The Dragon, The Knight And The Maiden In Universal Folklore: The Origin Of The Legends


Saint George and the dragon is a well-known legend that is commemorated in numerous countries that have the holy knight as their patron saint. Catalonia, Aragon, England, Georgia, Russia, Greece and many more are famous examples of places that have the red cross of Saint George as their emblem.

Obviously, the story of the combat between the knight and the dragon and the rescue of the maiden is a legend, which was spurred from the 13th century onwards through The Golden Legend of Santiago de la Vorágine (1228-1298). The story of the medieval knight who comes ready to fight the monster to save the princess and her people was very popular among the people of the Middle Ages, and in part this explains the success it had throughout the West..

But is Saint George and the dragon the only legend that speaks of a mythical combat between a soldier and a beast? No, it is not. Throughout history and across different cultures we find similar legends. If you are interested, you can join us. In today’s article, we talk about the dragon and the knight in universal folklore.

Saint George and the dragon, Saint Michael fighting the Beast, the intrepid Siegfried of German mythology who defeats the dragon Fafnir and rescues the beautiful valkyrie Brunnhilde; Perseus, the Greek hero who saves Andromeda from the clutches of the monster… Each and every one of these legends are variants of the same story: that of the hero who faces a threatening being and rises victorious over it.. In general, these legends that are part of Western folklore present the dragon as a symbol of evil, something very different from what happens in the East, as we will see below.

The dragon: an evil or wise being?

Well, it will depend on where we direct our gaze. Because if we look at it in the West, we will find that the dragon, or the monster (thus, as an abstract entity), symbolizes Evil in capital letters, the darkness that must be destroyed in order to recover order and cosmic balance.

The dragon in the West

We find reminiscences of this eternal struggle of order versus chaos in countless mythologies. In Egypt, chaos is personified by Seth, the evil brother of Osiris (and his murderer), who must fight against his son, Horus the Falcon, symbol of universal order. Later, Greek mythology will be full of heroes who must face fearsome monsters to rescue a town, fulfill a mission or atone for some guilt.. The meaning is, in reality, the same: to return order and light to the darkness. And this, of course, requires arduous combat from which only heroes can emerge victorious.

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Already in the Christian era, the dragon/monster came to mean Evil with full religious meaning. In the Apocalypse of Saint John the devil is spoken of as “the great dragon”; Hence, Saint Michael the Archangel must fight against him (by the way, dressed as an authentic medieval knight) to restore Good in the world. It is, as we see, a cosmic battle, an apocalyptic clash between the forces of evil (Satan) and those of good (God), which is not far from the meaning of the myth in ancient legends.

The dragon in eastern culture

If we go to the East, we find something very different. And, in Chinese and Japanese cultures especially, the dragon has always symbolized the benevolent forces of nature. In Eastern mythology, the creature is thus a personification of the primitive wisdom of creation, to which humans direct prayers for wealth and fulfillment in their lives.

In the ancient Hongshan culture of China, dating back no less than 9,000 years, there were jade amulets that reproduced figures of dragons. Possession of these objects was supposed to bring luck to the person concerned. Eastern dragons are, therefore, great protectors and guardians, although we can also find reminiscences of this guardian character in some Western legends such as that of Siegfried and the dragon.. The creature was the custodian of a valuable treasure and, furthermore, whoever bathed in his blood (as Siegfried did after killing him) would gain supernatural immunity.


Some Western legends related to the hero and the dragon

In short, the universal folklore of the dragon has oscillated between the conception of protection and wisdom that imbues Eastern legends and the idea of ​​the dragon as an evil being that must be destroyed, a concept much more widespread in the Western world, especially after the arrival of Christianity. Next, we are going to stop at some of these Western legends to check the common places they share.

1. Saint George, the dragon and the maiden

This is perhaps the best known legend in this regard. Saint George is the patron saint of numerous places, and in all of them the legend, arising in the Middle Ages, of the Christian knight who fights against a fearsome dragon that devastates an entire kingdom is told. The noble knight not only saves the poor people from being devoured by the monster, but also rescues his king’s own daughter, destined to be the next victim..

