|Modern picture of an ativaras or Lithuanian dragon|
In witch trials, the dragon is identified as a demon. In a minority of early modern sources referring to witches and dragons, the dragon is said to be capable of assuming human form. In a Saxon witch trial from 1536, the culprit confessed that the dragon came to her every Thursday. It brought her butter, cheese and money. The dragon assumed the outward shape of a handsome young man. They ate together and had sex.
This idea seems to have been widespread in Eastern Germany: in 16th century Saxony, “Drachenhure” (dragon’s whore) was a common insult. In 1652, a woman from Saxon Fichtenberg claimed to have had a strange vision: She had seen a dragon in the sky that had sex with various women from her neighbourhood. Even though the contemporaries were willing to accept the existence of dragons in principle, this story was too outrageous. It did not cause a witch hunt; state and church officials chose to ignore it.
At first glance, the dragon as a shapeshifter reminds us of the medieval Sigurd tales that feature Fafnir, a shapeshifter who turned himself into a dragon in order to defend his treasure. However, the early modern sources talk about completely different issues and originated in a totally different social context.
|Arthur Rackham’s Fafnir|
One of the reasons why the witchcraft doctrine was so influential was its flexibility and its integrative power. It managed to include various bits of folk belief into a new coherent system and thereby provided an explanation for all of them: The witchcraft doctrine suggested that all the innumerable spirits beings of folk belief were simply demons. This explanation not only bridged the huge gaps between various kinds of spirits and all the local and regional traditions of spirit beliefs, it also made these beliefs absolutely compatible with learned demonology and vice versa.
By Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.