or other needed waters; and nowhere in Britain or northern Europe have we encountered a captive maiden or one about to be sacrificed to a dragon, which is the ruling feature in another and more recent group of tales. This, it seems to me, betokens a distinctly northern attitude of mind, and indicates legendary descent through a history of migrations from Scythia (to go no farther east for origins), where women were little regarded as compared with property, and chivalric sentiment all but absent from men’s minds.
The type of stories, on the other hand, which was derived from aboriginal Greek imaginings, more or less tinctured with Hebrew and Egyptian teaching, and which filtered westward along the European shore of the Mediterranean, south of the great mountains dividing that sea from the basin of the Baltic, included almost always the idea of rescuing a woman in danger, and represent a southern as distinct from a northern inspiration and dramatic sense. Dr. Spence has remarked that the mediaeval dragon was a story teller’s, or literary, subterfuge to give the hero an opportunity to be heroic. This latter style in dragon-stories remains to be treated; but before proceeding to that I want to say something about those tales current in Roman times and for centuries afterward on the continent of Europe, as recorded with pious credulity in the biographies of Catholic saints. These zealous missionaries, who went forth from Rome to spread the gospel of Christ beyond the Alps, often at the risk of life (the hardships endured by missionary priests among Canadian Indians in the eighteenth century make us understand what must have been the experience of many a would-be teacher among the wild tribes of northern Europe), were men who believed in a real, and at will corporeal, Satan and his imps; and they felt themselves obstructed by powers of darkness quite as much as by the natural reluctance of the ‘savages’ to abandon their ancestral gods and fetishes–in fact the apostles regarded such reluctance as due to past instruction as well as to present advice by the Devil. From the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, down to the fire-breathing all-devastating dragon (Greek drako, English ‘drake,’ literally ‘big snake’) of Revelation, the missionaries had the authority of the Scriptures to make it the image and synonym of Satan; and it was easy to impress this image upon the minds of pupils of the new faith, terrified by pictures of the tortures awaiting their souls at the hands of this same clawed and horned devil-dragon unless they came into the Roman religious fold. Remembering these threats, and recalling the clerical faith of the time in the divinely endowed virtue of the Cross or its symbols, and the miracle-working powers imparted by its aid to ‘holy men,’ there need be no wonder at the monkish legends recorded with such sincerity by the early chroniclers.
The industry of Dr. E. Cobham Brewer has brought together, in his Dictionary of Miracles, a large number of such records, culled from the authentic writings of St. Jerome, Gregory of Tours, and other fathers of the Church, among which is the following characteristic example indited by Richard de la Val d’Isere, the successor of the ‘great’ St. Bernard of Menthon (993-1008), who declares he was an eye-witness of the incident. “Saint Bernard left at the bottom of the Alps,” as Dr. Brewer repeats the story, “the bishop, clergy and procession, which had followed him thither; and with nine pilgrims ascended the mountain where was the brigand Procus, called ‘the giant,’ and worshipped as a god. Saint Bernard and his companions came up to the giant and saw hard by a huge dragon ready to devour them. Bernard made the sign of the Cross, and then threw his stole over the monster’s neck. The stole instantly changed itself into an iron chain, except the two ends held in the saint’s hands.” The nine pilgrims thereupon killed the dragon, and the two silken ends of the stole were long preserved in the abbey of St. Maurice-en-Valais.
This method of subduing Satanic demons which, owing to the ancient curse (Genesis 3:14) were obliged to assume a form that compelled them to crawl on their bellies, was a favourite one–we have already seen it used by St. Samson in Ireland. St. Germanus (fifth century) marched boldly into the dark cavern in Scotland inhabited by a prodigious dragon, threw his handkerchief around its neck, and led it forth to a deep pit into which he cast it, and so relieved the district of a mankilling nuisance. Paris was freed from a dreadful dragon of goulish habits in A.D. 136, by St. Marcel, who knocked it on the head three times with his cross. This done he wrapped his cloak about the creature’s neck and led it four miles beyond the city’s gates, where it was set free after it had promised to remain in a certain wood to the end of time–at any rate it has never reappeared. This is told by Gregory of Tours. After Ste. Marthe had quieted the frightful dragon of the Rhone, she conducted it by her girdle (Maury describes it more piquantly as her garter) to Tarascon, where the people put it to death; and they have been celebrating this deliverance ever since. Several other saintly heroes made captives of cave-dwelling monsters by similarly sanctified leading-strings.
In another class of cases evil beasts, and particularly serpents, are subjugated by holy men by the exhibition of a crucifix or some sign representing it. A terrorized community would summon a saint, sometimes from abroad, to deliver it from a despoiling monster (in one instance with a penchant for devouring children–possibly a reminiscence of child sacrifice to bloody deities) just as villagers in India or Africa now seek the help of sportsmen to kill for them a man-eating lion or tiger.
