RICHARD FREEMAN, one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, gives an indepth history and insight into Welsh Dragons
Of all monsters the dragon can truly be called the king.
Dragons are the most widespread, ancient and powerful of all monsters.
They are found in every single culture on Earth dating as far back as cave paintings from 25,000 years ago.
The dragon is a beast that has its teeth and claws firmly embedded in the psyche of mankind and shows no signs of relinquishing its grip.
Amazingly dragon sightings are still reported to this day, mainly on the Asian continent.
Dragons fill legends, folklore, literature and art so it is odd that they feature only on the national flags of two countries.
One is the yellow dragon on the flag of Bhutan the other is Y Ddraig Goch, the red dragon that bestrides the flag of Wales.
The use of the red dragon as a symbol of Wales is first found in Historia Brittonum a book dating to around 828 AD and attributed by some to the 9th century Welsh monk Nennius. It contains the story of Dinas Emrys, detailed below, and how the red dragon, symbolizing the ancient Britons, defeated the white dragon symbolizing the Saxons.
However, it seems likely that the red dragon and its links with Wales pre-date this by many centuries.
Roman rule, under which conquered people became Roman citizens, may have added to the whole mix.
Roman cohorts, 10 of which formed a legion, marched into battle flying a dragon standard. This consisted of a metal serpent’s head attached to a long, fabric body like a wind sock that would have writhes when air blew through it. The jaws were fitted with whistles to create an eerie hissing noise. Roman dragon lore was influenced by Greece, Iran and by the
Dacians, a people who live in what is now Eastern Europe and also had a dragon standard.
Greco-Roman dragons were generally depicted as huge serpents, sometimes depicted with a crest, rather than the four footed, winged beast we are familiar with today (though this winged, four legged form is truly ancient, having been depicted in Babylon and Sumeria).
The word ‘boa’, in modern times used to describe constricting snakes of the genus boaidae found in South and Central America. The word itself however was originally used to describe huge snakes that were said to feed on both cattle and humans. These monster snakes were reported from what is now Italy and other areas.
Pliny the Elder writes of one killed on the Vatican Hill during the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) that contained the body of a whole infant in its belly. No known snakes of that size inhabit Europe but there are persistent reports from the Crimea of huge snakes. Interestingly similar reports come from the Caucasus Mountains, once the ancient kingdom of Colchisl were the Greek hero Jason was said to have encountered a serpentine dragon.
Around 250 BC, at the time of the first Punic War, Rome was embroiled in a prolonged struggle with the city of Carthage (were modern day Tunis stands) over the control of Sicily. General Marcus Atilius Regulus led his army towards the city when he came upon the River Baradas. A titanic serpent rose from the redbuds. The men fell back in horror and after some consultation decided to cross further up river. But as the soldiers began to ford the waters the monster reappeared and seized a man. As each of the warriors tried to cross they were grabbed by the monster’s jaws, encircled by its coils and dragged under.
After many men were lost this way-it seemed like the serpent would defeat the entire army- Regales ordered that it should be bombarded by ballista-giant, rock hurling catapults. The serpent began to retreat under the onslaught. Finally one boulder struck its head and killed it. The carcass was dragged to the bank and measured a colossal 120 feet! The Jaws and skin were sent back to Rome as a trophy. It was on public display on Capitol Hill until 133 BC, when it was lost during the Numantine War with the Iberian Celts.
120 feet is over twice the length of the largest snake ever known to have lived, the 50 foot Titanoboa cerrejonensis of prehistoric South America.
Hence the Romans knew well of monster snakes.
Types of Welsh Dragon
Dragons come in a number of types. Wales has been home to several verities. The best known is the true dragon or firedrake. This is the classic dragon: a gigantic quadruped 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 grouted at its victims. These monsters were considered to be the most magical 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 gwiber was a winged serpent of huge size and a venomous bite. Gwibers were said to grow from ordinary vipers that had drunk the milk from a woman’s breast or lapped up human milk that had fallen on the ground. British dragon lore is full of stories of dragons and worms sucking up milk from cows or being pacified by offerings of milk. In reality no reptile drinks milk.
The wyvern is a smaller relation of the true dragon. Were as a true dragon has four legs and two wings the wyvern has only two legs and two wings. Wyverns had stings in their tails and were blamed for spreading diseases like plague.
