There is no mythical creature more enduring in literature, myths and ballads or whose image both fictional or imagined has struck terror in the hearts of so many people from around the world, as that of the dragon.
It is not known when the idea of a ‘dragon’ entered the consciousness of people but texts from both the Sumerians and Ancient Greek civilisations contain references to such a creature. Indeed, the word dragon comes from the Ancient Greek, drakōn and was originally used for any large serpent. Dragons may come in all shapes and sizes but the one thing they have in common is their long serpentine torso.
The way in which the character of the dragon has been represented has changed over time, its appearance and nature adapting to the environment and culture in which it was created. In China, the dragon came to symbolise both imperial power and the emperor whereas in the Middle East, dragons were viewed as evil (transferring the characteristics of the poisonous and deadly snakes common in the region onto its mythical counterpart). In other regions, the feeling towards them was more ambivalent, for example in Ancient Greece, they were sometimes depicted as benevolent towards humans. .
In general, in Northern Europe and Britain, dragons were portrayed negatively, a belief which only intensified under Christianity when they came to represent an embodiment of evil, something to be destroyed at all cost. The legend of St George and the dragon typifies this belief, symbolising Christianity’s defeat of paganism and the old beliefs. In stories and ballads, dragon slaying became almost a rite of passage for any brave young man or knight seeking to prove his worth (as well as save some terrified villagers and their livestock). The reward aside from fame, was often wealth and/or the hand of a nobleman/king’s daughter. It is interesting that despite their fearsome reputation, the dragons are nearly always defeated even when it is at the expense of their slayer.
This leads on to the question of what exactly are dragons?
Recognising a dragon!
As has been said before, the traits of dragons varied from country to country, so too do their physical appearance. In Asia, dragons are depicted as more serpentine whereas in Northern Europe, they are often shown as composite beasts i.e. composed of different parts of different animals.
If asked for a description, most people (in Europe) would describe a dragon as a gigantic creature with massive fangs, four strong clawed legs, a pair of powerful wings, a ridge of razor-sharp spikes along its entire torso, a barbed tail and a mouth from which deadly fire erupts. Although this is the image that in general people are the most familiar with and the one that commonly appears in heraldry, books and films, it is not the only one that exists in literature and oral traditions. There are a number of variations across countries and regions. Some are not even immediately recognisable as dragons but which do fall under the classification of dragon.
Here is my short guide to the more unusual types of dragons. It is not complete, there are just too many variations to include but if you are like me and find the whole subject daunting then it may just give you some clarity.
Wyverns: A Biped Dragon with Poisonous Breath
There are different views on the origin of the word wyvern. One interpretation is that it came from either the Middle English word wyver or from the Anglo-French word wivre taken from the Latin, vipera – meaning viper, adder or asp. The second school of thought claims that after the word was reintroduced into Medieval Latin, it took on a different meaning, that of light javelin. So, the meaning of viper and light javelin became melded to reflect the shape of the creature, creating a new type of flying biped snake.
Wyverns are described as having only two legs which end in eagle’s claws. Their wings extend from where their front legs would have been. Some descriptions have their front limbs forming the wings and in others the limbs are not visible. All descriptions depict the leathery wings similar to those of a bat, with a claw protruding from either the top of the wing or half-way down. Their tail is another distinctive feature, ending in either a diamond or arrow-shaped tip. Often drawn as a knot or turned in on itself, it carries a powerful sting which is fatal to humans. Rarely are they described as breathing fire, rather their breath is said to be poisonous and, in some stories, it is told that they pollute the earth over which they walk, causing fungus to grow (one explanation for fairy rings) and leaving distorted animals such as flounder fish in their wake. They are said to always be hot – images of wyverns and sculptures found on medieval buildings usually show them with their mouths open[8. Wyverns occur in numerous tales. Some people believe, based on imagery, that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, was describing wyverns when he spoke of the prophecy that Wales would fall to the Anglo-Saxons,
“Woe to the red dragon, for his banishment hasteneth on. His lurking holes shall be seized by the white dragon, which signifies the Saxons whom you invited over; but the red denotes the British nation, which shall be oppressed by the white. Therefore shall its mountains be leveled as the valleys, and the rivers of the valleys shall run with blood.”
