Germanic and Norse Mythology
In German and Norse mythology dragons typically appear as monstrouous serpents, sometimes with wings and legs but more often as just giant snakes. These dragons (lindworms) are seen as evil, a bad omen, and preying on livestock. They are also greedy, guarding hoards of treasure and most often living in underground caves.
In general, there are four types of dragons mentioned in German stories: lindworm, fire drake, black worm and puk. Puk is a small dragon spirit with four feet, which lives in the households and brings stolen goods to head of the house.
Black worm is mentioned in a tale of a greedy man. It guards the treasure, and is awakened when man calls for his wife to help him carry more treasure. Scaring the man into dropping the treasure he had talen, it sinks into the ground along with treasure, never to be seen again. Fire drakes are similar, living in caves and guarding treasure. They breathe fire to defend themselves from thieves, an appear in Beowulf, Tolkien’s works as well as fantasy inspired by Tolkien.
Lindworm is a monstruous serpent, with either wings and forelegs, or just forelegs. They are evil creatures and considered bad omen. Lindworms invade churches and churchyards digging up on corpses. Lindworms are greedy, guarding hordes of treasure in underground caves, and also stealing cattle and other livestock. In some German tales, lindworm is a human who is so greedy that he transfromed into the monster.
The most famous are the legends of Jormugand, who ate so much he grew to be proportional to the length of the Earth, and Fafnir, the human who killed his own father to inherit his wealth and became a dragon to protect his treasure. Fafnir was killed by Sigurd (Siegrfried).
Jormungand is a middle child of a giantess and the god Loki, and is a brother to Fenrir. Odin took Jormungand and threw it into the great ocean that encircles Midgard, our world. The greedy serpent ate and ate until he grew so large he was able to surround the world. He then grasped his tail with his teeth, and should he ever let go, the world will end. It is also prophesied that Ragnarok will begin when Jormungandr rises above the waves. It will join army of his father and brother, and will go to Asgard – home of the gods – to slay them. It will be slain by Thor, who however will die from its venom. Thor in fact nearly caught Jormungand when he was fishing, but giant Hymir got scared of the poison-spitting serpent which was nearly sinking the boat and thus cut it loose.
Nidhogg is a monstrous serpent that lies below the World Tree (Yggdrasil) in the underworld and gnaws on one of its roots, hoping to thus bring about the fall of the world. It lies upon Nastrond, the corpse shore – one section of Niflheim where those that did not die heroic death go. On Nastrond is great hall of evil whose doors face north, and is made up of serpents whose heads blow venom, forming rivers that run the length of the hall. These rivers are waded by murderers, adulterers and oath breakers. There is loathing between Nidhogg and a nameless eagle that lives atop the world tree. Nidhogg causes trouble and misery while eagle reflects high ideals and joy. When Mimir stops guarding his well (under the roots), Yggdrasil’s roots will begin to rot, allowing Nidhogg to chew through the root that runs through Nilfheim. Urd’s Well will become polluted, World’s Tree leaves will yellow, and a three-year winter will set upon the world before Ragnarok, the final battle between the gods, the monsters and the humans. When Ragnarok comes, it is said that Nidhogg will rise and take all of the dead with him to join the final battle, flying with them to Asgard, to help Loki and giants attack the gods. In the end, only two humans and a few gods will be left. In one version of the story of Ragnarok Nidhogg is killed by Thor’s son Magni. In another version, Nidhogg survives the final battle to provide an evil balance to the new good.
Fafnir was a powerful, violent and greedy man (or a dwarf) with magical powers. He murdered his father and stole family treasure (or else stole treasure he was supposed to guard for the gods). This caused him to turn into a dragon, and spend his life guarding the said treasure. Fafnir’s brother Ragin asked Sigurd (Siegfried) to kill the dragon, while secretly planning to kill Sigurd himself and take the treasure. Sigurd learned that Fafnir leaves his treasure and cave only to drink water from the river, so he dug a hole on the path to the river and hid inside. Sigurd stabbed him from underneath and killed him, eating Fafnir’s heart afterwards. By doing so he learned the speech of the birds, who warned him that Ragin wants to kill him, so Sigurd killed Ragin and kept the treasure.
