What Were Celtic Dragons? And Some Eerie Holiday Traditions. . .

By Antone Minard

My favourite holiday is Halloween. My favourite pleasure reading is Gothic literature and all the genres that derive from it. As an undergraduate, if there had been a major in “Weird Studies,” I probably would have gone for it. As there wasn’t, I wound up studying Anthropology and Medieval Studies, and then a graduate degree in Folklore and Mythology specializing in the Celtic languages and literatures, with a research focus on the supernatural. That way, I get to combine all of my interests—weird stories in interesting languages with lots of strange creatures and eerie deaths, much of it actually taking place on Halloween.

Why I like this stuff is probably more a matter for the psychologist’s couch, but what I do with it is, I hope, more interesting. Supernatural beliefs and narratives are entirely cultural constructs, and reflect human experiences of phenomena in the real world. Thus, they are an excellent way to grasp a culture’s values and its people’s subconscious understanding of themselves. This is especially valuable as a method for a way into cultures of the past, either because their belief systems are no longer extant or because they have changed radically.

Text showing the words muirdris and peist
Text showing the words muirdris and peist (peist being derived from the Latin bestia aquatis, “aquatic monster”)

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a dragon conference, so I went searching for dragons. Specifically, I was investigating the claim that Celtic languages had a word related to the Greek δράκων (drakōn) / Latin dracō, and if so, how that creature might have been understood. I knew, of course, that Roman dragons had been borrowed during the Roman colonization of Britain, and had been adapted into the local culture, though with something of a local British flavour.

While important in medieval literature, the common or run-of-the-mill dragon had nothing in common with the pre-Christian Celts and so was not the creature I was looking for. The creature related to the Greco-Roman terms was the muirdris, but the word only occurs in a couple of texts. By looking closely at those stories, I was able to link this creature to a specific phrase that also shows up in Hiberno-Latin literature such as the Life of Saint Columba: namely, the famous first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster (in the linked text, search for “aquatic monster”). This famous aquatic monster is, I am certain, a genuine Old Irish dragon.

Loch Ness Monster sculpture in Minneapolis
Minne – Minneapolis’s version of the Loch Ness monster. Public Domain.
Ogopogo sculpture in Kelowna
Sculpture of Ogopogo or Naitaka (Salish: n’ha-a-itk, “lake demon”), the monster of Lake Okanagan, BC (Credit: Old Kelown)

The project led me to the conclusion that in Old Irish, dragons were not creatures of air and fire as they became in later medieval tradition and in our modern-day books and movies, nor even of mountains and caves, but vicious lake and sea monsters. For that reason, the Latin word used to describe them was not dracō but bestia aquatilis, “aquatic monster” (bestia becomes peist in the Irish text pictured above). Like the Greek δράκοντες (drakontes), part of their power comes from their terrible gaze.

Black Figure vase with Heracles battling a sea monster
Caeretan Black Figure vase with Heracles battling a sea monster or ketos; Stavros Niarchos Foundation Collection 530-520 BCE © Zurich University Collection (from http://www.theoi.com)

Furthermore, these watery dragons are usually accompanied by a strange supernatural little person. In the Latin, the word is homunculus, which literal-minded Latin translators take as a regular human being, but based on the Irish cognate texts must in fact be some sort of Old Irish supernatural aquatic dwarf. The creature’s function seems to be to lure a saint, hero, or king into the dragon’s presence, provoking the conflict between hero and dragon that drives the narrative. The cognate word in modern Welsh and Breton just means “beaver”; this seems to be a later development, but I quite like the idea of the Loch Ness Monster swimming around accompanied by an evil magic beaver (very Canadian!!).

On a more modern note, I’ve also been working with the Vancouver Welsh Society in its local revival of the Mari Lwyd tradition. This is a Christmas custom that involves leading the Mari, pictured at right as a person in a long cloak and literal horse skull on their head, from door to door, and engaging in a rap battle (a.k.a. flyting, or pwnco in Welsh) to be let in. It isn’t really rap, per se, but the idea is the same. My current project is trying to work out precisely what it means that the Welsh create a creature out of a horse’s skull and bring it to their Christmas celebrations. Stay tuned for some answers on this strange tradition!

Picture of the Mari at the Mari Lwyd festival
The Mari. . . getting a beer?

Antone Lanatà Minard holds a PhD from UCLA in Folklore and Mythology. His specialization is Welsh and Celtic-language belief and narrative in medieval literature and in nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklore. He currently teaches in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at UBC. Read more about Dr. Minard here.

To watch the Mari Lwyd tradition in action click here.

For the Life of St. Columba, and mention of the “aquatic monster” in Chapter XXVIII, click here.

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