NOTE: The following article is a brief compilation of dragon accounts found in the Synaxarion of pre-Schism Orthodox Saints. Though some Orthodox commentators interpret these incidents as allegorical—either symbolizing the devil, paganism, or heresy—the fact remains that many of the Synaxarion of both Eastern and Western Saints before the Great Schism contain accounts of dragons, satyrs, centaurs, and other mythological creatures.
20th century Christian “rationalism” easily allocates dragons to the category of “allegory.” Yet even in the 21st century many of the simple village Greeks (Οι χωριάτες) still interpret these synaxarion literally—i.e. they believe that these saints literally slew dragons. It is impossible to determine the percentage of the medieval population that interpreted these stories literally. However, even the highly educated and God-inspired Church Fathers wrote and taught about the real existence of mythological creatures [St. Photius the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Damascene, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, etc.] Though the following compilation is by no means a complete list, it will give the reader an understanding of the widespread belief in dragons (and other imaginary creatures) throughout medieval Orthodox Christendom.
Prophet Daniel (December 17, †6th century BC): Bel and the Dragon is an apocryphal Jewish story which appears as chapter 14 of the Septuagint Greek version of the Book of Daniel and is accepted as scripture by some Christians, though not in Jewish tradition. Daniel slays the dragon by baking pitch, fat, and hair (trichas) to make cakes (mazas, barley-cakes, but translated “lumps”) that cause the dragon to burst open upon consumption:
“And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped. And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him. Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God: for he is the living God. But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave. Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon’s mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder: and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship. When they of Babylon heard that, they took great indignation, and conspired against the king, saying, The king is become a Jew, and he hath destroyed Bel, he hath slain the dragon, and put the priests to death. So they came to the king, and said, Deliver us Daniel, or else we will destroy thee and thine house. Now when the king saw that they pressed him sore, being constrained, he delivered Daniel unto them: Who cast him into the lions’ den: where he was six days.” (Daniel 14:23-31)
St. Thomas the Apostle (October 6, 72): St. Thomas slays a dragon in India (see Acts of Thomas 30-3, ca. 220-40 AD). The apocryphal Acts of Thomas exhibit both Gnostic and Encratite affinities. The action takes place during St. Thomas’ mission to India. The fundamental correspondence with the Gospel of Thomas Tale and in particular with Lucian’s Philopseudes tale is striking.
St. Philip the Apostle (November 4, 80): It is to St. Philip that the richest of all early hagiographical dragon-slaying narratives attach. Two closely related 4th-century AD Greek texts, the Acts of Philip and the Martyrion of Philip, bestow upon him three major dragon fights—doublets in origin, no doubt, but each now strongly differentiated and of considerable interest in its own right. These tales are important not only for their complex engagement with the classical dragon-slaying tradition, but also for the light they shed upon the religious battles of their own day. [See Acts of Philip 8:4, 7, 15-17, 9(V), 11:2-8, 13:1-4, 14:1-3, 14:7-9, 15.1 Martyrion of Philip 2(A), 7(V), 12-17 (V), 19-20 (V), 24(V), 26-8(V), 32(V), 39(V), 42(V)]
St. Martha of Bethany (June 4, †1st century): According to legend, St Martha left Judea after Jesus’ death, around AD 48, and went to Provence with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus. With them, Martha first settled in Avignon (now in France). A further legend relates that Martha then went to Tarascon, France, where a monster, the Tarasque, was a constant threat to the population. The Golden Legend describes it as a beast from Galicia; a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, that dwelt in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon. Holding a cross in her hand, Martha sprinkled the beast with holy water. Placing her sash around its neck, she led the tamed dragon through the village. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarasque
St. Clement, first Bishop of Metz (November 23, †1st century): According to legend, St. Clement, disciple of St. Pierre, would have arrived in Metz in the 1st century, accompanied by two disciples, Celeste and Felix. According to critics, the arrival of St. Clement only dates back to the end of the 3rd century, thus backing up allegations that St. Clement was a disciple of Saint Pierre.
