European Dragons: From the North and East
Our final destination on our worldwide dragon journey is Europe. I know, I know—not very exciting, is it? But wait!
Having looked specifically at Chinese dragons last time, it’s only right and proper to give more “Western” dragons a detailed examination. However, the usual image of a dragon—which is, of course, the traditional Western view of the beasties—seems a little ordinary compared with the different and intriguing types of Chinese dragon we met previously. We need only look at the Welsh flag, or depictions of dear George and his scaly foe, and the classic (dare I say, “boring”?!) dragon stares back at us. So let us consider instead Nordic dragons and Slavic dragons—something a little different.
When exploring dragons, it’s useful to know what we—the intrepid adventurers—are looking for: What do these types of dragons look like, and indeed, do they all resemble one another?
Intriguingly, it seems increasingly true that it is only the so-called “clichéd” image of a typical medieval dragon that is depicted as a bewinged, fire-spewing beast. Of course, there are many tales of such dragons that permeate European mythology, primarily Central European mythology. Perhaps even world mythology; after all, the fair dragon does get around a bit.
However, the image of a Chinese or Japanese dragon is that of something usually without wings, and, in the sense of well-known European mythology, a creature more resembling a large, or exceptionally long serpent. Interesting, when in the first installment we thought of banishing ‘dragons’ that too closely resembled snakes and serpents, dubbing them as imposters. After our trip to China, and our brief foray into the north- and easternmost tracts of Europe, this notion has to be abandoned. We are likely to find out that being reptilian, scaled and mythic are traits enough for that dragon membership card to be posted out.
If we gather our nerve and venture deep into dragon country again, let’s first pop on our horned helms, take up our axes and hammers and traverse Viking territory. It doesn’t take much digging in this mythology to unearth the stories of Níðhöggr (anglicized as Nidhogg) and Jörmungandr (mostly known as Jormungand), as well as that of Fafnir’s transformation from giant or dwarf—the details differ—into a dragon.
Whilst their modern depictions (a quick Google search for any of the names above) might more closely resemble the traditional image of a dragon, when consulting more date-appropriate depictions we see the same slender, serpentine physique we have come to expect from large sea-monsters, extraordinary snakes—not dragons. Nevertheless, these creatures are dragons: the mythologies they originate from call them such. So we’ll just go with it. We did for the Chinese, after all.
Jörmungandr—perhaps more commonly known as the Midgard Serpent—(see, serpent, again!) is the World Serpent; the dragon-snake is a gargantuan creature so large it coiled itself around the world and began to devour its own tail. This lengthy beastie is the mythological middle child of Loki and Angrboða, and it is said that the world will end if the creature lets go of its tail. Though obviously a snake—it’s even called such—the Jörmungandr is considered one of the most famous Nordic dragons. Banished to the icy seas by Odin, the story claims that the serpent lies in the sea, tail in mouth, waiting. The serpent would be slain by Thor, his arch-rival, where Thor too would die, succumbing to the serpent’s venom.
Though much less grand in scale, the dragon partial to nibbling on the roots of the Yggdrasill—the Tree of Life—is Níðhöggr. Depicted quite diminutively on a 17th Century illustration from a text, this beastie also feasts on the dead flesh of evil-doers. Despising life, the dragon continued to gnaw at the tree, supposedly endlessly endeavouring to destroy it. It is said that Níðhöggr will survive the catastrophe of Ragnarok and survive the damnation of the world—along with the tree he despises so much. The dragon could often be found, when not at the root of the tree, in the spring at Niflheim, which is said to be the source of all rivers in the world. Both of these dragons personified evil and evilness, which is a familiar notion when examining Western dragons, which are not usually benevolent, unlike their Eastern counterparts.
Whilst he wasn’t a symbol of evil, Fafnir’s story isn’t that of a great and kind being. Born a dwarf, (or giant, but dwarf sounds cooler to us fantasy geeks) Fafnir transformed into a dragon as a symbol of his immense greed and love of gold and jewels. When still a dwarf, Fafnir was the son of the great king Hreidmar and brother of Regin and Ótr, though he killed his father for his gold. When a dragon, Fafnir became reclusive to keep his treasure to himself, and breathed a poison around his dwelling so that none might enter.
Eventually, Fafnir was slain by the sword, Gram, and he remains a symbol of greed and the corruption gold can bring. Curiously, the detailed story of Fafnir resonates with the notion of Tolkien’s Gollum/Smeagol, as a creature corrupted by gold. Of course, there’s the idea that Fafnir hoarded treasure in the same fashion Smaug does, too, further demonstrating Tolkien’s mythological influences.
If we put on our best—let’s say, Russian—accents, and venture to the east of Europe now to gawp at their beasties, we’ll initially discover something slightly familiar.
Commonly, Russian dragons have more than one head, and, slightly reminiscent of the Greek Hydra, if not all of the heads are cut off, some can grow back. Not all Russian dragons are gifted with multiple heads, though it is common.
One particular three-headed beastie, was Zmey Gorynych; a tri-headed, green dragon that walked on its back paws, had small front paws and a penchant for literally spitting fire. The dragon was supposedly slain by Dobrynya Nikitich—one of the most popular ancient heroes of the region. That it was slain implies it was evil. However, not all Slavic dragons are nasty beasties: whilst it might not be necessarily as kind and benevolent as the Chinese dragons, the Slavic “zmaj” is generally perceived as different in nature to the naturally (and symbolically) evil “aždaja”. Although, even the zmaj is considered just as cruel in some Slavic stories, proving again that the perception of the dragon changes deftly by region.
Instances of the wise and knowledgeable zmaj are dotted about Slavic mythology, however, the best example is the Ljubljana Dragon, which kindly and ardently defends the city (of the same name), and features on the city’s crest. Furthermore, the zmaj was able to reproduce with mortal women, which was handy, given how lustful for human women the creatures could become. There are many stories that tell of heroes, half born to a zmaj, half to a mortal woman. In addition, some national heroes were considered to be dragons themselves, although how metaphorical this was, is left up to debate. These dragons were rumoured to be proficient in the use of magic, as well as being gifted with super-strength.
It is important not to confuse the zmaj, and aždaja (or halla); the two were considered polar opposites, and the latter were evil without reason, living in dark or hostile locations. Interestingly, halla are also placed in fairy-tales as guards, giving us a first glimpse into the origin of the common idea that dragons guarded princesses in high towers.
Usually, evil dragons in most—if not all—Slavic mythology represented Satan. Therefore, whenever a knight or hero is depicted in the act of slaying, it is in fact, a representation of the devil himself being supposedly felled.
Whilst exploring Slavic dragons seems to have brought us full-circle back to the image we’re familiar with, it’s somewhat disappointing that the dragons of other cultures are steeped in fascinating mythology, when the dragons we know and hold dear as “our dragons” are not even half as interesting. Of course, we have our own myths and legends; we have our own dragons, but it’s not entirely the same. Perhaps the reason we so eagerly use dragons in our fantasy stories, is so as to explore a part of our own mythology that is lacking. Perhaps we’re wistfully filling in the blanks.
This is merely another indication that our culture—I use the word lightly—lacks a definite mythology if its own. Tolkien agreed; it’s why he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and created Arda. It’s especially why he wrote The Silmarillion.
Want to read our whole series on dragons? Start here!