Here Be Dragons!
Temporal and esoteric knowledge
What might at first seem like a patchwork quilt of quaint folk stories all about Dragon-lore can in fact be divided into several distinct categories; literal and metaphoric, or temporal and esoteric. The first category relates to history that has been almost forgotten, or relegated to the realms of legend and fable, with people re-cast as the dragons, and then killed or cast out. The second category is the more personal world, discovering the dragon within.
Important note - (before we proceed) - literally-minded people sometimes assume that only one understanding of the meaning can be the truth, and then argue over which is correct. That misses the point completely. Just like Romans 2,000 years ago, who complained that Celts talked in riddles. Children's stories, folk-tales and classic Norse poems routinely combine an amusing story (to be taken literally) along with an allegorical tale that the grown-ups (or enlightened persons) will understand as well.
Temporal Dragons – Part 1, The Dragon Masters
We humans seem to have a never-ending desire to give names to animals, inventions, cars, boats and machines of all kinds. A bronze-age or iron-age smelting furnace at full blast, to any untrained observer, would seem like a fire-breathing monster. Especially at night, to the uninitiated, it would be a fearful sight to behold. No wonder they could be called Dragons.
Blast furnesses, like dragons, are hot, toxic, and dangerous to go near. Draining a furness of liquid metal and residues is still called “tapping the salamander”
The Dragon Master, or tales of taming the dragon furnace, would become legendary stories. Lancing the dragon might mean the Dragon Master knocking out the plugs or gates to let the molten metal (the dragon's blood) flow into the molds.
The literal knowledge, of dragons as fire-breathing monsters for metal refining, is quite different from the place of dragons in esoteric knowledge.
Temporal Dragons – Part 2, The Dragon Kings
The other most well-known temporal dragons in British History were the Dragon Kings. In Cornwall, the Stannery Parliament gives us one example of metal miners and workers being a law unto themselves. Which probably didn't go down too well with a new power force (the Clergy) intent on taking over control from the long-established pagans. Or local people seeing their countryside being deforested to feed the dragons insatiable thirst for fuel. Did the newly Christian Clergy forcibly shut down the metal refining trade by "killing" the dragons? Hardly, because the new Clergy was just as keen to acquire wealth from trade. The tales of Celtic Saints going round killing Dragons means something else.
Pendragon = "Chief-Dragon", but in a figurative sense, "foremost leader" or "chief of warriors".
These being Welsh/Celtic/Original British warriors, they had to be cast out by the Romans/Saxons/Normans, by any means necessary, either literally or figuratively. As with all the Celtic Saints, both temporal and spiritual matters were looked after by members of the same ruling families. So for the interloping (late arrival) Roman Christian faith to make progress, it needed some Roman/Saxon/Norman muscle to eliminate the dragons (= real people) before enforcing conversions to Roman faith.
Talk of serpents and worms (as things that crawl on the ground) could just be a derogatory translation by the Roman/Saxon/Norman, meant to slur the name and reputation of the Welsh/Celtic/Original Britons they were usurping, and eradicate all memory of them as recognisable people from the official histories. As the Romans/Saxons/Normans gradually expanded their control as overlords from the south east, it's no coincidence that these "dragon-slaying" encounters happen in the margins, where the old ways clung on as long as they could.
For example, the Dragons Gazetteer map
However, a Dragon King was also be "one imbued by the fiery spirit". A person who spoke words of fire. A person inflamed by a holy spirit, or the gnostic knowledge of old. Which leads us nicely into the more esoteric dragon-lore.
Tannaim / Danaan:
The Tannaim (Hebrew: תנאים[tanaˈʔim], singular תנא[taˈna], Tanna "repeaters", "teachers" The root tanna (תנא) is the Talmudic Aramaic equivalent for the Hebrew root shanah (שנה), which also is the root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (שנה) literally means "to repeat [what one was taught]" and is used to mean "to learn". Ref : Tannaim
There are curious resonances with two other names and groups. One from Irish legend – the Tuatha De Danaan.
Danann is generally believed to be the genitive of a female name... It has been reconstructed as Danu, of which Anu (genitive Anann) may be an alternative form. Anu is called "mother of the Irish gods" by Cormac mac Cuilennáin. This may be linked to the Welsh mythical figure Dôn. Hindu mythology also has a goddess called Danu, who may be an Indo-European parallel. Ref : Tuatha De Danaan
Similarly, Tantra comes from the Sanskrit.
