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Aimee Taylor: Legend of the dragon

(March 01, 2013)

Legend of the dragon

Y_Ddraig_Goch

The dragon is one of the most popular and well known mythical creatures in Welsh culture. Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) adorns the Welsh flag and is often used as a shorthand for all things Welsh. Many indigenous public and private institutions in Wales use a Red Dragon symbol (the Welsh Government, Visit Wales, numerous local Authorities, including: Cardiff; Newport; and St David's; Rhondda, Cynon Taf; Blaenau Gwent; and Carmarthenshire, numerous sports authorities and teams, including: the Football Association of Wales; Cardiff City F.C.; Newport Gwent Dragons; the Scarlets; and Wales Rugby League, newspapers, including the Western Mail and the Daily Post (north Wales) etc., etc., etc.). The dragon often appears in Welsh myths; in stories such as Llud and Llefelys and the legends of King Arthur.

Since writing my last article, I found myself wondering, why is the dragon a symbol of Wales? How did a creature that never existed become the national symbol of a country? One theory is that it was brought to Britannia by the Romans. When they invaded, dragons (or draco) were an emblem used as their standard in battle, so it is believed that after invasion this symbol of the dragon remained strong within the culture due to the Romano-Britons that remained. The Welsh kings of Aberffraw, for example, used the dragon as a symbol in the fifth century.

Welsh Dragon Memorial Mametz Wood
Welsh dragon memorial representing around 4000 men of the 38th (Welsh) Infantry Division killed or wounded during the Battle of Mametz Wood (7-10 July 1916), by Welsh sculptor and blacksmith David Petersen
Image: Michael Yare

A more fanciful tale of how the dragon came to be on the Welsh flag, is about the dragons of Dinas Emrys. Apparently Vortigern, a fifth century war lord, wished to build a fort near Beddgelert. Having little success, as there were constant issues with laying the foundation, he sought advice from Merlin (a powerful wizard), who suggested to dig into the mound. There they found a red and a white dragon, who arose and began to fight, the red dragon being victorious. Merlin told Vortigern that the white dragon represented the Saxons and the red dragon Wales, showing that the Welsh would one day push the Saxons out of Britain. I imagine these two dragons are possibly the same ones that were fighting and later buried by King Llud, in the story of Llud and Llefeyls.

Within the Welsh culture, I found a few stories about winged serpents often being referred to as dragons and it would appear that dragons have a strong link to snakes. Carl Lofmark mentions in his book, A history of the Red Dragon, that the dragon was once thought as the "King of Serpents". Gwiber is mentioned within texts and stories, which in todays context means viper. However, the book Rumours and Oddities from North Wales, by Meirion Hughes and Wayne Evans, states that the Brython for 1861, "explains that in folklore, gwiber actually means dragon, or winged serpent." The same book also mentions a very interesting theory associated with snakes; "There existed a belief that the Viper, Gwiber in Welsh, could increase in size and grow wings if it drank the milk of a woman … One theory, however, maintains that travelling women who were breastfeeding their babies often expressed unwanted milk onto the ground. Chance a snake upon this and we have a gwiber (dragon)."

One tale in particular is the Gwiber of Penmachn. As often in stories, this particular creature was causing problems. So a young man named Owain decided to take care of the issue. He sought advice from a local wise man who gave three different predictions of Owains death: first stating it would be from a vipers bite; second a broken neck; and the third drowning. Owain went ahead regardless (some stories say it's bravery, others say he doesn't believe it possible to die from three different afflictions, some stories say both!). He was unfortunately bitten by the gwiber, tripped over a rock breaking his neck and fell into a river, drowning. Revenge was sought upon the gwiber but it disappeared and was never seen again.

 

Y Ddraig Goch

Something I find greatly curious, is how dragons appear not only in Welsh culture, but in other cultures too. It would seem that each culture simultaneously came up with dragons independently. There are a few theories about the origin of the dragon, that I would like to mention, some think fossils would have been found or the dragon mistaken for another creature, Carl Lofmark points to the influence of cultural diffusion (when man met and shared stories), but it is thought that the dragon was known before cultures shared information. This suggestion of the dragon being known independently, is best worded by Carl Lofmark:

"The original dragon was not copied directly from nature or from neighbours. It was created everywhere in the minds of archaic peoples who felt a frightening awareness of some great and dangerous force, which must surely be animate, and which they needed to conceive in a definite, imaginable form."

It is fascinating to consider that somehow, in some way, despite the differences in cultures, we all ultimately created and feared the dragon. Part of me wonders if it originates from a lack of understanding nature. Perhaps the idea of the fire breathing dragon was born of volcanoes spewing fire, thunder crackling through the sky and ripples of lightning forming shapes in its wake. We were in a world we did not understand and so we created reasons, explanations and believed in them. And from such humble beginnings arose a timeless creature, that is still spoken of today.

In conclusion I have found Welsh myths, particularly the dragon, absolutely fascinating - insiping me to create the pieces shown below. Many myths and stories exist that I haven't mentioned, such as those in the Mabinogion, and it is intriguing to think back to the times when bards were roaming the land, sharing these myths and stories, perhaps as if they were real events. Over time, it is understandable that, after many re-tellings, the myths have evolved from their original concepts. Regardless of this they have become embedded within the Welsh culture we know today.

Since my last article involved images of felt mythical creatures, I thought this would be an interesting medium to try with the dragon. I browsed around to see how other artists had approached the matter and saw one or two designs that struck me as familiar to my Llamhigyn y Dŵr (Water Leaper). So I revisited the pattern and made some alterations to create my dragon form.

I wanted my dragons to be depicted more towards their snake kin, interpreting the tales of the Gwiber and the Dragon being known as the King of Serpents. So they are largely representative of snakes with large abdomen adorned with wings and fearsome sharp teeth set within their jaws.

 

Sleeping in the Pit
When Vortigern ordered his men to dig deep into the foundations, they discovered something sleeping in the pit
Image, Aimee Taylor

Y Ddraig Goch - The Red DragonY Ddraig Goch (The Red Dragon)
Image, Aimee Taylor
Y Ddraig Wen - The White DragonY Ddraig Wen (The White Dragon)
Image, Aimee Taylor

Fighting
Their eyes locked and their battle cries shrieked into the sky
Image, Aimee Taylor

 

Aimee Taylor, 1 March 2013

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy:

     Welsh Mythology: the Tylwyth Teg and water myths, December 2012
     Cardiff Drawing Group; With reference to ..., September 2012


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