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Dragons of Europe: The Legends, the Lore, and the Legacy

Knudsen, Jakob

Mr. Curinga
History Fair
1 April, 2016

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Dragons of Europe: The Legends, the Lore, and the Legacy
Thesis: In European culture dragons represent the dangers of the world-from the harshness of
nature to sin and paganism.
I. Introduction
A. Hook: Myths about dragons have been around for approximately 6000 years.
B. Thesis statement
II. An Introduction to European Dragons
A. What a dragon is
1. A brief description
a. Mythical creatures
b. Storytelling icons
2. Evolution of image
a. Early myths
b. Later myths
B. Cultural appearances
1. Before the Christian era
a. Fafnir
b. Dragon of Krakow
2. During the Christian Era
a. Saint George and the dragon
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b. Dragon in Revelation
III. Dragons as the Wrath of Nature
A. The Hobbit's Smaug
1. Synopsis
a. Story
b. Character
2. Inspection
a. Destruction
b. Evil
B. The Dragon of Krakow
1. Synopsis
a. Historical setting
b. Story
2. Inspection
a. Dangers of the wilderness
b. Death symbolized the conquest of the wilderness

C. Dragon of Beowulf
1. Synopsis
a. Historical setting
b. Story
2. Inspection
a. Destruction of the dragon
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b. Death of Beowulf
IV. Dragons as symbols of Sin
A. Saint George and the dragon
1. Synopsis
a. Historical setting
b. Fight with the dragon
2. Inspection
a. George the symbol of Christianity
b. Dragon the symbol of paganism
B. The Lambton Worm
1. Synopsis
a. Historical setting
b. Story
2. Inspection
a. Worm symbol of evil
b. All must conquer own sin
C. The Dragon Fafnir
1. Synopsis
a. Historical setting
b. Story
2. Inspection
a. Greed causes great destruction
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b. Greed is corrupting
V. Summarization
A. Symbolism
1. Wrath of Nature
a. Consistent in non-Christian era myths
b. Defeat symbolized conquest of nature
2. Sin and Paganism
a. Consistent in Christian era myths
b. Defeat symbolized removal of sin and/or paganism
B. Importance of Christian era
1. Compare myths
a. Danger consistent
b. General appearance consistent
2. Contrast myths
a. Meaning of dragon
b. Meaning of defeat

3. Explaining the difference
a. Church's emphasis on morality stories
b. Dragons prevalent in some pagan worship
C. Importance of Symbolism in Culture
1. Storytelling impacts
a. Enduring archetypes
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b. Prevalence in modern storytelling
2. Physical impacts
a. Churches honoring St. George
b. The name of Krakow
VI. Conclusion
A. The dragons of European myth have always represented danger, in all its forms, and
they continue to do so.

