Deified and demonised across the world throughout the ages, the dragon of yore also left its footprints upon the lives, legends and landscapes of Brittany. Indeed, Breton lore once held that the peninsula of Brittany itself was the body of the enormous dragon slain by the archangel Michael; the beast’s backbone formed the Monts d’Arrée and the wild coastline of Finistère, its head.
In the Breton tradition, the dragon only emerges from its subterranean lair to feed its appetite for destruction. It is usually of gigantic size, often with several heads featuring one, or more, horns. Its body is armoured with scales and boasts bat-like wings, strong feline claws and long, sharp teeth. Along with its ability to spit fire, these attributes present it as master of the four fundamental elements and thus the mightiest of adversaries.
The 1st century Roman author, Pliny, tells us that dragons drain the blood of elephants, their greatest enemy, by biting behind the animal’s ear, while the late 1st century Book of Revelation describes the apocalyptic battle between the angel Michael and a “great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns.” Michael and his angels prevailed and “the great dragon was cast out [of Heaven], that old serpent, called the Devil, which deceives the whole world, was cast out onto the earth.”
Isidore, the 7th century scholar and Bishop of Seville, described dragons as “the largest animal on earth. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling.” These descriptions remained little changed in the medieval bestiaries. Writing in the 12th century, Hugo de Fouilloy announced that “the greatest of the serpents is the dragon; it deals death by its poisonous breath and by the blow of its tail. This creature is lifted by the strength of its venom into the air as if it were flying and the air is set in motion by it.”
To the medieval Christian chroniclers, the dragon, as the greatest of serpents, was synonymous with the Devil: “As it deals death with its poisonous breath and the blow of its tail, so the Devil destroys men’s souls by thought, word and deed. He kills their thoughts by the breath of pride; he poisons their words with malice; he strangles them by the performance of evil deeds, as it were with his tail.”
Similar sentiments were later echoed in the pages of the 13th century Harley Bestiary and it is this image of the dragon that predominated in the literature and legends of Europe down into the modern era. As a symbol of evil, the dragon features as the enemy of noble knights seeking to prove their mettle or to rescue a chaste woman held captive by the beast. As the embodiment of evil, it was the most powerful of foes and thus could only be defeated by an even mightier adversary.
A Breton legend tells that, one day, Saint Michael was called to fight against the Devil who had taken the form of a fearsome dragon. The battle began on Mont Dol in eastern Brittany and was fiercely fought, across the skies, for several days before Saint Michael eventually triumphed atop Mont Tombe, 20km to the east. It was even said by some that Michael did not kill the beast but imprisoned it in a vault deep within the mountain. Those looking for Mont Tombe on a modern map should note that the name changed in the 9th century when the emperor Charlemagne adopted Saint Michael as his patron saint.
There are many old stories here of dragons that once terrorised a region whose inhabitants were only delivered thanks to the intervention of angels, saints or knights. Local toponyms attest that many caves throughout Brittany were once believed to have been the lair of dragons and scattered across the topography of the region are rocks, cliffs and islets whose features bear the indelible imprint of dragons and the struggle to defeat them.
An Iron Age stele in the churchyard of Landouzen chapel in Le Drennec features a deeply scored notch around its circumference. This was said to have been caused by the fierce struggles made by the dragon that had been tied to it by a length of chain by Saint Ursin who had captured the beast to end its terrorising of the countryside. This otherwise obscure saint was then reputed to have drowned the dragon in the neighbouring marsh.
The land surrounding Janzé, in eastern Brittany, was once reputed to have been in thrall to a terrifying dragon that lay waste to the area’s crops; devouring sheep and cows and attacking anyone who foolishly crossed its path. The early 6th century saint, Armel, decided to confront the dragon and was able to defeat it by throwing his stole around its neck; once subdued, Saint Armel cast the dragon into the Seiche River. It was claimed that the grass never again grew on the ground that the dragon tumbled over en route to its watery grave.
However, the townsfolk of Ploërmel, some 70km westwards, also claimed that their district was the site of Saint Armel’s dragon slaying exploits. According to local lore, it was in the vicinity of Ploërmel that the saint volunteered to rescue the people from an enormous green dragon that devoured sheep, cows, foals and even farmers. Having overpowered the beast, Saint Armel bound it with his stole and, now docile as a sheep, flung the dragon into the Yvel River. A scarred rock near the river was said to have been caused by the dragon’s claw during its struggle with the saint and, just as near Janzé, the grass was reputed to have never grown back on the site of their fight. One account tells that the dragon did not die but fell asleep at the bottom of the water where it still lies to this day.