तन्त्र often simply means "treatise" or "exposition". Literally it can be said to mean "loom, warp, weave"; hence "principle, continuum, system, doctrine, theory", from the verbal root tan "stretch, extend, expand", and the suffix tra "instrument". The 10th-century Tantric scholar Rāmakaṇṭha, who belonged to the dualist school Śaiva Siddhānta, gives another definition: A tantra is a divinely revealed body of teachings, explaining what is necessary and what is a hindrance in the practice of the worship of God; and also describing the specialized initiation and purification ceremonies that are the necessary prerequisites of Tantric practice. Ref : Tantra
In Yoga, Kundalini is the primal energy within, sometimes called the serpent power. Kundalini Awakening is the deliberate act through meditation and yogic practice of releasing this power in a controlled and positively-useful manner. This, in esoteric dragon-lore, is called awakening the serpent. Ref : Kundalini
In the western world’s partial understanding of Yoga, Tantra has become rather debased as Tantric sex titillates the media classes (for example, see the reporting of Sting's tantric exploits). Fundamental Christians especially take a dim view of such blatantly pagan activities. Like Catholic priests, or Romanised Christian missionaries, they might better be regarded as suppressing the dragon within. Either externally by hostile action, or internally, by self-denial.
Folk lore by British counties and countries
Now that you are armed and aware with some of the metaphors and allegorical meaning, you are in a position to re-evaluate some of Britain’s quaint local legends. Here are a few:
Cornwall (Lewannick) : St Breock (or Brioc) was of the many Celtic Saints who moved around a fair bit. On Wikipedia, he's described as "a 5th-century Welsh holy man who became the first abbot of Saint-Brieuc in Brittany. He is one of the seven founder saints of Brittany.". His feast day is 1st May, coincidentally May Day or Beltane. Which may be connected with the description:
"He is represented as treading on a dragon or presented with a column of fire as seen at his ordination."
A major part of the workload of the Celtic Saints was dealing with the local dragons (druids and pagan priests), and stamping them out, by fair means or foul.
Devon (Killerton) : Dolbury Hill
Within this mound is reputed to be stored a mass of treasure that is guarded by the Killerton Dragon. Every night the Dragon is reputed to fly North-West across the valley of the River Exe to the nearby mound that is Cadbury Castle Ref : Killerton
Oxfordshire (The White Dragon of Oxfordshire) : Wales of course has its famous Red Dragon. Less well known is the White Dragon of England, buried in Oxford.
The second plague is caused by a red dragon that is embroiled in combat with a foreign white dragon. Lludd must set a trap for them at the exact centre of the island - named as Oxford.
In Oxfordshire, there is also a Dragon Hill, besides Uffington Castle, on the ancient Ridgeway.
A good example from Wales is Maelgwn Gwynedd. Who has a special mention in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae by the 6th-century British cleric St Gildas.
Part II is a condemnation of five kings for their various sins, including both obscure figures and relatively well-documented ones such as Maelgwn Gwynedd....Maelgwn (Maglocune), King of Gwynedd, receives the most sweeping condemnation and is described almost as a high king over the other kings (the power-giving dragon of the Apocalypse). The Isle of Anglesey was the base of power of the kings of Gwynedd, so describing Maelgwn as the 'dragon of the island' is appropriate. Ref : De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
The Lambton Worm
The Lambton Worm got a mention on a recent edition of Antiques Road Show (4th Oct 2015), in the North East. As a rival to the River Wear and the Lambton Worm, there's the River Tees which has the Saltburn Worm. On the show, a local museum keeper was proudly displaying the falchion sword supposedly used by Sir John Conyers to slay the worm. It is still used to welcome each new Bishop of Durham, the museum keepers says the new Bishop has to wade into the river to receive the sword. Bishops of Durham seem to have a thing for worms, because they used to consecrated new Bishops at Sockburn on Tees, but: It is said to have been inhabited by a dragon called the Sockburn Worm, which may have inspired Lewis Carroll to write Jabberwocky. Ref : Place name meanings
Sockburn Hall is a curious place.
