Slaying the Dragon and Cheating the Devil - origins
From where did the idea of a dragon come?
Dragons come in many shapes and sizes
Almost every place in the world has dragon tales. They go back to very early writings, which may explain why dragons come in so many shapes and sizes.
Today, dragons are usually shown as very large reptile like creatures, with two bat-like wings, four legs, a long neck and tail. They breathe fire, hoard treasure, and are often green. However, in the past, there were a lot of different dragons; some looked like snakes, some like lizards, some had two legs, some four, some had wings, others did not but could still fly!
The early Egyptians worshipped a holy crocodile (the Messeh). Over the years, this became a Dragon which, in turn, became the sign of kingship. This eastern idea of a dragon influenced the Celtic tribes who invaded Briton and the Celtic kings in Britain were known as "Pendragons".
Heroes in Roman and Greek mythology fought with dragons. The Greek word drakon meant "one who sees" or "sharp-sighted one" and, at first, was a large serpent as well as "dragon".
The ancient Norsemen carved dragons on their ships and dragons were drawn on the shields of Anglo-Saxon tribes. The Chinese people also had a dragon mythology. In China, the dragon was seen as a symbol of good fortune. In the west, however, dragons are not usually seen as so friendly.
Is there any truth in the legend?
There are many stories of Christian dragon slayers
There are many tales of brave Christians who killed dragons. In the Bible, dragons represent evil and the devil. The dragon became thought of as mean and bloodthirsty - an enemy to be beaten in battle, as Christianity spread.
Most people could not read and write at this time and the church often used stories, based on the lives of the saints, to show the truth of the gospels and the power of faith. These stories were very important in the early years of the church and many legends grew from them. From the 7th century, the tales grew more and more popular, as they often talked of heroes, and told of battles with dragons and monsters. Many of these had ideas and stories that came from before Christianity.
St George, the patron saint of England, for example, fought a dragon in Selene, Libya (Africa). St. Margaret of Antioch was eaten by a dragon in her cell, but the cross she held cut through the dragon from the inside out, and she got out unhurt. St. Martha travelled to France where she beat a dragon by sprinkling it in Holy Water. So Piers Shonks was following a long line of slayers, warriors and heroes.
In these early times, dragons were thought to be real creatures. They were seen as responsible for such things as rough storms, whirlwinds and other natural events people could not explain. Seeing lots of dragons predicted a huge disaster, such as the sighting of 795 AD: 'Fearful lightings and dragons blazing in a dreadful manner were seen to fly through the air, signs which foreshadowed a mighty famine.'
In the story, Piers returns to his lands to find the crops burnt, so maybe there had been a storm with lightning, which started a fire. Brent Pelham had been known as Burnt Pelham, due to a fire in the time of William I that destroyed the church and village. This may have been seen as the work of a dragon and the myth developed to explain this, as well as the strange burial of Piers Shonks in the wall of the church.
Why was Piers buried in such an unusual way?
The tomb of Piers Shonks in the church wall
Nobody knows why the tomb was built into the church wall. There are several burials where a stone coffin is built into the wall of a church and so able to be seen inside and outside the church. Most of these burials have a legend connected with them.
The 11th century tomb of Piers Shonks can still be seen in the north wall of the nave of the church at Brent Pelham, Herts. The inscription reads:
'...Shonkes one serpent kills, t'other defies, And in this wall as in a fortress lies.'