St. Clement of Metz, like many other saints, is the hero of a legend in which he is the vanquisher of a local dragon. In the legend of Saint Clement it is called the Graoully or Graouilly. The legend states that the Graoully, along with countless other snakes, inhabited the local Roman amphitheater. The snakes’ breath had so poisoned the area that the inhabitants of the town were
effectively trapped in the town. After converting the local inhabitants to Christianity after they agreed to do so in return for ridding them of the dragon, Clement went into the amphitheater and quickly made the sign of the cross after the snakes attacked him. They immediately were tamed by this. Clement led the Graoully to the edge of the Seille, and ordered him to disappear into a place where there were no men or beasts. Orius did not convert to Christianity after Clement tamed the dragon. However, when the king’s daughter died, Clement brought her back from the dead, thereby resulting in the king’s conversion. The Graoully quickly became a symbol of the town of Metz and can be seen in numerous demonstrations of the city, since the 10th century. http://www.culture-routes.lu/php/fo_index.php?lng=en&dest=bd_ar_det&id=00000300
St. Beatus Hermit of Thun, Apostle of Switzerland (ca. †112): While legend claims that he was the son of a Scottish king, other legends place his birth in Ireland. Beatus was a convert, baptized in England by St. Barnabas. He was allegedly ordained a priest in Rome by St. Peter the Apostle, whereupon he was sent with a companion named Achates to evangelize the tribe of the Helvetii. The two set up a camp in Argovia near the Jura Mountains, where they converted many of the locals. Beatus then ventured south to the mountains above Lake Thun, taking up a hermitage in what is now known as St. Beatus Caves, near the village of Beatenberg, probably in the ninth century. Tradition states that this cave is where he fought a dragon. St. Beatus’ grave is located between the monastery and the cave entrance.
St. Quirinus of Vaux-sur-Seine, France (October 11, †285): No trustworthy historical report exists of the martyrs Nicasius, Quirinus, Scubiculus, and Pientia. One legend states that they died in 285 AD and that Nicasius was one of the first missionaries sent from Rome to evangelize Gaul in the first century. Nicasius thus may have been a regionary bishop. Quirinus is stated to have been his priest while his deacon was Scubiculus (who is known as Egobille in France). According to the legend he was put to death, together with Nicasius, in the pagus Vulcassinus (Vexin).
One variant of the legend states that Quirinus, Nicasius, and the deacon Scubiculus were sent to Gaul by Pope Clement, accompanying Saint Denis there. At Vaux-sur-Seine, Quirinus fought and defeated a dragon, which had lay waste to the area and poisoned a well.
St. Bienheuré of Vendôme, France (†3rd century): Tradition states that he lived in a cave near the town. Like St. George, he is said to have fought a dragon. His legend was conflated with that of Beatus of Lungern. The legend states that Bienheuré fasted and prayed before fighting the dragon. According to the legend, the dragon was so large that when it went to drink from a river at some distance away, its tail still lay in its cave. It was also so large that it drained the Loir when it drank from it. There are three versions of this combat: the first states that the dragon fled at the sight of St. Bienheuré; the second version states that Saint Bienheuré defeated the dragon with one blow from his staff; the third states that the dragon strangled itself with its chain.
St. Julian, First Bishop of Le Mans, France (January 27th, †3rd or 4th century): p He was consecrated a bishop at Rome and around the middle of the 3rd century, Julian was sent to Gaul to preach the Gospel to the tribe of the Cenomani. Their capital city was Civitas Cenomanorum (Le Mans), which was suffering from a shortage of drinking water. According to the legends surrounding his life, Julian thrust his staff into the ground and prayed. Water began to gush out of the ground. This miracle allowed him to preach freely within Le Mans. Other traditions state that St. Julian and one of his successors—St. Pavatius—killed the monsters which guarded a spring.
St. Crescentinus of Umbria, Italy (June 1, †303): Patron saint of Urbino. Crescentinus is traditionally said to have been a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. To escape the persecutions of Diocletian, he fled to Umbria, and found refuge at Thifernum Tiberinum (the present-day Città di Castello). His defeat of a dragon led to a successful evangelization of the region together with his companions. His mission was confined particularly to the Tiber valley and the ancient Thifernum Tiberinum. He was subsequently beheaded.
St. Marina (Margaret of Antioch, July 17, †303): According to the version of the story in Golden Legend, she was a native of Antioch, and she was the daughter of a pagan priest named Aedesius. Her mother having died soon after her birth, Margaret was nursed by a pious woman five or six leagues from Antioch. Having embraced Christianity and consecrated her virginity to God, she was disowned by her father, adopted by her nurse and lived in the country keeping sheep with her foster mother (in what is now Turkey). Olybrius, Governor of the Roman Diocese of the East, asked to marry her but with the price of her renunciation of Christianity. Upon her refusal she was cruelly tortured, during which various miraculous incidents occurred. One of these involved being swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, from which she escaped alive when the cross she carried irritated the dragon’s innards. The Golden Legend, in an atypical passage of skepticism, describes this last incident as “apocryphal and not to be taken seriously” (trans. Ryan, 1.369).