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 re-join severed portions of its body and was hence very hard to kill.
The cockatrice is a small relation of the dragon that can strike any living thing dead with its baleful glance. This monster was supposedly generated when a rooster’s (not hen’s) egg was hatched by a snake or toad. The cockatrice looked like a rooster with a serpent’s tale. It was related to the more familiar, more snake-like basilisk.
The UK is a global hot spot for dragon legends with over 100 country wide. It should come as no surprise that Wales has a number of very interesting dragon tales.
Welsh Dragons in Glamorgan
Brilliantly-coloured flying serpents were said to inhabit the woods of Penllin as recently as the mid 19th century. People who were old men and women at the beginning of the 20th century recalled them well from their youth. They were prone to raid chicken coops and as a result were hunted into extinction. Folklorist Ruth Tongue interviewed many of these people and recorded their stories.
Another colony of the winged serpents resided here. One old woman said her grandfather had killed one after a fierce fight. She recalled seeing the skin preserved at his house when she was a girl. To the horror of cryptozoologists, it was thrown away upon his death.
A worm was supposed to live at the bottom of a whirlpool in the River Taff. It was said to drown people and suck down their bodies to eat.
Welsh Dragons in Pembrokeshire
A huge black serpent guarded treasure in these hills. None dared approach it until one day a man walking his dog found the monster asleep. He filled his pockets with gems until he heard the beast awakening behind him. He fled in terror as the monster rose up hissing. When he reached the base of the hill he turned and saw the worm vanishing into a cave.
Welsh Dragons in Dyfed
Trellech a’r Betws
A gwiber is supposed to guard a prehistoric tumulus in the area.
A flame-spewing wyvern lived in a ruined castle, and was covered in impenetrable scales. A soldier waded into the river with a large piece of red cloth. The wyvern reacted to the cloth like a bull (or a male robin) and swooped down to attack it, allowing the soldier to shoot it in its one vulnerable spot. Like the dragon of Wantley in Yorkshire, the vital spot was its rear end!
In one of the strangest British dragon legends, the beast here was a cockatrice whose body was covered in eyes. For some unexplained reason the estates of Winston were up for grabs to whoever could look on the freakish thing without it seeing them.
One resourceful chap hid inside a barrel and rolled into the cockatrice’s lair. He shouted out “Ha, bold cockatrice! I can see you but you cannot see me!”
He was granted the estates. What happened to the multi-eyed monster is anyone’s guess.
Welsh Dragons in Powys
A sleeping dragon is said to be kept dormant by a ring of churches surrounding Radnor Forest. As late as the 1930’s the Rev Daniel Parry-Jones wrote that a belief in the dragon was still strong and one old man claimed to have heard it breathing. If any of these churches are demolished it is said that the dragon would awaken once more. Now where is my dynamite?
A dragon roosted in the tower of Llandelio Graban church until a local ploughboy worked out a way of destroying it. He carved a dummy dragon out of oak, and had the blacksmith cover it with steel hooks and spikes. It was then painted red and erected on the tower whilst the dragon was away hunting.
Upon returning, the dragon saw what it thought was a rival and savagely attacked it. The real dragon coiled about its facsimile and tried to squeeze the life from it. The genuine dragon was fatally wounded, and both the monster and the fake dragon came crashing down from the tower to their ruin.
Welsh Dragons in Gwynedd
A monster known as the Wybrant gwiber terrorized the neighbourhood. An outlaw from Hiraethog set out to kill it. Beforehand he consulted three soothsayers. One said the gwiber would poison him, the second said it would rib out his throat and the third said it would drown him. Thinking that all three could not be correct and therefor all three were wrong he proceeded. The gwiber it bit him, tore out his throat, and flung him into the river for good measure!
Welsh Dragons in Clwyd
In this detailed story a rich nobleman invites a soothsayer to the celebration feast after his son’s birth. The sage foretells that the boy will die of a gwiber’s bite. The boy is sent away to England for safekeeping, and his father offers a reward to whoever can slay the last gwiber in the area.
A clever lad digs a pit on the path were the gwiber usually slithers. At the bottom he places a highly polished brass mirror. He covers the pit with sticks and grass then waits. The gwiber falls into the pit and sees its own reflection. Thinking it a rival, it attacks the mirror until exhausted; then they boy leaps into the pit and hacks off the gwiber’s head.
