The Dragons of Europe

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Dragons! Everybody seems to know what a dragon is nowadays; they feature heavily in stories, movies, TV, and games, and are usually portrayed as giant, lizard-like creatures with long necks and tails, horns, leathery wings, and generally belching fire from their nostrils and mouths. Further, its often asserted that tales of dragons go far back into history, showing these creatures are deeply rooted in many cultures with many different types; and that the original ideas regarding dragons may have derived from ancient explanations of dinosaur fossils.

All of which looks like it might be wrong.

Soooo... let's start with the word 'dragon' itself. The earliest that it's been traced is to the Latin word draconem, meaning "huge serpent." Latin has existed from around 1000BCE, so 'draconem' may have been around for a very long time as well; but it's clear from looking at how the word was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans that what they meant when they used it was essentially just 'giant snake.'

A common belief regarding these early 'draconem' is that they were enemies of elephants -- which meant these creatures were believed to live in Africa and India, by the way -- and that they would wrap around elephants to kill them. This was a tricky thing. The draconem would hide in a tree near a water hole, and drop onto its prey when the elephant came to drink. An astute elephant could try to smash the draconem against rocks or trees, and if the draconem wasn't careful the dying elephant would trap it as it collapsed. Some tales added that the draconem would bite the elephants at the back of their heads to drink their blood; and, in some accounts, it was asserted that draconem could become large enough to swallow small pachyderms!

While it's clear that these giant snakes were not what we would currently consider dragons, it does tell us why dragons are now considered to be reptiles. This connection to snakes was affirmed by Pliny the Elder [23-79 CE], a Roman writer and one of the people who described the draconem attacking elephants. Pliny stated that a stone with magical properties ― which he called a “draconitis” (“draconem stone“) ― could be extracted from the brain of a draconem, but only if the draconem’s head was cut off while it was still alive (and preferably asleep). If not killed by beheading, the draconem would ruin the existing properties of the magical stone in its head as it died... which is very similar to another magical stone called a “carbuncle” believed by the ancients to be in the head of adders, and which had to be harvested from a live animal.

The Evil of the Dragon

As the Greek and Roman empires faded and new religions and cultures arose to prominence, much of the old Greek and Roman 'facts' regarding animals and the natural world were preserved and passed on as a sort of unquestioned 'common knowledge.' But different people at different times will see the same stories differently... and as Christianity became the predominant religion and culture in Europe, ideas regarding 'draconem' changed.

In both the Torah and the Bible, foundation books for many world religions (including Christianity), a story is told that explains why human beings have to work and suffer all through their lives; and it all comes down to a snake convincing someone to disobey a rule laid down by the god that created humans. Over the centuries as this story spread and became more popular, the snake in the story was slowly associated with a being called the 'Devil' or 'Satan,' which is the deity in charge of all things evil in most Western religions. The logic behind this association was that since the snake's actions caused problems for humans, the snake in the story must have been a messenger from the Devil.

From this idea of one snake being associated with the Devil, soon came the general idea that all snakes were and, therefore, all snakes were evil... and since 'draconem' were gigantic snakes, then they too were evil. And since draconem were both big and now also evil, this made them the perfect foe to include in stories which were meant to illustrate battles between the force of Good and the forces of Evil!

The best known story of a battle with a draconem back around the 4th Century to the 9th Century was told of a Christian saint named Theodorus. A 'saint' is a person who is believed to have been so good (and Christian) that after they died they were rewarded with divine gifts to return from death to help the living. While Theodorus is now a saint, the story told about him was supposed to have happened before he died and was taken as one of the reasons he later became a saint.

Theo vs. the Draconem

The legend was that Theodorus was a soldier who had converted to Christianity. In his wanderings, he ran across a princess and her city that was being terrorized by a draconem that lived nearby. Theodorus, moved by the plight of the princess and her city, battled the beast and defeated the evil creature. The residents of the city, properly impressed with Theodorus' help, all chose to convert to Christianity after the rescue.

