Warning: This blogpost is not for the squeamish, or those who think that dragons are cute and cuddly.
Though modern dragon stories are often about good dragons, most myths and legends of dragons are all about bad dragons. These tales are really about the hero who kills the dragon. Over the centuries there has been one sure way to boost your self-confidence, resurrect your career or impress the love of your life — kill a dragon. Whether you are a knight, a priest, a farmer or a condemned criminal, if you can put ‘dragonslayer’ on your CV your reputation is sealed.
You might think that all you need to dispatch a dragon is a sharp weapon and a dose of courage, but they are wily beasts. Dragonslayers often have to be much more inventive.
This is the first part of a study of 50 different ways to slay a dragon.
All types of weapons have been used by the less imaginative dragonslayer.
St George favoured the sword, but then his sword, Ascalon, was no ordinary blade. A gift from a baby-eating enchrantress, George used Ascalon to kill two dragons, but in his last dragon fight, the sword ‘shivered into a thousand pieces’ when it penetrated the dragon’s flesh.
2. Lance or spear
A lance of good length has the advantage of keeping the dragon at a relatively safe distance, which is advisable when facing dragons with fiery or poisonous breath. English farmer John Aller was particularly cautious, using a wooden spear nine feet long. (Though in this image he looks uncomfortably close to me.)
Iranian slayers often favoured the scimitar—a sword with a curved blade, often widening towards the end before ending in a sharp point. General and national hero Rustam killed the Mazandaran dragon with a scimitar as the third of his seven trials.
One of only a handful of female slayers, was a young Japanese girl called Tokoyo. She swam to the bottom of the sea off the west coast of Japan to kill the dragon Yofune-nushi with nothing more than a small dagger.
5. Ox-head mace
Another weapon peculiar to the Iranian dragonslayer, the ox-head mace is a huge club with a double axe-blade. Iranian champion ‘One Blow’ Sam used this weapon to confront the Tus Dragon, a beast large enough to swallow him and his horse whole. Sam smashed the dragon’s skull with a single blow of his ox-head mace.
6. Bow and Arrow
With a sheath of sharp arrows a bow is deadly in the right hands. If you ask “Who killed the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit?” many people will probably reply “Bilbo”, but actually it was a bit-part player Bard of Dale who slew the wily dragon with his last arrow.
7. Bow and Poisoned Arrow
Three-time dragonslayer and hero of Greek mythology, Heracles, knew a simple arrow wouldn’t kill the dragon Ladon, offspring of the monsters Typhon and Echidna. When he previously killed the multi-headed Hydra, he had dipped some arrows in the creature’s poisonous blood and prudently set them aside for just such an occasion.
8. War hammer
Norse god of thunder, Thor, wields a huge war hammer (as all Marvel Comic fans know). Though he has long been at war with the world serpent Jörmungandr, he hasn’t killed it yet. At some time in the future, during Ragnarök (the end of the world as we know it), Thor will slay the dragon with his hammer, but before he takes nine steps, he will die himself, a victim of the serpent’s venom.
A condemned prisoner volunteered to kill the Mordiford dragon in order to earn a pardon. He went to the river in Herefordshire where the dragon was known to drink, and hid in a cider barrel. When the dragon appeared the prisoner poked a gun through the barrel’s bung hole and shot the beast.
Sometimes a weapon alone isn’t enough and a slayer can fight a dragon for days without success. What he has to do is find the dragon’s vulnerable spot.
Norse hero Sigurd’s adversary was Fafnir, a dwarf who had turned into a dragon as a result of greed. Sigurd dug a trench in a path used daily by the dragon and lay in it. When Fafnir slithered above him, Sigurd plunged his sword into the the dragon’s soft belly.
11. Under wing
St George knew that under a dragon’s wing was very tender and unprotected by scales. He killed his Egyptian dragon this way.
More of More Hall fought the Wantley dragon for two days and a night, but his sword failed to penetrate the dragons iron-like scales. In frustration, More kicked the dragon up the behind. The point of his metal boot (called a sabaton) entered the creature’s anus and punctured the end of its gut, killing it. (Though one version of the story suggests the beast died of embarrassment.)
