Hello, hello, Mythsters, Welcome to the sunny Mediterranean region and all their dragons. Jaz and Anike took a closer look at some of the dragons from Greece, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula, and boy, did they find some surprising stuff, alongside the Greek classics. But first, hop on over to your MythsterMap and mark the progress!
Dragons of the Mediterranean Transcript
Jaz: Hello, hello, mythsters! It is so good to be back. Welcome to episode 18 and with me today is Anike. Hi, honey!
Anike: Hi, Jaz! How you doing? How was the business?
Jaz: Oh, it was busy. The problem is that I dislocated my shoulder so everything I do takes me twice as long. So planning-wise, it’s tricky sometimes but we’re managing.
Anike: As we do.
Jaz: Yeah, indeed. Well, we don’t have much choice sometimes. So before we start, we are definitely going to need our name disclaimer because, yeah, we’re gonna maul some dragon names. I’m sorry but I’m not sorry. We can’t, we do our best, we always do, and again, if anyone knows how to pronounce this stuff, do let us know. We would love to learn, but yeah, it’s going to be a disaster. I’m afraid so. So, what’s on today’s itinerary?
Anike: I thought you’d never ask. Today we are going on a trip to the Mediterranean. We will be exploring Dragons from Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Now if we wanted to get really technical, Portugal does not really have a Mediterranean coastline but it is part of the Iberian Peninsula along with Spain and this episode really was the best place for it.
Jaz: Sweet! Shall we go East to West, as we have been doing all season?
Anike: I think we should. So, Greece it is then. We’ve already met one Greek dragon on our India episode though, haven’t we?
Jaz: Oh yeah, the Drakon Indikos. We did a Patreon post on that one,if I remember correctly.
Anike: We did. And some sources theorise that this particular dragon myth, which found its origins with Greek travellers headed to India, is the vessel that brought dragon mythology to Europe, but I’m not really buying that one personally. We’ve seen a lot of variation in dragon mythology and folklore and a lot of similarities that cannot be explained by something as simple as a single story.
Jaz: That actually makes sense. The extent of the cross contamination we’ve encountered so far, and which is going to be the exact same thing in future, suggests that these myths migrated along any number of pathways, and not in a linear pattern along one travel route.
Anike: Right so. TAnd the theory that our folklore and mythology originates in Greece is a little bit too far-fetched for me, although Greek influences are certainly going to be stronger in this Mediterranean episode, than in future episodes where we’ll move north into Europe.
Jaz: So, what about these greek dragons?
Anike: Well, if nothing else, we at least owe the Greek for the word dragon. The ancient Greek word drákōn usually gets translated as dragon but it could also mean snake. It typically refers to a type of giant serpent that either possesses magical or supernatural traits or is controlled by some kind of supernatural or magical power.
Jaz: The first reference to a dragon of some sort in ancient Greek literature is found in the Illiad, in the 8th century BCE, where Agamemnon has a blue dragon motif on his sword belt and he wears the emblem of a three headed dragon on his breastplate.
Anike: But that’s still a second-hand account, like a mention of a mention of a dragon. Only a little later, when compared against the scale of human history, we find a Greek poem called Theogony, by the classical poet Hesiod. Now this poem is basically a chronicle of the entire Greek pantheon, describing the origins, genealogy, and heroics of the Gods.
Jaz: And in this poem, we’ve got Zeus battling the monstrous Typhon. But since Zeus is a cheaty, rapey, misogynist butthole, I suggest we focus more on Typhon, if that’s alright with you?
Anike: Oh, I wholeheartedly agree. Typhon is sometimes described as the father of all monsters. He was described as a serpent of monstrous proportions and apparently one of the deadliest creatures in Greek mythology. There’s a bit of debate about his pedigree, however. According to our friend Hesiod, Typhon was the son of Gaia and Tartarus?
Jaz: Hang on, wasn’t Tartarus like the abyss the Titans used as a dungeon and where according to Plato the souls of the deceased were judged as well?
Anike: Right. That’s what I thought. But the confusion doesn’t end there. Other sources cite Typhon as the son of Hera alone, or the offspring of Cronus. Whoever his parents were, he and his mate Echidna spawned an immense brood of monsters, many of which acquired fame of their own.
