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The Celtic Dragon Myth

J. F. Campbell

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The author of this work presents the Celtic version of the classic myth in a translation that reflects the spirit and beauty of the original Gaelic. The volume also includes The Geste of Fraoch and The Death of Fraoch, followed by The Three Ways and The Fisherman in the original Gaelic.

This book has 164 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1911.

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Excerpt from 'The Celtic Dragon Myth'

In the folk-lore of China there is a popular legend that the Chien Tang River was once infested by a great kiau or sea-serpent, and in 1129 A.D. a district graduate is said to have heroically thrown himself into the flood to encounter and destroy the monster. Formerly two dragons were supposed by the Chinese to have been in a narrow passage near Chinaye: they were very furious, and upset boats. According to the Rev. Mr Butler of the Presbyterian Mission in Ningpo, "they had to be appeased by the yearly offering of a girl of fair appearance and perfect body. At last one of the literati determined to stop this. He armed himself and jumped into the water; blood rose to the surface. He had killed one of the dragons. The other retired to the narrow place. A temple was erected to the hero at Peach Blossom ferry."

In Japan one of the dragon legends recounts how a very large serpent with eight heads and eight tails came annually and swallowed one person. A married couple who had eight children have at last only one girl left. They are in great grief. The hero, So-sa-no-o no mikoto, went to the sources of the river Hi-no-ka-mi at Idzumo and found an old man and woman clasping a young girl. "If you will give that girl to me I will save her." The mikoto changed his form and assumed that of the girl: he divided the room into eight divisions, and in each placed one saki tub. The serpent approached, drank the saki, got intoxicated, and fell asleep, whereupon the mikoto drew his sword and cut the serpent into pieces! Which proves the unwisdom of the Japanese serpent in drinking saki, and the observant mind of So-sa-no-o!

In China the dragon is the emblem of imperial power: a five-clawed dragon is embroidered on the Emperor's robes, with two legs pointing forwards and two backwards. Sometimes it has a pearl in one hand and is surrounded with clouds and fire. The chief dragon is thought to have its abode in the sky, whence it can send rain or withhold it. Its power is symbolised in the Emperor.

Literature abounds in references to dragon-monsters. Homer describes the shield of Hercules as having the scaly horror of a dragon coiled, with eyes oblique, that askant shot gleaming fire. Ovid locates the dragon slain by Cadmus near the river Cephisus, in Bœotia. Arthur carries a dragon on his helm, a tradition referred to in the Faerie Queen. Shakespeare, too:—

                        "Peace, Kent;
Come not between the Dragon and his wrath!"

Ludd's dominion was infested by a dragon that shrieked on May-Day Eve. In Wales, St Samson is said to have seized the dragon and thrown it into the sea. Among the Welsh, indeed, a pendragon came to mean a chief, a dictator in times of danger. And if we surveyed the lives of the saints, it would be tedious to enumerate the number who figure as dragon-slayers—all of them active long ere the days of the modern Mediterranean shark!

Over the linguistic area covered by the Celtic branches of the Indo-European peoples, legends of contests with monsters have been current from early times. As to their origin, it is difficult to be certain as to how far they may have been transmitted from one people to another. Possibly external influence may be traced in theBruden Dâ Derga, a Gadhelic text from about the eighth century, which speaks of

"In leuidán timchella inn domon" (The Leviathan that surrounds the world).

The Cymric book of Taliessin tells of

"That river of dread strife hard by terra [earth],
 Venom its essence, around the world it goes."

The Early Lives of the Saints have parallel references. In an eighth-century chronicle concerning St Fechin, we hear of evil powers and influences whose rage is "seen in that watery fury, and their hellish hate and turbulence in the beating of the sea against the rocks." Pious men are often afraid to approach the shore, fearing to encounter the like hellish influence. Of a great storm we read of "the waves rising higher and higher—Satan himself doubtless assisting from beneath." The Life of the Irish Saint Abban tells how from his ship he saw a beastly monster on the sea, having a hundred heads of divers forms, two hundred eyes, and as many ears; it extended itself to the clouds and set the waters in such commotion that the ship was almost lost. The sailors feared greatly. St Abban prayed against the monster, the beast fell as if dead, and there was a calm. But strange to relate, the body of the monster could be seen neither on sea nor on land (et in hoc apparet quod dyabolus fuit). In Adamnan's Life of Colum-Cille there is a chapter concerning the repulse of a certain aquatic monster (aquatilis bestia) by the blessed man's prayer. The incident occurred somewhere by the river Ness. The inhabitants were burying one who had been bitten while swimming. To fetch a coble from the opposite bank, one of Columba's companions, Lugne Mocumin, cast himself into the water. And Adamnan relates:—

"But the monster, which was lying in the river bed, and whose appetite was rather whetted for more prey than sated with what it already had, perceiving the surface of the water disturbed by the swimmer, suddenly comes up and moves towards the man as he swam in mid-stream, and with a great roar rushes on him with open mouth, while all who were there, barbarians as well as brethren, were greatly terror-struck. The blessed man seeing it, after making the Salutary sign of the cross in the empty air with his holy hand upraised, and invoking the name of God, commanded the ferocious monster, saying: 'Go thou no further, nor touch the man; go back at once.' Then, on hearing this word of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled away again more quickly than if it had been dragged off by ropes, though it had approached Lugne as he swam so closely that between man and monster there was no more than the length of one punt pole."

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