And if that sounds familiar to some of you, there's a reason... between the 9th Century and the 11th century, an effort was made by Christian authorities to actively change the going story to have a new hero: St. George, rather than St. Theodorus. Basically, George was better known, and the story itself had proven useful for inspiring Christians to become soldiers. Nowadays, the story of "St. George and the Dragon" is well known throughout the world! [For more details on this story, follow the link below!]

Initially, the draconem that St. Theodorus and St. George fought was described as a giant serpent that could breath clouds of poison to sicken and kill people. Over time, the 'dragon' that St. George was imagined to fight came to resemble more modern ideas... the beast started to be drawn with wings, legs, and breathing fire. So: when did dragons actually start being called 'dragons'? And when did they start to look like dragons?

This seems to have happened in the middle of the 13th Century in Europe... and it appears to all be thanks to an interesting method of teaching religion to disinterested people!

The Bestiaries Begin

In the 10th Century, some very enterprising monks had an odd idea. Realizing that two different books from the 2nd Century and 7th Century that collected the ancient Greek and Roman "facts" regarding animals were still very popular, the monks decided to copy the animal stories from these books, add pretty pictures to liven them up, and then attach a religious moral to each animal to help illustrate finer points regarding Christian religious beliefs. And, because these religious morals were considered to be the most important part of these new "Bestiaries," the factually inaccurate tales remained factually inaccurate even if better facts were available... the inaccurate tales matched the morals better!

In these new Bestiaries, the tales of draconem -- giant snakes -- were repeated; but the moral tales attached to the creatures followed the new Christian beliefs about the monsters' connection to the evil Devil. More importantly, however, the appearance of the draconem started to change. In some Bestiaries these great beasts were shown as giant snakes; but in others they had legs, wings, and sometimes both, to go with newly found long tails and necks. In fact the most common appearance for draconem in the Bestiaries is that of a two legged winged beast with a long neck and tail and reptile scales, and a dog-like head with long pointy ears! Why?

As I said, these volumes were being created by monks; and monks, for those of you who don't know are people who devote their lives to studying a religion, generally with other monks and separate from normal people. They lived in monasteries and, generally speaking, never went anywhere else in their lives; so these monks were literally drawing animals they'd never seen before, that were only partially described by Greek and Roman authors hundreds of years before... so the monks often went with variations of animals they already knew, or just plain improvised.


The results are sometimes strange and sometimes amusing; for example, everything in the picture above came from Bestiary listings for snakes! Little wonder then that the draconem also took on a variety of forms.

In addition to this change of form, some newer tales regarding draconem started to be repeated in the Bestiaries. We now discovered that elephants would give birth while standing in water, because draconem avoided water; so the baby elephants would be safe until they were able to stand on their own. Draconem also loved to eat doves, we are told; and the doves would avoid being attacked by flocking to a 'peridexion tree,' whose shadow dragons are afraid of. In the Bestiaries, doves represented all that was good and holy, so it made sense that the now-evil draconem would want to kill them; as for the 'peridexion tree,' we're only told that they grow in India and the doves ate their fruit... so who knows if it was a real plant? A weirder 'fact' still is that draconem could not stand the breath of a panther; the draconem would actively hide from panthers to avoid their breath. Apparently, panthers had very sweet and pure breath; the Bestiaries asserted that all other animals are attracted to a panther's breath!

Another odd thing happened in the illustrations of draconem in these Bestiaries... many show the draconem exhaling flames. There doesn't appear to be a clear reason for this; none of the new tales mention this as a the possibility. Remember how I stated the draconem St. Theodore fought was said to exhale poison? It's possible that this was a going belief about draconem that some of the Bestiaries were trying to illustrate. Alternatively, many scholars now believe that the draconem were shown exhaling flames as a further way to connect them to the Devil, because the Devil was and is believed to rule over a place called Hell that is forever aflame; so, symbolically, exhaling flame was just another way to show the draconem were evil. In any case, it's still a bit of a guess as to why... but the illustrations sure seem to show draconem breathing flames, and this is likely why dragons are said to do so now!

