Here Be Dragons

Published Oct. 20, 2003
Drachenfels rises over the east bank of the River Rhine, southeast of Bonn, near the western border of Germany. Legend records that here Siegfried slew a dragon, his feat recorded in the medieval epic poem entitled the “Nibelungenlied” and enduring in the pinnacle’s appellation, German for Dragon’s Rock.
Dragons are the namesake for several English towns: Worms Head, Great Ormes Head, Ormesleigh, Ormeskirk, Wormelow and Wormeslea. These names owe their genesis to the Old English word wyrm, meaning serpent. Dragon, worm and serpent were interchangeable terms in the days when the great beasts roamed the land.
Dragon comes from the Greek drakon, also meaning serpent, deriving from drakos, for eye, the sense being one of watching or guarding. Dragons were known as guardians of jewels and of captive ladies, and many is the tale of the saint or the valiant knight battling the primeval beast to win a treasure or save a lady. Dragons symbolized sin and especially paganism, and the fight between saint and worm was a battle between good and evil, one of the classic confrontations of literature.
Dragons were of five types, characterized by the presence or lack of wings and feet. The wyvern had wings and eagle’s feet; the amphiptre was legless but had wings; the heraldic dragon had four clawed legs, wings and a ridge of sharp spines on its back; the guivre was legless and wingless, a massive serpent with a horned, bearded head; and the lindworm had a serpentine body with a pair of legs.
Dragons are perhaps most famous for breathing fire and brimstone, but some instead breathed pestilence, and the slithering kind left a trail of slime in their wake. This was the case with the worm of Lambton. A small worm was hooked on a fishing line in a river and thrown into a well. Years later, the water went bad, and a fierce guivre emerged from the well and took up a diet of sheep until the people began to leave milk in a trough. This truce continued for years until the dragon was slain.
These were the days when Europe was less settled, when wild places covered much of the land, when people weren’t so sure they were in control. Dragons were believed to have been created from chaos at the beginning of the world, and their dwelling places were marked on maps as “Here Be Dragons.”
Dragon sightings were reported by knights, historians and naturalists into the late 17th century. The dragon became a symbol of strength and adorned the war standard of the ancient Britons, still to be found on the green, white and red flag of Wales, and the red dragon is the badge of the Prince of Wales. Pendragon is the Welsh term for the battle chief and is King Arthur’s family name.
Dragons faded from the land as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and, as Vernon Lee wrote in the short story “A Wicked Voice,” “… the heroic world had set, and the kingdom of prose had come.”

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