Medieval Lindorm Dragon, 15th century, from the alchemical scrolls of Sir George Ripley
Of all the creatures encountered within the boundaries of Myth and Faerie, dragons are at once the most feared and the most admired. It is understandable that our relationships with them have not always been for the best since we, as well as our livestock and our maidens, have had to deal with issues ranging from prosaic matters, such as the avoidance of being eaten, to cosmic dilemmas involving the divisions between Heaven and Hell. Moreover, it does not help that certain dragons (and they are all individuals) tend to be rather large and powerful:
Leviathan - Arthur Rackham
His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. One is so near to another, that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another, they stick together, that they cannot be sundered. By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him. The flakes of his flesh are joined together: they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.
(Job 41: 15-23)
Debate continues to rage whether or not Leviathan was a true dragon although those on the dragon camp (and most of those are dragons) smilingly point out that no crocodile breathes fire. Indeed, one wishes to believe it since it is difficult to argue against fire-breathing beings. There is also no doubting the nature of Jörmungandr, the offspring of Loki and Thor’s dragon adversary:
Thor Slaying the Midgard Dragon - Henry Fuseli
…Then Thor was angered, and took upon him his divine strength, braced his feet so strongly that he plunged through the ship with both feet, and dashed his feet against the bottom; then he drew the Serpent up to the gunwale. And it may be said that no one has seen very fearful sights who might not see that: how Thor flashed fiery glances at the Serpent, and the Serpent in turn stared up toward him from below and blew venom.
(Prose Edda – Brodeur Trans.)
Thor defeats the serpent and drops it into the abyss where it grew great enough to encircle the earth. I feel it fair to point out however, that although Thor was credited with the deed, other mythologies compete for the distinction. Both Zeus and St. Michael claim similar feats. Zeus in order to defeat the Titans seized Typhon “from whose shoulders grew a hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon” and struggled with him until “…the earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. And in the bitterness of his anger Zeus cast him into wide Tartarus.” (Hesiod, Theogony ll. 820-868)
St. Michael’s acts were similarly dramatic, though not as descriptive:
St. Michael and his angels fight Satan in the shape of a wyvern dragon. From the Liber Floridus, a Flemish manuscript from the 15th century.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
(Revelations 12: 7-9)
But let us not descend into that primordial abyss. This is not only about gods but also about those more familiar dragons we have to deal with on a more mundane basis. Fortunately for us, all of the old cosmically-sized creatures survived the wrath of gods, while the gods themselves seem to have devolved the duties onto heroes resulting in a wealth of tales about both. The most famous hero of them all was Siegfried (or Sigurd) and how he killed Fafnir:
Siegfried slays Fafnir with his father's sword - Konrad Dieliz, 1880
Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went; but Sigurd neither trembled nor was adrad at the roaring of him. So when, as the worm crept over the pits, Sigurd thrust his sword under his left shoulder, so that it sank in up to the hilts; then up leapt Sigurd from the pit and drew the sword back again unto him, and therewith was his arm all bloody, up to the very shoulder.
Now when that mighty worm was ware that he had his death-wound, then he lashed out head and tail, so that all things soever that were before him were broken to pieces.
(The Volsungsaga, William Morris trans.)
There’s no doubting that swords are very useful things when dealing with dragons, but it must be a special sword. Siegfried’s was called Gram and could cut through an anvil. In another story, The Two Brothers, the Grimm brothers reported how another sword was used to save a maiden from a dragon.
The Two Brothers - Kay Nielsen, from Grimm's Fairy Tales: The seven-headed dragon came and breathed fire, setting all the grass ablaze...
The huntsman said nothing more to this, but next morning took his animals, and with them ascended the dragon’s hill. A little church stood at the top of it, and on the altar three full cups were standing, with the inscription, “Whosoever empties the cups will become the strongest man on earth, and will be able to wield the sword which is buried before the threshold of the door.” The huntsman did not drink, but went out and sought for the sword in the ground, but was unable to move it from its place. Then he went in and emptied the cups, and now he was strong enough to take up the sword, and his hand could quite easily wield it…
…Said the dragon, “Many knights have left their lives here, I shall soon have made an end of thee too,” and he breathed fire out of seven jaws. The fire was to have lighted the dry grass, and the huntsman was to have been suffocated in the heat and smoke, but the animals came running up and trampled out the fire. Then the dragon rushed upon the huntsman, but he swung his sword until it sang through the air, and struck off three of his heads.
(The Two Brothers, Children’s and Household Tales, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm)
Multi-headed dragons are apparently fairly common (as far as dragons can be considered “common”) since these have been appearing since the Chimera of Greek mythology, so it is not surprising that our unnamed huntsman hero had rather more difficulty. Unfortunately, he was killed treacherously soon after by the king, even though the princess was more than willing to marry him. However, this is quite unusual since in most cases the slayer of the dragon survives to either marry the princess, as Perseus did with Andromeda, or go on to a distinguished career as St. George proved was possible.
In fairness to dragons, their relationships with maidens were not always predatory:
"And I should look like a fountain of gold." - illustration by Warwick Goble to The Mermaid, by Alfred Lord Tennyson
And I should look like a fountain of gold
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Mermaid)
But while that is a mermaid rather than a human, the theme of sympathetic dragons is not uncommon. In Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” the serpent is now a mushroom eating innocent who must convince St. George (who had been called out of retirement) to stage a mock fight to satisfy the superstitious townsfolk holding on to cliche stories about how dangerous dragons are.
The Reluctant Dragon - Maxfield Parrish
In general though, it is best to assume dragons are dangerous, but sometimes not as dangerous as those who control them:
Medea (Tanglewood Tales, The Minotaur)- Edmund Dulac: "Medea shook her hands over the multitude below."
“But when her witch’s poison had consumed the new wife, and the sea on either side had seen the royal palace all in flames, her wicked sword was drenched in her son’s blood; and, winning thus a mother’s vile revenge, she fled from Jason’s sword. Her Dracon team, the Dracones Titaniaci, carried her away to Palladiae.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses 7, tran. Melville)
Since Medea was a witch, we can forgive the dragons for being accomplices to her murder of Jason’s wife Glauce. It’s not always their fault that dragons are misunderstood, not minding the occasional mayhem they might cause, as we can see from Sulamith Wulfing’s depictions of dragons precariously embracing, beautiful human maidens in apparent safety, though the sexual overtones of the idea are quite obvious.
The Big Friend - Sulamith Wulfing
Sulamith Wulfing - The Dragon
Overall though, if you are a young man and encounter a dragon in the woods, it would be helpful to have a magical sword with you – just in case.
John Bauer - The Dragon: "He gave the dragon a mighty blow."
Image Credits: Dragon Art Prints and Posters: Dragons, Lindorms, Wyverns