Out of these stories and faiths came the ascription to many of the religious worthies of the Middle Ages of a dragon in some form as a badge of distinction–needful when the mass of the people could not read, and must have some means of identifying the ‘saints’ one from another, just as they had to have a bush to tell them where wine was sold and a bloody pole instead of a written sign to indicate the barber’s shop. In his book, Saints and Their Emblems, M. M. Drake shows that dragons appear thirty-five times attached to thirty martyrs and other persons, for some exhibit more than one, perhaps having more than a single experience with the fearsome beast. The artist depicting the saint in statue, painting or decorated glass, tries also to tell the story attached to his or her name. Thus in the case of Martha of Bethany she is shown in a sixteenth century window at St. Mary’s in Shrewsbury, England, holding an asperge and holy water vessel with a dragon behind her; but elsewhere you may see her more often in the attitude of vanquishing a dragon by presenting her crucifix to his gaze. Instances might be multiplied, but the reader may find them in the Catalogues and descriptive Lives of mediaeval celebrities of the Church.
Maury connects the many tales of the freeing of various districts of serpents with the Biblical promise: “They shall take up serpents . . . and it shall not hurt them” (Mark 16: 18). Thus is explained St. Paul’s escape from harm by the adder which he flung into the fire in Malta. Hence arose the popular belief that the ministers of the gospel were immune from poisoning by the venom of serpents and might safely attack them. “In Brittany,” Maury reminds us, “the apostles who reached the faith are regarded as having destroyed serpents that ravaged the country. Thus did St. Cadon [at Karnacl, St. Naudet and St. Pol de Leon [at Batz]. In Gaul in the fifth century St. Keyna the Virgin destroyed the snakes that ravaged the country in the vicinity of Keysham. In Pomerania were expelled serpents that vomited flames.” St. Radegond fought in Poictiers the dragon called Grand Gueule; St. Clement did a like service at Metz; St. Saturnin at Bernay; St. Armond at Maestricht, etc.; and some of these Christians are reported to have been snake-bitten without injury to their health. The most famous, however, of all these exploits is that by St. Patrick in Ireland, and it is more manifestly mythical than any of the others because there never were any snakes in Erin’s Isle! A sequel to this beloved tradition is less familiar than the main facts, and is told by Dr. Brewer as follows:
When St. Patrick ordered the serpents of Ireland into the sea one of the older reptiles refused to obey; but the saint overmastered it by stratagem. He made a box and invited the serpent to enter in, pretending it would be a nice place for it to sleep in. The serpent said the box was too small, but St. Patrick maintained it was quite large enough. So high at length rose the argument that the serpent got into the box to prove it too small; whereupon St. Patrick clapped down the lid and threw the box into the sea.
Critics justly regard most of these tales as allegories of the success had by various missionary priests in staying the ‘devils’ of paganism or of false doctrine in their several fields of labour, and in converting local groups of people to Christianity. Some such expulsion of native rites and idols from one or another district probably indicates the reality behind the many legends of serpent clearance. Several of these tales, nevertheless, seem to me based upon actual feats of heroism, as, for example, that exploit of Bishop Romanus, annually celebrated at Rouen, which may not be wholly mythical, since the ‘horrible dragon’ in this case might well be a bad man instead of a false doctrine. The adventure of that soldier-general of the army of Licerius in Thrace of the fourth century, who fought and slaughtered a dragon with his sword, and afterward canonized as St. Theodorus of Heraclea, furnishes another case. The Thracians would probably insist, could they return to tell us about it, that Licenus and his officers had put something to the sword more strategic than dragons, and more substantial than heresy.
These few typical examples out of many may suffice to show the way in which the general belief in supernatural and more or less harmful beings was utilized by the early Christian missionaries in Europe, to impress the sanctions of the new religion upon both the heathen and the indifferent or hostile men and women to whom they preached. Some of the best remembered of these legendary incidents, involving acts of extraordinary heroism or religious significance, have been periodically celebrated by quasi-religious ceremonies in Europe until recent times.
The most serious, elaborate, and picturesque of these festivals is that which, until lately, was annually celebrated at the ancient town of Tarascon, in Provence. It commemorated the taming of a singularly horrible and ravenous demon-beast by Ste. Marthe; but just who she was no one knows. Some say her name is a Christianized form of that of the Phoenician goddess Martis, patroness of sailors, whose symbols were a ship and a dragon; others recall classic reminiscences of Hercules and his battling with local giants, one of which was named Taras or Tariskos. Baring-Gould investigated the matter at length, and concluded that a Christian woman-missionary called Martha, who, soon after the death of Jesus, came with others to this part of Gaul, has become strangely confused with a Syrian prophetess named Martha, who accompanied the Roman general Gaius Marius, and aided him greatly by her magic and inspiration, during the two years of hard fighting by which he beat back the ravaging hordes of northern barbarians who invaded southern Gaul at the end of the second century, B.C. He regards the ‘dragon’ in this case as an image of the undying recollection of the appalling terror, devastation and suffering wrought by that invasion, and the ceremony as a grateful acknowledgment of the deliverance. The citizens generally, however, know little and care less about these explanations, for their minds are fixed on the miracle by which their forefathers were rescued. Roman monuments remaining at or near Tarascon, which represent Marius, Julia his wife, and the Syrian woman, the people have interpreted for centuries past as figures of Lazarus, Mary Magdalen, and Martha the hostess of Jesus. The legendary incident celebrated is this:
While Martha was preaching Christianity to the pagan people at Arles an urgent message was sent to her from Tarascon, reciting that an awful dragon called the Tarasque, whose lair was in the neighbouring desert of Crau, was killing the Tarasconais, and they begged her to come and destroy it. She gladly complied, and going to his cave was able, by sheer force of lovingness (and a sprinkler of holy water), to subdue and regenerate the ravaging Tarasque, so that he meekly followed her into the midst of the astonished populace. “Along the bright ways of the city,” as the legend goes, “the procession moved: a crowd of excited people, a beautiful woman with the light playing round her head, leading by a silken cord a reformed monster who ambles after her as quietly as if he were a pet lamb. . . . And never again did he ravage the country or carry off so much as a single babe after Ste. Marthe had pointed out to him, with her usual sweet reasonableness, how wrong-headed and how essentially immoral such conduct had been.” So Mona Caird pictures the scene of the deliverance from a devouring creature more dreadful, if we can credit mediaeval descriptions, than anything we have thus far discovered in this history of beastly demons–a figure worthy to represent the hellish character of the Teutonic invasion of this fair land 2000 years ago.
Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the kindly and artistic king Rene, desiring to gratify and amuse his favourite subjects, the Tarasconais, instituted a fete, the central feature to be a representation of the legendary miracle for the glory of Ste. Marthe. It was appointed for April 14, 1474, and proved a lasting success, for it was repeated annually up to the beginning of this the twentieth century. “A grotesquely terrible monster, red and black, of the pantomime type, made of wood, paraded the streets on the second Sunday after Pentecost. Enormous red-rimmed eyes stared out of a round, catlike countenance fringed with bristling white whiskers. The men inside who carried him, and whose legs were his, danced and capered about, so as to make the huge wooden tail wag and upset any spectator whose curiosity prompted him to come too near. For it was the monster’s day out. His ferocity was as yet untamed. Then the Tarasque was taken back to the stable, where he is still to be seen, to await the day of his doom, St. Martha’s day, 29th July. Tamed now, and gentle as a sucking dove, he was led forth once more, but this time by a ribbon held by a young girl, as a lamb to the slaughter.”
Although this pantomime was attended by clergy who endeavoured to make it impressive, the day was one of hilarity and fun of every sort; and the gay crowd sang as they followed the lumbering figure through the streets the chant that they say King Rene himself wrote–
La vieio masco!
Que vai dansa!, etc.
Another long-lived fete sanctioned by the Church is that of the ‘Privilege’ in Rouen. In that historic city on the Seine a narrow street leads down from the cathedral to the river, crossing on its way a large open space where stands the Chapelle de la Fierte Saint-Romain. With this ancient chapel is connected a curious custom, which was exercised for more than 750 years. The charter establishing it was granted to the Chapter of Rouen Cathedral by King Dagobert in the eighth century, and empowered the archbishop to release, once every year on Ascension Day, a chosen criminal from among those in the city condemned to death. On every Ascension Day, therefore, the people of Rouen flocked into the streets to witness the ceremonies with which this behest was carried out–the Procession of the Privilege of Saint Remain. First came the solemn visit of the Church to the Civic authorities, carrying the annual formal proclamation of the privilege (fierte). “Then every prison in the city must be searched, and every prisoner put on oath and examined as to the cause of his imprisonment. Finally the election of the favoured prisoner was put to vote of the Chapter. . . . He then confessed to the Chapter of Saint Romain, his fetters were removed, and he followed the archbishop to the Place Haute-Vielle Tour, where, in the Chapelle de la Fierte, a solemn service made him a free man. A solemn and magnificent procession then bore him, crowned with flowers, to the great thanksgiving Mass, after which he was free to go whither he would.”
So the Marshalls describe the ceremony in their volume on the cathedral cities of France; and they give in the subjoined paragraph the legend that accounts for its origin, explaining that this legend appears to be of later date than the festival, which is mentioned “certainly as late as the twelfth century, and continued to delight the Rouennais as late as 1790.” It looks to me as if it originated as an ingenious method by some kindly Church authority, in a time when tyranny ruled rather than law and justice, and innocent men, or personal enemies, might be immured in dungeons and forgotten, to make an annual survey and clearance of the prisons, freeing persons unjustly confined. This is the legend:
While Romain was bishop of Rouen a terrible dragon laid waste all the land and devoured the inhabitants. No one dared approach the monster, who was known as the Gargoyle [gargouille] until Saint Romain, armed only with his sanctity, set out to subdue it, accompanied by a condemned criminal–the prototype of those who were released on Holy Thursday–when the Gargoyle at once submitted and, with the episcopal stole around its neck, was led by the prisoner to the water’s edge. It was then pushed in and drowned, whereupon the ‘condemned criminal’ was presumably rewarded for his courage by being given his freedom. At the head of the Portail de la Calende, the north porch of the cathedral, stands the figure of Saint Romain, and under his feet, with the stole around his neck, is the Gargoyle, craning its head around to look into the face of the bishop with the expression of a very hideous but very faithful dog. . . . In memory of the occurrence the standard of the dragon was borne in the processions at the Privilege–banners similar to those of the dragons of Bayeux and Salisbury.