Another myth recounts how in the distant past, a “huge, coiling and writhing monster with a humped back and undulating neck”, took up residence in Llyn Cynwch in North Wales. People fearful of its presence avoided the lake. This beast (from its description recognisable as as a wyvern), terrorised the surrounding area, eating livestock and on occasion an unlucky villager. Eventually, the locals decided they had had enough and decided to put an end to the wyvern’s reign of terror. Many tried and failed, killed by either the creature’s poisonous green breath or by the deadly sting in its tail. A warlock from Ganllwid decided to use archers who would be positioned at a safe distance. Unfortunately, his plan failed, the wyvern could sense when the archers were close and would hide beneath the water. One morning a young shepherd from Meredydd, noticed the wyvern lying on the bank of the lake, sleeping under the hot morning sun. Seizing the opportunity, he ran to Cymmer Abbey where the monks on hearing the shepherd’s news, gave him a magical axe which they had in their possession. Returning to the lake, he was relieved to see the wyvern still asleep and with a powerful blow, severed its head from its body.
Many more stories of wyverns exist in other countries. Often in Northern Europe, no distinction is made between four and two legged dragons.
Lindwurms: A Dragon without Wings
Images of lindwurms can be seen as early as the eleventh century in Sweden, incised on runestones. Although their descriptions can vary, in general they are shown as large wingless creatures with serpentine bodies, a dragon’s head, scaly skin and two clawed forearms. Its limbs used not to bear the weight of its body but to pull itself along the ground. Some believe that its name is derived from the Old High German word for flexible. Their shredded skin was believed to have magical abilities and could increase a person’s knowledge about nature and medicine. They were said to feed on cattle and human corpses, often invading a churchyard in order to eat the remains of those buried there.
A tale from Klagenfurt, Austria, in the thirteenth century, recounts how the villagers blamed a lindwurm for the severe flooding they were suffering. A duke offered a reward to anyone who could kill the creature. A group of young men decided to try their luck. Fixing a bull to a chain, they lowered it into the river. The lindwurm taking the bait, grabbed onto the bull, allowing the men to pull it up on to the bank and kill it.
Even as late as the nineteenth century, the belief in lindwurms in Sweden persisted, especially in the province of Småland where people claimed to have seen them first-hand. The folklorist, Gunnar Olaf Hyltén-Cavalius in 1884, became a figure of ridicule when he put up a reward for anyone who could bring him a lindwurm, dead or alive. No-one did!
Wyrms: A Wingless and Legless Dragon
Wryms (worms) look exactly how they sound. They are simply wingless and legless dragons. Despite the fact that they lack appendages, myths recount their dangerous nature and the terror they inspired.
There are many stories centred around these wyrms including the famous tale of the Lambton Worm.
Set in the county of Durham in the North East of England, it tells the story of John Lambton who one Sunday morning, decided to go fishing in the River Wear. While fishing, instead of a fish he caught to his horror a hideous looking worm-like creature. Thinking he had snared a devil, he dropped it into a well. Years passed and John went off to fight in the Crusades. During this time, the creature presence had poisoned the well. Eventually it had grown to such a size that it slithered out of the well, coiling itself around a local hill (either Worm Hill or Penshaw Hill). It stayed there for awhile, devouring livestock, taking small children and preventing cows from producing milk. Finally, it decided to make its way to Lambton Castle. All those who attempted to kill it were despatched quickly. Its strength residing in the fact that every time a piece of its body was chopped off, it would reattach itself, making it near impossible to kill. On his return, John was horrified to discover what had happened during his absence and was charged with the task of killing the beast. John sought counsel from a local wise woman. She told him to wear armour covered in spikes but warned him that in order to avoid his family being cursed, he needed to kill the first thing he saw afterwards. Making his way to the hill where the wyrm resided, he confronted the creature which coiled itself around him, impaling itself on the spikes, allowing John the opportunity to cut the worm to pieces and float them away in the river – so the worm could not reassemble itself. He then blew a horn alerting his father of his success. His father in his excitement, instead of releasing a dog to be killed, ran to his son. John refused to kill his father and so his family was cursed .
Tatzelwurm: A Cat-faced Dragon
The Tatzelwurm (sometimes called a bergstutz) is a mystical creature found in the Alpine regions. It is said to be a relative of the dragon and lindwurm. Small in size, its physical appearance is rather strange with its snake-like abdomen, two paw-studied forelimbs, a reptile’s body and a head resembling a big cat. The legends say that Tatzelwurms lived in tunnels and caves dug into rock and that although it was in general a shy creature, it could be dangerous and aggressive, preying on both humans and animals. It was believed that when a Tatzelwurm crawled through sand, it turned the sand into glass due to the extreme heat of its body.
A Swiss tale tells of how one Tatzelwurm was killed. On Mt Pilatus, a Tatzelwurm caused chaos by burning stables and killing cattle. No-one had the courage to face it. The only person who was willing to risk their life was the convicted killer, Heinrich von Winkelried who had nothing to lose. In return he was promised his freedom if he killed the monster. Using his sword to carve a sharp point at the end of a tree trunk, he confronted the beast. When the Tatzelwurm opened its mouth, Winkelried pushed the point of the thorny trunk into its mouth. With the beast in agony, Winkelried killed it. Unfortunately, when he raised his sword in victory, a drop of the Tatzelwurm’s venomous blood fell onto his hand, killing him instantly.