St. Ammon of Nitria (October 4, †357): I don’t believe that what we heard about Ammon, from a certain holy man we saw in the wilderness in the place in which he had lived, should be omitted. And so when, having parted from the blessed Apollonius, we proceeded to the part of the wilderness opposite Meridianum, we saw a dragon’s huge dragging tracks across the sand; his size had appeared so great that it looked like some treetrunk had been drawn through the sand. So that as we looked, we were struck with huge terror.
But the brothers who had escorted us encouraged us to dread nothing at all, but to rather to take hold of faith and follow the dragon’s track. ‘For you will see,’ they said, ‘how much faith may prevail, when you would have quenched it out of us. For we kill many dragons and snakes and vipers* with our hands; for as we read it written that the Savior allows those believing in Him “to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy.”‘ (Lk. 10:19) But with them saying this, we dreaded more and more because of the fragility of our faithlessness, and we asked them not to want to follow the dragon’s tracks, but rather that we might proceed straight on the road. Yet one of them, impatient, had followed the dragon with alacrity. And when he had found its cave not far off, he called us so that we might have gone to him and seen the end of the business.
Yet another of the brothers who dwelt nearby in the desert hurried to meet us, and forbade us to follow the dragon, saying we could not endure his appearance, especially because we were not used to seeing anything such as that. Truly, he said that he himself frequently saw that same beast of incredible devastation, and that it was fifteen cubits long. And when he had advised us against approaching the place, he hurried himself to pull away, recall, and turn back the brother who had awaited us, prepared for the beast’s killing and unwilling to depart unless he had killed it…
“Afterwards, at a different time, with a certain most immense dragon having laid waste to the neighboring regions and killed many, the inhabitants of that place came to the above-mentioned Father, asking him that he might kill the beast for their region; and at the same time, that they might persuade the old man to mercy, they brought a shepherd’s young son with them who had been terrified out of his mind by only a sight of the dragon, and had felled and been carried off, unable to move and swollen, from only the dragon’s breath. Then he restored health to this boy, indeed by anointing him with oil.
“Meanwhile, he would promise nothing to those urging him to kill the dragon himself, as if one who could not help them with anything. But rising early, he went off to the beast’s sleeping place, and fixed his knees to the earth, begging the Lord. Then the beast began to come against him with a huge attack, sending out foul snorting and hisses and rattles. But fearing nothing of this, he said, turning toward the dragon, ‘May Christ, the Son of God, Who shall destroy the great whale, destroy you.’ And when that old man spoke, immediately that direst dragon also vomiting poison with every breath, blew up, bursting down the middle.
“But when the neighboring inhabitants would have gathered and wondered at it, unable to bear the violence of the stink, they got together an immense mass of sand over it — with Father Ammon still standing by, because not even when the beast was dead did they dare approach it without him.” (St. Rufinus of Aquileia’s Historia Monachorum, chapter 8. (PL 21: 420, 14 – 422, 4.)
St. Sylvester I, Pope of Rome (January 2, 335): Pope Sylvester I was called in to kill a dragon that lived in a moat and devoured three hundred people daily. He went up to the beastie, called out Christ’s name, and bound its jaws together with a rope, when he then fixed permanently with the sign of the cross. St. Sylvester is often depicted leading a dragon on a chain.
There are two different versions of the Acts of Silvester—one dated ca. 500 AD and the other text a century or so earlier. Both texts project the dragon as an object of pagan cult. The A text has the Vestal Virgins taking food down into its cave to it. The B text is less specific about the identity of the virgins and ascribes the lead role in its cult rather to an undefined group of ‘mages’, no doubt in a desire to emphasize the fraud and illegitimacy of the creature’s worship. Whilst the A text does not specify the actual location of its dragon’s cave, the B text locates it in the Tarpeian rock. This was some 300 yards distant from Vesta’s temple in the Forum. Cakes of grain and honey were regularly given to the sacred snakes, both real and imaginary, that lived in Greek and Roman shrines. These narratives offer one of the most striking examples amongst Christian ones of the pestilential breath the dragon can produce. Silvester defeats the dragon by locking it up with key and chain in an abyss; thus the dragon is confined deep inside the earth, albeit in its own hole. This is also the final fate of the dragons faced by Thomas and Philip.
St. Donatus of Arezzo (August 7, †362): A Passio of Donatus’ life was written by a bishop of Arezzo, Severinus. It states that Donatus brought back to life a woman named Euphrosina; fought and slew a dragon who had poisoned the local well; gave sight back to a blind woman named Syriana; and exorcised a demon that had been tormenting Asterius, the son of the Roman prefect of Arezzo.
