Friday, 17 March 2017

Dragons in Human Form

In a number of witch trials and folkloristic source we encounter a mysterious magical being called dragon (“Drache” in German żmij,” in Polish, “pūķis” in Latvian, “aitvaras” in Lithuanian) that brought witches money, butter or grain. Usually, this kind of dragon was imagined as a flying snake or a streak of fire that quickly flew over the dark night sky.


Modern picture of an ativaras or Lithuanian dragon

The dragon was supposed to be a shapeshifter. In folkloristic sources, it sometimes appears as a chicken and changes into a snake-like form later on. I would like to thank the renowned Latvian folklorist Dr Toms Ķencis who generously shared some of the results of his research with me. He alerted me to Latvian folkloristic sources that suggest that the witch herself could turn into a dragon and steal produce from her neighbours in that form.

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

The idea that the dragon appears in human form and has intercourse with the witch was probably suggested by demonology. Demonology interpreted every type of magic as witchcraft and most spirits as demons in disguise. The witchcraft doctrine suggested that the spirits of hell took on human form and had sex with their disciples, the witches. These elements were simply added to the dragon beliefs of folk culture.


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.

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