“My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
It is scary, a gigantic and magical demon. We must find the courage to face it, an enemy beyond his own strength to man, but which the hero must fight to save the kidnapped princess. Riding his steed, brandishing the most portentous sword, fearless to death, for immense fortunes and a great name.
It is the dragon stretching its immense shadow across the sky.
Its blood appears to have magical healing abilities and can be extracted from a guardian plant.
But what is a dragon?
In the fairy tale
The debut and the kidnapping dragon
The debut of the fairy tale typically develops from a condition of serenity and quiet, upset by small actions, which, however, do not seem to predict catastrophe.
In the beginning, everything takes place in the family, but when you violate a ban or go away (find out more about moving away from the main road > Sensitive nature and the strawberry in the fairy tale forest), the tragedy begins and the story starts, as when a kidnapping is carried out, often of a princess, by the “hand” of a kidnapper par excellence: the dragon.
What is a dragon?
Fairy tales, as Propp tells us, describe it very differently from what we would expect: it doesn’t always fly and we don’t even know if its skin is smooth or flaky.
Historically, however, we know its hybrid nature, as a creature born from the union of various ancient and highly symbolic animals: “it can take the form of very different animals, it can be composed of a crocodile or a lizard and a bird, but also a panther, a lion, a billygoat and other animals; it can be formed by two, three or four animals”1
In the stories, its connection with nature and its elements is strong: fiery creature, ruler of the realm of flames, breathing fire or with inflamed wings. Through the fairy tale, we unexpectedly rediscover it, also as master and keeper of the waters, ruler of rains and storms, sea monster of the abyss, like the dragon of “Lo cunto de li cunti” by Giambattista Basile.
It kidnaps maidens, virgins, princesses, possessing and tormenting them; it threatens and besieges cities, looms in anticipation of a tribute, whether it is a woman to marry or to devour, but it is also a defender of borders, the guardian of a mysterious and distant kingdom.
“The witch defends the suburbs; the dragon defends the very heart of the kingdom at the end of the world”2
(find out more > Travelling into a fairy tale landscape)
The symbol in history
There are many and different dragons in fairy tales, just as the interpretations of these creatures in different cultures are varied: symbols among the most ancient ones, they exist even before the myth.
The first dragon ever comes from the Far East. “Following archaeological finds of mosaics and sculptures, dating back over six thousand years, on which dragons are depicted, the Chinese lóng is to be considered by far the first dragon compared to any mythology.”3
Its aesthetic is very different from that of Western dragons: carp scales, clam belly, a pearl under the throat or in the claws, a scented saliva. Wise and benevolent, it is a giver of magical gifts, but disrespect for it can release the power and strength to cause natural disasters.
From the most ancient dragons, often beneficial and aquatic, to evil creatures, rulers of the sky. Their nature follows history, the evolution of civilizations: it is benevolent and an expression of an essentially hunter culture, it is negative with the advent of agriculture, breeding and new divinities. The figure of the dragon is transformed over the centuries, mixing between fairy tale, myth and legend. Its origins are ancient, its roots as deep as those of the sacred trees with which it has a double thread, often guardian and connection between the human world and the otherworldly worlds.
The dragon’s tree and the dragon tree
A story is told about one of the sacred dragon trees, on an island far away from us: the Dracaena draco from the Canary Islands that would once have been a dragon.
“Once upon a time, as everyone knows, the mountains were populated by dragons. It is said they were among the wisest creatures, but also the most stingy: they craved princesses and treasures, taking away with them everything once conquered, in distant spaces and times. The dragonesses, which remained on Earth, almost certainly not destroyed by pain, took refuge in the archipelago of the Canary Islands and remained there until they suffered the incursion by warriors and knights who, for the first time, decided to go beyond the already known Pillars of Hercules.
Angered, enraged and jealous of their territory, they tried to leave these lands in vain. Pliny the Elder, one of the raiders of these islands, witnessed the transformation of the dragonesses. As in a Dante’s contrapasso, their desire to fly away was as great as their weight, increased by laziness and good Mediterranean cuisine, so that they remained planted on the ground so firmly that the scales of their legs became roots: thus was born the Dracaena draco.”4
In his Naturalis Historia it is again Pliny the Elder who narrates the origin of the Dracaena: from the mixing of the blood gushed in the mortal struggle between an elephant and a dragon.