Similar festivals and processions in which the dragon, as a symbol of wickedness, heresy, and so forth, took place in old days in many European communities. We read of them at Metz, where the evil beast was dubbed Grauly, at Bergerac (the dragon of St. Front), at the abbey of Fleury, and even in Paris. “The images are made of silk, very large, and are manoeuvred by children hidden in the interior.” The celebrations were commonly identified with the Rogation days, and some have continued up to fairly modern times. Rogation days, as set apart by the Catholic Church, are the three days preceding Ascension Day, which is the fortieth day after Easter; and they are observed with prescribed litanies or liturgical prayers, and in some places with public processions, all the ceremonies combining to make a supplication for God’s blessing on the crops. In view of this purpose, and the spring season, it is very significant that the dragon should be associated with this particular celebration–a prayer for rain! Mr. J. W. Legg contributed some statements as to these ceremonies to Notes and Queries for October, 1857, which are condensed below:
In the thirteenth century inventory of ‘ornaments’ of Old Sarum cathedral banners called Leo and Draco are specified. Documents state that at that epoch the use of these banners was ordained in certain rubrics, e.g., for Rogation processions. The custom of carrying images of the dragon is spoken of by many liturgical writers. Besides the figure in the Old Sarum Processionale, Barrault and Martin give a drawing of a processional dragon preserved at Metz at page 44 of their Baton Pastoral (Paris, 1856). Sometimes the dragon was carried on Palm Sunday, as at Orleans, when both a dragon and a cock, as well as these banners, were borne. I think these banners must be separated from the Easter dragon. The latter was a serpent-shaped candlestick for the triple candle, which was carried at Rouen on Easter Eve until the end of the seventeenth century. The processional dragon is not peculiar to either Sarum or the Celtic church. What its source is, whether a figure of the noisome beasts to which St. Mamertus began the Rogations, or whether it has come from the labarum of Constantine, or is of Pagan origin, I must leave others to determine.
Maury records that at Provins, in France, the bell-ringers of the churches formerly bore in Rogations processions, in advance of the Cross, an image of a winged dragon, and also an image of a lizard, garnished with flowers, in memory of ravenous beasts. At Paris the dragon always carried at Rogations was regarded as the image of the monster exterminated by Saint Marcel. At Aix-en-Provence, the marchers saw arranged upon an eminence called Dragon Rock, near a chapel dedicated to St. Andrew, the figure of a dragon in imitation of the one tradition sad that apostle had killed.
A curious survival of these mediaeval combinations of piety and pranks was the ‘snap-dragon’ as a feature in the festive procession accompanying the induction of every new mayor in Norwich, England, up to 1832. Here the image was small enough to be managed by one man inside; it had a distensible neck so that the head could be wagged about, short, batlike wings, and a pig’s tall. As described and pictured in an old number of Harper’s Magazine, the head had its lower jaw furnished with a plate of iron “garnished with enormous nails which produced a terrible clatter.” The jaws were made to open and shut by means of strings, and as the creature marched along, its head turning to right and left, the children amused themselves by throwing halfpence into the gaping jaws.
It must be borne in mind, of course, that the word ‘dragon’ in these mediaeval narratives does not necessarily imply that the creature for which it stands had a snake-like or crocodilian form, for the ghost-haunted minds of the people of that era readily conjured up marvellous and abominable shapes and combinations of animals with which no legitimate and self-respecting dragon would consent to associate, even in the limbo betwixt fable and allegory. Fine examples of the weird and unholy extravagances possible to a brisk imagination set at work to devise vivid caricatures of beastly demons may be found in Albrecht Durer’s etched illustrations for the Faust legend, the temptation of St. Anthony, etc.; but three thousand years before him similar monstrosities were cut in miniature by the gem-engravers of Crete on seals and ornaments. Durer never saw these little horrors, which perhaps were intended to be talismans to ward off evil glances; but when he was bidden to depict the grizzly terrors that seemed to swarm about the sorely abused mind and body of the half-starved eremite in his chilly cell, his fancy could reach no other result than that found by the AEgean artist so long ago. “The Dream,” painted by Raphael, is another collection of horrors of unnatural history. It is in and by art, indeed, that the fiction we are considering has been preserved to us; and artists now tell us that the survival and extensive use of the dragon in art is accounted for by its ‘manageability’ as an element in a decorative composition. All the multitude of dragon-forms, diverse as they are in reflecting the fears or the fancies of widely differing races of men, agree in fulfilling certain conditions that make them exceedingly useful in ornamentation. It is of course always possible to put some animal figure in place of a dragon, but the real creature is not nearly so manageable as the imaginary one. “The actual creature, whatever it may be,” explains the English artist Lewis F. Day, “must be considered to some extent from the point of view of nature; but the monster leaves the artist free. . . . This is an incalculable convenience in design, and enables the artist to arrive with certainty at the effect at which he alms. There is a kind of keeping, too, between the ideal creature and the ideal ornament. The natural birds and other living creatures that occur at intervals among the purely ornamental arabesques of the cinque-cento always seem to me out of place. They suggest that the artist was not quite content with his art of ornament, and must needs relieve himself at intervals by indulging in a bit of naturalism. . . . If, then, the dragon has lingered in art long past the time when we have any faith in him, it will be seen that there is a reason for his prolonged existence.”
Since the blazonry of more or less boastful badges on knights’ shields and family possessions began, the dragon, as ‘wivern,’ has been a favourite device in European heraldry, and possibly the most antique one. Long before any College of Heralds was instituted we learn by tradition of the helmet-crests of the heroes of Romance. Tennyson sings of the ‘great Pendragonship’ and that sightly helm of Arthur, “to which for crest the golden dragon clung.”
