While the modern image of the dragons often depicts a beast that has four legs, leathery wings and breathes fire, the medieval image of the creature could be very different. In the article, “Dragons in the Eddas and in Early Nordic Art,” Paul Acker shows that the Vikings and Norse society had their own ideas of what dragons looked like.
Acker, a professor at Saint Louis University, examines various written sources as well as runestones and other artworks from Scandinavia and Iceland. A legend preserved in the Poetic Edda tells of how Sigurðr killed the dragon Fafnir:
Sigurðr and Reginn went up onto Gnita-heath and there found Fafnir’s track, where he slithered to the water. Sigurðr dug a pit there in the path and went into it. And when Fafnir slithered away from the gold, he breathed forth venom, and it fell down onto Sigurðr’s head. And when Fafnir slithered over the pit, Sigurðr stabbed him in the heart with his sword. Fafnir shook himself and lashed about with his head and tail.
The creature is not actually referred to as a dragon, but rather as ormr or serpent. In later sagas one sees the use of a creature called a dreki, which is depicted as being able to fly, breathe fire and sometimes have two front legs and claws. Acker sees this change coming from the influence of Christian Europe – as texts such as Saints’ Lives and Chivalric Romances get exported into northern Europe, so did their depictions of dragons.
Acker also looks at examples of Nordic art, such as Manx stone crosses, Swedish runestones and Norwegian churches, which depict various versions of dragons. The article ”Dragons in the Eddas and in Early Nordic Art” appears in Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend, edited by Acker and Carolyne Larrington (Routledge, 2013)