As Recounted by a Direct Descendant of a Genuine Dragon-Slayer
Yes, due modesty cannot prevent my smugness at being able to claim with utter sincerity that I, Anne Nydam, am descended from the famous dragon-slayer Guifredo the Hairy of Barcelona. It is a source of great satisfaction which, now that I think about it, I should probably endeavor to remember whenever I am Faced by Adversity. (Alas, dragon-slaying is probably not a skill that translates particularly well to dealing with melodramatic eight-year-olds, which is the primary source of Adversity I face. Still, it’s worth a shot.) Anyway, more on Old Granddad Guifredo later. I did a little research into the history of dragon lore, and while I make no claims to comprehensiveness, I did find a few threads that I thought were interesting.
A common explanation for the origin of dragons in folklore is the basic human need for a symbol of the epic struggle between good and evil, and between humanity and the uncontrollable forces of nature. The earliest dragon-like monsters (at least that left records in art and literature) seem to have been water spirits or water demons in Egypt and Babylonia. Set, the enemy of Osiris in Egypt, and Tiamat in Babylon are examples of watery monsters that try to overset the universe. (The Biblical image of Satan as a serpent or dragon dates from after the Babylonian captivity, so that’s probably where the writers of the Old Testament got the idea.) Over the centuries, mythologies of “dragons” appear to the east in India and China as well as north. These sorts of dragons often have elements of crocodiles or snakes, bird claws, and fish scales, but are really not proper dragons fit for modern fantasy. Sometimes they’re too humanoid, sometimes too bestial; often they’re more what we might now call chimeras, being crazy hybrids of assorted creatures.
The “eastern dragons” continued their association with water spirits and developed into more divine creatures. Eastern dragons get their looks from a selection of nine animals (although exactly which nine animals varies according to whom you consult.) The Wikipedia article on Chinese dragons quotes the Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu (c. 220 CE) as saying, “The people paint the dragon's shape with a horse's head and a snake's tail….as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called [chimu] (尺木). If a dragon has no [chimu], he cannot ascend to the sky.” My personal favorite is the belly of the clam, since I didn’t even know clams had bellies. Or maybe they're nothing but belly. Anyway, while essentially auspicious, eastern dragons are not without their dangers. They can cause terrible disasters, particularly floods and storms, through negligence or through vengeance if they’re angered or improperly propitiated. Sometimes they have to be scared away in order to save the sun from eclipse, or threatened with retaliation in order to convince them to end a drought or stop a flood.
European culture, of course, always has to start with the Greeks. One could probably make a decent defense of the theory that the Greeks used monsters in their myths as stand-ins for other cultures’ gods that could be defeated by humans, thus proving the superiority of humanism and the humanoid Greek gods. (There’s a splendid thesis idea for someone. You’re welcome!) Some of those monsters in Greek myths have been called dragons, and some have sufficient draconic traits to qualify, but they’re still a pretty unsatisfactory lot by current conceptions of what a dragon should be.
Among the better examples from Greece is Cadmus founding Thebes with the help of warriors that sprouted from the teeth of the dragon he slew. In the north there’s Fafnir killing his brother for the treasure of the “Ring Cycle” and transforming into a dragon in order to guard his loot. There’s the less familiar final chapter of Beowulf’s life in which he fights a dragon. (By this time Beowulf is old and his kinsman Wiglaf has to join in to help him slay the dragon. They succeed, but Beowulf eventually dies of his wounds.) All these are narrowing in on what a “western dragon” should be.
Christianity brought the next stage of development. The Church seized on the idea of the dragon as a representation of Satan, sin, heresy, and evil, and we start to see all our favorite saints vanquishing them. I give here two of my favorite examplars.
The first is the story of my great-great-and-then-some-grandfather Guifredo the Hairy of Barcelona, who while not technically a saint, still represents the type of myth. My mother, also not technically a saint, but who has a PhD in history and a hobby of genealogy, recounts the story thus:
“There is a late fourteenth-century carving on the left side of the portal of Sant Iu in the Barcelona cathedral, showing a hairy man in a pair of pants armed with a cudgel fighting a dragon. The companion carving shows a man in contemporary armor and a sword fighting a dragon. The reference would have been obvious to a citizen of Barcelona of the middle ages. Guifredo the Hairy [Guifre el Pelos], founder of the nation, is compared to Saint George. The legend buttressing this comparison tells of an early Muslim effort at biological warfare. It seems they were unable to defeat the count of Barcelona so they sent an expedition to Africa to catch a young dragon. The hunters snared one, tied it up, and sent it to Cataloña. There it was taken to a cave near the mouth of the Llobregat River, and set loose. The dragon settled comfortably into its new home (still called Cova del Drac, the Dragon’s Cave), eating sheep and other animals. As it grew bigger it satisfied its hunger with peasants and the occasional knight. Eventually Guifredo (or his father, some versions provide his father with the same name) came to the rescue. He tore a big branch off an oak tree and approached the beast. The dragon grabbed the branch, tore it in two, and brandished a piece in each front leg. Undeterred, Guifredo pierced the monster again and again with his lance. Eventually it died. The locals celebrated by skinning it. The dragon skin was stuffed with straw and brought out to parade on feast days.” Oh yes sirree, I'm mighty proud to have that dragon-slaying blood in my veins!
But perhaps my favorite saint vs dragon story is one with a delightfully different flavor, given here by Ernest Ingersoll in Dragons and Dragon Lore (1928.)
“While [Saint] 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.’”
And perhaps that brings us to a truly modern fantasy concept of the dragon as a creature that, while endowed with awesome physical powers, is also capable of sentience and reason.
[Pictures: Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, c 575 BCE, (photo by Hahaha);
Nine Dragon Wall, Beihai Park, c 1756, (photo by Shizhao);
My Old Granddad Guifredo, Barcelona Cathedral, 13th-15th centuries, (photo by SallyM);
Saint Marthe and the Tarasque, detail from a French illuminated manuscript, 15th century, (photo by Teofilo).]