In a similar vein to Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti, sightings of the Tatzelwurm had been reported as recently as the 1980s, in South Tyrol and Aosta in the Italian Alps.
Knuckers: A Sea Serpent with Tiny Wings
Knuckers were considered to be a type of water dragon found in Sussex, England. Its habitat were the knuckerholes – a very deep (believed to be infinitely deep) pool. Their name comes from the old English word nicor, meaning ‘water monster’. They are mentioned in the Old English epic poem, Beowulf.
Knuckers have been described as possessing a giant slithering sea serpent’s torso, cold eyes, a deadly hissing mouth, four legs, tiny wings and as having a fondness for shiny objects such as glass or marbles.
Legends of knuckers, centre around Lyminster, Lancing, Shoreham and Worthing.
The most well-known story concerns the Knucker of Lyminster. There are two versions of the tale. The first involves a knight-errant who agrees to kill the beast in return for the hand of the King of Sussex’s daughter. He is victorious and returns to claim his wife. In the second version, the Mayor of Arundel offers a reward to anyone who could slay the creature. A local farmer’s boy, Jim Pulk (or Puttock) accepts the challenge. After baking a huge poisonous pie, he transports it on a horse and cart to the knucker’s hole. The greedy knucker eats the pie, horse and cart and while it is dying, the boy cuts off his head (in some versions the boy also dies). A slayer’s slab reputed to be the grave of the knucker’s slayer can be found inside Lyminster Church.
Guivres: A Rather Prudish Dragon
Guivres (also known as vouivres) are a dragon common in the legends of Medieval France. They were described as highly aggressive and dangerous with a breath that causes diseases. Interestingly they have one major weakness – naked humans. It was said that if you confronted the guivre wearing your birthday suit, it would blush and turn away!
Guivres were believed to live in woods, forests, lakes and pools, anywhere that was damp and isolated. They were described as a monstrous reptile with the head of a dragon and horns protruding from its forehead. They were also said to be extremely greedy.
The book, The Drac: French Tales of Dragons and Demons, contains a tale adapted from a French legend which describes a female vouivre. She is said to have dazzling green scales which emit a sound when she flies and to wear a crown of pearls around her head and a gold ring on her tail. It claims that this vouivre preferred to live in a cave, which she only left for a short period of time, so she could bathe.
Amphiptere: Bi-winged Serpent
Stories of amphipteres (also spelt: amphithere, amphitere, phipthere) can be found in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Although descriptions of them vary considerably, on two-points there is consensus: they have no legs but do have a serpentine shaped body. Some descriptions portray them as scaly; a few as having a body completely covered in feathers; while others state that they had light-coloured feathers, a body similar to a lindwurm’s, feathered bat-like wings and a wyvern-like tail. In Egypt they were believed to guard Frankincense trees, defending them against anyone who wanted to harvest the trees’ precious substance.
My Concluding Thoughts on Dragons
So, there you have it – my brief guide to dragons. Although, there are many differences between dragon types, they do share a few traits in common, aside from their serpentine bodies – that is their aggressive nature and preference for a solitary life. I hope that this guide will help you to identify them – just in case you happen to come across one! Still, whereas the differences might be important for an observer, I would think for the people in the tales and legends, when you are being eaten by a large serpentine creature, it doesn’t really matter whether it has two or four or no legs!
On a sidenote and just for accuracy sake, Daenerys Targeryen wasn’t actually the Mother of Dragons, but rather the Mother of Wyverns – I guess that didn’t sound quite so catchy!
Bibliography and Further Reading
Ogden, Daniel: Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook, Oxford University Press, 2013
Rose, Carol: Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth, W. W. Norton & Company, (Reprint) 2001
Shuker, Karl P.N: Dragons: A Natural History, Simon & Schuster, 1995
 Dragon, mythological creature https://www.britannica.com/topic/churning-of-the-ocean-of-milk
 For more information on this subject look at Daniel Ogden’s, Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook
 Carol Rose, Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth
 Geoffrey Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae
 The Strange and Ancient Tale of a Welsh Dragon, https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2019/09/the-strange-and-ancient-tale-of-a-welsh-dragon/
 Tatzelwurm (mythical animal), https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatzelwurm_%28Fabeltier%29
 Dragon Species
Guivre / Wivre, http://www.blackdrago.com/species/guivre.htm