Dragon-like figures feature prominently in folklore from around the world. They often hold—or once held—special significance to their respective cultures. Chinese dragons historically symbolized good luck and imperial power, and were used in iconography surrounding the emperor. The founder of the Han dynasty went so far as to claim that his mother dreamt of a dragon before his conception. Many Mesoamerican beliefs featured a feathered serpent deity not unlike a dragon, attested to in the oral traditions surrounding figures like Quetzalcoatl. Saint George, the patron saint of England, was said to have slayed a dragon in exchange for the baptisms of everyone in town—reflecting the common Christian motif that utilizes dragons as an an allegorical stand-in for sin.
Why are dragons so widespread? No one can say for sure, though there’s a variety of theories. Much easier to examine is the symbolism behind them. Througout Germanic Europe in particular, that symbolism undergoes a rocky transformation during the Middle Ages.
When looking at medieval manuscripts like the Icelandic Völsunga Saga or the Old English Beowulf, we catch cultural attitudes in media res during a sort of syncretic shift from indigenous pagan beliefs to Christianity. Like the Yule log at Christmas and eggs during Easter, Christianity absorbed and modified existing mythology rather than attempting to eradicate it. The result? Dragons changed too.
The Beowulf manuscript contains a brief passage in which a bard shares tales of older heroes. The more detailed of these tales is that of Sigemund, who appears in some form in stories belonging to nearly every Germanic culture. Sigemund is most famous as the father of the hero Siegfried (also called Sigurd or Sigurðr). He’s an important figure in other Germanic stories like the Völsunga Saga and the Middle High German Das Nibelungenlied. But in Beowulf, he earns only a passing mention. So why mention him at all?
Historically, critics have looked to the Sigemund passage as a direct parallel to Beowulf’s own journey. The key element behind this argument? Both Beowulf and Sigemund’s stories end with dragons. R.E. Kaske argued that the dragon at the end of Beowulf was representative of the hero’s internal conflict, or his struggle with sin:
Beowulf’s dragon I interpret as both a literal dragon and a figure of malitia or internal evil, against whom Beowulf manifests his final preservation of both fortitudo and kingly sapientia. Can the same significance be assumed for Sigemund’s dragon? . . . The strongest argument against such a reading . . . is that [Sigemund] is introduced with no detail that seems to hint of malitia, some thirteen hundred lines before the first appearance of Beowulf’s dragon, on whom any recognition of his allegorical meaning would seem wholly to depend.R.E. Kaske, medieval scholar at Cornell University
Kaske struggled to reconcile Sigemund’s dragon with the greater manuscript. He argued that because Sigemund’s description did not indicate any internal conflict, Sigemund’s dragon was not likely to be representative of this conflict.
I agree with Kaske’s assessment of Beowulf’s dragon. Beowulf himself blames the presence of the dragon on his struggle with sin directly in the text of the poem, described as follows:
The wise man thought he must have thwartedTranslation by Heaney, ll. 2329-2331
ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord,
broken His commandment.
It is clear that Beowulf believes the dragon to be a punishment from God. The same cannot be said for Sigemund. Although Kaske argues for Sigemund as a parallel for Beowulf, he does acknowledge the lack of evidence in attempting to parallel the two dragons. Aside from their being the same monster, it would seem that details in the Beowulf manuscript lend greater allegorical significance to Beowulf’s own dragon, and very little to Sigemund’s.
Kaske’s positioning of the significance of the dragons is rooted in the concept of malitia, or lack thereof. It’s a Christian term, drawn directly from the Biblia Sacra Vulgata, one of the earliest and most influential Latin translations of the bible. It is most often translated into English as “wickedness” or “internal evil,” and refers to the sinful nature of mankind. By this definition, Beowulf’s final encounter with the dragon is a confrontation with his own sin. It would seem unlikely that Sigemund should reflect this concept, seeing as he is a figure of pagan Germanic origin and predates Christian influence.