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Dragons of Europe: The Legends, the Lore, and the Legacy
Did you know myths about dragons have been around for over 6000 years? (The History
of Dragons) Yes, in one form or another there have been stories of dragons for as long as stories
have been recorded. Especially prevalent in Chinese and European myths, yet not uncommon in
myths of the middle east, the myths of Africa, and even the myths of native America. Though
both the image and the nature of the dragon can be as wildly different as the countries of their
origin, understanding what the dragon means in their myths is essential to understanding the true
depth of the myths, and understanding the myths of a culture is essential to understanding the
culture. In European culture dragons represent the dangers of the world-from the harshness of
nature to sin and paganism.
When it comes to dragons, what must first be understood is that dragons are mythical
creatures. Though there are komodo dragons, large lizards native to an island of the same name,
these creatures were named after the dragons this paper discusses. Rather, this dragon is the
dragon born and bred within the mental world- that is, in the stories, myths, and legends that
humanity has created and perpetuated for as long as humanity has existed (Niles 6- 29). Though
there are plenty of creatures in the real world that have most likely given some inspiration to the
myths of the dragon, the dragon's most famous aspects have come entirely from the human mind
(Where did dragons...). For whatever reason, stories of these monstrous, mythical creatures have
captivated human attention across all continents for an absurdly long time. (What is a dragon?)
Yet far from being esoteric, dragons are the most famous and recognizable mythical creatures,
appearing in media as varied as movies, books, and table-top games (Dragon).
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When exploring the world at large, there is no one singular way to describe what the
dragon supposedly looks like. However, in the myths of Europe alone, the imagery used to
describe the dragon follows a particular, definable pattern. Typical of this template are scales and
other generic reptilian features, with body plans ranging from snake-like to lizard -like (Dragon).
However, more important than the few characteristics that survive across all the myths is the
progression of characteristics from early myths to later myths. In early myths, dragons were
viewed as much more snake like, and the term usually used to describe these dragons is 'worm'.
Often venomous, rarely sentient, and always hostile towards man; these are the most primal
manifestations of the dragon. As time progresses, however, the general idea of the dragon
changes; becoming more lizard-like with the addition of legs, and later more threatening with the
addition of wings. Fire-breathing is added as time goes by, as is a fierce intellect to drive the
monster and increase its prowess. This process, going through the lindworm of Scandinavian
myths, to the lizard-like drake, to the flying wyvern of early England, eventually cumulates in
what is known today as the western dragon. Though the exact looks of the western dragon can
still vary, this is the dragon who set the classic standard of fire-breathing, flying, scaly,
intelligent, evil, and gold-hoarding monsters (Irish 10-17).
In some version, dragons are found in many cultural myths scattered throughout Europe.
From Scandinavia the tale of Fafnir, a dwarf turned dragon due to his greed. (Malam 10) From
Poland, the original capitol, Krakow, is supposedly named after Krak the dragon-slayer. The
famous story of Saint George and the dragon, the origin story of England's patron saint, is a tale
known to most (Dragon). A dragon, named as such, even makes an appearance in the Bible itselfas the symbol of the devil in Revelation (Niles 50).
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Between all these stories, dragons can, more or less, be classified into one of two groups
based on what they represent. The oldest, and yet still used, of the two groups places the dragon
as the representation of natures awesome, and often destructive, power.
Though the oldest group, what is perhaps its best example comes from comparatively
recent times. The Hobbit, the famous book by J. R. R. Tolkien, contains the setter of the modern
dragon archtype: Smaug. A classic western dragon, in the story Smaug raided and destroyed a
great dwarvern city because of its wealth, and reduced the surrounding land to a wasteland,
sometime in the past. Still slumbering on his massive pile hoarded gold, a band of adventurers
that includes several former occupants of said city, a wizard, and a well-mannered burglar,
attempt to reclaim a portion of what was stolen by the dragon- the result being the reawakening
of the dragon and his ensuing wrath. The following destruction of laketown speaks great volumes
on the nature of this dragon, and his death only comes from the combination of heroic bravery
and great luck. With the death of the dragon, and with the end of the war that occurs in the
fallout, civilization revives, and eventually every city ravaged by the dragon is rebuilt stronger
than ever before (Niles 170-172).
In this story the dragon, Smaug, has a character- greedy and evil, as evident by his
conquest of Erebor; proud and vain, as evident in his conversation with Bilbo; and finally
destructive, powerful, and utterly uncaring as to the fate of mankind, as shown in his attack on
lake town (Niles 170-172). All these characteristics are typical of the western dragon, as all these
features are traits hostile to humankind. Be it the personification of nature's awesome, destructive
power; or the personification of human nature's own evil, destructive power; Smaug embodies all
that causes damage (Western Dragons).
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Another, older, lesser-known story containing a dragon embodying nature's harshness is
the story of the founding of Krakow. Krakow is a city in Poland, and was for a while the
countries' capitol. Folklore has it, however, that before the city was founded a dragon dwelt in

the cave beneath the city's castle. In this legend, this dragon would attack all the travelers and
livestock it came across, and steal whatever gold it could from the corpses. Over time, the
dragon's ravaging sucked up so much of the kingdom's wealth that people started leaving. To
prevent economic disaster, the king put a price on the dragon's head- his daughter's hand in
marriage. Many knights tried, but all were fried. It was only a young craftsman named Krak who
could slay the beast- and this was not by strength of arm, but rather by wit. he took the corpse of
a sheep and filled it with sulfur then fed it to the dragon, causing it to explode. He took a share of
the dragon's gold, becoming extremely wealthy, and took the king's daughter in marriage,
become next in line for king. With his gold and new position, he founded a city around the
dragon's very lair. So was the city of Krakow founded, and named after the intrepid dragonslayer himself (Niles, 150-152).
Though this is an older myth than The Hobbit, its symbolism is perhaps more readily
available. In this story, the dragon embodies the wilderness- its untamed danger, and its
obstruction of progress. In this story, it is not brute strength, but rather cleverness, that kills the
dragon. Now with the dragon out of the way, the land could be settled; the wilderness tamed, and
no longer an obstacle (Niles, 19-25, 150-152).
Now to what is, perhaps, the most classic dragon of literature- the dragon of Beowulf.
Though the character is Beowulf is most famous for his early exploits, such as his slaying of the
monster Grendle and his mother, this is but the beginning of his story (Malam 8-9). These
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famous adventures positioned Beowulf as king of Greatland, a kingdom in the south of Sweden,
which he ruled to the end of his life. However, at the end of his reign, a powerful dragon is
woken when a thief steals a small portion of his treasure. Coming forth in great wrath the beast
wreaks havoc on the kingdom, burning down everything and causing great destruction. Now well
advanced in years, Beowulf marches to fight the monster himself. Fighting it in its very lair, all

