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. English dragons were often known as worms; with long scaly bodies, short legs, or no legs at all, and often no wings. They were slimy and killed with poisonous breath rather than fire. 'Worm' is dragon in Old English.
Are there other similar stories?
St Margaret - famous Christian Dragon slayer
This story is just one of a number of tales of 'worms' or dragons in Northumberland (see also the Lambton worm). These creatures were battled by Saxon and Christian 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.'
As well as being popular in the Old Norse sagas, in its early days the Christian Church also used heroic tales of saints and dragon slayers to illustrate how good could conquer evil.
This story has a lot in common with another story, the ballad of 'Kempe Owyne' a Welsh hero who flourished in the sixth century. He has to save a maiden who has been thrown over a crag into the sea and turned into a monster by her stepmother. She can only be 'borrowed' (disenchanted) by three kisses from the hero, Kemp Owyne.
There is also a 14th century tale in 'The Travels of Sir John Mandeville' in which a physician's daughter, living on the island of Cos, is transformed by Diana into a dragon, an enchantment from which she cannot escape until kissed by a knight. A champion of Rhodes flees on seeing her and the spell is only broken by a shepherd, knighted for the task.
How did this myth originate?
The Laidly Worm
This story has elements that are found in fairy stories, such as the wicked stepmother.
There are no historical records to support the tale. Usually the king in the story is not named, although some versions link the story with the Anglo Saxon, King Ida the Flamethrower, or his descendants.
Ida was the first real English king. He ruled from AD 547 to 560 in the part of Northumbria then known as Bernicia. However, he was succeeded either by his son Theodoric or by Gloppa or Ellapa. By the first half of the 7th century, Ida's descendants ruled all of Northumbria and continued to do so until the 8th century.
Over the years, tales told by the Saxons would have incorporated elements of the early Christian stories and, maybe, also Celtic tales and from these the dragon tales of Northumbria probably grew. This story was most likely a localised version or copy of the 'Kempe Owyne' myth.
The story was first printed in 1778, in Hutchinson's 'View of Northumberland'. The tale was meant to be based upon a poem written around 1270-1320. The ballad came from the Rev. Robert Lambert of Norham, who claimed to have got it from 'an ancient manuscript', but it was more likely written in the 18th century by the Reverend himself - although including elements of local folk tales and mythology.
Where is Bamburgh Castle?
Bamburgh Castle (photo: M.Hanselmann copyright)
Bamburgh Castle stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Northumbrian coast in the parish of Easington, in north Northumberland.
The parish stretches from Budle Bay in the east to the crags of Chester's Hill near Belford.
At one location, a natural spring emerges through a hole in the crags. The hole itself is traditionally thought to be associated with the Laidly Worm, although its cave has been quarried away.