Saint George is a saint who was eliminated from the Catholic calendar due to the implausibility of his legend. However, currently the Church accepts devotion to his figure as a symbol of faith. In fact, it seems that the real George (or Giorgios) was a Christian Roman soldier originally from Cappadocia, in Turkey. In the “real” story of his martyrdom we find no dragon or princess; It is simply said that George, horrified by the massacre of Christians carried out by Diocletian, tried to make a pact with the emperor. The result was that Diocletian had him tortured and murdered.

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As we have already pointed out in the introduction, The story of Saint George, the dragon and the princess emerged in the 13th century, promoted by Santiago de la Vorágine and his Golden Legend, and soon spread throughout Europe.. Let us remember that the 12th and 13th centuries are the centuries of chivalric novels and epic poems, so we understand the cause of the success of the story. In any case, the essence of the story is the same as that of the previous legends: the hero who must purify his soul to get closer to God and, to do so, he must defeat the monster (sin in Christian culture) and thus save his life. soul (the maiden).


2. Perseus and Andromeda

Let’s take a leap back in time and travel to Ancient Greece and its wonderful mythology. In it we find the delicious story of Perseus, the Greek hero son of the mortal Danae and the god Zeus. It is quite common in ancient Greek folklore for heroes to be half-mortal and half-divine, which would make their strength and bravery understandable. Something similar, on the other hand, to Jorge’s holiness, which elevates him above other human beings.

Perseus is especially famous for having beheaded the fearsome Gorgon (another clear example of a fight between hero and monster), but in this case we are especially interested in his fight against the sea beast to save the Ethiopian princess Andromeda. The myth says that Perseus was riding Pegasus when, passing along the coast of Africa, he saw how a beautiful woman had been tied to some rocks and left to die.. At her feet, a horrible sea monster was ready to devour her. Of course, the hero used his strength and her magical weapons (including the head of the Gorgon Medusa) to annihilate the monster, save the maiden, and marry her.

3. Siegfried, the dragon Fafnir and the valkyrie Brunnhilde

Siegfried or Sigurd is one of the great heroes of Germanic mythology. As a hero, it is his destiny to kill a monster, which in this case is the dragon Fafnir, the protector of the Nibelung treasure. Here we find, then, two aspects of the myth: first, the Western idea of ​​the monster as a being that must be killed; second, the much more eastern concept of the dragon as guardian of something extremely valuable.

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Siegfried then kills Fafnir, and subsequently bathes in his blood and becomes immune to all the evils of the world. In some versions, Siegfried/Sigurd becomes immortal. In any case, Here we find the idea of ​​the dragon as a magical being, whose supernatural nature can bring unthinkable benefits to humans.. There is also a connection between this magical blood of Fafnir with the blood of the dragon of Saint George, from which, according to some versions of the legend, a beautiful incarnate rose emerges.

The valkyrie Brunnhilde is rescued by Siegfried, although not in the dragon episode. However, there is an obvious relationship between the beautiful sleeping maiden and the knight who must save her from her dream with the legends of the maiden saved from the clutches of the monster. The common element is the soul-maiden bond; In the myths of the dragon’s rescue, the knight must save her from evil, while in the case of the sleeping girl (with an obvious reflection in Perrault’s story) her soul must awaken to the light.


4. Roger and Angelica

There is a beautiful painting on this subject, made by the brilliant Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), in which we see a naked girl tied to some rocks and a chilling sea monster that is ready to devour her. In the left margin Roger appears, riding a kind of hippogriff, who accurately stabs his very long spear into the beast’s snout.

The story is told in the famous poem Orlando Furioso, composed in the 16th century by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). The inspiration in the myth of Perseus is evident, as well as in all the stories that narrate the rescue of a maiden from the clutches of a monster.. In the case of Roger’s story, Orlando tells how Angelica (with a more than appropriate name) is kidnapped and abandoned naked on the Island of Tears, as a human sacrifice to the beast of the sea.

Roger is a Christian knight (related to the cycle of legends of Charlemagne) who, upon seeing the young woman about to die, does not hesitate to rush to her aid. Again, the hero defeats Evil in the form of a dragon-monster and thus saves the purity of the soul (the maiden), which, in this case, shows her nakedness as final evidence of her innocence. Let us remember that, at the time Orlando was written, human nudity was still a symbol of purity and virtue. It was later, with the changes produced, in part, by the Protestant Reformation, that the naked body began to be seen as something sinful, a symbol of vice and sin.