Years later the nobleman’s son, now a spoilt teenager, returns and is shown the gwiber’s skull. He contemptuously kicks it and one of its long, dead fangs slices through his boot. The fang retains traces of venom and, as prophesied, the boy dies.
A wyvern dwelt in this lake beneath the slopes of Moel Offrum. It emerged to poison the countryside and devour whatever it could catch. The Wizard of Ganllwyd employed a group of archers to kill it, but the wyvern always eluded them.
One day a shepherd boy named Meredydd found the wyvern sleeping on the hill. He ran two miles to Cymmer Abbey and borrowed a magick axe. He hacked the wyvern’s head off while it was asleep.
A gwiber brought a reign of terror to the area until the surviving locals studded a huge megalith with spikes and hooks and swathed it in red cloth. The red colour enraged the gwiber who attacked, becoming fatally entwined on the hooks. The megalith is known as the Red Pillar, or the Pillar of the Viper.
After the Roman Legions left, Vortigern became the first British king. He decided to build a stronghold on the Iron Age hill fort of Dinas Emrys. Every time work began upon Dinas Emry, it would be destroyed by earthquake-like disturbances.
Vortigern’s wizards said that in order to stop these events, the ground should be sprinkled with the blood of the son of a virgin. A boy was found whose mother had apparently been magically impregnated by a spirit. He was about to be sacrificed when he went into a trance and announced that beneath the hill was a lake. In the lake dwelt a red dragon and a white dragon who perpetually fought.
Vortigern’s men dug down and found the lake. When the lake was drained they found a pair of dragons. The two great reptiles fought until, at last, the white dragon gave way and fled. Seeing this as an omen that his forces would defeat the invading Saxons, Vortigern adopted the red dragon as his emblem.
The boy was none other than a young Merlin.
Llyn-y-Gadair is a small round lake near to Snowdon. In the 18th century a man decided to swim across it. His friends, who were waiting for him on the bank, were horrified to see a serpentine creature coiling after him as he swam. As he approached the shore the thing reared up and wound about him like a python. He was dragged back into the lake never to be seen again.
Welsh Dragons in Denbighshire
A true dragon desolated this area and killed ever knight that tried to stand against it. One day a knight called Sion Bodiau (‘Sir John of the Thumbs’) who had two thumbs on each hand, challenged the dragon. The monster was so preoccupied with gawping at its foes odd hands that the knight was able to strike its vulnerable spot and slay it.
So what are dragons?
There have been many theories proffered to explain the dragon phenomena. They fall mainly into two camps. One is that dragons are based on some kind of flesh and blood creature, gigantic reptile of some kind. The second is that they are a paranormal manifestation.
Let us examine the former idea first. It has been widely suggested that fossil remains of dinosaurs and other large animals were the basis for dragon legends. Whilst they may have been an influence in some cases, most fossil bones are too fragmentary to give rise to such awe-inspiring legends. We must also remember that many ancient texts specifically speak of dragons as living entities interacting with humans.
There are some living reptiles that make impressive dragons. Crocodiles can be huge and deadly predators. The largest, the Indo-Pacific crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) can reach 10 meters (33 feet) in length and tip the scales at 3 tons. It can kill water buffalo, tigers, and even sharks. The ancient Chinese called the creature the “flood dragon”
The African Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) can exceed 7 meters (23 feet) and can kill a lion with one bite. It was worshipped by the Egyptians as Sebek, the god of the life giving Nile. A seven-meter specimen is currently at large in Malawi and has eaten 14 people in the last 12 months!
These armour-plated giants can bite down with a force of 10,000 Newtons. That’s three times the strength of a great white shark!
Big constricting snakes make good analogues of the limbless “worm” type of dragon. The reticulated python (Python reticuatlus) of S E Asia can grow to ten meters (33 feet) and swallow animals as large as deer whole.
The green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) may exceed eight meters (26 feet) and is far more bulky than any python. Tales of monstrously large specimens filter out of the South American jungles from time to time.
The infamous komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is found only on three small Indonesian islands. It remained undiscovered until 1912. At over three meters (10 feet) it is the largest known lizard in the world. It kills large prey such as deer by the venom in its saliva. Chinese pottery found on Komodo Island suggests this animal was known to seafarers from the orient.