Because here, "aet Soccabyrig", in AD780, Higbald was consecrated as the Bishop of Lindisfarne. And here, at a monastery called "Sochasburg", in AD796 bishops Higbald, Ethelbert and Badulf met to consecrate Eanbald as the Archbishop of York. ...It has a spring - perhaps of holy water. And its prized possession is a tumbledown Saxon church, full of wondrous carvings by skilled stonemasons mixing Scandinavian mythology with Christian symbolism - perhaps working as a centre of excellence for the whole Northumbria region. ... For fact, we know that when Aldhun was Bishop of Chester-le-Street between AD990 and AD1018, a chap of Viking descent called Snaculf gave "Socceburg and Grisebi" to St Cuthbert's monks who were settling at Durham and building a cathedral. About a century later, the monks gave the Sockburn estate to the Conyers family. Why? Of course, it was because Sir John Conyers had slain the dragon which, "for seven long years, had laid waste to fields for seven miles around, its voracious appetite only satisfied by a bath in cows' milk or the blood of a pretty young maiden". Ref : The life and times of Sockburn Hall and its dragon
Was it a reward, or a pay-off? Recently for sale, offers in excess of £500,000.
The monastery called Sochasburg is described as "a very early monastic community" - and the North East of England clung to its version of Christianity longer than many parts of Britain. Ref : Sockburn Project
In Ireland, contrary to popular belief, Patrick was not the first Christian, but he was the first and foremost fundamentalist Christian in Ireland.
What kind of a Christian was he?
One night Patrick dreamed that Satan tested his faith by dropping an enormous rock on him. He lay crushed by its weight until dawn broke, when he called out: “Helias! Helias!” – the name of the Greek sun god. Ref : The Independent on St.Patrick's Day
That Patrick calls on a Greek sun god is revealing. As he was inspired by a Greco-Roman sun god, is he a Mithraic Christian getting rid of the earlier Christians in Ireland? Otherwise why call to the sun god?
His Christian predecessors had, to a greater or lesser extent, cohabited with Irish Druids. Nor were there any snakes in Ireland for Patrick to banish. The legend of him banishing all snakes from Ireland is symbolic, as snakes or serpents are part of Druid lore, and Patrick drove the dissenting Irish Druids out of Ireland. Modern-day Druids in Ireland pointedly remark that
“the snakes are still in Ireland”. Ref : Shamans in a Catholic world
Despite Patrick’s militant attitude, it seems clear other Irish Saints were happily assimilating Druid practices. Brigit of Kildare might be a perfect example. Her Feast Day is the 1st February - which is Imbolc in the Druid calendar, - marking the beginning of Spring. She founded a monastery Cell Dara “Church of the Oak” (Kildare), on the site of a Druid shrine “served by a group of young women who tended an eternal flame”.
Professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin and others suggest that the saint had been chief druidess at the temple of the goddess Brigid, and was responsible for converting it into a Christian monastery. After her death, the characteristics of the goddess became attached to the saint. Many early Christian churches were situated in oak-groves, probably because they were once pagan places of worship. Kildare, where St. Brigid founded her abbey, derives from ‘Cill-dara’, the Church of the Oak.
Dragons in space!
In the era that Woodhenge, Stonehenge and Avebury were first built, our northern-most star (the pole star) was Thuban, in the constellation Draco the Dragon.
Coiled around the sky’s north pole is the celestial dragon, Draco, known to the Greeks as Δράκων (i.e. Drakon). Legend has it that this is the dragon slain by Heracles during one of his labours, and in the sky the dragon is depicted with one foot of Heracles (in the form of the neighbouring constellation Hercules) planted firmly upon its head. This dragon, named Ladon, guarded the precious tree on which grew the golden apples. Ref : http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/draco.htm
Did Heracles get made redundant when St.George came along? Or did St.George inherit the job? As usual, the mythology is an entertaining story as an aide-memoire. While the truth is hidden in plain site.
The last of the dragons - by Sheila McGregor
... political allegory which ostensibly refers to the old conflict between Welsh and Saxon but in fact refers to conflict between the Welsh and Normans
Scotland has many similar stories which on the face of it make little sense but which represent the efforts of illiterate rural people to explain an archaic word or phrase which they no longer understood. Some of these stories retain elements of logical speculation but most contain miraculous elements and many have been reduced to nonsense, both within Gaeldom and by their translation into English. Particularly when we find nonsense we can be certain that there was once a nugget of important fact, like a dragon, which demanded an explanation.
Ref : The last of the dragons
Next, more dragons in the : Compass and Square