Here be dragons

Information about dragons that might be difficult to find all in one place on any other website on the Net. I hope it fires your imagination and inspires you to research, discuss and write!

Where the word came from

This is a scholarly sort of paragraph. Don't despair. Read it carefully! It's always useful to know where words came from.

It appeared in the13th century related to Old English draca, drake. A large serpent or snake, but more lastingly a mythical reptilian monster with crested head, wings and claws, and breathing fire. Our word comes from Middle English dragoun via Old French, from Latin draco, serpent, dragon. This was derived from Greek drakros, the eye, drakon, the seeing one. The original meaning involved a creature with a fatal glance rather than a fire-breathing beast. In Greek myth, the dragon kept watch over the golden apples in the garden of Hesperides.


In this bloodthirsty saga, written about 1,200 years ago, the hero (Beowulf) has to kill three terrible beasts. The third one is a fire-breathing dragon, ligdraca. Various terms are used to describe it and its attributes.

Here are the actual Old English words. The strange looking letter š is an old form of th. The line numbers are given in this list:

2270 wyrm, serpent (you can see where our word 'worm' comes from)
2272 byrnende burning
2273 nacod nišdraca naked (smooth) night-dragon
nihtes fleogeš fyre befangen flies by night encircled by fire
2278 šeodsceaša people-spoiler
2308 mid bęle with flame
2309 fyre gefysed fire prepared/at the ready
2315 laš lyftfloga hateful/hostile air-flier
2333 ligdraca fire-dragon
2346 widflogan widely flying

Only one copy of this book still exists. You can find out where it is if you do a search on the Net. You can also see wonderful photos of it.

Layamon’s Brüt

Layamon’s Brüt, written soon after 1200 by a priest named Layamon, is a history of Britain. It is actually a mixture of history and legend, and includes the stories of King Arthur and Merlin.

In line 7952 twein draken stronge, two dragons strong, were revealed by Merlin to live in a pool beneath a huge stone beneath the ground. One of these dragons is milc-whit, milk white, and the other is ręd alse blod, as red as blood. They were constantly fighting each other, making the ground rumble and shake above them.

When they fought, flugen of heore muše fures leomen, flying from their mouths shining fire — they breathed fire.

Geoffrey of Monmouth had told the same story in his earlier Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, around 1136), adding full details of the prophecies which Merlin spoke after the dragons had fought bitterly.

Layamon, in line 8914, tells of a bright comet shooting across the sky, leome swiše sturne, shining strongly and powerfully, at the apex of which was a drake hende, a dragon gracious, a wonderful dragon. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells that two shafts of light from the dragon’s mouth spread over the Irish Sea and beyond Gaul. Merlin went into a trance and explained that it foretold disaster.

There are copies of this book on the Net but be warned: it is very long!

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

This book, or series of books, is a record of the early history of Britain. It begins with legends but quickly moves into actual history. You can find Old English and modern English versions on the Net.

In the earlier Saxon Chronicle for 892, a comet is reported simply as being like a feaxede steorra, a hairy star, in appearance with lang leoma, long lights, beams — no dragon is mentioned.

The Chronicle records that in 1066 another comet appeared, and there was debate over whether it was a comet or a fexedan steorran, long-haired star. It was seen for a week before the famous battle between King Harold and William of Normandy. On this occasion, we know that it was Halley’s comet. Comets and welkins — great cloud formations or light displays in the sky — were both regarded as portents of disaster akin to dragons.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD 793 records that the people of Northumbria were terrified when great sheets of lightning and fyrene dracan on tham lyfte fleogende, fiery dragons flew across the sky. Famine followed very soon afterward.

You'll be able to find complete copies of the Chronicles on the Net, in Old English and perhaps in modern English.

The Bestiary

A 14th century Bestiary states that dragons are the largest of serpents and the most dangerous of all animals. They are a threat even to elephants. They live in caves in Ethiopia (which at that time signified a large area of central and north-eastern Africa) and in India. Snake-like in appearance, a dragon has a crest upon its head, and kills by coiling round and suffocating its victim. In the Bestiary, there is no mention of wings or of fire-breathing, so the creature
referred to might be something like a python. However, when this dragon leaves its cave, the air around it glows like fire.

The Bible

Dragons appear in various places in the Authorised Version (AV, published in 1611) of the Bible. In the Revised Version (RV, published in 1884) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV, published in 1952), one of the original Hebrew words is usually translated more accurately as “jackal”. In Ezekiel 29:3 and 32:3 “dragon” is retained in the RV and RSV but the reference is probably to crocodiles in Egypt. The references to dragons in the book of Revelation, however, are probably linked to older myths from other cultures, where fabulous monsters played a role in creation stories. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Humbaba, a fire-breathing monster, is the guardian of the sacred forest. In the earlier Sumerian version, this creature is Huwawa.

Encyclopędia Britannica

The first edition of Encyclopędia Britannica, published in Scotland in 1771, has a completely factual zoological entry for draco, dragon, an amphibious reptile with wings and a cylindrical tail. The flying variety was found in Africa and the East Indies.

Some related words

The word draconian, meaning harsh, is only indirectly connected, coming from Draco, the name of a 6th century BC lawmaker who prescribed the death penalty for nearly every offence. The name of the herb tarragon came to English in the 16th century from Old French targon, with forerunners in several languages including Spanish, Persian, Arabic and Greek, the plant originally being known as dragon-wort. In the 17th century, a group of armed and mounted infantrymen was known as a dragoon. There are various explanations for this choice of word. One is that their carbines breathed fire like dragons; another is that there was an heraldic dragon on their standards. In fairy-tale, innocent maids were rescued from nasty dragons.

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Adapted from my manuscript 1,000 Words of Heaven and Earth. Expanded April 2005.