When it comes to the mythologies from around the world, no creature has quite the prominence as the Dragon. Bestial creatures, they are almost universally treated in folklore as being evil, greedy, gluttonous predators of man and all he holds dear. However, they do have one redeeming quality. Their existence provides the perfect justification for Dragonslayers to come into being. Heroes of mythic, even divine origin, the classic trope is that these Dragonslayers must kill an evil dragon in order to save a helpless, woman of the upper classes (often a princess) that they might serve justice and receive an equally just reward. Sometimes even the Princess’ hand in marriage.
When the title of Dragonslayer is mentioned, most of you likely first think of the story of Saint George slaying a Dragon (which I discussed in my last article about Dragons in mythology around the world), but there are many other Dragonslayers of note that I was equally interested in learning about.
In Chinese mythology, Erlang Shen is a God known to possess an additional eye in the center of his forehead that has a truth-seeing capacity. At the root of several stories, my favorite is one where he is identified as Li Erlang, the son of the engineer who presented the Dujiangyan irrigation system. According to folklores, Li Erlang assisted his father in the building of this irrigation system in order to prevent the Min river from flooding, allowing the Chengdu Plain to be irrigated. For their efforts, the father and son duo were elevated to divinity by the local population. The most important story of their actions deals with a search to discover the source of flooding, bringing Li Erlang and his companions to a lonely cottage outside Guan County. In the small home, an old women is despondent over her grandson being taken to be sacrificed to an evil Dragon serving as the local river god. Devising a plan, Li Erlang was able to defeat the Dragon before it was able to claim its living sacrifice. By doing so, the region was forever freed from floods.
According to Armenian myth, Vahagn Vishapakagh was an ancient god of fire, thunder, and war. Styled the Dragon Reaper, he was worshiped extensively in this part of the world before the coming of Christianity. Immortalized in songs now largely lost, Vahagn earned his title though epic struggles with dragons that threatened the people in Armenia and the surrounding areas. So potent were the tales surrounding Vahagn that he was often identified with the Greek hero-diety Heracles. Perhaps one day the missing components of the Dragon Reaper’s tale will be recovered.
Of the four Dragonslayers, Beowulf is the one you have most likely heard about. A legendary Geatish hero, he is the central subject of one of the oldest surviving pieces of English language literature. Beowulf’s story kicks into high gear when he departs to assist King Hroðgar and his court against the terrible beast Grendel. In the night following his arrival at the court, Grendel attacked the sleeping Geats, only to have Beowulf valiantly drive the beast off barehanded, as no mortal weapon could hurt it. Having lost an arm in the fight, Grendel would go on to die of its wounds. Unfortunately, Grendel’s Mother learned of the death, and attacked the court to attain weregild. Beowulf would prove victorious here as well, though this time it would require an enchanted giant sword. Now, unique of the Dragonslayers talked about here, Beowulf would not actually encounter a Dragon until 50 years after the events that would see him claim his own kingdom. At a ripe old age, Beowulf tracked down a terrible fire-breathing Dragon that had been terrorizing his kingdom, but after failing to kill it once, pursued it back to its lair. There, Beowulf earned the title Dragonslayer with a dagger and the spilling of his own life’s blood.
Sigurd is the last Dragonslayer of this article. A legend in the Germanic mythology, he is famous for having killed a Dragon, bathed in its blood, and thereby received skin as hard as its horn that makes him invulnerable to harm. Sadly, this did not help him, as he eventually died in a quarrel between his wife and another women. Just goes to show, heroes need to fear more than Dragons sometimes.
Want to learn more about these dragon slayers? Check out these books and articles where I sourced my information:
Chinese Fables: The Dragon Slayer and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom : An award-winning book of nineteen Chinese children stories meant to covey thee virtues of honesty, respect, courage, and self-reliance. The Dragonslayer story I think is especially well done. Suitable for both kids and adults, it is beautifully illustrated to mimic classical Chineses art.
Vahagn: The Armenian Dragon Slayer God and Bringer of Fire : An overall well presented article on the background and doings of the Armenian god Vahagn, who was a diety worshiped in the period prior to the arrival of Christianity.
Beowulf: A New Verse Translation : A new, updated translation of the millennium old story of Beowulf, the Scandinavian hero who successfully saves his countrymen from a vicious beast know as Grendel, and then later Grendel’s mother, only to die past his prime in an epic fight against a great Dragon. I recommend this version of the powerful tale.
The Saga of the Volsungs : A book based on the epic Viking poems from Iceland in the thirteenth century, this version combines mythology with human drama in recounting the heroic struggles of Sigurd the Dragonslayer against terrible foes. Both an enjoyable read and a wonderful glimpse into the northern folktales of the past.
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