An introduction to dragons – the granddaddy of all legendary monsters – has already featured in these pages. Now the Zoological Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology in Devon expands on the theme by discussing some of the varieties of dragons once believed to haunt these shores.
By Richard Freeman
The dragon comes in a dazzling array of forms. The best known in the West is the true dragon or firedrake. This is the classic dragon: a gigantic quadrupedal reptile, with vast bat like wings. Armed with razor teeth and claws, and a mighty tail, its most formidable weapon was the white-hot jets of flame it gouted at its victims. These monsters were considered to be the most magickal of beasts, with powers such as shape-shifting, self-regeneration, and mind reading attributed to them. They were covered in impenetrable scales and had only one vulnerable spot.
The wyvern was much like the firedrake except it bore only one pair of legs. It was smaller than the true dragon and seldom breathed fire. It did however carry a deadly sting in the tail and could spread disease and pestilence.
The lindorm or worm was a huge limbless reptile. Instead of breathing fire it spat venom or spewed poison gas. It could also crush prey in its steely coils. It could rejoin severed portions of its body and was hence very hard to kill.
The basilisk or cockatrice was the smallest but most death-dealing member of the dragon clan. It was said to have hatched from a cock’s egg incubated by a toad or a rooster. It resembled a tiny snake with a rooster’s comb. It’s gaze brought instant death to all it looked upon, including itself. The basilisk’s reflection was fatal to itself. The great deserts of the Middle East were attributed to the baleful glare of hordes of basilisks.
In the early 19th century folklorist Mary Trevelyan interviewed many elderly people living in the Glamorgan area of Wales. They recounted memories from their youth (early 19th century) of a race of winged serpents said to inhabit the forest around Penllyne Castle. They had crested heads and feathery wings. The serpents were brightly coloured and sparkled as if covered with jewels. They rested coiled on the ground but if threatened would attack by swooping down at their aggressors.
The snakes killed poultry and were described as ‘the terrors of farmyards and coverts’. Many were shot for their depredations of livestock. One woman recalled that her grandfather shot one after it attacked him. Its skin had hung for years on the wall at his farm. Tragically this artifact was discarded after his death: a fact that would make any modern day cryptozoologist wince.
A dragon skin was once said to hang in the church in Sexhow, Cleveland. The forest-dwelling worm was slain by a knight and the skin kept as a relic hung on pegs in the church. This skin has also long since vanished. Cromwell’s men probably destroyed it after the Civil War. A portion of the hide of the Lambton worm was supposedly kept on display at Lambton castle. It was said to resemble cow’s hide. The specimen was lost when the castle was demolished in the 18th century.
Amazing as it may sound, the dragon seems to have a basis in fact and it still haunts the wild, and sometimes not so wild corners of our strange little planet. Modern sightings include a huge, winged reptile that terrorized the San Antonio valley, Texas, for several months in 1976. More recently a horned, black-scaled dragon seen by five hundred witnesses in July 2002 in Lake Tianchie, northeast China.
[Richard Freeman writes about his adventures tracking down living dragosn in remote corners of the world in Paranormal Magazine 34, published at the end of February 2009. An article on British Dragon-lore by Janet Bord also features. Visit www.paranormalmagazine.co.uk for more on Paranormal Magazine and www.cfz.org.uk for more on the Centre for Fortean Zoology.]