Let me quote another pertinent paragraph from Mr. Day’s fine article in the third volume (1880) of the Magazine of Art:
The heraldic dragon conforms, after the manner of its kind, to decorative necessities. His business is to look full of energy and angry power. His jaws are wide; his claws are sharp; wings add to his speed and to his terrors; he is clothed with scaly and impenetrable armour, and he lashes his tail in fury; and all the while he is careful to spread himself out on shield or banner that all his powers may be displayed. In the days before the invention of the term ‘fine art’ the dragon was frequently introduced into pictures of sacred and legendary subjects, and it invariably formed an ornamental feature in the composition. St. Michael and St. George were habitually triumphant over the evil thing; and . . . if the rigid virtues were sometimes insipid, it must be allowed that the demons were usually grotesquely characteristic and often delightful in colour. The grim humour of the medieval Germans found its latest exponent in Albert Durer, some of whose imaginary creations are very remarkable. . . . They belong half to Gothic tradition and half to Renaissance influence, but yet they are wholly German and wholly Dureresque. The creatures of the Italian cinque-cento partook for the most part of the grace of the ornaments of which they were a part, though occasionally there lurks among the beautiful and fanciful foliation a monster that is inexpressibly loathsome. Art might well dispense with such imaginings. If the fabled creature is to live in ornament–and why should it not?–let it be on the supposition that it is a thing of beauty.
TO THE GLORY OF SAINT GEORGE
THE WESTERN half of our history is closing true to form–a history that originated in myth and resulted in the loftiest reality. It began in the romantic fable of Perseus and Andromeda, and it ends on the shore of the Western Ocean to the glory of Saint George and Merrie England!
The connecting lineage and record are clear. The Hero family has been a prolific one, and widely spread, with a history full of noble diversity, but its temper has held true, and its mission of the rescue of maidens in peril, or, more largely, of distressed and wrong-headed peoples, has never been neglected: its career is a continuous picture of the ideal of the West-knightly valour in service, the duty of the strong to aid the weak. From Persia to Italy, from cultured Greece to the barbarous shore of the Atlantic, the tale of noble deeds was told, the fame of one and another brave soul was celebrated, and so Chivalry was born of Romance, and the Renaissance arose to rejuvenate a benighted old world.
Whether or not the names we read were ever or never those of actual men; whether or not anything like a dragon ever threatened forlorn princesses or devastated a smiling countryside, is of no consequence. As history, and its record may be as unsubstantial as the quickly dissolving clouds that reflected a rosy light upon the towers of a mythical Ilium–doubtless it is, for the most part, only an immortal legend repeating itself as do human generations, but it portrays, century after century, the highest virtue in the manly soul.
It is needless to spend time over the variants in what we may style the Perseus legend as written in classic and mediaeval books and poems. Stories identical in substance with that of the rescue of Andromeda from the jaws of a monster were widely related in antiquity and have not yet been forgotten. They form a class by themselves, differentiated from the traditions and fables that have heretofore been related, by the fact that always a young virgin, usually of royal birth, is delivered from impending death by a bold and ardent youth; and that in most cases there is the attendant, but less important, fact that the hero is nearly robbed of his just reward (the maiden’s hand and heart) by the evil machinations of a rival who never quite succeeds. A typical example is found in far Arabia. One day, as we are told, a dragon comes to a city in Yemen and demands a beautiful virgin. The lot falls on the king’s daughter, but a young knight kills the monster, and the brave adventurer gets the girl. Another very old example is that attached to the most precious relic in the storied island of Rhodes. Luke the Evangelist, the islanders say, desired to move the body of John the Baptist from its burial-place in Caesarea to Antioch, but was able to transfer only the saint’s right hand, with which Jesus had been baptized. “Subsequently it was deposited in the new Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, and after further adventures reached security in Rhodes. While it yet remained in Antioch a dragon haunted the country about that city, and the people appeased the monster yearly with the sacrifice of one of their number, chosen by lot. At last the lot fell on a maid whose father greatly venerated the holy relic. Making as though he would kiss the hand, he bit off a fragment from the thumb: and when his daughter was led out to sacrifice he cast this fragment into the dragon’s jaws and the monster quickly choked and perished.”
A widely familiar ‘St. George’ legend is that belonging to Mansfield, in Germany, over whose church-door is a statue commemorating the incident. The great man of the place at the time was Count Mansfield, and near the town is a hill still called Lindberg because in former days it was the abode of a lindwurm, or dragon, to which the townspeople were obliged to give a young woman every day. Soon no more maidens were to be found except the knight’s own daughter. Whereupon Count Mansfield rode forth and slew the beast, and the citizens made him a ‘saint’ and gave him (or somebody else!) a statue, in spite of his previous indifference as to the fate of their daughters. Mansfield is one of the many places believed locally to be the site of the famous combat of that ‘St. George’ whose exploits were as numerous and widespread as were those of Hercules–in each case probably a misplaced tradition of some dimly remembered fight between local barons or bullies.