Naming the Beast

The name of the draconem also took a variety of forms in these Bestiaries, as different languages were used in differing volumes; so the 'draconem' of the ancients also was called a 'drake,' a 'draco,' a 'dracon'... and, in Old French, starting sometime in the early 12th Century, 'dragon.' I don't know why this name stuck, but it most certainly did!

As Bestiaries and tales of draconem were translated for newer books and generations of readers, more and more of these beasts simply became 'dragons'; and, as the name 'dragon' became established to mean a "big serpent or reptile like monster with evil intent," so the translations of older texts to English -- like the old Greek and Roman myths, and the Holy Bible, the key text for many European religions -- started to have old names for a number of monsters (not just draconem!) replaced with 'dragon' as they were translated to English.

The point to translating these texts to English, of course, was to make the stories accessible to a larger number of people who couldn't read the older languages; and with the printing press involved, the English versions of these stories were soon standardized and available to more people than ever before. So 'Dragons' became a monster in their own right, at just about the same time that a far greater number of people could read about them!

This association of the older legends to the new monster "Dragon" had other effects as well; Dragons were soon believed to have traits related to these older monster legends, such as living in caves and hoarding and guarding treasures. It also slowly led to the impression that Dragon legends had a deep history that was essentially timeless... but that's an illusion, as the older monsters were not Dragons when they were first presented.

Over time, a variety of dragons started to be established -- for examples, "Wyrms" are dragons with no legs or wings, and "Knuckers" are long-bodied dragons that live in water. These 'varieties' all appear to start with distinct legends or accounts of singular monsters that are later assigned to be dragons, and then become the basis for new stories. Often, these stories came from local legends around Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which then associated dragons with living in these places (where they hadn't before). Soon enough, traditional monsters from other cultures around the world started to be labeled 'dragons' also, as long as they were big and reptile-like in some way... thus, the Loong of China and the Ryuu of Japan came to be called "Chinese dragons" and "Japanese dragons" by the English-speaking world, leading to the idea that dragons were a worldwide phenomena. [I'll be adding separate listings and stories for all of these different 'dragons' to MH&T over time, so I'm not going to try to list them all here and now!]

Finally, a few other things started to be labeled 'dragons' as well. In 1841, Richard Owen (who was later knighted to be Sir Richard Owen) designated large animal bones being discovered all around the world at the time as the taxon 'Dinosauria' -- "terrible lizard" -- which Owen had intended to be a reference to their impressive size, but that most people took to be a reference to their claws and teeth. It wasn't long before these new 'dinosaurs' were being compared to legendary dragons; and it wasn't long after that when someone started to propose that legendary dragons might have been based on primitive attempts to explain the dinosaur bones.

In 1910, a new species of monitor lizard was discovered on a number of small islands in Indonesia, most notable for their ability to grow up to ten feet long... far larger than any other known lizard on Earth. Dubbed scientifically 'Varanus komodoensis' -- 'monitor lizard of Komodo' (Komodo was one of the first islands it was found on) -- it soon was given the popular name of the "Komodo Dragon," because it was a gigantic reptile. And, again, sometime after this, someone started to theorize that the old legends of dragons were somehow inspired by the recently discovered lizard, on the assumption it had been discovered once previously in the distant past. So the legend of the dragon itself has helped add 'evidence' to the assumption that dragons are timeless and universal.

Things Get Weird

Yes, weird. If you've been following me thus far, then you should have gathered one important fact about dragons... they don't exist. Maybe big snakes do; but dragons, as a legged, winged, gigantic monster? No.

Which is why it's problematic that people have reported actually encountering dragons.