Fafnir is extremely large. In fact, “it is said that this cliff was 30 fathoms high at the spot where Fafnir lay to get water”. This means that dragon himself is at least 150 meters (90 fathoms) long in order to maintain balance. It also blows poison: “And I blew poison in all directions around me, so that none dared come near me, and I feared no weapon.”.
Germanic version of the above story is told in the Nibelungenlied. In it, Sigurd is born in the wilderness to a mother in exile, who dies shortly after. Mimir attempted to raise him, but Sigurd proves to be a difficult child. Mimir evetually sends Sigurn to Reign, who has turned into a dragon, hoping that he’ll eat the child. Instead, Sigurd slays Reign, bathes in his blood and gains invulnerable skin, and then returns to kill Mimir.
Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) legend of Beowulf says that, after killing Grendel and ruling the kingdom for 50 years, a dragon appeared. Dragon attacked the kingdom because somebody had stolen his treasure. Beowulf with 12 friends went to kill the dragon, but was wounded and all friends but one abandoned him. Beowulf finally managed to kill the dragon but died himself.
German story Die Siebenkopfige Schlange (Seven-Headed Serpent) tells of a seven-headed serpent that demands a sacrifice of twelve youths and twelve maidens every year, or it would destroy the country. After years of terror, the king’s son finds out how to kill the beast. He takes some cotton, sneaks into the serpent’s palace, silences the warning bells with the cotton and cuts off each of the serpent’s heads.
Another German story is Der Norlands Drache (Dragon of the North). It tells of a dragon coming from the north and destroying the countryside. Dragon could hypnotize its victims and draw them in. A wise man found out that only a man wearing King Solomon’s ring could defeat the dragon. One young man went in search of the rings and stole it from the witch which possessed it. Using the ring and advice of a magician, he defeated the dragon, becoming a hero and marrying king’s daughter.
In Norwegian mythology, dragons act as brave guardians of graves of the warriors. Viking longship, also called drakkar or dragon ship, had dragon head at its prow.
There is a Swedish story The Bride of the Lindorm King. Centuries ago, a queen laid in her chambers, ready to give birth to twins after years of unsuccessful attempts. She had however been promised by a soothsayer to have two sons, provided she ate two onions as soon as she returned to the palace. Queen rushed to the palace, ignoring the soothsayer calling after her, and ate the onions. In her rush, she ate first onion without peeling it – skin and all, but peeled the second one. Nine months later, she gave birth to twins – but first baby was not a human, but rather a male lindworm, snakelike creature. Queen threw it out of the window into the forest outside. Second baby however was a perfectly healthy, fresh-faced boy with golden hair and sparkling blue eyes.
Years passed, and younger brother grew up to a youthful prince in search of a bride. What he found while riding around the edge of a forest was his older brother, a lindorm. Lindorm stared down the youth, telling him that he will never find a bride unless he, the older brother, had obtained true love of a willing bride. Over next few months, a succession of brides was given to lindorm, but none came willingly until one met a soothsayer whom the queen had consulted. Convinced by the soothsayer, the maiden accepted lindorm, who transformed into a handsome man, and they became a king and a queen.
Overall, majority of dragons are evil – but not all of them are. And even those that are “evil” are less evil and more forces of nature: they are destructive and dangerous, but not necessarily evil as such.
West European Mythology
In Western Europe, dragons are – with some exceptions – traditionally portrayed as evil. Oftentimes they are greedy and obsessed with treasure. Dragon’s blood often has magical properties: hero Siegfried gained either invulnerability or understanding of language of the Forest Bird by bathing in dragon’s blood. They typically represent elemental power: most often earth, as they typically dwell in dark caves, guarding their treasure hoards. But the “evil dragon” portrayal is by no means exclusive.