A still closer approximation to the Perseus type was taken down a few years ago from the lips of an illiterate peasant woman of the Val d’Arno, Italy, and is quoted by Hartland. A part of it describes the hero finding in a seaside chapel a lovely maiden, who urges him to hasten on his way lest he suffer the fate to which she is doomed, namely, to be eaten by a seven-headed dragon. Instead of obeying her he dismounts, attacks the dragon on its rising from the sea, and cuts out its seven tongues which he carries away–these trophies proving his claim, a few months later, to the credit of the feat and the hand of the willing girl.
This seven-headed, seven-tongued hydra-dragon of fiction appears all down the ages, at least since the days of Hercules. Such a brute, to which a king’s daughter is to be offered, figures in Grimm’s tale of The Two Brothers, and variants may be found in folk-legends everywhere in Europe. That within comparatively recent times it was popularly believed to be a reality is shown by serious accounts of its doings in books regarded as sensible and authoritative. Conrad Gesner gives a picture in his Historia Animalium of a hydra in the form of a serpent, “the heads like those of lions and as it were ornamented with crowns, two feet in the front of the body, the tail twisted inwards.” He relates that this hideous, aquatic creature was brought from Turkey to Venice in the year 1530, exposed to public view, and afterward sent to the king of France. The Italian compiler Aldrovandus, a contemporary, illustrates in his book about serpents a seven-headed dragon; and in the Encyclopaedia Londonensis, issued in 1755, may be seen a large coloured plate of a dreadful, seven-headed creature credited to Seba, an author who published a Thesaurus of natural history about 1750, with an extensive account of it.
And so at last we come to our own Saint George! Who was this patron of the valorous, this model of devotion to an ideal of duty, this indomitable George? Nobody knows. He has been relegated to the sun-myths, and declared a mere relic of Mithraism. Gibbon and others identified him with the author of Arianism, but Eastern churches were named for the martyr before that prelate existed. It has also been said that he was that nameless Christian who tore down the edict of persecution in Nicomedia. These and other identifications have been discarded. The nearest approach to probability that any distinct personality is at the root of this heroic development of a noble idealism lies in a tradition that a Christian man named George (or its equivalent) was martyred in Palestine before the era of Constantine the Great; that he became the object of a religious cult (said to be referred to in an inscription dated A.D. 367); and that in 1868 his sepulchre was discovered at Lydda (or Diospolis) near Jerusalem, where his martyrdom is alleged to have occurred. Tradition has expanded these facts (if they be facts) into a story in many varying versions, the most acceptable summary of which appears to be the following:
“According to legend [this Christian George] was born, about A.D. 285, of noble parents in Cappadocia, eastern Anatolia. As he grew to manhood he became a soldier; his courage in battle soon won him promotion, and he was attached to the personal staff of the emperor Diocletian. When this ruler decided to enter on his campaign of persecution, George resigned his commission and bitterly complained to the emperor. He was immediately arrested, and when promises failed to make him change his mind he was tortured with great cruelty. . . . At last he was taken to the outskirts of the city and beheaded [April 23, A.D. 303]. . . . The earliest narrative of his martyrdom known to us is full of the most extravagant marvels: three times George is put to death, chopped into small pieces, buried deep in the earth, and consumed by fire, but each time he is resuscitated by God. Besides this we have dead men brought to life to be baptized, wholesale conversions, including that of the ‘Empress Alexandra,’ armies and idols destroyed simultaneously, beams of timber suddenly bursting into leaf, and finally milk flowing instead of blood from the martyr’s severed head.”
This and several other more or less extravagant, and equally, legendary accounts derived from old manuscripts and books, are related and discussed extensively in Mrs. Cornelia S. Hulst’s admirable history of this essentially mythical saint or hero, and his veneration in Europe.
This was a remarkable man, whoever and whatever he was, and it is not surprising that, probably stimulated by some shining circumstance unknown to us, he became so distinguished in the religious world of his time. Besides St. Stephen, he is the only martyr venerated by the entire Church; is one of the fourteen ‘great martyrs’ and ‘trophy-bearers’ of the Greek Church, and is honoured by special masses and ceremonies in the Latin, Syrian, and Coptic communions. All over the Orient, in Greece, Italy and Sicily, many churches were dedicated to him in the sixth century, and since. His relics are scattered over the entire Church, Santo Georgio in Velabro, at Rome, possessing the head. Holweck catalogues this saint’s ecclesiastical distinctions thus: “S. George is principal patron of England, Catalaunia (Spain), Liguria (Italy), Aragon, Georgia, Modena, Farrara (24 April), of the isle of Syros, dioceses of Wilna, Limburg, Regio de Calabria, and other dioceses, also of the Teutonic Knights, minor patron of Portugal, Lithuania, Constantinople. He is protector of soldiers, archers, knights, saddlers, sword-cutlers, and of horses, against fever, etc. He is mentioned daily in the Greek mass.” Moslems, in fact, reverence Saint George, identifying him with the Prophet Elijah, and have long allowed Christians to celebrate a mass once a year at the tomb of the martyr at Lydda, in Palestine, now a mosque; and the first church dedicated to St. George (at Zarava, in Hauran, A.D. 514) was a re-consecrated mosque.