Impressive though it is the Komodo dragon looked like a pipsqueak compared to its pre-historic relative Megalania prisca. This giant monitor lizard lived in Australia in the Pleistocene epoch and reached nine meters (30 feet). It evolved to feed on the giant ice age marsupials such as Diprotodon a rhino sized wombat, and Procoptodon a ten-foot tall kangaroo.
It was presumed that Megalania died out at least 10,000 years ago but the Aborigines have legends of Mungoongalli a giant lizard. Both natives and white settlers have recorded encounters with titanic lizards in the Australian outback. Even a herpetologist (reptile expert) has claimed to have seen such a monster.
All of these huge reptiles are creatures of the tropics and not native to Wales!
Author Peter Dickinson postulated that dragons may have evolved from huge carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex. Dickinson believes that the dragons flew and breathed fire via the manipulation of hydrogen gas. The wings evolved from a modified ribcage and the chambered stomach was a huge gas bag. The dragon created hydrogen gas from hydrochloric acid in the gut mixed with calcium from the bones of its victims and ingestion of limestone. The dragon, according to Dickinson was essentially a living hot air balloon. It flew by inflating the expandable gut and using the wings to steer. To descend the gas was exhaled as fire. This also doubled up as a weapon.
But looking at dragons as mortal flesh and blood creatures may be wrong. Perhaps they were something much stranger. Maybe the dragon exists as an entity in a reality different to our own. This would explain how they could appear, terrorize a community, and then vanish. Physicists have postulated over 25 dimensions. Who knows what could be inhabiting them?
Maybe it’s just in our minds?
Another idea is that they are a massive, collective, sub-conscious, thought form. The thought form or tulpa is said to be a 3-D semi solid image created by the power of the mind. Buddhist llamas in Tibet are said to be able to summon up tulpas during intense meditation. French explorer Dame Alexandra David Kneel was said to have created a tulpa of a monk whilst studying in Tibet. Polish medium Franek KluskI was said to have summoned up huge cats, birds, and even ape-men during séances. Perhaps, considering the types of beast he called up, he was creating tulpas.
Several million years ago, our Australopithecine ancestors on the plains of East Africa had a struggle to survive. Our ancestors were being preyed upon by and were in competition with various formidable creatures. Crocodiles and pythons ate them as dig big cats, hunting dogs, and large birds of prey such as eagles. They competed against other primates such as giant baboons and other races of hominids some larger than them and some smaller.
If individuals can create tulpas imagine what the collective, gestalt mind of humanity as a species could do. Perhaps dragons are a giant worldwide thought form emanating from our innermost fears.
All of these creatures can be slotted nicely into the universal monster template. There seems to be groups of monsters reported all round the world in every culture. These archetypes include dragons, giants, little people, monster birds, mystery big cats, and monstrous dogs. All of them have a direct link back to our ancestral horrors. Coincidence, I think not.
I believe that many of the world’s monsters are tulpas created unwittingly by our collective unconscious. Perhaps in certain “window areas” something affects the minds of those who enter. The mind is an electro-chemical computer, perhaps when “scrambled” it must “reboot” like any other computer. When in this primeval state perhaps the mind raises the prehistoric terrors of our past, raises dragons. This is not to deny that there are flesh and blood counterparts for each of the monster categories, there almost certainly are. But when these things manifest in places that could not support a “real” creature maybe we should look to thought forms for answers.
No one explanation is likely to hold the key to the riddle of the dragon. Dragon lore is a rich tapestry with many finely woven strands. But the dragon has always been with us: all throughout recorded history and back into the dim pre-historic past. I believe the dragon will always be with us no matter how “civilized” we think we have become. When your parents told you there were no such things as dragons, they lied.
Cryptozoologist RICHARD FREEMAN, Zoological Director, Centre for Fortean Zoology, has searched the globe for unknown animals and strange beasts. A Zoology graduate from Leeds University, Richard was head reptile keeper at Dudley Zoo before studying for his degree. He has, since joining the Centre for Fortean Zoology, travelled the world many times looking for all sorts of mysterious and unknown animals, from the steamy jungles of Sumatra to the desolate barren wastelands of the Gobi Desert, looking for the notorious Mongolian Death Worm! He is the author of several books, on subjects such as dragons – yet another of his expert fields – and oriental ghosts and demons. A well-known speaker, Richard is also fast becoming a known-face on TV.
It was Twycross Zoo not Dudley.