Dragons are common in Celtic artwork, and are often depicted with their tails in their mouths. This symbolizes the cycle of nature in the world and immortality. In general Celtic mythology, dragons were believed to be of a world that was parallel to the physical world. While dangerous, they were also indicators of fertility and life. Creation of the world came about due to combination of elements – the first living cell was born out of earth, fertilized from the sky by wind and water. From this union sprang seed, which produced the dragon.
Dragons’ power affected the ley of the land, and the path the dragon took – called a vein – was important to the flow of energy through the physical world. Areas where a dragon passed often, where dragon paths crossed or places a dragon stopped to rest became more powerful than the areas surrounding it, and their lairs were places of great sanctity and mistical harmony. The “Path of the Dragon” was Celtic term for ley lines – stretches of mystic power which crisscrossed the land. Druids hunted these lines, and made a ley lines map for their people, instructing them to build their temples and homes along the lines in order to harvest the energies. Celtic lore has two types of dragons: winged dragon with four legs that is familiar to most, and a huge serpent with wings but no legs. Dragon was a gatekeeper to other worlds, and guardian to the secrets and treasures of the universe. It is fierce but benevolent, similar to dragons of Far East. Dragons protected Earth and all living things, and represented the continuation of life and health. They were of good harvest, and a year of plenty. Dragons were depicted side by side with Celtic gods. Leaders used dragons as symbols of power and wisdom, and Celtic Cross may be a symbol of crossing ley lines. Dragon insignia was in fact used in battle by Celts of late antiquity, which then was carried over into lore of king Arthur.
In British lore, dragons are similar to the wyverns of Central Europe. English legend mentions a king who was living with two children, daughter Margaret and son Childe. After his son left to sea, king married evil witch who, jealous of her stepdaughter’s beauty, turned her into a monstruous dragon. The only way to turn back the spell was for Childre to kiss the dragon three times. When he did so, dragon turned back into Margaret while witch turned into a toad.
While dragons are symbols of power and wisdom, they also serve as allegories for real dangers. Dragon of Wales fought a lenghty battle with his foe and so earned the place on Welsh national flag. King of the Brits, Vortigern, escaped from Anglo-Saxon invaders by fleeting to Wales. He found the mysterious hill of Dinas Emrys and decided to build a castle there. His men set to work building the towers of the stronghold, only to find them collapsed the next day. This went on for weeks, until Vortigern was told the answer to the mystery would be found by a young boy who had no father.
Vortigern sent out men to search for the child, and they returned with a child named Myrddin Emrys – or Merlin. Vortigern believed he was meant to kill the child to stop the towers from failling, but boy explained to him that the reason the towers would not stay upright is that there is a battle raging beneath them between two dragons in a pool. One of them was White, the dragon of Saxons, and the other – Red – was the British dragon. Red dragon was currently winning the battle. Merlin explains that the white dragon will take red dragon’s cave, but will be opposed by king Arthur. In some versions, both dragons were finally caught sleeping in a Welsh monastery and burned alive. In event, Celtic Britain and the house Pendragon became associated with dragons. In another version, dragons were released from the cave, and Red dragon won before retreating back to its cave.
How dragons came to hide beneath the hill is told in the prose poem Llud and Llefelys, from 12th or 13th century. Story tells of a wonderful time when Llud ruled the Britain (cca 100 BC) and came across a problem he could not solve – a terrifying scream which appeared from nowhere every May Eve. As nobody knew its origin, the scream caused chaos – rumours even spread that it was causing infertility and strife throughout the country. Despairing, Llud asked his brother Llfeyls – king of Gaul – who told him that the noise was due to battle between two dragons, one native and one foreign. When the native dragon was losing battle, it would scream – so to solve the problem, Llud had to find them.
Dragons changed form, and one of the forms they took was swine. Llud captured the dragons while they were in swine form by using a cauldron of beer, and then buried them deep underground at Dinas Emrys, so that the scream would not be heard.
King Arthur was himself burdened with dreams of dragons. He saw them at the time of Sir Mordred’s conception and before his death. Dragons eat him in his final dream, and at the next battle Sir Mordred kills him. When a king sees dragons, there will be much ruin to come to his kingdom and himself.
