Mythsterhood, Episode 22, Dragons of the British Isles Part II

Hello hello, mythsters!

Welcome to episode 22 of the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales, and the second of three episodes we will be spending in the British Isles.

And the inaugural episode of our new and improved sound, with a brand spanking new mic for Anike.

Links mentioned:


Jaz: Hello, hello Mythsters, and welcome to episode 22 of Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. And with me, as usual, is Anike!

Anike: Hi Mythsters.

Jaz: Hi Anike. So, you’re sounding awfully clean today, what’s up with that? 

Anike: Oh, nothing much. Just that I have a new, proper microphone. 

Jaz: Thanks to Steve, also known as AKSounder to whoever is a member of our discord community, who has very generously given us a donation to support our podcast. And Anike, what did we do with it? 

Anike: We got this new mic so that I don’t sound so, how do I put it? Ethereal and noisy.   

Jaz: Exactly, and I mean, I can already tell the difference before I’ve even started editing the track, so that’s amazing. Thank you, Steve. We love you. We really do. 

Anike: So much, so much. 

Jaz: Furthermore, we would like again, to remind you to join in on our renga if you like. The renga is basically a poetry game, and the poem that comes out of it will be a part of our last episode of the season. And, by joining in on the renga, you get tickets on the giveaway that we’ll be having for Anike’s amazing end-of-season artwork. So, do come and check it out. And then… we get on to the episode. This is episode two of the British Isles. And Anike, what did we not need last week but we’ll definitely need now? The pronunciation disclaimer. 

Anike: Yes. We will need to… yes, definitely, because we’re going to have a lot of interesting names that we’ll have to pronounce this time. 

Jaz: Yeah, because Wales is on the menu for today. So we need the pronunciation disclaimer for sure. But yeah, let’s do this thing. I’m excited. Super excited. 

Anike: OK, So let’s do a quick recap of what we covered last episode. We checked out some dragons from the northern part of England, and did one quick hop over to the Orkney Islands last week. That left us with a varied menu for our mythsters, consisting of a slice of southern England, and finishing off with a bouquet of dragons from Wales, Ireland, more of Scotland, and Mann?

Jaz: OOOH a bouquet of dragons. Like, sheep are a flock, crows are a parliament, cows are a herd? I vote we name a group of dragons a bouquet!

Anike: Jaz, that is both strange and… strangely beautiful.

Jaz: Hey you said it first. And it’s actually a great way to reclaim dragonhood as a whole from the evil role they’ve been shoved into so often.

Anike: Too true. The pen is mightier than the sword after all.

Jaz: Not to mention the venomous breath.

Anike: OK, but…. dragons, Jaz. Focus. Because, really, what we found proved too much to fit into a single episode. Which means we had to split yet again. Leading to our first three-part episode.

Jaz: Yes. Quite the milestone! So, let’s start in Sussex, as that seems to have been fertile breeding ground for dragons.

Anike: Right. The first one on our list is a bit of a mystery. In Sussex, we found a hill that, these days, poses a seemingly irresistible challenge to cyclists, runners, and walkers: Bignor Hill, in the West Sussex village of Bignor. Once you make it to the top, the hill is said to offer some stellar views of the South Downs Way, and the hill’s southern slope is home to the remains of a neolithic settlement and a bowl barrow, which is a sort of burial mound.

Jaz: No wonder the dragon found it the ideal spot to build a lair. So much interesting stuff to explore!

Anike: Sadly, there’s not that much detail on the dragon itself. One distinctive feature of the site is the ridges curling themselves arund the hill. Legend has it that those were cut by the ancient celtic dragon wrapping its tail around the hill.

Jaz: Like the Lambton Worm!

Anike: Precisely! Some folktales take things even more literally, and claim that the ridges are the dragon’s skin folds. Apparently, the dragon’s lair was also quite close to the ruins of a Roman villa. One source hypothesises that the legend symbolises a stubborn remnant of Roman occupation, or that it signifies the Christian demonisation of pagan customs. However, as plausible as it sounds, I only found the one mention, and that was not in an in-depth article, so apply grains of salt where needed.

Jaz: Fair. But luckily, Sussex is not a one-trick dragon. I mean, as Michael O’Leary says in his book Sussex Folk Tales, just look at the pub names. George and Dragon, Red Dragon, Green Dragon, just Dragon. They’ve apparently even got a town called Dragon’s Green, a tiny little slip of a hamlet in the Horsham district of West Sussex. I looked it up on Google Maps and let me tell you, it looks stinking cute. And green.

