In Western Europe, the treasure-guarding dragon is most nobly embodied in Fafnir, slain by Sigurd in Norse legend, and in the monster killed by the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf, recorded in an eighth-century poem. Boewulf’s unnamed dragon guarded treasure for centuries in a burial mound. Someone disturbed the beast, and it erupted in anger and started causing havoc. Beowulf’s warrior companions fled, and only the youthful chieftain Wiglaf helped in the ensuing fight. He thrust his sword into the dragon’s underbelly, but Beowulf was felled by the dying creature’s fangs.
In Russian folklore, a dragon lived at the border to the otherworld, usually in mountains, fire or water. Occasionally this serpentine creature would capture a beautiful woman. Her deliverer had to chop off the dragon’s head before he could rescue the damsel. Typically the dragon tried to lure the hero into sleep or threatened to swallow him.
The battle between Saint George and the dragon is an allegory of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The dragon reputedly inhabited a lake near Sylene in Libya and threatened to destroy the town unless it was fed a daily diet of virgins. The day Saint George arrived, the king’s daughter was on the menu. George dispatched the dragon after a furious confrontation, but he was later martyred for his religious faith. In reality, Saint George probably was a martyr around the beginning of the fourth century AD, but even by the sixth century his deeds were “known only to God.” No one knows how he became patron saint of England – no doubt returning Crusaders popularized his story.
Dragons in Western European art, largely standardized by medieval heraldry, are said to look so like dinosaurs that they must be based on them. But in world mythology the word “dragon,” from Latin draco, is used to describe all kinds of monsters. In Armenia, for example, “dragons” are humanoid. Elsewhere they may be reptilian monsters with four, two, or no legs. They may be winged or wingless, have large Dog of Fu heads in China and Japan, and small lizard-like ones elsewhere. Outside heraldry they often have a serpentine form, as suggested by their local names – Old English wyrm, Norse ormr, German Wurm. Some scholars believe this serpentine monster developed from an ancient pictogram representing waves and meaning “water.” Another of their characteristics, the element of fire, may have been inspired by astronomical phenomena, such as comets. In AD 793 for example, “fiery dragons” were seen over the English kingdom of Northumbria and interpreted as portents of the Viking invasions.
In myth and legend, Far Eastern and Western dragons stand literally worlds apart. The first are mostly beneficent, the second largely maleficent – the embodiment of all evil. In China the dragon, unicorn, phoenix and tortoise are the four benevolent supernatural creatures that helped to create the universe. Emperors were believed to be descended from dragons that had magical abilities to change size and shape, glow in the dark or become invisible. Colour has special significance. A black dragon brings destruction, a yellow one luck, and an azure one announces the birth of a great person. An early example of the Western dragon occurs in the Sumerian myth of Enlil and Zu, retold by the Babylonians as the tale of how the god Marduk slew Tiamat, the she-dragon who symbolized chaos. In Christian lore the dragon became a symbol for the enemy, Satan. Church carvings of Saint Michael fighting a dragon represent the war in heaven described in the Book of revelation, when the Arch-angel cast out Satan. At least 40 other dragon-slaying saints are known.
European dragon folktales repeat the theme of good versus evil – the dragon-slayer is usually a local hero. Aggressive dragons also symbolize valor. Dragon-standards were carried by the Roman legions, and Rome’s barbarian successors adopted this military badge. It eventually became part of medieval European heraldry, hence the Red Dragon of Wales, and dragons on inn signs in England.
Sadly, not all dragons are what they seem. Some medieval people invented tales of ancestral dragon fights to justify land ownership. Other dragons are fictitious. Some are based on real serpents. The dragon of Ludham, Norfolk, England, was based on local sightings of a huge snake reported in a 1782 newspaper. Some writers describe real events in terms of dragon fights. A fifteenth-century English chronicler reported that on Friday, 25 September 1449 two fire-breathing dragons did battle beside the river Stour. One monster was black, the other “reddish and spotted.” But the vivid account of the fight is probably only a picturesque way of dramatizing a skirmish between rival villages.