On Wings of Change: The Dragon in Celtic Magic


by Kristoffer Hughes

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Classical Latin writers specified that a "Draco" (which forms the origin of the modern word Dragon) referred to an unspecified or uncategorized serpent. The British Celtic name for Dragon, Dreig, continues to be used to this day in the modern Welsh language and is indicative of a mythical creature that is heraldic or emblematic of a Celtic Cultural Continuum. It is probable that the serpentine nature of the dragon and their expression in Celtic myth as worms and snakes seem to imply a possible land-based nature to these creatures; it may be suggested that the dragon started its life as a snake and developed through the popular imagination to become the mighty beast with which we are familiar. The dragon can be found in several cultures around the world, and is not exclusive to the Celtic nations; many have an earthy feel to them and seem symbolic of the relationship between a people and their land.

In Celtic magic, the true significance of the dragon is subtle, and they are not simply the enormous fire breathing beasts that we have been led to believe; they are so much more than their fictionalized expression. Not only do they represent the serpentine qualities of the land, of a creature in touch with the earth and moving into relationship with the people, they are also indicative of the spirit of a people, in this case the Celts of the islands of Britain. The dragon may have started its life as a lowly snake, but it rose to become the spirit of a place, genius loci, and then something remarkable happened: it became a part of our mythology, it sprouted wings and it moved with the people across the surface of the earth, over oceans and to new lands. Whereas the ordinary spirits of place are a part of the story of location, the dragon became something else; it became transferable and could migrate with the people. In order to gain an understanding of the significance and importance of the dragon in Celtic magic, we must descend into the past and find them in the misty corridors of mythology.

Into the Dragon's Den
In the tale of Lludd and Llefelys (which forms part of the Mabinogi collection compiled from the Red Book of Hergest), the sons of Beli the great, Lludd and his brother Llefelys find they must deal with three plagues that terrorized the island of Britain. The second plague was an awful scream that was heard every May-eve. So terrible was the scream that it pierced every heart in Britain; men would lose their strength, women would lose their children, young people would lose their minds, and every tree and plant would be left barren. The tale tells us that the cause of this plague was the cries of Britain's native dragon in battle with a dragon of a foreign race who strived to overcome it. To combat the plague, Britain was measured in length and breadth to discover its center, Oxford, and here a great pit was dug. Within this pit Lludd and Llefelys placed a vast cauldron filled with the finest mead and covered with a satin sheet. In time, two monstrous creatures appeared in battle; at length they took to the air in the form of mighty dragons, and finally they fell as pigs onto the satin sheet—which sank to the mead depths of the cauldron, and there they drank and slept. Lludd and Llefelys wrapped the pigs tightly in the satin sheet and placed them within a stone cist and buried them in the securest part of the island of Britain, at the place called Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. And thus the fierce outcry ceased, and the people recovered.

The significance of the above tale is further reiterated in the Triads of the Island of Britain, which describes that one of the three fortunate concealments of Britain was, "the concealment of the dragons in Dinas Emrys which Lludd the son of Beli concealed."1 Further reference to the same pair of dragons can be found in Nennius' Historia Brittonum, compiled in the 9th century. Its title is misleading, as it does not represent a comprehensive history but rather a disparate collection of early writings that focused on locality-specific British history. The story that follows involves the famed Celtic prophet/magician Merlin and his adventures with Vortigern, the Druids, and two powerful dragons.

The story tells of the shamed king Vortigern and his attempt to build a stronghold in Snowdonia, but try as he may, the towers keep falling. His Druids inform him that the only way to safeguard the strength of the tower is to sprinkle the ground with the blood of a fatherless child. In due course, such a child is discovered and brought to the site to be slaughtered. Upon discovering that the Druids are responsible for his fate, he asks if they know what is buried beneath the tower; they cannot answer. He claims that under the ground is a lake, and within that lake a cloth tent, within which are to be found two sleeping serpents, one red and one white. The site is dug, and lo and behold, the serpents are discovered. The boy asks the Druids what the meaning of this is, and again they are unable to answer. The child explains that the cloth tent represents the kingdom and the two serpents are dragons; the red dragon stands for Britain and the white for the Saxons. So far, the white has been victorious, but eventually the red would reassert her strength and repel the invader. Eventually the boy reveals his identity: he is Merlin Ambrosius.

