There is no hero without a dragon: a revisionist interpretation of the myth of St George and the dragon

Woodcut frontispiece of Alexander Barclay, Lyfe of Seynt George (Westminster, 1515)There is no hero without a dragon: a revisionist interpretation of the myth of St George and the dragon

By Estelle Mare

Paper given at the Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, 2nd Global Conference (2004)

Introduction: It could be that, in some pre-literate community, the skeletal remains of dinosaurs gave rise to the concept of dragons. In literate societies the dragon’s lineage is ancient and varied. In Oriental cultures, most notably Japanese and Chinese, dragons were imagined as benevolent creatures and depicted as atmospheric or celestial manifestations. Western dragon lore, by contrast, has its origins in Babylonian myth in which Tiamat was the mother of all Dragons and the daughter of primordial Chaos. Thereafter the Western mind associated the dragon with the serpent, which in the Genesis myth blames it for all evil that befell the human race. In the Apocalypse the red dragon is a seven-headed beast with ten horns and seven crowns upon his heads, which threatens the Virgin who is in labour, but is slain by the archangel Michael. In popular Western depictions and descriptions the dragon assumed monstrous proportions and is most often described as an enormous, winged serpent-like beast, half reptile, half mammal, with a scaly body and a powerful tail, four-legged like a crocodile, with protruding teeth and eyes, sharp claws and the capacity to exhale fire or noxious gases.

Primordial dragons were associated with springs which flow day and night; they never sleep and their eyes are always open. Thus dragons were associated with springs, called “eyes” in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew in which “ayin” means both eye and spring. The eye of the fountain represents the dragon’s head and the serpentine movement of his hind part is the appropriate form for the flow of its water. A volcanic crater was also considered to be a fiery spring, so that the dragon could also be a fire-dragon spewing forth lava torrents, or exhaling noxious fumes. However, there are also other interpretations of the dragon’s illusive nature. The earth dragon may become a cloud-dragon and cause ruinous thunderstorms, so that the dragon “can be considered as able to live either in water, air, or on the earth, and as a salamander, even in fire”. Clearly, these four possibilities of dragon-life were derived from the ancient belief that the universe is comprised of four elements: air, water, earth and fire.

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