It can only be a magical tree from which drops of extraordinary dragon blood are said to come out if the trunk is cut off. For the inhabitants of the Yemeni island of Socotra, the drops would also have the power to take or restore life. They are for them “beneficial trees, able to drive away the evil Djinn (geniuses, spirits).”5
It is a guardian plant, as guardians are dragons. In fact in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hyeronimus Bosch, and in particular in Paradise, a Dracaena is probably distinguished.
Could it be guarding the garden of Eden?
It is no coincidence, in fact, that the dragon has many points in common with the figure of the snake-guardian wrapped, like ivy for Sermonti, around a sacred tree.
Behavioural, physical similarities (mephitic and poisonous breath, originally the ability to produce a pharmakon, both poison and magical medicine, tendency to swallow, …) and both guardian figures in the literary tradition: “Stories of the expulsion of snakes, or more specifically dragons, by St. Patrick have survived in Irish folklore”6
More evident in the mythological tradition than in the fairytale one, the dragon-snake relationship transports from the sea-forest of the fairy tale to the legendary gardens: it is guardian in the garden of the Hesperides from which Hercules must steal the golden apples, in the sacred enclosure of Ares with the myth of Jason and Medea recovering the golden fleece, around a sacred tree in the Babylonian poem of Gilgamesh, which must kill it to be rewarded with items from beyond the grave.
So is it a dragon, the snake around the divine tree of Eden?
To the evident link between snake and dragon, we add, and it is clear, the sacredness of the tree: often fruitful, gigantic, with magical powers and therefore to be protected.
Here appears Yggdrasill, the tree par excellence, the very symbol of the cosmic tree, a link between the dark underground world, the human and the celestial one, a giver of powers, like the dragon…
From the dragon of Sermonti “Freeing Beauty from the dragon is a primordial act, which corresponds to deforestation. Cultivated plants, man’s ideas, grow on the lands cleared of forests. In place of the austere coniferous forests, the flowering gardens of deciduous trees grow”7 to the dragon tree, this fairy tale and folklore creature is the bearer of ancient symbols that frighten and attract.
“The fairy tale reflects all the stages of the dragon’s evolution”8, it will always take a brave heart to face it and bring the princess to safety.
“Fior da fiore. Novelle botaniche” by Giuseppe Sermonti (Edizioni Lindau, 2016)
“I miti greci” by Robert Graves (Longanesi, Kindle edition, 2014)
“Il ramo d’oro. Studio sulla magia e la religione” by George Frazer (Bollati Boringhieri, Kindle edition, 2016)
“Lo Cunto De Li Cunti” Pasquale Buonomo (Gruppo Albatros Il Filo, Kindle edition, 2020)
“Tutte le fiabe” by Jacob e Wilhelm Grimm (Newton Compton Editori, Kindle edition)
“Fiabe norvegesi” edited by Bruno Berni (Iperborea, Kindle edition, 2019)
“Mitologia degli alberi” by Brosse Jacques (BUR saggi, 2015)
“Le radici storiche dei racconti di magia” by Vladimir Ja. Propp (Grandi Tascabili Economici Newton, 2006)
“Il Medioevo fantastico: antichità ed esotismi nell’arte gotica” by Jurgis Baltrušaitis (Adelphi edizioni, 1973)
“Storia dei Draghi: Dai Nibelunghi a Game of Thrones” by Martin Arnold (Odoya, Kindle edition, 2018)
folktaleproject.com | alchimiadeisimboli.wordpress.com | edizionidodici.wordpress.com – episode 1 | edizionidodici.wordpress.com – episode 2 | mariniola.it | ilbotanico.com
1 page 366, da “Le radici storiche dei racconti di magia”; 2 page 339, ivi; 3 position 2850, from “Storia dei Draghi”; 4 from ilbotanico.com; 5 from edizionidodici.wordpress.com – episode 2; 6 position 1209, from “Storia dei Draghi”; 7 page 68, from “Fior da fiore. Novelle botaniche”; 8 page 384, from “Le radici storiche dei racconti di magia”;