From China to Czechoslovakia, the dragon occupies a unique place in world of myth and folklore, and the Pyrenees is no exception to this. From the Catalan ‘Dracs’ to the dragons of the Ariege and the ‘Herensuge’ of Basque folklore, there is plenty of scope for scaly encounters throughout this mountain range.
In Catalonia one can find a great deal of dragon folklore and representations, not least in that of its patron saint ‘St Jordi’ (St George), who as we all know actually slays a dragon! The ‘Dracs’ are common features of street processions and festivities, snapping at the townsfolk and rushing them. In Tarragona one finds the unique ‘Vibria’, a female ‘dragon’ complete with human breasts and a womb, that totters around festivals and processions. This addition of highly specific human anatomical aspects in intriguing, and may suggest a more archaic origin that referenced fertility, before the Christian symbolism of the dragon (i.e. evil) took root.
Outside the Aragonese town of Jaca, in the Pena Uruel mountain there lived a dragon that would hypnotise locals with his eyes, then devour them. After many travellers had been eaten, a brave young man from Jaca found the largest shield he could, and polished it so that it gleamed. He then took this shield and used it to reflect the stare of the dragon back to itself. Of course, the dragon became a victim of its own powers, and whilst stunned the young man killed it. Interestingly this parallels the Medusa myth, whose own serpentine hair possessed a hypnotic power, and the mythical basilisk (another reptile) has this talent (Amades, 1997).
In Lavedan, among the Davantaigues mountains, there exists a legend of a dragon that devoured people and oxen, and soon became the terror of the region. Eventually an enterprising young blacksmith decided to end the creature’s reign and took his tools up to near where the creature lived. He set up a forge and created a huge anvil, a quite enormous effort. He placed this anvil, glowing red hot, at the mouth of the cave where the dragon lived. Seeing the red object, the dragon became enraged and ate it, only to realise its mistake when its insides began to burn. Desperate to cool his innards, he began to melt the glaciers around him and drink the waters. So much did he drink that he burst, and the waters formed what is now known as the Lake of Isaby (Margalide, 2008).
It is the Basque lands however that we find some of the oldest and deepest surviving aspects of dragon folklore. The Herensuge, a seven-headed dragon that lurked in caves is often associated with the god Sugaar, a pre-Christian Basque deity that resembles a serpent. Sugaar is associated with thunder and storms, and is typically seen as the male consort of the goddess Mari. Often, he is depicted as flying through the air (without wings), leaving a trail of fire or lightening. It has been suggested that his name means ‘male serpent’, cementing his link with the Herensuge (Trask, 1997).
Another link that the Basques have with the dragon is that one features prominently in their origin/creation myth, the ancient and primitive Benzozia, the Mother Dragon. When the earth was new, all was cold and flat with icy winds blowing across the plains. Benzozia slept in a cavern deep within the earth, and in her slumbers, she turned and rasped the cavern roof with her scales. She twisted and writhed in her restless sleep, causing the earth to groan and split. This great force pushed the ground above her up, creating the first mountains, the Pyrenees. From her seven jaws (a primordial Herensuge?) fire poured forth, and rose up through the cracks in the earth, scorching the soil and the air. Clouds formed, and the rains that they created reacted with the fire causing more clouds to form. The rain created by these clouds forced the fire back down to Benzozia’s cavern, and formed the lakes we see today, allowing the first green shoots of trees and bushes to emerge from the burnt soil. As the fire retreated, from its embers and gases the first people came, the Basque people. (Webster, 1879)
Benzozia still sleeps fitfully beneath the earth, and sometimes fire escapes her jaws again, emerging from the cracks in the peaks of the mountains. Thus, not only are the Basque people born from a primordial dragon’s fire, but the very Pyrenees themselves lie on top of Benzozia snoozing body!
Amades, J. 1997. El Pirineu: Tradicions i Llegendes. Tremp: Garsineu Edicions.
Margalide. 2008. Contes et Legendes des Hautes-Pyrenees. Paris: De Boree.
Trask, L. 1997. The History of Basque. London: Routledge.
Webster, W. 1879. Basque Legends. London: Griffith and Farran.
Photograph (taken by author) is of an iron dragon motif found in the cloisters of Barcelona Cathedral.