Y Ddraig Geltaidd: Dragons in Celtic Folklore
“Dragons,” a literary agent told me recently, “are having a moment just now.” I’m sure she’s right. She’s a highly successful agent and certainly has her finger on the pulse of current literary trends. But I’d say that dragons have been having a moment for centuries. They, along with unicorns, are one of the few mythical creatures that can be found in folk traditions throughout the world. Something about dragons speaks to the human imagination.
So, can it really be said that there is such a thing as a Celtic dragon? To be honest, I’m not sure. I mean I’m not prepared to state that there is a type of dragon that is unique to the Celts. However, dragons are strongly a part of Celtic folklore and symbolism, especially in Wales. The national symbol of Wales, after all, is a red dragon. Also, King Arthur, whose legend originates in Celtic, not Anglo-Saxon folklore, is the son of Uther Pendragon.
Because of the influence of Christianity, dragons in western European culture tend to be portrayed as sinister, a symbol of duplicity and evil. But in pre-Christian Celtic culture, dragons were associated with wisdom, strength, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. They were strongly connected with the earth and the other three elements.
It was said that powerful energy remained along any path a dragon had walked. According to lore, dragons also are shapeshifters, appearing in any form they wished. In Celtic folklore, they sometimes are the four-legged, winged creature most westerners are used to, but often they show up in lore as serpents or worms.
Below are four of my favorite folk stories of the Celtic dragon, or, in Welsh, y draigg Geltaidd. I have not included a story from Ireland simply because I have yet to find one. If you know an Irish folktale about a dragon, please share it in the comment section. Thanks!
Gwybr, the Dragon of Llanrhaeadr at Rhaeadr Falls
Despite how popular dragons seem to be in Wales, the people of one Welsh village got rid of their dragon. Permanently. Gwybr, the Dragon of Llanrhaeadr at Rhaeadr Falls, enjoyed terrorizing the people of the village. He had fun regularly swooping down on them, spewing fire. Finally, the villagers had enough. They somehow tricked Gwybr (details on this are sketchy) into thinking he saw another dragon. Maybe they did it with mirrors. Maybe they used actual magic. It doesn’t matter. The ruse worked. Gwybr flew towards the virtual dragon and ended up impaled on spikes hidden behind the mirage. The villagers lived happily ever after but I have to say it: Poor Gwbyr! The falls, Pistyll Rhaeadr, still exist (and they’re dragon-free!). They can be accessed by car from the town of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys County.
The Stoor Worm
“The Stoor Worm,” a story from Scottish folklore, attributes the creation of both the Orkney and Shetland islands to teeth falling out of a dragon’s mouth. The story goes that the Stoor Worm demanded to be fed nine people regularly in return for not eating everyone. The victims were chosen by lot. One day, the king’s only daughter was chosen.
Desperate to save her, the king asked for a grace period. He quickly sent out word that anyone who killed the dragon would get a magic sword and the princess’ hand as a reward. Many warriors came (the number varies in the telling anywhere from 12-36). But these big brave warriors all turned and ran as soon as they caught sight of the ferocious Stoor Worm.
Finally, a young boy named Assipattle sailed his little boat into the dragon’s yawning mouth. He then went on an eventful journey through miles and miles of twisting tunnels until he reached the worm’s belly. Once there, he located the monster’s liver, slit it open, and shoved a burning piece of peat into it.
In response to the pain, the Stoor Worm vomited and Assipattle rode the wave out of the beast’s mouth. Once safely ashore, he watched as smoke billowed from the dragon’s nose. The citizens of the kingdom joined him on the shore and watched the beast writhed in pain, his mouth open in agony. From his mouth fell teeth that became the Shetland Islands and the Orkneys.
The Stoor Worm curled up and died, his body forming into a mass that is now Iceland. Poor dragons! They always seem to get the raw end of the deal.
Beinn a' Bheithir
Scottish folklore says that Beinn a' Bheithir (pronounced Ben a veir) a mountain near Loch Leven in the Highlands got its name from a dragon that once lived there. I will say that I find her story quite sad. Judge for yourself.
She habitually perched on Corrie Liath, a hollow on the mountainside, and swooped down on anyone who came within her sight. She also is said to have terrorized the people of the surrounding area. They were desperate to find a way to destroy her, but no one knew how or had the courage to try.
Then came a savior, a man who is known only as Charlie the Skipper. Anchoring his boat, a far distance from the shore. He made a bridge between the boat and the land by tying barrels together. Sticking out of these barrels were iron spikes. Next, he lit a cooking fire on his ship and roasted meat on it to lure the dragon.
Smelling the burning flesh, she flew to the shore and made her way across the barrel bridge, being pierced by the spikes at every step. Finally, just before reaching the boat, she died of her wounds.
The people rejoiced. But their celebration was short-lived. The dragon was a mother who had been protecting her child. That child soon grew into an adult dragon. She soon began terrorizing the people as her mother had.
And she became a mother herself. For reasons known only to the dragon, she hid her brood in a corn stack at the foot of the mountain. A farmer discovered them and set fire to the stack to destroy the babies.
Their mother heard their cries of pain and swooped down to save them. But too late. By the time she arrived, they had burned to death.
The dragon, whose mother and children had been murdered by humans, stretched herself out on a rock and died of her grief. To this day, the rock is known as Dragon’s Rock.
Vortigern and the Red Dragon
Beddgelert, in Gwynedd is the site of the most important Welsh story about a dragon—the Red Dragon that has become the symbol of Wales
Vortigern, a historical Celtic king, who lived in the area during the Dark Ages, decided to build a castle on a hill near modern day Beddgelert. He set his workers to the task, and they made good progress on the first day, but the building collapsed overnight. Each day the same thing happened, over and over, until Vortigern got quite frustrated.
He called his soothsayers to divine the problem. They said the gods were angry and that the king had to find a boy with no father, sacrifice him, then sprinkle his blood on the foundation to appease the gods. Vortigern ordered his people to find a fatherless boy. They succeeded and brought before the king a young boy who, local lore claimed, had been conceived without a father. The boy’s name was Myrddin Emrys. He has become better known as Merlin.
But Merlin did some divining of his own. He told Vortigern that the castle kept falling down because a lake lay beneath the foundation and, in this lake, two dragons were locked in a fierce battle. One dragon was white, the other red. Merlin suggested draining the lake. This worked. The castle finally stayed up. Since he had a dragon on his standard, Vortigern took Merlin’s vision to mean that he would be successful in his own power struggle. Delighted, he named his castle Dinas Emrys.
Many scholars, however, say the Red Dragon foreshadows Uther Pendragon and the coming of the Bear, his son, the once and future king, Arthur.
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Slan go foil!