St. Hilarion the Hermit (October 21, †371): In Croatia, St. Hilarion destroyed a dragon by bidding the people to make a fire, into which he commanded the dragon to go. It did so and was cremated: “An enormous serpent, of the sort which the people of those parts call “boas” because they are so large that they often swallow oxen [boves], was ravaging the whole province far and wide, and was devouring not only flocks and herds, but husbandmen and shepherds who were drawn in by the force of its breathing. He [Hilarion] ordered a pyre to be prepared for it, then sent up a prayer to Christ, called forth the reptile, bade it climb the pile of wood, and then applied the fire. And so before all the people he burnt the savage beast to ashes. But now he began anxiously to ask what he was to do, whither to betake himself. Once more he prepared for flight, and in thought ranged through solitary lands, grieving that his miracles could speak of him though his tongue was silent.” (St. Jerome, Life of St. Hilarion the Hermit, Paragraph 39, http://www.voskrese.info/spl/jer-hilarion.html )
[It is perhaps worth mentioning that a short way down the coast from Epidaurus was the town of Bouthoé, (now Budva, Montenegro), famous in legend as the place to which the dragon-slaying hero Cadmus and his wife Harmonia had retired in old age, and where by some accounts they had themselves assumed reptilian forms. The town was supposedly named for the oxen (boés) which had drawn their cart from Greece to Illyria.]
St. Mercurialis, First Bishop of Forlì (May 23, †406): was the Christian bishop of Forlì, in Romagna. The historical figure known as Mercurialis attended the Council of Rimini in 359 and died around 406. He was a zealous opponent of paganism and Arianism. Many remarkable adventures were woven onto legends about his life. The legend states that he was the first bishop of Forlì, during the Apostolic Age, and saved the city by killing a dragon. He has often been depicted in this act, imagery that resembles that associated with St. George. The cathedral of Forlì is named after him.
St. Marcellus, Bishop of Paris, Confessor (November 1, †5th century): The life of St. Marcellus was written by Venantius Fortunatus. St. Marcellus scared off a dragon that was attacking tiny pre-medieval Paris. The dragon in this story is ambiguous, being either chthonic or aquatic, and the saint in banishing it gives it the choice of disappearing into the desert, that is the wilderness, or the sea, which in the Parisian case is the river.
Fortunatus then goes into all sorts of considerations of dragons in the Fathers, dragons in medieval saints’ legends, Rogation procession dragons, and so on. He points out that dragons often are explicitly a symbol of a particular nation (like the Welsh and Saxon dragons fighting each other, or the Draco Normannicus), or are thought of as just an impressive animal (Romans and medievals believed that dragons were the largest animal in existence, as Mediterranean whales were big but not as big as oceangoing whales), or as a symbol of pagan beliefs or an unjust government. They don’t always represent the Devil, although they often do. St. Marcellus came to be known as the “Patron Saint of Vampire Hunters.”
St Keyne (October 5, †505): The virgin recluse, called variously St. Cain, Keyne or Ceinwen, migrated from Brecknock in Wales to Keynsham in Somersetshire. The town is named after the Saint. It is said that when she arrived there, the lord of the manor gave her a piece of land, but it was so infested with huge venomous snakes that no prospective converts would visit her. Undismayed, she turned the snakes into stone, and tradition claims that the fossilised ammonites, which abound in the area, are their remains.
St. Vigor, Bishop of Bayeux (November 1, †537): When he had made the Sign of the Cross and made the dragon unable to resist him, and he had leashed the dragon with his stole in the best approved French style (making it “like a tame sheep”), he handed the dragon’s leash to Theudemir, with instructions to take it to the seashore, so that it would have no more power on the land. the taming of the Dragon of Cerisy Forest was legendarily the reason that Volusianus, a local nobleman, gave the land to St. Vigor to start the monastery of Cerisy.
St. Leonard of Limousin (†559): A Frankish nobleman who was baptised at the court of King Clovis in 498 by St Remigius, Bishop of Rheims, and then settled for a religious life. St. Leonard’s prayers ensured the safe delivery of Clovis’s child, and he was given as a reward as much land as he could ride round on a donkey in a day. He established a monastery on this land at Noblac near Limoges, and became its abbot. In his old age he became a forest hermit. There is a forest in West Sussex, England named after him.
There is also a legend of St. Leonard the Dragon Slayer who lived in the forest and slew the last dragon in England. Æthelweard’s Chronicle of 770AD mentions “Monstrous serpents were seen in the country of the Southern Angles that is called Sussex”. St. Leonard was injured and Lilies of the Valley grow where his blood fell – an area of the forest is still called The Lily Beds. As a reward he requested that snakes be banished and the nightingales which interrupted his prayers should be silenced. However, dragons were still around in August 1614 as a pamphlet was published with the title “Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyance and divers Slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson. In Sussex, two miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonards Forrest, and thirtie miles from London, this present month of August, 1614”.