That’s where things get interesting. Scholars have focused so heavily on the idea of the Sigemund passage as a parallel that they’ve neglected to consider the possibility of it instead being contrasted with Beowulf. And I think that’s the key to understanding the meaning behind Sigemund’s dragon—it’s not included to foreshadow, but rather to provide a pagan contrast to the Christian Beowulf’s story.
So how do we interpret the exact meaning of Sigemund’s dragon? We look at Sigemund himself. It’s made clear both in Beowulf and in the Völsunga Saga that Sigemund is not innocent of wrongdoing. In the Völsunga Saga, he willingly kills his sister’s children at her command. Because the Sigemund passage in Beowulf is so brief, the exact nature of Sigemund’s exploits are not detailed to this degree. However, this makes it all the more important that the author made some indication of Sigemund’s nature. Why reference it at all, unless it’s important?
The original Anglo-Saxon text in this particular passage is difficult to translate. The portion I want to focus on reads as follows:
Welhwylc gecwæðBeowulf ll. 874-882
þæt he fram Sigemundes secgan hyrde
ellendædum, uncuþes fela,
Wælsinges gewin, wide siðas,
þara þe gumena bearn gearwe ne wiston,
fæhðe ond fyrena, buton Fitela mid hine,
þonne he swulces hwæt secgan wolde,
eam his nefan, swa hie a wæron
æt niða gehwam nydgesteallan.
The passage describes something which Sigemund confides in his nephew Fitela, but the words fæhðe ond fyrena have been a point of disagreement for many scholars. It seems likely that fæhðe bears some relation to the modern English word “feud.” Although dictionaries typically ascribe the etymology of the Middle English fede to the borrowed feide from Old French, the Frankish and Dutch influences on French at the time make it likely that feide was a loan word from a Germanic language, sharing a similar proto-Germanic root with it’s contemporary, fæhðe. Furthermore, the closely related fæhð is defined as “hostility, enmity, violence, revenge, vendetta.” This likely ties to the early Germanic cultural emphasis on on familial blood-feuds and revenge.
Fyrena’s exact translation is a bit more ambiguous. It has been translated variously as “offenses,” “wickedness,” “foul doings,” “fury,” and “atrocities.” Related, the Old English word firen is defined as “crime or sin.” It may specifically hold connotations of sin as it relates to hellfire—the Old English fȳr means fire. So although the precise translation of the words has been a point of contention, it is clear that the passage’s description of Sigemund suggests that he possesses some negative qualities.
Examining all of this from the perspective of the likely Christian scribe, and the Christian audience the poem was intended for, both Beowulf and Sigemund would have been perceived as sinful characters. Their encounters with the dragons therefore become an allegorical representation of how they respond to this sin or internal evil. Because Beowulf is a Christian hero, he is presented as being conscious of his sinful nature, believing the dragon to be a punishment sent by god. The confrontation with the dragon is therefore difficult, messy, and ultimately ends in his death. It is the visual manifestation of Beowulf confronting his sins. In contrast, Sigemund is ignorant.
So, what’s up with their endings? When Beowulf confronts his dragon, it’s messy, and ultimately ends in his death. But Sigemund defeats his dragon and goes on to live in infamy, surrounded by wealth stolen from the dragon hoard. What exactly is going on here? In short, Beowulf is not worldly like Sigemund. His is a self-sacrificial act, acknowledging and facing his sin head-on. Sigemund lives out the rest of his life in ignorance. But perhaps that’s a topic for another article.
In all myth, dragons are, by their very nature, symbolic. But delving into the development of that symbolism—into how attitudes and interpretations shift between texts, or even within the same narrative—offers valuable insight into shifting cultural attitudes throughout history. In some cases, understanding that history is entirely dependent upon myth and oral tradition. Comparatively analyzing these sorts of stories to piece together the remains of past cultures is, in my opinion, an admirable pursuit—one that should be brought to the forefront of historical literary analysis.