of Beowulf's warriors abandon him except for his young relative Wiglaf. Between the two the
dragon is slain- but at the cost of the life of the great monarch, poisoned by one bite. Thus the
famous hero died, in the lair of his enemy, and next to its corpse. Wiglaf takes the throne, and
Beowulf's story ends (Niles, 120-124).
Here, the nature dragon takes a very basic and very primal form. Provoked by greed, this
epitome of destruction so ravages the countryside that even an elderly Beowulf knows he must
ride to face it. It is so insurmountable that all Beowulf's bravest warriors abandon him, except of
course Wiglaf. It is also this dragon that finally slays Beowulf, though the Hero had slain many
monsters and proven himself an excellent warrior. Embodying all that is destructive, from the
greed to the mayhem, utterly embodying the bane of humankind. Though it itself is slain in the
end, it is a hollow victory- for little was gained from its death, while the life of the famous king
himself was taken (Niles, 19-25, 120-140).
These ancient tales focus on nature and primal forces as the enemy of man. However,
with the passing of time, the rise of civilizations, and with the explosion of Christianity,
humankind discovered a new enemy: themselves. Beset now by other kingdoms more than by
nature, and confronted every day with reminders of the Christian message of one own's sin, the
idea of danger turned inward, and thus the dragon took on a host of new meanings (Irish 10-17).
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First and foremost of these stories comes Saint George and the Dragon. Supposed to have
lived during the century 200 AD, he was born in Cappadocia, though he soon earned fame far
and wide. (Malam 18-19) He was in the Imperial Guard until Diocletian began persecuting
Christians. Unwilling to renounce his faith, he left Rome, and began to wander the world and
spread Christianity. At this point he came to the city of Silene, Libya, in which a terrible disaster
had been occurring. For a while now, a dragon had been terrorizing the village, and the only way
the people could appease it was to offer it two sheep every day. However, they soon ran out of

sheep, and the only way they could keep the dragon from rampaging was to offer it a sacrifice of
people. They were chosen among the young and selected by lot, and as the story went when
George arrived the king's daughter had just been chosen. Of course, Saint George rode to the
rescue just as the dragon came to devour the fair maiden, spearing it, then tying a belt around its
neck. With the beast subdued, George led it and the maiden back into town, and promised to kill
the beast in front of them all, on one condition- the people renounce their pagan ways and
convert to Christianity. The people readily did, and thus the dragon was slain in front of them.
From here the story has two endings, either George married the princess and lived happily ever
after, or he went off and continued to spread his message until he was martyred at the hands of
Rome (Niles 52-55).
This famous story, besides setting many archetypes and clichés, provides a very striking
example of what the dragon meant to Christians: evil, the symbol of the devil even, deserving
nothing more than death by a saint. However, though true, a slightly deeper look reveals another
symbolic meaning for George and his dragon: and that is of Christianity and paganism. Before
George came, the people were offering human sacrifices to stave off a malignant force, and were
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suffering the consequences. However, without an alternative, they were stuck in their ways. Then
George came along, and gave them the good news while simultaneously cutting off the dragons
head. In this story those actions mean, more or less the same thing, as human sacrifice and snake
worship were known pagan practices. Now Christianity came to the people, and their old evil
was expelled (Niles, 23, 52-57, 113).
Though Saint George is not actually from England, there are plenty of dragon stories that
actually originate from the isle. The story of the Lambton Worm comes from Country Durham,
England. In this story, early on a medieval Easter morning, all the people were on their way to
church, except for the young noble John Lambton. He had decided to skip church and go fishing