One report states that in the year 1349 CE, a knight of the order of St. Thomas, named Gozione or Gozon, fought and defeated a dragon on the Island of Rhodes. This strange dragon had four legs with bear-like claws, leathery wings, and two protrusions from its head described as resembling donkey ears; it was about the size of a large horse, and had a cloud of poison from its mouth so thick that Gozione and his two attack dogs couldn't avoid it. Still, he bested the beast, recovered from the battle, and was richly rewarded.

In August of 1614 CE, a pamphlet was published in London, England, that warned people of a dragon that had moved into St. Leonard's Forest about 40 miles away. The creature was largely working a range that kept it near an active rabbit warren, which was supposed to be the animal's food of choice. It was about nine feet long, with a long neck and tail, and two bumps on its back which were assumed to be the start of wings. It could run as fast as a man, left trails of nasty smelling slime, and could project poison up to 64 feet away from itself! At the time of writing, two dogs, as well as a young couple, had died due to the poison; but other than killing them, the Dragon left the bodies alone.

While neither report actually gives direct proof that the creatures existed -- as a skeptic would quickly note, I suspect -- both accounts do tell us something equally strange.

Whether or not dragons were real in the past, by the 14th Century there were people who actively believed the monsters existed; and that belief persisted at least until the 17th Century. It's also a curiosity to note that both reports claim the animals were able to project poison, which matches up with very ancient ideas regarding the draconem; but not with what the beliefs would have been at the time regarding dragons. If the reports were made up, then why wouldn't the animals be said to breath fire, as common belief expected?

As ever, I'll keep digging... and I'll add new dragons to the list as I find them!

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Here's some art including this monster! Some might have been sent in by fans or might be historic images of the critters, and some could be my extra monstery doodles... just click on a thumbnail to get a better look!
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  • "Dragons: A Brief History of the Mythical, Fire Breathing Beasts," by Benjamin Radford, page in the LiveScience website, posted 4-11-2019, viewed 5-16-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "dragon (n.)," page in the Online Etymology Dictionary website, viewed 2-25-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "History of Latin," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 2-28-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "Bestiary," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 3-25-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "Physiologus," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 4-25-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • Aberdeen Bestiary, ca 1200. Online: Click here! -- Just about Dragons: Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, and Link 4
  • Bestiary - MS Bodley 764, reprint of a bestiary created ca. 1220-1250 CE, translated by Richard Barber, 2006 The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, England. ISBN: 0-85115-753-X. Pgs. 30-31, 40-42, 182-184. Online [preview]: Click here!
  • "The Carbuncle in the Adder's Head," by Leo J. Henkin, article in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 58, No. 1, January 1943, pg. 34-39
  • Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, edited by Edward Hardy, 1987 New Orchard Editions Ltd., Dorset, England. ISBN: 1-8507-084-1. Pgs. 98-101
  • Medieval Beasts, by Ann Payne, 1990 The British Library Board, London, England. ISBN: 1-56131-018-2. pg. 82-83
  • Medieval Bestiary: Dragon, website, viewed 1-2010. Online: Click here!
  • Mythical Monsters: Fact or Fiction?, by Charles Gould, 1992 Studio Editions Ltd., reprint 1886 edition. ISBN: 1-85170-944-4. pg. 169-170,172, 206-208, 378. Online: Click Here!
  • The Natural History of Pliny, Vol. 2, translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley, 1855 George Bell and Sons, London, England.  pg. 259. Online: Click Here!
  • The Natural History of Pliny, Vol. 6, translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley, 1857 George Bell and Sons, London, England.  pg. 447. Online: Click Here!
  • "How the Serpent Became Satan," by Shawna Dolansky, article in the Biblical Archaeological Society website, posted 10-14-2018, viewed 4-29-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "Saint George and the Dragon," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 4-1-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "King James Version," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 5-16-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "Komodo Dragon: Varanus komodoensis," bt Teresa Dang, page in the Tree of Life Web Project website, Posted ca. 11-2-2007, viewed 5-23-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "Dinosaur," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 5-23-2019. Online: Click Here!
  • "Hunt-Lenox Globe," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 7-29-2019. Online: Click here!

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