Local legend attests that Pointe de Saint-Marc, on the south coast of Belle-Île, was the scene of another terrible fight with a murderous dragon. It is said that in ancient times, the nearby cave was the refuge of a nine-headed dragon that sowed disaster across the surrounding villages. The inhabitants had no other resort but to pray to Heaven for deliverance; a call answered by Saint Mark who, riding his fearless steed, battled the dragon which he eventually overcame before throwing the defeated beast into the sea. On his return to Heaven, his horse kicked back so violently against the rock that the mark of his iron shoes can still be seen at the entrance to the cave.
Not far from the south coast town of Quimper lies Ergué-Gabéric; another area once noted to have been terrorised by a dragon. According to legend, the beast lived in a cave in the Stangala Gorge and each month demanded that the locals deliver a young woman for him to devour. However, the dragon was eventually killed by a knight, Caznevet de Kerfors, who could not bear the thought of his intended bride being delivered to the rapacious creature. This knight is known to have lived in the 15th century and may have supplanted an earlier but now unknown hero of the tale.
Tradition attests that the 12th century Daoulas Abbey was founded on the site of a much earlier building and the history of Saint Tadec and Saint Judulus, recorded by Albert Le Grand in his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637), also notes an earlier foundation. His hagiography notes that the lord of Faou attacked a meeting of the abbots of the region who had gathered near his lands; Saint Tadec was killed at prayer and Saint Judulus beheaded as he fled to Landévennec. To avenge the murder of His servants, God sent a dragon to ravage the lands of Faou. The pagan lord was felled by the dragon and it took all the power of Saint Pol, Bishop of Leon, to defeat the beast and heal the murderer. The latter, having become a Christian, in reparation for his crimes, founded the monastery of Daoulas in the very place where he had slain Saint Judulus.
Having conquered the dragon of Faou, Saint Pol had travelled as far as the village that now bears his name, Lampaul, when he was approached by two men who told him of a little dragon, more ferocious than its father, who devastated their neighbourhood, devouring the cattle and the inhabitants. The saint then untied the dragon, which he had trained like a docile dog, and ordered it to fetch his offspring. The beast immediately obeyed and Saint Pol, having led the two dragons into a remote wood, drove a stake into the ground to which he tied them, forbidding them to ever leave this place. The dragons obeyed the saint’s order until they eventually perished for lack of food.
Saint Pol is also said to have rid the north coast island of Batz of a dragon. Local legend says that in the early 6th century Saint Pol was welcomed to stay on the island on condition that he delivered it from a ferocious dragon that terrorised the place, devouring its people and cattle. After a night of prayer, and accompanied by a local warrior, he set off for the dragon’s lair. At the saint’s command, the dragon emerged in a terrible fury but Pol was unmoved and immediately wrapped his stole around the beast’s neck and led him towards the far end of the island. There, he cast the dragon into the sea, at the spot that is now called Trou du Serpent (Dragon’s Hole).
Similarly, a contemporary of Saint Pol, the evangelist Saint Maudez, is said to have expelled the serpents from the island that now bears his name a few kilometres off the north Breton coast. Back on the mainland, the 7th century Saint Thuriau was believed to have freed the country from a ravenous dragon by casting it into the sea at the mouth of the Léger River. While to the east of the region, near the mouth of the Rance, lies another Trou du Serpent, said to have been the den of a dragon that Saint Suliac threw into the water from the top of Mont Garrot in the 7th century.
Returning home from a pilgrimage to Rome, the 6th century Breton saint, Meen, passed through Angers, where his preaching impressed a lady of the city who pleaded with the saint to rid her territory of a monstrous dragon. Saint Meen drove the beast from her lands and was rewarded with a grant of land where he founded a monastery near the Breton border.
In neighbouring Normandy, the crimson tint of the cliffs around Granville were said to have been caused by the blood of the victims that a dragon once devoured there. While a little north along the coast, a spot under the cliff of Flamanville was also reputed to share the same origin but this dragon’s indiscriminate destruction had been appeased by the people who offered it a child to devour each week. Legend tells that following one sacrifice to the beast, the villagers noted the approach of a man, holding a bishop’s crook, standing on a plough wheel which seemed to glide over the waves. This was Saint Germain who confronted the dragon immediately upon landing on the beach. The dragon tried to retreat into its cave but the saint struck it with his staff whereupon the beast writhed in convulsions and froze before becoming encrusted in the rock.