Jaz: According to Hesiod, he was immensely powerful. He had one hundred snake heads that all breathed fire and made every kind of noise.
Anike: That sounds a little bit like toddlers.
Jaz: Well, with a few less heads. I hope, I hope.
Anike: Now, Typhonomachy, which is how Greek scholars referred to the battle between Zeus and Typhon, is a major event within Greek mythology, as this is how Zeus came to rule the pantheon. And we can draw clear links between this event, and several Near East locations, from possibly as early as Homer and Hesiod. Both Typhon’s birthplace and battle with Zeus are connected to places in Cilicia and Syria, and we encounter other parallels with several Near East monster-slaying myths as well, from Mesopotamia, and Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat, to the Turkish Tarhunt battling the serpent Illuyankas. Typhon even had a syncretisation going on with Set, the Egyptian god of chaos and storms. So that immediately cuts the legs out from under the Drakon Indikos theory, as, well, we already suspected.
Jaz: Totally. But we even find parallels within the Greek pantheon itself.
Anike: Hey, well, an original story just doesn’t exist. Apparently even the Greeks knew this.
Jaz: Right! While Zeus slew Typhon by scorching the serpent’s many heads with his thunderbolts, and then throws the monster into Tartarus, which then immediately also sort of invalidates the theory that Typhon was a son of Tartarus.
Anike: Yah, he’s thrown back into his father.
Jaz: Ooh, painful. But very much similar to that myth, Apollo pulled off an almost identical feat, where except he fires poisoned arrows instead of thunderbolts, in his battle with the Python, after the serpent causes death and pestilence in the area around Delphi.
Anike: And then, as Apollo does, he sets up his shrine there. Later stories of the oracle at Delphi, where a priestess sits above a crack in the ground, breathing in fumes that give her visions, suggest that the Python, too, was thrown in some sort of chasm, as the priestess of the oracle was referred to as the Pythia.
Jaz: And then there’s a third dragon slayer, and one we have to mention, as this story discusses the hydra of Lerna, the very beast that inspired our Mythsterhood logo and the intro to every podcast episode.
Anike: Yay! The hydra!
Anike: The name hydra basically means water snake. The characteristic this snake is most famous for is of course, its three heads. Something the Hydra must have inherited from daddy Typhon, although Typhon’s heads were a wee bit more numerous. Depending on which version of the Hydra myth you’re looking at, its head count ranges from nine, to six, later to fifty, and goodness knows what else came in between. Of course the version we know best today describes three heads. Its lair, the lake of Lerna, was believed to be an entrance to the underworld.
Jaz: In the classic myth, the Hydra is killed by Heracles. It is the second of his Twelve Labors. And get this, the canonical regenerative aspect of the Hydra, where it regrows two heads whenever one gets chopped off? Wasn’t added until later retellings of the myth. The first mention of this is made by Euripides. While I couldn’t track down the exact date of his work, or of his mentioning this, he lived in the 5th century BCE, so that’s considerably later than the first extant mention of the Hydra in Hesiod’s Theogony in the 8th century BCE.
Anike: Another thing Hydra has in common with dear old dad is the numerous parallels in Near Eastern cultures, including Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mythology.
Jaz: OK, so we really need to get moving, but I need to figure out one thing first. If every chopped off head regrows two, how the bloody hell did Heracles manage to defeat the Hydra?
Anike: Ha! That is a good question. Well, like the song says, with a little help from his friends. Well, friend, in this case. He enlisted his mate Iolaus. And everytime Heracles cut off a head, they would cauterise the wound before the beast had a chance to grow more heads.
Jaz: Cool! Now, we do have to–
Anike: Wait, wait, wait! We’ve discussed the serpentine dragons, but what about the hybrids? Like the Chimaera?
Jaz: Right. How about we include that one in next week’s blog?
Anike: That sounds like a tight plan. OK. So next, we’re off to Italy.
Jaz: Since Italy lies at the root of catholicism, I’ll start with an educated guess: lots of evil dragons defeated by brave and devout heroic manfolk?