Welsh god Dewi was represented as a red dragon. Dragon opened doors towards the otherworld, and also knew and protected many secrets. Due to being a symbol of power and wisdom, it is seen in many coats of arms. Celtic dragons are often shown biting their own tails, symbolizing the cycle of nature as well as immortality. Red dragon on Welsh flag is derived from the Great Red Serpent that had represented Welsh god Dewi. Cernunnos was another dragon, a god of druids, nature, horned animals and shamanism. It is symbolized by a ram-like snake, which can be seen on Gundestrup Cauldron. There were also Welsh serpents who attached themselves to families and brought wealth.
One of most prominent dragons in Celtic mythology is Master Stoorworm. Master Stoorworm was a gigantic sea serpent who always ate too much and every morning he would yawn seven times – and in the process, snatch seven random things from the town nearby. Townsfolk got tired of this and decided that anyone who slew the dragon would get to marry king’s daughter. A young boy took an iron pot and some peat, stole a boat and went out into the ocean to wait for the dragon to wake up. When the dragon yawned the first time, the boy and the boat were sucked into the dragon’s mouth. The boy then paddled until he reached dragon’s liver, and used the peat and the iron pot to set the liver on fire. As Master Stoorworm writhed in pain, boy was able to paddle out. Master Stoorworm died and became Iceland.
After arrival of Christianity, dragons became symbols of evil – of trouble, strife and infertility. It was said that dragons lay waste to the land and prevent growth, and priests started to use them as symbols of evil. One of most popular stories used by the Church was that of Saint George and the Dragon. Village of Wormingford in England was plagued by the dragon, and people of the village offered maidens to appease its appetite. Eventually the only maiden left was the king’s daughter. She was brought out and tied up as was done with the others. Before she could be eaten however she was saved by St. George who subdued the dragon and promised to slay it if villagers gave up their pagan ways and became Christians.
In French tale Saint Martha and the Dragon, dragon called Tarasque had been terrorizing the small town of Nerluc, situated near the Rhone river. The town made several unsuccessful attempts to slay the dragon before calling upon a holy lady, Martha. Martha bravely tamed the beast and led it back to town, where it was killed as a punishment for its wickedness. Town then changed its name to Tarascon.
In another French tale, The Voivre: The Flying Serpent, the serpent Vouivre would leave her guarded treasure to drink and wash herself once a year. Woman named Loise brought ser son to the cave to discover the treasure, but was discovered by Vouivre. They were imprisoned by the serpent for a whole year before escaping, carrying off some of the dragon’s treasure.
In Basque mythology, the Herensuge is an evil spirit that took the shape of a serpent. It would terrorize local towns, killing livestock, and misleading people, until being defeated by St. Michael. Suugar, the Basque male god, is often associated with serpent or a dragon. Another Basque dragon is Cuelebre, a giant winged serpent in the mythology of Asturias and Cantabria. It usually lives in a cave, guards treasures and keeps nymph-like beings called xanas or anjanas as prisoners. Dragon from Pena Uruel mountain near Jaca could mesmerize people with its glance, so a young man who decided to kill the beast equipped himself with a shiny shield, thus killing the dragon in a manner similar to Perseus and Medusa.
Legend of the Cuelebre says that in a hut in Asturian village lived a very beautiful maiden, vain and daydreaming, who loved nothing more than to comb her hair. She spent hours combing her hair by a spring and staring at her reflection. Eventually, a water nymph living in the spring confronted the girl, turning her into the cuelebre, with a curse that she will only turn back into a human if she meets a knight so brave he is not afraid of her, and so pure that he finds her beautiful even in that form. This never happened, and the dragon still lives in her cave.
In Portuguese mythology, coca is a female dragon which battles Saint George on Corpus Christi holiday. When coca wins, crops will be bad and there will be famine and death; if Saint George wins, crops will have a good year. Yet she is still called a “saint” and people cheer for her.