instead. The people warned him of the foolishness of his ways, but he scoffed at them and kept
fishing. However, he did not catch a single thing all the service long. He cursed at the sky- and
then hooked something. He eagerly reeled it in, but he had not hooked a fish, but rather an evil
worm. Terrified, he threw it in a nearby well to get rid of it, and this started an upward spiral in
Lambton's life. He grew up into a devout and noble man, later going off on a pilgrimage to the
holy land to make up for the sins of his youth. However, in his absence one of those very sins
had grown up in its own regard. The tiny worm Lambton hooked had grown into a huge monster,
and it began laying waste to the countryside. This period of terror continued until Lambton
returned. Knowing he was the cause of the worm, he steeled for combat, and went to fight the
dragon himself, wearing steel armor studded with spearheads. He was immediately ensnared by
the worm, but the tighter it squeezed him the more the spearheads tore it to pieces, and it was
ripped to shreds. The was beast vanquished, the day was won; but when Lambton refused to heed
one last command of his elders, a curse fell on his family line for seven generations (Shuker 12Knudsen 8
15).
In this story, the dragon is quite clearly represents sin and apostasy. Born in the rebellion
of youth, it was quickly put out of sight and of mind as its owner tried to move on. Though the
character of Lambton soon improved, the mistakes of his past were still around to haunt him and
his entire region. A clear illustration of sin, and its far-reaching destructive qualities (Dragon).
Though these two examples from the Christian era provide the most striking examples of
dragons as the icons of sin, it was not the church alone that made this connection. Though the
Vikings of Scandinavia were not known for their morality, even their culture had a dose of it. An
example of this comes from the story of Fafnir. He was a powerful dwarf, and brother of Regin
and Ottar. One day Loki killed Ottar by mistake, and their father demanded recompense. Loki
happily obliged, giving the father a large sum of cursed gold, as was trickster god's way (Malam

10-11). The curse took effect, and the father was murdered by his two remaining sons for his
treasure. However, Fafnir betrayed Regin; running away with all the treasure and hiding in a
cave in a desolate mountain range. He remained there for a long while, and as the time passed the
combined effect of the curse and Fafnir's own greed wrought a terrible change in the dwarfturning him into a monstrous, poisonous dragon. He lay coiled on his treasure, guarding it
fiercely for many long years, while his last living brother, Regin, plotted to get the treasure back
(Shuker 45-46). In this time Regin came across a young prince, Sigurd, without an inheritance
beyond a broken sword. Promising to help him re-forge the sword, and then secure a fortune in
the form of Fafnir's treasure, Regin put Sigurd on the hunt of Fafnir. After an adventure including
sword-reforging, ambush planning, and plotting on Regin's part, the trap was set both for Fafnir
and Sigurd. However, thanks to the intervention of Odin, Sigurd survives to slay the
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treacherous Regin as well. Now Sigurd claimed the treasure, and all the curse that came with it
(Niles 117-120).
Though devoid of the typical Christian motifs seen in the other dragon stories, this one
draws a striking parallel between the dragon, and the destruction of greed (Malam 10-11). Greed,
in this story, is the gold's curse. It drew sons to murder their father, betray each other, and end up
killing, and then get the last brother killed. Greed was the dragon, for it was the gold that turned
Fafnir into his scaly, poisonous, and most evil form: coming to physically resemble the sins that
had consumed him (Dragon).
With but a look, a pattern quickly appears in what the dragon symbolizes. In the earlier
myths, or stories based off the earliest myths, it can quickly be seen that the dragon often takes
the place of the primal, uncontrollable power of nature. The dragon becomes, just as the ancient
wilderness was, a roadblock to man; and the slaying of these dragons often ends with a bloom of
civilization (Niles 14, 152).

Then, with the advent of Christianity, what the dragon represents quickly changes. The
dragon, having always been identified danger, death, and destruction, was adopted by the church
as their icon for sin (Irish 10-16). Now the dragon came to also represent the ultimate evil of
humankind, and it's death one's victory over similar traits within oneself (Western Dragons).
This difference primarily came about due to the church's emphasis on morality stories.
Eager to win as many converts as possible, the church would take Christian messages and wind
them into the most awesome stories of great and noble good triumphing over potent evil. As the
dragon, already a symbol of fear, was both prevalent in pagan worship and reminiscent to the
snake that was the devil in Genesis, it fit the bracket perfectly (Niles 52-57, 113).
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Now, in these ancient tales what the dragon represents is fully illustrated. However, the
importance of this symbolism goes beyond simply reading a little deeper into a few stories,
because these stories have had a huge impact on the world at large. From the books, artwork, and
other various media produced today, to the actual, historical development of many great nations,
dragons are not only prevalent but wildly influential (Dragon).
First and foremost of these effects occur in the world that created the dragon- that is, the
world of storytelling. Just as important now as it was then, stories are and have always been an
important part of human society, and as evident in the stories above, dragons have always been
an important part of storytelling itself (Niles 8, 29-30). Since the dragon has been a storytelling
icon since the beginning, and since history can't sue for plagiarism, today artists of all kinds are
usingthe dragon to invoke all the traditional themes they embody (Irish 3). From books, to
television, to classic role-playing games, dragons have become widely used in the storytelling of
today (Dragon).
Beyond the impacts on the worlds of culture, dragons have impacted the physical world
in which we live, despite having never truly walked on it in the ways we so often imagine. Saint
George, famous because he was a dragon-slayer and a saint, is known throughout the world and

