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Monday, 27 February 2017

Dragons and the Magical Worldview of Pre-Modern Eastern Europe

I’m currently working with primary sources about a very special and very helpful kind of dragon. This kind of dragon is not the medieval monsters that we encounter in ‘Beowulf’ or the various versions of the Sigurd / Siegfried tale. Early modern German, Baltic and Slavic folklore knew spirits in the shape of flying fiery snakes called dragon (“Drache” in German or “Żmij” in Polish). In contrast to the monstrous dragons of medieval epics, they were small household spirits that acknowledged a magician as their master. The dragon allegedly flew into its master’s house and brought him money or goods that could be used directly or sold like grain or milk. All the goods the dragon allegedly brought to its master it had stolen from somebody else.

The dragon was the embodiment of transfer magic. This is why I am interested in dragons! We still know much too little about the economic aspects of magic. Studying witch trials that mention dragons could help us to gain a deeper understand of the magical worldview and the relevance of magic in pre-modern everyday life.

By combining historical and folkloristic sources we can identify that the belief in the dragon as a household spirit was well-known in a huge area roughly between what is today northern Bavaria and Latvia. There is perhaps a 'natural' explanation for the phenomena. A number of people claimed to have seen a dragon flying over the night sky like a ball of fire with a long fiery tail. Sightings of comets might have contributed to the belief in dragons.

But what is fascinating for me, is that most sources mentioning dragons are trial records from witch trials. They date from the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, the dragons seem to play a more prominent part in the early trials of the 16th century. Owners of dragons were said to be in league with the devil; the dragon itself was – in accordance with the Biblical use of the word ‘dragon’ - identified as a demon. Owning a dragon was a common accusation brought against men and women suspected of witchcraft. In the Eastern parts of Germany the dragon features rather prominently in witch trials. In the West, it doesn’t seem to appear at all. Therefore, we may safely assume that the belief in the dragon as a household spirit originated in Eastern Europe, possibly in connection with the custom to keep snakes as pets.

It seems that the belief in dragons bringing money did not become extinct in the 18th century when the witch trials slowly petered out. We find numerous tales about such dragons in Silesian folk legends collected in the 19th century. Some time ago, I talked to a colleague who grew up in Lusatia (southeast of today’s Saxony), the home of the ethnic group of the Sorbs and a region where German and West Slavic culture mingle and thus create a unique and very colourful folklore. He told me that as a boy he still heard tales about the dragons.

Of course, people did not take them seriously anymore. Yet, if you wanted to denounce a neighbouring village as primitive and backward, you said:
The women there still have a dragon.
By Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

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