Serpentine, scaled, fire-breathing beasts, dragons, are a huge part of European Mythology.
Today is St. David’s Day and the proud red Dragon passant on the Welsh flag proves how surprisingly embedded these mythical beasts still are in our modern culture.
Pliny the Elder in his Natural History speaks of dragons as far back as the 1st century. He tells us that India has the largest dragons, just as it has the largest elephants, and that they are at war. I mean, of course they would be!
Isidore of Seville builds on this in the 7th Century, letting us know that the dragons’ “strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting.” The creature is further described with a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat.
Dragons are featured in Bestiaries throughout the Medieval period. They presented the medieval mind with exciting tales as well as a strong religious allegory. The devil was often depicted as a serpent, the greatest of the serpents. The fact the dragon’s strength is in its tail shows how the Devil deceives and the crest of the dragon represents the Devil “crowned with pride”. Most obviously, the Devil first appears in Genesis as a serpent, tempting Eve.
They often feature in Arthurian tales, most often as antagonists. Famously, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England, he recalls the fight between the red and the white dragons. The story ran that King Vortigern was trying to build a castle, not realising that the beasts fighting in a pool below kept causing it to mysteriously collapse. Vortigern was told to perform a blood sacrifice but the boy he chose, Merlin, revealed the fighting dragons to him. Supposedly, when the red dragon won, peace would come to Britain.
The red dragon represented Wales, or the people of Britain, and the White the Anglo-Saxons, with the victory of red also heralding the coming of Arthur.
(Illustration from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, 15th-century.)
So if you are ever trying to build a wall and it keeps falling down, make sure to keep an eye out in case of prophetic dragon.