is the patron saint of England. This great publicity has caused countless churches to be dedicated
to the saint, countless works of art to be produced of the famous scene, and countless historical
works to be produced detailing the history and story of this saint (Niles 52-55). The famous
painter Raphael even painted a picture of the iconic scene (The History of...). This is but one
saint's impact, many other saints are said to have slain dragons, and many of them have many
churches honoring them as well. There is also the fact that there is a city, Krakow,
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supposedly named after a dragon-slayer. The city itself acknowledges the legend with a large
dragon statue near the cave the legend speaks of (Dragon).
From the first likely fireside tales in humanity's storytelling beginnings, to the modern
marvels of cinema we have today, humans have always been fascinated with the dragon, in all
their power and ferociousness. Though the modern age has blended the cultures of world, and
has made finding a true "European" dragon rare, the quintessential essence that branch of stories
has woven into our conception of dragons can be found far and wide. The dragon's mystique and
their elusiveness still manage to impact us and draw us in. Who knows where this attraction
comes from. Maybe it is a product of the myths themselves, and humanity's natural attraction to
their own work. Perhaps it is in the enmity, the chance to pit a true hero against a true monster
that deserves defeat yet still proves a challenge. Or perhaps we see something of ourselves in the
dragons themselves. Whatever the case, the dragons of Europe, with all their danger, their evil,
and their power, have captivated humankind for countless generations and show no signs of
stopping.

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Works Cited
"Are Dragons Real? Facts About Dragons." Livescience. 10 Dec. 2014. Livescience.com. Web.
29 Apr. 2016.
"Dragon." New World Encyclopedia. 24. Aug 2013. newworldencyclopedia.org. Web. 29 Apr.
2016.
Irish, Lora S. Learn To Draw Dragons. East Petersburg: Lora S. Irish and Fox Chapel Publishing
Company, Inc., 2915. Print.
Malam, John. Dragons. Irvine: QEB Publishing Inc., 2009. Print.
Niles, Doug. Dragons : The Myths, Legends, & Lore. Avon: Adams Media, 2013. Print.
Shuker, Karl. Dragons : A Natural History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
"The History of Dragons." Draconika Dragons. n.d. draconika.com. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
"Western Dragons." Draconika Dragons. n.d. draconika.com Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
"What is a Dragon?" Draconika Dragons. n.d. draconika.com. Web. 4 Mar. 2016
Stromberg, Joseph. "Where Did Dragons Come From?" Smithsonian.com. 23 Jan. 2012.
smithsonianmag.com. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.

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Bibliography
"Are Dragons Real? Facts About Dragons." Livescience. 10 Dec. 2014. Livescience.com. Web.
29 Apr. 2016.
"Dragon." New World Encyclopedia. 24. Aug 2013. newworldencyclopedia.org. Web. 29 Apr.
2016.
Irish, Lora S. Learn To Draw Dragons. East Petersburg: Lora S. Irish and Fox Chapel Publishing
Company, Inc., 2915. Print.
Malam, John. Dragons. Irvine: QEB Publishing Inc., 2009. Print.
Niles, Doug. Dragons : The Myths, Legends, & Lore. Avon: Adams Media, 2013. Print.
Shuker, Karl. Dragons : A Natural History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
"The History of Dragons." Draconika Dragons. n.d. draconika.com. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
"Western Dragons." Draconika Dragons. n.d. draconika.com Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
"What is a Dragon?" Draconika Dragons. n.d. draconika.com. Web. 4 Mar. 2016
Stromberg, Joseph. "Where Did Dragons Come From?" Smithsonian.com. 23 Jan. 2012.
smithsonianmag.com. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.