13. Specific vulnerable spot
Careful research might lead to the discovery of a dragon’s unique vulnerable spot. English land owner Hugh Barde guessed that the wart on the leg of the one-eyed Wormegay dragon was its vulnerable spot.
Another successful technique is to trick the dragon with a lure.
Many British dragons have a liking for milk. Sir Macdonie de Berkley set out milk cans brimming with fresh milk to lure the Bisterne dragon, and then hid in a glass case he had constructed. While the dragon was diverted by the milk, Sir Macdonie leapt out of the case and killed the dragon .
To save the life of Princess Kushi-nada, Japanese storm god Susanowo lured the dragon of Koshi with eight barrels of sake (one for each of the dragon’s heads). The beast got so drunk that Susanowo was easily able to lop off each one of the dragon’s heads.
In Scotland, Charles the Skipper made a deadly pontoon bridge out of spiked barrels, leading to his boat where he was cooking meat. A salivating dragon tried to clamber over the barrels to get to the meat even though the spikes were ripping its flesh. Canny Charles’s barrel bridge didn’t quite reach his boat. Weak from blood loss, it couldn’t leap across the gap and slowly bled to death.
17. Meat on the hoof
The Austrian Klagenfurt dragon was lured by means of a calf tethered with a spiked chain. This was the brain wave of Herzog Karast. The dragon ate the calf and the chain and would have died from its internal wounds, but the impatient hero finished the job off with a spiked club.
18. A princess
Everyone knows that dragons have a taste for the tender flesh of a princess. The slayer could tie a princess to a rock (they tend to run away when faced with danger) and wait for the dragon to arrive. As the beast ponders how to undo the knots, the hero can leap out from his hiding place and kill the dragon. Careful timing is needed with this technique to avoid royal bloodshed.
Sharp and Spiky
Spikes feature in a surprising number of successful dragon-slayings.
19. Hide in a spiked barrel
In another version of the demise of the Mordiford dragon, the criminal hid in a barrel studded with spikes and blades. He taunted the dragon until it coiled around the barrel in order to squeeze him to death. The vicious spikes and blades dug into the dragon and it bled to death.
20. … or a spiked carriage
An Iranian variation of the spiked barrel (or perhaps the ancient inspiration for it) was a carriage which Prince Isfandiyar had fitted with sword blades. Isfandiyar drove the carriage into the mouth of the massive Turan dragon. The dragon chomped on it and was severely wounded. Isfandiyar extracted himself from the carriage and finished the monster off with a sword in the brain.
21. Spiky suit of armour
Spiked suits of armour were a popular protective device that served to keep the dragon at bay. John Lambton also annoyed the dragon until it wrapped itself around him, mortally wounding itself on the spear heads that John had fitted to his armour.
22. Spiky dummy
A Welsh dragon harassed the citizens of Llandeilo Graban by day and roosted in their church spire by night. A simple ploughboy made a dummy dragon out of oak studded with spikes and hooks. While the dragon slept, he hoisted it onto the church spire. When the dragon awoke, it wrapped itself around the intruder and mortally wounded itself on the hooks and spikes.
There are too many dragon stories here for me to list references for all of them, but if you’d like to know where I sourced any of these stories please email me.
2. Aller dragon: Mosaic panel on Aller Village Hall, Somerset, UK created by Bryan Newman and Chiggy Little http://en.wikipedia.orgwiki/File:AllerDragonMosaic.jpg
4. Yofune-nushi: Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan, by Richard Gordon Smith, 1918, at The Internet Sacred Texts Archive
8. Thor and Hymir go fishing for the Midgard Serpent. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. Wikipedia
12. Wantley Dragon: http://keramos.users.netlink.co.uk/dragons/wantley.html
17. Klagenfurt dragon http://www.stampcommunity.org/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=21044&whichpage=9
20. Isfandiyar http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1970.301.51