Anike: *Gasp* HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT?!
Jaz: Eh, after a while, you sort of develop a sixth sense for this sort of thing.
Anike: Yes, you’ve basically hit the nail on the head. Sort of. It doesn’t take you long to figure out how dragons will be portrayed in a certain region. And what I found in Italy is a good few dragon myths embedded into catholic folklore, facing off against saints, and usually pulling the shortest straw.
Jaz: We see Saint George making another appearance, of course.
Anike: How could we miss him, right?
Jaz: right. But there’s any number of other saints fighting dragons, and in many cases these dragons are depicted as wyverns. We’ve got Saint Mercurialis, first bishop of Forli, who slew one to save the city. And Saint Theodore of Tyro, patron saint of Venice and renowned wyvern-slayer, of course.
Anike: And let us not forget Saint Margaret the Virgin.
Jaz: Of course she was a virgin…
Anike: …Who got swallowed by Satan in the guise of a Hydra, but the cross she carried burned or irritated him from the inside out and she escaped alive.
Jaz: Umbria in particular seems to have been very much plagued by dragons, but the stories are pretty much along the same lines. Dragon-or-wyvern terrorises locals, saint, pope, or knight enters the stage, defeats the beast, and is worshipped as a hero.
Anike: Boring. But, here’s one with a bit more detail, at least. A seven-headed dragon lived near Oltre il Colle, in Bergamo province. It devoured the local livestock, and supposedly drank water that would confer immortality. Local farmers and hunters–duly pissed off by the constant livestock-eating, no doubt–were the first to attack, but they failed. Then, an army was put together from the best soldiers of the states that comprised Italy back then, and they had better luck. Alas, the dragon fled into the water, which became muddy and undrinkable.
Jaz: That sounds like the ultimate payback. If I can’t have the magic water, then no one can! Ha!
Anike: I mean, can you blame them? I’d do the exact same thing honestly. Anyway, this well became known as the Fonte Drago, or Wellspring of the Dragon.
Jaz: Oh, cool. Now I want to go to Italy and visit this well, as well. But we already have a very long list of places to visit. So, there is, of course, pre-Christian mythology in Italy as well, but I’m afraid that doesn’t offer us much in the way of new material, since the ancient Romans pretty much copied Greek myths and inserted romanised names. Heracles became Hercules, Aphrodite became Venus, and so forth and so forth.
Anike: Yeah. I know there’s no such thing as an original story, but really, they took it a little far.
Jaz: *Sigh* Yeah. I’m kind of bummed though that the later material we found focuses more on the slayers of dragons than the dragons themselves. In some cases, they couldn’t even agree on whether it was a wyvern or a four-legged dragon.
Anike: I know. It’s no fun. Let’s hope we have better luck in Spain and Portugal.
Jaz: Well… I hate to break it to you…
Anike: They’re evil, aren’t they?
Jaz: Mostly, yeah. So, we do get a little bit more detail. Like, there’s the Cuélebre, a dragon we find Cantabrian folklore. These dragons are winged serpents who live in caves, where they guard treasure, and they keep Anjanas or Xanas (the name is a bit debatable and it depends on whether you’re in Cantabria or in Catalonia) but they keep them prisoners, whatever they’re called. And these unfortunate creatures are like the Cantabrian equivalent of fairies.
Anike: Oooh, a dragon that captures and imprisons fairies? We’ve not encountered that before!
Jaz: No, we have not! And get this: the Cuélebre may be immortal, but they do age. Their scales grow thick and impenetrable and they’re also a bit on the lazy side. They won’t move unless it’s to eat cattle and people. And since their scales harden out, the way to kill one, apparently, is from the inside out, and not with a cross, like our Italian Saint Margaret, but by letting them eat a red-hot stone, or a loaf of bread full of pins.
Anike: Ooooh, that is fascinating.
Jaz: So, one other thing to note is that their spit is said to turn into a magical stone that can heal many ailments.
Anike: Oh! And at Midsummer, a magical night in Asturian and Cantabrian folklore, brave men–
Jaz: Why do it, always have to be brave men?