Anike: Oh man, I’d love to move there just for the name. Anyway. Opinions are–how could they not be–not entirely agreed upon the origin of the dragon legends. Some say they are a remnant of the Celtic culture and folklore. Others say the slightly more recent Saxon folklore lies at the origin of them. But to accredit the rich folklore of the region, dragons included, to a single people, is probably not doing credit to the melting pot of peoples and cultures that these islands have been for as long as people have been living there.

Jaz: That actually makes a lot of sense to me, but let’s stipulate that this is our own interpretation, and not a fact that we’ve found in any of our sources. But we’ve seen the effects of cultural cross pollination in dragon myths across the world, and I suspect we will continue to do so, both in the final few episodes of season one, and in season two, no matter which type of myth we delve into for that.

Anike: That’s true. But let’s not look at the whole world. We’re in the British Isles right now. Sussex, to be precise.

Jaz: Right! West Sussex, actually. We see little or no dragons in the rest of the region. Either because there were none, or because their stories never got recorded. So, first of all, a reminder: these dragons are not the redeemable kind. Serpents were seen as very unlucky, and dragons, by association, were equally unloved and unappreciated. A bloke named Ethelward in 770AD said “Monstrous serpents were seen in the country of the Southern Angles that is called Sussex.” 

Anike: They did find Iguanodon bones in close to the place where one of the Sussex dragon legends played out though. Tilgate forest, I believe. Perhaps people were of the opinion that where there’s smoke, there’s fire?

Jaz: And where there’s bones, there’s dragons!

Anike: Precisely. And close to Tilgate forest, we’ve got St. Leonards Forest, also near Horsham, where the little town of Dragon’s Green is located. The town lies directly northeast of St. Leonard’s Forest. Apparently, this ancient forest was home to a French hermit in the 6th century. His name was… St. Leonard!

Jaz: How original!

Anike: Yeah, haha. He was, of course, a dragon slayer.

Jaz: Again, highly original.

Anike: I know. But this dragon didn’t go down without a fight. He injured St. leonard, and God made white lilies grow where the saintly blood drops fell. He also asked St. Leonard what he wanted in return for freeing the local folk from the dragon. He requested that snakes be banned from the forest, and that the nightingales would go silent because they disturbed his prayer.

Jaz: Ugh. Seriously. It is just so typically human to expect all of nature to accommodate our lifestyle and preferences.

Anike: Yeah, see that’s why I prefer spiders.

Jaz: And dogs.

Anike: And cats.

Jaz: And dragons.

Anike: Of course, yes!

Jaz: Anyway. There’s no actual extant record of St. Leonard ever having visited Sussex. He was a French saint and martyr. How the legend ended up attributed to him is a bit of a mystery to me. I found vague hints at that but nothing really concrete.

Anike: There is, however, a fragmentary record of traditional rhymes regarding this particular forest.

Here the Adders never sting,

Nor the Nightingales sing.

Jaz: Still makes me sad to think of the birdsong being silenced. It sounds like a prayer all its own to me. Besides, if one were to believe in a god that had created the whole world and all of nature, it would be safe to assume they had created both nightingales and adders, and liked them as they were, and were they were. Anyway. A second story, much more recent, if you can call 1614 recent–

Anike: All in the eye of the beholder, Jaz. Remember, Cleopatra lived closer to our time than to the building of the pyramids at Giza.

Jaz: That, as we say in Belgium, is a truth like a cow. At any rate. This story was preserved in the form of a pamphlet. Some apparently believe it was made up by smugglers or likewise unsavoury folk in order to keep people away from the area where they conducted their business. You can actually find a copy of the pamphlet in the Library of the Sussex Archeological Society, as part of a document called “The Harleian Miscellany”. Large parts of the document are freely available through Google Play books, and it’s a rather fascinating collection of curiosa that can almost make you feel like you’re stepping back in time.

Anike: If you’re into it, it is definitely worth a look. At any rate, the story talks about a dragon haunting St. Leonard’s Forest. It was believed to roam the area near Horsham, which was a market town at the time. It had been sighted as close as a half mile from the town, and left a glutinous or slimy trail. The slime was corrosive and smelly enough to remind of putrefaction.

Jaz: It smells like deja vu if you ask me. Like, this sounds so similar to the scandinavian slimy one… The vatnaormar. At any rate, this iteration of the St. Leonards Forest dragon was nine feet or more, with black scales and a white ring marking around the neck. Oh, and a red belly. 

Anike: That must look great. Unlike many of the British serpents we’ve found so far, this dragon was not a worm. It had distinct legs. And it had an arrogant look about it. I love that. 