St. Samson of Dol (July 28, †565): Some historians have argued that the St. Vigor story is drawn from the first Vita of Samson of Dol. However there are crucially different details in the two stories. The two saints do have a young companion in each story, but in the Samson story the boy is merely an observer and does not lead the tamed dragon away. Moreover, Samson flings the dragon from a height, and there is no mention of waters of any kind, in contrast to the sea in the Vigor story. Finally the dragon is commanded to die by Samson, while it is clearly left alive by Vigor. Saint Samson defeats another dragon later on, which he does fling into the sea, and charges to die in the name of Christ. In another of St. Samson’s dragon stories, he banishes the dragon without killing it. But instead of flinging it into the sea, the saint commands it to cross the river Seine, and to remain under a certain stone, revealing this dragon as a chthonic figure.
Saint Serf or Serbán (Servanus) (July 1, †583) is a saint of Scotland. Serf was venerated in western Fife. He is also called the apostle of Orkney, with less historical plausibility. At Dunning, in Strathearn, he is said to have slain a dragon with his pastoral staff.
St. Veranus, Bishop of Cavaillon (October 19, †590): A French saint, with a cultus in Italy. St. Gregory of Tours writes of miracles performed by Veranus, including the expulsion of a dragon. St. Veranus captured and expelled a winged dragon that had been terrorizing the region near his hermitage in Vaucluse. Making the sign of the cross, he commanded the creature “by the living and eternal God” never to harm anyone again.
St. Gregory of Tours (November 17, †594): In 589, a great flood of the Tiber River sent a torrent of water rushing through the city of Rome. According to Gregory, a contemporary bishop of Tours with contacts to the south, the floodwaters carried with them some rather remarkable detritus: several dying serpents and, perhaps most strikingly, the corpse of a dragon. The flooding was soon followed by a visitation of bubonic plague, which had been haunting Mediterranean ports since 541: “…In the month of November, the River Tiber had covered Rome with such flood water…A great school of water-snakes swam down the course of the river to the sea, in their midst a tremendous dragon as big as a tree trunk, but these monsters were drowned in the turbulent salt sea-waves and their bodies were washed up on the shore. As a result there followed an epidemic, which caused swellings in the groin” (History of the Franks, Book X, chapter 1).
Saint Carantoc of Wales (May 16, †6th century): Many details of his life are obscure or contradictory. The people of Carhampton who had been terrorised by a flying dragon. King Arthur said that he would strike a bargain with the saint. If St Carantoc could call up the dragon from the marches then he would restore the Altar to its owner. St Carantoc nodded and turned away in prayer, uttering a strange incantation over the swamp. Immediately the bog heaved and parted and amidst a terrible smell the dragon appeared right in front of the retinue. Only Arthur and the Saint stood their ground while the rest backed away in horror. The dragon the trotted up to the Saint and bent its head in submission. St Carantoc then led the dragon to the court of King Catho at Dunster Castle where the dragon was forced to vow never to hurt another soul again. So transformed was the dragon by the Saint that it never ate meat again and only used its fiery breath to aid the villagers in lighting bonfires in the rain. St Carantoc was granted land by the Kings and built his chapel by the river at Carhampton.
St. Romain of Rouen, France (October 23, †640): The Catholic Encyclopedia claims that his legend has little historical value with little authentic information. St. Romain caught the Gargouille. On the left bank of the Seine were wild swamps through which rampaged a huge serpent or dragon who “devoured and destroyed people and beasts of the field”. Romanus decided to hunt in this area but could only find one man to help him, a man condemned to death who had nothing to lose. They arrived in the serpent’s land and Romanus drew the sign of the cross on the beast. It then lay down at his feet and let Romanus put his stole on him as a leash, in which manner he led it into the town to be condemned to death and burned on the parvis of the cathedral (or thrown into the Seine according to other authors). This legend was the origin for the bishops’ privilege (lasting until 1790) to pardon one prisoner condemned to death each year, by giving the pardoned man or woman the reliquary holding Romanus’s relics in a procession.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Entry for 793: “In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”
Saint Hermentaire (†10th century): Draguignan is a commune in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, in southeastern France. According to legend, the name of the city is derived from the Latin name “Draco/Draconem” (dragon): a bishop, called Saint Hermentaire, killed a dragon and saved people. The Latin motto of Draguignan is Alios nutrio, meos devoro (I feed others, I devour my children). The name of Draguignan (“Dragonianum”) appeared for the first time in 909.