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I’m going to nail my colours to the mast here – I really like dragons.
I live in Wales, where the dragon is king, at one time, Harry Potter fan that I was, my email address was commonwelshgreen and I’ve always been a bit sad that St George killed the dragon rather than offering to swap a few cows for the princess, who Iassumed from my limited experience of princess-like girls would have been skinny, shrill and studded with indigestible jewellery.
Later, I became fascinated with the tales of Arthur and his warrior horsemen, riding under their dragon banner – it didn’t take me long to realise that the “knights in armour” King Arthur was a fantasy. Later still I was blown away by the presence of dragons in so many Old World cultures and their acceptance as lordly but dangerous beasts.
The chunky six-limbed Welsh dragon is a far cry from the sinuous snake like Chinese dragons, but it occurred to me to wonder why they should be so important to two such different and widely separated cultures.
I have theory about that – brace yourself for wild speculation backed up by very nebulous evidence, but – hey – it’s the A to Z Challenge. As long as we produce a post a day it doesn’t need to be PhD thesis quality, does it?
The nomadic horsemen of the Asian steppes had a remarkably similar culture, from their eastern ranges on the Danube to the borders of China. They followed their herds, and extorted luxury goods from settled populations by offering protection. They were also very keen and willing mercenaries, fighting as mounted archers under a peculiar standard.
This took the form of a long pole with a metal animal head, mouth gaping, mounted on top of it. To this was attached a long fabric tube, embellished with fringes and flaps of cloth that would inflate in the wind. It is thought that the mounted archers used it as a ‘wind sock’ to check the wind direction and strength – essential for efficient shooting. Some of these metal heads have survived and are distinctly wolf like [I found a picture of one found in Kazakhstan last week but can’t find it again *kicks self*] similar to this depiction [top centre] on Trajan’s Column.
Here is another image, showing the dangly bits.
I can imagine this looking very much like the Chinese dragon as it whips in the wind.
So, what has this to do with Britain?
In 175 AD Marcus Aurelius [the old emperor played by Richard Harris in Gladiator] achieved a decisive victory over a tribe of steppe nomads called the Sarmatians. As part of the peace deals the Sarmatians agreed to provide 8000 heavy cavalry and horse archers as auxiliary troops, and 5500 of these Sarmatians, complete with wind socks, were sent to support the legions in Britain. Many of them were stationed up on Hadrian’s Wall, but others were attached to legions in Wales. Their commanding officer was Lucius Atorius Castus. Plenty of evidence for their presence remains in votive inscriptions and scraps of the scaled armour they used to protect themselves and their horses. This is a drawing of a tombstone for one of these Sarmatians and the dragon head and long whippy body is quite clear.
A possible point of origin for Arthur Pendragon?
At one time it was thought that the dragon standards – dracos in roman military texts – would only be known from carvings and texts but the head of one was found at a fort in Neiderbeiber in Germany.Gilded and silvered, with an attachment within its jaws that probably made a whistling sound, the standard must have been very impressive when it was in action.
When the Romans left britain the dragon continued to be used as a standard. It gives me the warm fuzzies to revisit the Bayeux Tapesty and see that Harold Godwinsson to went into battle under the red dragon.