The tale of a dragon who swallowed a boat and blew up

Ancient legend: an Ethiopian dragon drawn by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1640)
Ancient legend: an Ethiopian dragon drawn by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1640) - Bridgeman Images

The origins of dragons can be traced back millennia across the world. The word itself first appeared in English in the 13th century, derived from the Latin draconem, which again came from the Greek drakon meaning “serpent” or “giant seafish”. But you could easily encounter a dragon before the Middle Ages – it may just have been called something else. According to medieval bestiaries, a serpent or worm is wingless or legless, while a wyvern has two legs, two arms, and breathes fire. A proper dragon, on the other hand, has four legs, and may or may not have wings.

In the European world, the dragon is fierce and downright nasty. He spews fire, eats children, guards stolen treasures, and generally causes havoc. There’s the dragon in the epic Beowulf dating back to the 8th century, who guards heathen gold in a mound, then attacks the local village when part of his treasure is stolen. In revenge, Beowulf, the hero of the story, slays the dragon. Later, other legendary heroes carry out similar deeds. The most famous of these is George, who later became England’s patron saint, having saved the king’s daughter by charging at a fearsome dragon that had been terrorising the country.

Sometimes, the beasts warned of danger. Before what is alleged as the first Viking attack on England in June 793, portents were seen across Northumbria: fiery dragons shot across the sky before a great famine set in and the first heathen men launched their callous attack on the Christian monks. The Vikings themselves were familiar with dragon-like creatures too. In Norse mythology, a giant serpent, Niðhöggr (the “malice-striker”) gnaws at the root of the world tree, Yggdrasil, while also devouring corpses of the dead. Dragons and serpents feature heavily in Viking art and famously adorned the stems of their longships.

My favourite dragon-related legend is the origin story for the islands of Shetland, the Orkneys, and the Faroes. A great sea dragon by the name of Mester Stoor Worm was tormenting nearby lands, devouring seven girls every Sunday. Finally, a young boy named Assipattle decided to take the matter into his own hands, rowing out to the great beast armed with an unlikely weapon: a bucket of burning peat. The Worm swallowed both boy and boat but in the process, the peat set fire to its liver, bursting the serpent into countless pieces that scattered across the North Atlantic. The teeth turned into the archipelagos and the body remained as Iceland. You can still see the burning peat of his liver, in the smouldering lava of Iceland’s volcanoes.

While the dragon is considered a bad thing in most countries, the Chinese tradition is markedly different. Here, dragons breathe clouds rather than fire and they generally represent good fortune, such as business prosperity or a bountiful harvest.

Why did all these legends appear? Real-life giant snakes and serpents may have inspired them, as may the discovery of dinosaur bones and ancient fossils. Who knows?

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