Dragon stories have been told for centuries, millennia perhaps. But one of the most popular dragon stories, repeated, revised, relished again and again, is the story of the hero who saves the princess who is about to be sacrificed to a dragon.
The oldest version is the ancient Greek story of Perseus. He was an ancient Greek hero, son of Zeus (King of the Greek gods) and a mortal woman. His encounter with a dragon was just an incident on the way home from his main heroic adventure, which was beheading the Gorgon Medusa.
Perseus was flying through Ethiopia, thanks to the winged sandals he was wearing, when he happened to notice the lovely Princess Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda’s mother had foolishly boasted that she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs, called Nereids. Poseidon, God of the Sea, was offended by this insult. He sent a sea dragon called a Ketos to destroy Ethiopia, and would only call off this monster if Andromeda was offered to the Ketos as a sacrifice. Perseus interrupted his homeward journey to kill the Ketos and rescue Andromeda. Her grateful parents offered the hero their daughter’s hand in marriage and he accepted.
The earliest version of this story that has been written down is from about 8 AD. It was written by Roman poet Ovid, who included the story in his epic poem of the history of the world called Metamorphoses. But scenes from the story can be found on pottery dating from four centuries earlier. So the tale must have been told orally for hundreds of years before it was written down.
There are versions of this story told all over the world. In each place, the story is made to fit the locality. It is set in a local place, has a local hero and the dragon takes on different forms. Books on myths and folktales record hundreds of versions of the story.
Heracles was another Greek hero who had exactly the same adventure. He had to undergo 12 labours as penance for killing his wife and children, but his dragon slaying/princess saving wasn’t one of them. This was one of Heracles minor deeds, which he slotted in between his ninth and tenth labours and it took place in Troy (the site of which is now in modern Turkey).
There is a Scottish version of the story involving a hero called Assipattle and a huge dragon known as the Mester Stoorworm. This gigantic sea dragon was so big it could coil halfway around the world. Assipattle killed it by sailing down its throat and burning its liver.
A Russian version features the hero Dobrynya Nikitich and a 12-headed she dragon called Gorynych. A dragon is killed by a nameless youngest son in order to rescue a princess in the Armenian folktale, The Apples of Immortality. I mentioned the Japanese hero Susanowo in my last dragon post. Each tells the same story.
The Best-known Dragonslayer?
One version of the story has become even more well-known than the original. That’s the story of St George and the dragon. Historically, St George was a Palestinian, a christian who joined the Roman army. The dragon slaying was added to his story about 1000 years after his death in 300 CE. English versions of the story have him rescuing princesses from Libya and Egypt. There are also local Italian, German and Polish versions of St George’s dragonslaying.
St George became the patron saint of England. In 16th century, writer Richard Johnson decided that the saint need another dragonslaying, and this time he would kill an English dragon. In this story, the dragon gets the better of St George.
Follow the links to read the full stories:
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Ovid, 1922, Metamorphoses, trans. Brookes More
Marwick, Ernest W (ed.), 1975, Folklore of Orkney and Shetland
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike, 1998, Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myths and Legends
Surmeliann, Leon, 1968, Apples of immortality: Folktales of Armenia
Johnson, Richard, 1680, The Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom
Barclay, Alexander, 1955, The Lyfe of St George
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