That the fame of this martyr had spread in very early times to Britain is shown by references to him in the writings of the Venerable Bede and in other chronicles. Ashmole says, in his history of the Order of the Garter, that King Arthur placed a picture of St. George on his banners, and Selden states that he was regarded as the patron-saint of England in Saxon times. It was not, however, until after the great Third Crusade, in which the English played the leading part, led by their magnificent prince, Richard the Lion-hearted, that George, as warrior rather than as martyr, became noticeable in that national dignity. It was believed among the disheartened crusaders before Acre that St. George had appeared to Richard in a vision and had encouraged him to continue the long and dreadful siege; and afterward the story spread that the troops themselves had beheld him, on a white horse, fighting for them above their heads in the drifting smoke of battle, as did the angel who was “captain of the hosts of the Lord” when Joshua was battling against the walls of Jericho. Even the French soldiers under Robert, son of William the Conqueror, accepted him as their patron and defender.
It is perhaps to this figure that Dr. Hanauer refers in relating this bit of folklore current in Palestine. A fountain (Gihon?) in the outskirts of Jerusalem was formerly a part of the water-supply of the city, but a big dragon took possession of it and demanded a youth or maid every time anyone came for water; until at last, as usual, only the king’s daughter was left. When she was about to be sent, Mar Jirys appeared in golden panoply mounted on a white steed, and riding full tilt at the dragon, he pierced it dead between the eyes. This is probably the same spring which is noted for its intermittent flow, which the people explain by saying that the dragon drinks the water low whenever it wakes, and when the beast sleeps the water rises. The Tyrolese speak of a dragon that “eats its way out of the rock” when the intermittent spring at Bella, in Krains, begins to flow. The Maltese also have a dragon’s spring which issues from a cavern with noises said to be the snorts of the monster within its source.
The returning crusaders, reporting this supernatural assistance in full faith, made a very deep impression on the credulous populace of England, who at once proclaimed this White Knight military protector of the kingdom; and in 1222 the Council of Oxford ordained that the feast day of St. George (April 23) should be observed as a minor holy day in the English Church. In 1330 he was formally adopted as the patron-saint of the Order of the Garter just then instituted by Edward III, which was equivalent to an ascription for the whole country, and he became that indeed when the Royal Chapel at Windsor was dedicated to him in 1348. He was invoked by Henry V at Agincourt (1415), where the English swept forward to victory with the inspiring battle-cry of his name.
Saint George he was for England,
Saint Denis was for France,
rings out the old song!
Thus this hero of the Middle Ages became in England more than elsewhere the favourite of the people and the principal figure of the time in mystic plays, mummeries, and religious dramas and processions, especially on Corpus Christi Day. Until recent times one of the diversions in Wiltshire and other English counties was the play “St. George and Turkey-Snipe” (a corruption of Turkish Knight), wherein a Christian knight overcomes a Saracen. The opening words of this pious drama are quoted by Miss Urlin as follows:
I am King George, the noble champion bold,
And with my trusty sword I won ten thousand pounds in gold.
It was I that fought the fiery Dragon, and brought him to the
And by these means I won the king of Egypt’s daughter.
It is not surprising that mistakes and legends early began to cluster around this notable character all over the continent.
Legends are the weeds of history. They are sown by winds of gossip, and bear fruits of the imagination which sometimes are sweet and wholesome but are more often ugly and baneful. They take deep root and flourish prodigiously, overshadowing the less interesting growths of fact and voucher, and obscuring, by a sort of protective mimicry, the truths in tradition. For example: where, if anywhere, among the many places, do the red flowers growing year by year on this and that meadow or hilltop, indicate the true spot “where the Dragon was killed”? Here and there we may say–as at Coventry–that is the field of the battle of so-and-so, a thousand years ago; but to get proof of it we must search among the roots of hardy fictions as botanists do for stifled native plants among the weeds of an abandoned field.
The eminent French antiquarian, Louis F. A. Maury, points out that many local dragon stories probably originated in or have been kept alive by mistaken interpretations by the unlearned of relics, pictures, and votive offerings in churches–the last-named including specimens of skeletons or bones of serpents, whales and so forth, stuffed crocodiles, big fishes and other strange animals, deposited by persons who had escaped perils by one or another exotic beast. Formerly, at least, there hung in the church of Mont St. Michel pieces of armour which the peasantry held in awe as that worn by the angel Michael when he drove that old serpent, the Devil, out of heaven. At Milan, where now stands the ancient church of St. Denis, was previously a profound cavern, in which, we are told, once dwelt a dragon, always hungry, whose breath caused speedy death to any person receiving it. The Milanese hero, Viscount Uberto, killed it, according to a local legend–the basis of which is a figure, named Givre, of a heraldic dragon on the armour of an early viscount of that city. Count Aymer, of Asti, in Savoy, owes his high place in the list of dragon-slayers, says Maury, to a heraldic dragon carved at the foot of his effigy on his monumental tomb at St. Spire de Corbil. The identification of Gozon with the myth of the destruction of the dragon of Rhodes, was owing to the accidental presence near Gozon’s tomb of a commonplace picture of St. George in his famous act.