Jaz: Amazing. 

Anike: It clearly realised how puny the silly humans were. Oooh, and the author of the pamphlet believed the dragon actually was a juvenile, as it had humps at the shoulders which might grow into wings as the dragon matured.

Jaz: Ooooh. I don’t really remember any other juvenile dragons. That is so cool.

Anike: I knooow. Baby dragons!  

Jaz: But words are cheap, and we have dragons to see before we sleep. And yes, I totally ripped off Frost for that.

Anike: Ripped off or not, you do have a fair point. Still in Sussex, we find a dragon called a knucker. And another creature in which we can find traces of cultures blended together in folklore.

Jaz: Oooooh

Anike: Yeah. Because you’ve got the Saxon word Nicor, meaning a water monster. For extant mention of Nicor, look to Beowulf. Then, there’s nixie, usually referring to a water spirit or sprite. In Iceland, we find the word Nykur, meaning waterhorse, and the Näcken and Neck, Scandinavian words for water men and water spirits.

Jaz: In Estonian, you find the word Näkineiu for mermaid and Näkk for a singing water animal. Finland? We can’t skip Finland. Näkki is a fearsome Finnish water spirit.

Anike: While these are mostly referring to the water spirit, we also found a Knocker, a mythological creature found in Cornish mines, and the Nickel, a goblin found in German mines. While similar to the Knocker, it is a bit less benevolent. Just a wee bit.

Jaz: We can keep going, but I think we’ve made our point. So, these knuckers lived in what was called knucker holes, basically pools or ponds. One famous knucker hole lay near the village of Lyminster. It was believed to be bottomless, but nowadays we’re pretty sure it’s about nine meters deep. Divers went and checked, so this is a safe assumption.

Anike: The pool is fed from an underground spring which keeps the water clear and at a fairly constant temperature. Those traits might have seemed like magic to folk in olden times, which makes the belief in knuckers somewhat understandable.

Jaz: Nowadays, the knucker hole is home to farmed trout, rather than a dragon, and a fence keeps both tourists and troutfishers away. But people used to believe the water had healing properties well, and used to bottle it as a cure.

Anike: And they risked life and limb to do it, as they were convinced the knucker was a dangerous beastie. It went on rampages, killing humans and livestock alike, though some claim only fair maidens were at risk. And while it was a water monster, it could apparently fly, which means the rampages could cover a fair bit of distance.

Jaz: And of course the knucker too fell victim to a brave dragonslayer, though the legends can’t agree on whether he was defeated in combat by a wandering knight or tricked with poisoned pudding or pie by a local boy called Jim Pullock or Jim Pulk. In one of the latter versions, karma is a bitch and sneaky Jim forgets to wash the dragon’s poison off his own skin and dies, reminding of the tragic ending of Peter Loschy and his dog.

Anike: But Lyminster’s knucker hole was far from unique. According to the Sussex Dialect Dictionary, oh, that’s a mouthful, knucker holes are springs which rise in the flat lands of the South Downs, and were believed to be bottomless. They can also be found at Lancing, Shoreham, and Worthing among others.

Jaz: So, as fascinating and varied as Sussex dragons are, we’ve used up the length we usually reserve for an episode and we’ve not even moved beyond the boundaries of West Sussex.

Anike: OK, how about we move to Herefordshire, in the West Midlands?

Jaz: To the delightfully alliterative story of Maud and the Mordiford Wyvern. And the story is rather unusual. In the village of Mordiford, a young girl named Maud found a baby wyvern while out on a walk. She took it home and adopted it–which I would totally do too. She fed her wyvern with milk but as the dragon matured it developed a taste for human flesh. Despite regular banquets consisting of Mordiford townsfolk, the wyvern remembered Maud’s kindness and refused to eat his foster mother.

Anike: Rightly so. Such a good dragon.

Jaz: Maud kept trying to keep the dragon from killing more people, but she didn’t make much headway. In the end, the locals saw no other option than to vanquish the dragon. And again, we see a few different versions. For example, a member of or someone loyal to the Garston family ambushes the wyvern. Another version tells of a condemned criminal who consented to an attempt to face the dragon in exchange for not getting executed. I’d say that’s probably a fair trade. Although that’s of course going to depend on the crime and the amount of remorse the criminal displays. But, yeah. 

Anike: These stories survived mainly through oral storytelling and became a fixture in local folklore. A portrait of the dragon graced the wall of Mordiford’s village church until 1811, when the vicar at the time ordered the destruction of the dragon’s image, as dragons were considered a sign of the devil and didn’t belong on the walls of holy buildings. Blasphemy, if you ask me.