If we take the above three accounts—the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, the Triad, and the account of Merlin and Vortigern—there are several facts that belie the nature of the dragon. In the first tale we are told that the terrible cry on May-eve is the battle cries of a dragon, which the tale describes as "...and therefore YOUR dragon..."2, implying that one of the dragons is native to Britain and to the tribes of Lludd and his brother Llefelys, and is indicative of the land and its people, whereas the antagonist is foreign. We find the usual tripartite style relating to the shape or forms of the dragons, in that they appear initially as "monstrous animals," they then arise to the air as—one assumes—winged mighty dragons, and finally they fall to the earth in the form of pigs. Many of the modern interpretations of the tale fail to address the magical significance of this saga; firstly there are three forms to the dragons: unassigned animal, dragon, and pig. Meaning can be discovered in the original language, which states that "...yn ymladd yn rith aruthter aniveileit...yn rith dreigieu yn yr awyr...yn rith deu barchell,"3, which translates as, "in the form of monstrous animals...in the form of dragons in the air...in the form of two pigs." That may not seem extraordinary until one examines the term "rith," which is a word that describes a form of magic, or a magical description for an object's form or shape that is altered or transformed by magic. The term "rith" used magically implies that the actual shape of anything in existence is not necessarily permanent and can be changed by the will or power of the magician. One may assume that owing to the etymology of the word "dragon" and the fact that Merlin describes the sleeping dragons as serpents, that the initial monstrous shape of the dragons may well have been in the form of serpents. Snakes are commonly associated with the Celts and may represent the spirit of the land itself, which may imply that the dragon may have started its life as Genius Loci. After they rise to the air in the form of dragons they then descend into the shape of the most common Otherworldly Celtic beast, the pig, believed to have been gifted to humanity from the indigenous Celtic underworld, Annwn. The pig appears throughout Celtic mythology as devourer of the profane, a sign of impending supernatural activity and a valued commodity, qualities that can be superimposed onto the scales of the mighty dragon.

In the tale of Merlin and Vortigern we are informed of their colouration, red and white; the red dragon continues to be the emblematic symbol of the nation of Wales and its people as the original inhabitants of the Island of Britain. The dragons and the inter-textual references between these three accounts and other Celtic myths demonstrate the nature of the dragon, its function and the impact it had on the Celtic culture—which continues to this day.

How is this of value to practitioners of Celtic magic today? Not only do we have a creature of supernatural erudition that is indicative of the lands of the Celts but which is also representative of that cultural continuum and its people. It is the magic and spirit of the dragon that connects one on an energetic level to the entire Celtic Cultural Continuum. Some Genius Loci are not transferable from one location to another whilst others are. Where one spirit is indicative of a river, a mountain, or an ancestor, the dragon is the spirit that encompasses them all; it represents the beating, pulsing, vibrant spirit of the Celts and it is transferable to another location. To call the dragon is to summon the might of the Celts, to invoke the essence of heritage and culture that swim within you.

The Spirit of the Celts is more than the sum total of heritage and genetics, for if we look to the tales we can catch a glimpse, a clue to the nature of its spirit. In the tale of Vortigern, a fatherless child is necessary to solve the riddle of the fort's continuous destruction. This lack of parenthood is a trait shared by another enigmatic and magical figure of Celtic mythology, the prophet and chief bard of Britain: Taliesin, who also claimed himself to be an aspect of mystery by stating, "Not of mother nor of father, was my birth, was my creation."4 This trait seems to eliminate the need for hard genetics to justify one's connection to the Celtic spirit—which cannot be contained to blood alone; it runs in the rivers of deep ancestry and the magic of spiritual connection. It is by means of the Celtic spirit that we connect and swim in the rivers of its powerful continuum, and the dragon with its myriad shapes and its qualities of both land and tribe is perhaps one of the most powerful symbols of this connection. Regardless of where you are or where you come from, the commonality of the dragon and its power to transcend diversity, location and time is an ancient and significant energy that can and will bring richness and connection to your devotional practice, your magic and rituals.

1Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Rachel Bromwich. Univeristy of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2006. P 94.
2The Mabinogion, Sioned Davies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008. Pp 113.
3The White Book Mabinogion. J. Gwenogfryn Evans, private press, Pwllheli, 1915. Pp 99.
4Kat Godeu, "The Battle of the Trees," The Book of Taliesin. Author's translation.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2014. All rights reserved.