How a name may serve as a punning-peg on which to hang a courtier’s story or a minstrel’s ballad, which later may become an element in dubious history, is shown in a saga of King Regnor Lodbrog, a famous pirate chief of the Viking era, who, when a young man, about the year 800, showed his mettle in an exploit of gallantry of which his companions loved to sing when the drinks went round. A Swedish prince had a beautiful daughter whom he entrusted (probably when he was sailing away on some freebooting expedition) to the care of one of his officers in a strong castle. This officer fell in love with his ward, and seizing the castle, defied the world to take her away from him. Upon this the father proclaimed abroad that whoever would conquer the ravisher and rescue the lady might have her in marriage. Of all the bold fellows who undertook the adventure Regnor alone achieved success and obtained the prize. Now, it happened that the name of the faithless guardian was Orme, which in Icelandic means ‘serpent’; wherefore the first minstrel who seized upon the incident to glorify the valour and renown of his prince (and retrieve the lady’s reputation?) represented the girl as detained in the castle by a dreadful dragon!
It is a striking fact that, although dragons and dragon-killers were commonplaces of both ancient and mediaeval storymaking (someone has wittily said that the dragon itself was brought into being merely as a much-needed device to exhibit the valour of more or less fictitious knights) the association of this fearsome beast with George the venerated martyr-saint, is a comparatively modern addition to his history. The oldest written account of him, that by Pasicrates, does not mention a dragon. “The Greek Church, which was naturally the first to render St. George honour,” as Mrs. Hulst points out, “from very early times represented him with a dragon under his feet and a crowned virgin at his side, a symbolical way of saying that he overcame Sin, for the dragon represents the Devil . . . and the crowned maiden represents the Church.”
This religious feeling characterized legends of such a combat found in Greek and Russian verses, and tales of a somewhat later period, but nowhere is this worshipful hero of the Church represented as fighting on horseback. The first account of a combat between St. George and a dragon that reached western Europe was in the thirteenth century in the Latin of The Golden Legend, where a distinctly romantic flavour tinctured the holy narrative. This epic poem became popular and spread the heroic legend, which was recited in many versions, used in dramatic representations, and led to the localizing of the adventure in many different places. Where and when this poem originated remains a mystery.
In the early part of the fifteenth century The Golden Legend was paraphrased by Lydgate and introduced to a few scholarly English readers in a manuscript preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It was more widely spread by Caxton, the publisher, in the translation made by him and printed in 1483. His second edition was illustrated by woodcuts borrowed from a Dutch edition of the tale, and these publications not only informed England as to the tale brought from the East, but settled the version which has been the adopted faith of our British forefathers ever since. The crabbed old English and print of Caxton’s book (William Morris issued a delightful facsimile from the Kelmscott Press) are so difficult to read now that many modern renderings in both verse and prose have been produced, of which I have chosen the authentic one by Baring-Gould given below.
And so, finally, we have come to the legend of the proper, most eminent Saint George, and his most celebrated and distinguished of all Dragons-possessions peculiarly our own as Englishmen and by inheritance; and here is the creed of it for your worshipful instruction:
George, then a tribune in the Roman army, while travelling, came to Silene, a town in Libya, near which was a pond inhabited by a loathsome monster that had many times driven back an armed host sent to destroy it. It even approached the walls of the city, and with the exhalations of its breath poisoned all who came near. To prevent such visits it was given every day two sheep to satisfy its voracity. This continued until the flocks of the region were exhausted. Then the citizens held counsel and decreed that each day a man and a beast should be supplied, and at the last they had to give up their sons and daughters–none were exempted. The lot fell finally on the king’s only daughter; and those who tell the story describe with vivid rhetoric the heartrending struggle of the royal father to submit to the decree, and his final victory in favour of duty to his people over his affection. So, dressed in her best, and nerved by high resolve, the princess leaves the city alone and walks toward the lake.
George, who opportunely met her on the way and saw her weeping, asked the cause of her tears. “Good youth,” she exclaimed, “quickly mount your horse and fly less you perish with me.” He asked her to explain the reason for so dire a prediction; and she had hardly ceased telling him when the monster lifted its head above the surface of the dark water, and the maiden, all trembling, cried again–“Fly! fly! Sir knight.” His only answer was the sign of the Cross. Then he advanced to meet the horrible fiend, recommending himself to God; and brandishing his lance he transfixed the beast and cast it to the ground. Turning to the princess he bade her pass her girdle about the creature’s prostrate body and to fear nothing. When this had been done the monster followed her like a docile hound. When they together had led it into the town the people fled before them, but George recalled them, bidding them put aside their fear, for the Lord had sent him to deliver them from their danger. Then the king and all his people, twenty thousand men with all their women and children, were baptized, and George smote off the head of the dragon.
Somehow, centuries ago, the people of Britain came to believe that this happened in England at Coventry; and it is no wonder that they learned and sang a Paean of victory over it, comparing George’s superlative bravery with the great deeds of bygone heroes. You may find it in Bishop Percy’s Reliques, and one stanza will give you the spirit of it
Baris conquered Ascapart, and after slew the boare,
And then he crossed the seas beyond to combat with the Moore.
Sir Isenbras and Eglamore, they were knights most bold,
And good Sir John Mandeville of travel much hath told.
There were many English knights that Pagans did convert,
But St. George, St. George, pluckt out the Dragon’s heart!
St. George he was for England; St. Dennis was for France,
Sing: Honi soit qui mal y pense!
I have traced the dragon in time from the birth of light out of darkness to the present, and in space from the Garden of Eden eastward to farthest Cathay, and westward to the crags that withstand the Atlantic’s fury. I go out where I came in: There is no dragon–there never was a dragon; but wherever in the West there appeared to be one there was always a St. George.