Jaz: Wholeheartedly agree. And a reproduction of the painting is now apparently displayed inside the church. And in the 1790s, a version of the story finally got recorded by a certain Samuel Ireland when he visited Mordiford. He was told the version with the criminal as the dragonslayer. Apparently the culprit hid in a cider hogshead in order to get close enough.

Anike: Then, another extant recording dates from 1799, when George Lipscombe saw the dragon painting while working on a travel book. But let’s look at the painting. Late in the 17th century, a certain John Aubrey of Wessex noted that he remembers seeing it the first time, and that it had 3 pairs of wings, and that a fourth pair got added later. A sketch by Thomas Dingley apparently depicted the dragon as having four legs as well as wings, and a serpentlike torso. It’s not until a later painting dating from the 18th century, that we see the typical image of the wyvern, with two legs and two wings.

Jaz: Well, this story is kind of bittersweet for me. I love the image of Maud finding a baby dragon and adopting and raising it, but she must have felt so torn between her love for her dragon, and seeing that it recognised her, but also having to witness the attacks on livestock and people. Often even people she must have known. 

Anike: Yeah, that can’t be easy. Anyway, what do you say we move from England to another part of the UK? Because, if there’s one culture within the UK you can’t overlook when you want to discuss dragons, it’s Wales.

Jaz: Ah, yeah. It’s such an indelible part of Welsh culture and the Welsh identity. It’s not for nothing that the symbol of the dragon takes center stage in Welsh heraldry. 

Anike: The red dragon depicted on the Welsh flag actually appears alongside a white dragon in the Mabinogion, which is one of the earliest available examples one can find of British prose. It’s basically a collection of Welsh mythology.

Jaz: OK, Side note: since we’re now in Wales, I actually had to go and look up pronunciation guides, because they’ve got this thing where they put a double L at the beginning of a word, and I knew it doesn’t sound like an L at all. I knew that much. But I had no idea how to produce the sound. But all hail the mighty youtube. I’m not saying I perfected it, but it’s at least close, I think. So here goes. Ahem. It’s in the Mabinogion, in the story of Llud and Llefelys, I think, to be precise that we encounter these two dragons. Do you think that sounded alright? 

Anike: It think so. It sounded pretty much how the youtube video instructed it to be sound. 

Jaz: Right. Onto our two brothers. I’m not going to name them again, until I get a break.

Anike: Okay, well, the red and white dragons were locked in battle, and a fierce one at that. Their very cries apparently caused women to miscarry, and their presence alone was enough to kill livestock and ruin crops. And here’s where our brothers, Llud and LLefelys come in.

Jaz: Llud Llaw Eraint, who was the king of Britain, was bloody well sick of these dragons terrorising his people. So he went to pay his brother King Llefelys a visit, in France. And this Llefelys was apparently wiser in the ways of dragon fighting. Or dragon trickery, as it turned out.

Anike: He told Llud to fill a pit with mead and cover it with cloth. Which Llud did. The dragons started drinking and fell into a drunken stupor. Though I fail to understand how the covering it all with cloth factored into the strategy.

Jaz: Hmm. Good point. At any rate, cloth or not, it worked. Llud managed to imprison the dragons in Dinas Emrus, a wooded hillock in Wales, before they sobered up. The dragons and the effects they were having on Llud’s subjects were actually only one of three plagues, and Llefelys told him what to do about the others and all’s well that ends well in the end.

Anike: And this myth too could well have served as a metaphor for the many invaders the proud Welsh have had to suffer. One interpretation is that the red dragon represents the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain while the white dragon stands in for the Anglo-Saxons of Germanic descent, who began to invade England in the fifth century.

Jaz: Then there are those who link the story to the Arturian legends through Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. The name supposedly meant Dragon Head. Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions this version in his twelfth century Historia Regnum Britanniae, as well as a prophecy attributed to Myrddin (also and perhaps better known as Merlin) of a long fight between a red and white dragon, symbolising the historical struggle between the Welsh and English.

Anike: And here, upon leaving Wales, is where we bid the Mythsters goodbye yet again, I’m afraid.

Jaz: Alas, ‘tis true. I mean, I am loving all this detail so, so much, even if much of it is about slaying dragons rather than treasuring them, but yeah. Stay tuned for episode 23, and another bouquet of dragons, from the Isle of Man, Ireland, and Scotland.

Anike: And until then, we wish you days like dragons greeting clouds.

Jaz: Later Mythsters!


Sound effects provided by
Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada ( Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License


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