Dragons and great serpents are common themes in the mythology of countries across the world, but their roles and meaning appear to differ depending upon the region concerned.
In ancient Europe, serpents (the precursors of the more oriental ‘dragons’) were connected to the chthonic otherworld and underworld, and hence to ideas of decay – the earthy beginnings from which new life grows and the diseases and poisons which caused things to return to that state (i.e. – that process called ‘putrefaction’).
They were linked to meres and marshes whose mass of rotting vegetation and sourness was a metaphor for death itself. That such marshy areas were filled with tiny worms, eels and wriggling creatures must have proved evidence that the serpentine and the decaying were linked. This earth, and all manner of rotting vegetation – be it from the sea or the land – was a potent source of chthonic fertility and regeneration, and therefore wealth: a characteristic resplendent in mythological dragons.
In medieval Irish literature, a class of beasts were identifiable as dragons or great worms and often were associated with tales of monstrous peril involving saints and heroes, and were associated with the marshy aquatic realm which surrounds Celtic lands. They were often used in christian narratives of the middle ages as dangerous legendary personifications of the Old Order.
Examples are in the Middle Irish tales of Acallam na Senórach in which the ancient hero Caeilte supposedly recounts the deeds of the Fianna to St Patrick, and explains that it was once their charge to rid the land of serpents and dragons.
Fairies of Cornwall
June 12, 1908, Amador Ledger, Amador County, California
Cornwall, that corner of Britain that has resisted modernism, made a strong appeal to the imagination of Katherine Lee Bates, and she writes of it in her “From Gretna Green to Land’s End.” In Cornwall, as in Ireland, the fairy is still in possession and folk lore is almost a religion. “The small pepole have been gay and kindly neighbors, sometimes whisking away a neglected baby and returning the little mortal all pink and clean, wrapped in leaves and blossoms, ‘as sweet as a nut.’ These are the spirits of Druids or of other early Cornwall folk who, as heathen, may not go to heaven, but are too innocent for hell. So they ar suffered to live on in thier old happy haunts, but ever dwindling and dwindling, till it is to be feared that by and by, what with all the children growing stupid over school books andall the poets writing realistic novels, the small people will twinkle out of sight.
“The spriggans, lurking about the cairns and cromlechs, where they keep guard over buried treasure, could better be spared. They are such thievish and mischievous trolls, with such extraordinary strength in their ugly bits of bodies, it is more likely they are the diminished ghosts of the old giants. The piskies are nearly as bad, as any bewildered traveler who has been piskey led into a bog could testify. The only sure protection against their tricks is to wear your garments inside out.
(Oxford World Classics)
Translators: Ann Dooley, Harry Roe
Tales of the Elders of Ireland is the first complete translation of the late Middle-Irish Acallam na Senórach, the largest literary text surviving from twelfth-century Ireland. It contains the earliest and most comprehensive collection of Fenian stories and poetry, intermingling the contemporary Christian world of Saint Patrick with his scribes; clerics; occasional angels and souls rescued from Hell; the earlier pagan world of the ancient, giant Fenians and Irish kings; and the parallel, timeless Otherworld (peopled by ever-young, shape-shifting fairies).
This new translation is based on existing manuscript sources and is richly annotated, complete with an Introduction discussing the place of the Acallam in Irish tradition and the impact of the Fenian or Ossianic tradition on English and European literature.
This is a narrative history based on a journey from Shetland, down the west coast of Scotland – taking in the Isle of Man and the Outer Hebrides – across to Ireland, back to Anglesey and the west Welsh coast, back to Ireland again and finally Cornwall. This journey lies at the heart of the book – the base from which the author strays into the oral histories, legends and known events of the Celts and their past – with narratives soaked in legend, myth, sensuality, tragedy and gore. These apparently disparate stories, fragments of history and myth are woven together together to give a representation of the race which has repeatedly changed history as we know it. Ranging between pre-history and the present, with much in between – the book tells the story of a people stretched down 1000 miles of coastline that has to be among Britain’s richest and most ancient. It also tells the story of the sea itself, which has, more than anything, shaped the Celtic character.