Anike: I know. But anyway, that’s the best time to try and defeat one as that is the only one night their spells won’t work. Then, you can marry their Anjana, and get the dragon’s treasure as a bonus.
Jaz: And you better make sure you get it right at Midsummer, because the night of Saint Bartholomew doesn’t decrease but increase the dragon’s power, and that’s when it will take revenge on those that pissed it off.
Anike: Oh, well good for him. And here is a not-so-evil one! Dragon, that is. In Catalonia, we find La Guita Xica. The dragon’s name has evolved over time, but it started out as Mulassa, which comes from the term mulassas, meaning monstrous mules. Catalan mythology used this term to refer to mule-dragon hybrids.
Jaz: Hang on. We now have mule dragons?
Anike: I believe we do.
Anike: Yes. It is beyond awesome. Originally, La Guita Xica was considered a demon, but the creature evolved into a protective spirit over the course of the past century. She has a green body, somewhat equine in shape, naturally, the long neck of an equine, and long, sharp fangs.
Jaz: So she evolved the opposite direction from most dragons in a catholic or christian culture. That is so cool.
Anike: Right? The half mule-half dragon mythological beast makes sense within the wider context of Catalan culture, too. In the Catalan mountains, the mule is still a very important animal. Its image remains highly evocative. The necessity of keeping mules as means of transportation was undeniable, but they were also known for their temperament, which at times, made working with them quite the challenge.
Jaz: Since she evolved from threatening to a protective dragon that guards the people of Catalonia, they are still celebrated in annual festivals called Patum de Berga. People build large statues of the dragon in their town squares, and the statues spit fireworks.
Anike: oh, awesome!
Anike: I really wanna see that. She is known as a tarasca, a name for a mythological creature of a draconic nature. The term may derive from the French town of Tarascon, birthplace of the Tarasque, another hybrid dragon we’re sure to learn more about in the not so distant future.
Jaz: Have we got time for a quick jaunt into Portugal?
Anike: Well, I suppose we can squeeze that in.
Jaz: Good, because they actually even have a dragon pictured in their national heraldry. In fact, the Sceptre of the Crown and Constitution, one of the key pieces of the Portuguese Crown Jewels, is also known as the Sceptre of the Dragon. It features a golden sculpture of a wyvern, bearing the shield of the House of Braganza–the royal house of Portugal at the time of its creation–on its chest. Which makes sense as the wyvern features in the emblem of that dynasty.
Anike: However, beyond the same myths we found in the rest of Spain, there is little to be found that we didn’t already encounter in the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Except maybe a bit more emphasis on good old Saint George and his habit of slaying dragons.
Jaz: There is the Coco, or Cucuy. And is a bit of an unusual bloke, if you ask me. It’s sometimes described as the Portuguese equivalent of a boogeyman. He usually appears to have a human body, and a pumpkin for a head. Parents used him to scare their kids into behaving, as he was said to prey on naughty children. In medieval Portugal, however, Coco evolved into a female dragon. She was included in a lot of celebrations after that, including one in Monção, where she fights Saint George under the nom de plume of Santa Coca during the Corpus Christi festivals. And if she defeats Saint-George by spooking his horse, harvests will be bad that year. If Saint-George wins by cutting off an ear and her tongue, the harvest will turn out all right after all.
Anike: Oddly enough, the people seem to cheer for Santa Coca, and not Saint George.
Jaz: Well, no, that sort of makes sense, if you ask me. I mean, you’ve gotta be clever about this stuff. Saint George, being a good guy, won’t hold it against them if they fail to cheer for him. If Coca wins, however, you want to be on her good side.
Anike: Oh. Riiight. You’re sneaky, you know that?
Jaz: I do. It’s a skill I’ve worked hard at. But on this note, let’s bid our mythsters goodbye for now. Be sure to look out for that blog post, and we will meet up again in a fortnight in…
Anike: Drum roll…
Jaz: Central Europe, which means mostly Germany and France, I assume.
Anike: I can’t wait! But until then, we’ll wish you days like dragons greeting clouds!
Jaz: Later Mythsters!
- the Theoi Project
- Magical Europe: Enchanting Folklore of Iberia
Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License