Many of these tales of dragon slaying feature shared motifs, such as driving the beast into the sea rather than immediately killing it and subduing its violent nature with a stole that marked the grace of holy orders and symbolised the bonds of Christ. As the embodiment of evil, the dragon symbolises the pagan beliefs that existed here before the evangelisation when the early saints “found Brittany ravaged by beasts and dragons, most savage, that wreaked havoc everywhere.” Defeating the dragon therefore represented the triumph of the early Celtic saints over the ancient practices and beliefs. Whether those practices involved child sacrifice is still a matter of some debate.
It is therefore unsurprising that dragons feature in the hagiographies of several Breton saints. The dragon is the emblem of the patron saint of Trégor, Tudwal, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany who was said to have defeated a dragon on his arrival in Treguier. Others among this select band of saints include Saint Samson who drove out a dragon from a cave near his hermitage in Cornwall before his arrival in Brittany; Saint Malo who is said to have chased away the dragon that once roamed the area now known as the island of Cézembre (then attached to the mainland); Saint Pol, who defeated the dragons of Faou, Lampaul and Batz; and Saint Brieuc who exorcised a demon that appeared in the form of a dragon and is sometimes represented as treading on a dragon.
In the 6th century, the Rhuys peninsula on Brittany’s south coast was the site of a monastic settlement established by Saint Gildas but it was also a region tormented by a dragon who the locals placated with the offering of a child each week. Hearing that his godson was due to be sacrificed to the beast, the saint resolved to tackle the dragon; described as six hundred feet long with a girth that measured sixty feet, two large wings and teeth as long and sharp as spindles.
Having mounted his white horse, the saint approached the dragon’s den but instead of throwing his godson into the creature’s open jaws, he threw in a ball of wool that had been imbedded with iron hooks. The jaws of the dragon became bound together with the hooks and Saint Gildas dragged it to the headland of the Grand Mont and commanded his horse to leap to the island of Houat, 13km away. The horse leapt with such force that, despite the passage of time, the imprint of its hooves remains visible in the rock today. Realising the saint’s plan, the dragon also leapt for the island but while the saint’s horse safely made the leap from the mainland, the dragon fell short and smashed its head into the Er-Yoc’h islet before falling into the sea.
Very little is known about the obscure 6th century saints, Neventer and Derrien. They are believed to have been two British knights who, returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promised the local ruler, Count Elorn, to deliver his lands from the dragon that was due to be given his son, Riok, on condition that he agreed to convert to Christianity and raise his son in the new faith. It was said that Elorn’s desperation was because his suzerain had decreed that, in order to contain the dragon’s devastating raids across the country, the lords of the region would, every Wednesday, choose one of their house as a human offering to the beast or else offer-up themselves.
The two saints tracked the dragon to its lair and commanded it to appear in the name of Christ. Hissing and snarling, the dragon emerged from its cave; five fathoms long, it stood as big as a horse. Its eyes threw thunderbolts that killed birds and children, its jaws opened so wide that in one mouthful it devoured a sheep. The saints did not hesitate to advance towards the beast who became docile in their presence and willingly accepted a halter. Thus subdued, they led the dragon to the north coast where they commanded it to throw itself into the sea.
A hagiography composed sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries tells that, in the 5th century, all infants who died without baptism were delivered to the dragon of Grand Rocher, near the north coast town of Plestin, but every year, on Christmas Eve, it demanded human prey of royal blood. The dragon was as cunning as it was terrible and was said to have walked backwards so as to confound any that sought to track it to its lair. It is noted that King Arthur fought this human-headed beast, whose neck was as thick as the necks of seven bulls, for three days but was unable to defeat it with his simple club and shield.
An acquaintance of Arthur, Saint Efflam, asked that he might quell the dragon and, after a night of prayer, he stood before the dragon’s cave and demanded its appearance. Subdued by the prayers of the saint, the dragon vomited much blood before rushing into the sea whose waters consumed it. However, in the 19th century, the people of the surrounding area claimed that the dragon was not dead and that, at certain times of the year, during a wild storm, it could be seen sitting on a rock, beating the water with its tail and shrieking cries that shook the shore.
A later version of the legend tells that Saint Efflam was forced to use a ruse to bring out the dragon but that once he had made the sign of the cross, the dragon could not return to its cave. Subdued by the air of a biniou (Breton bagpipe), the dragon was led to a chasm that opened into the reef known as the Red Rock, which it agreed to enter upon a promise that it could play the biniou. In another rendering, the dragon was chained to the submerged stones of the reef, from where it vomited the blood that stained the rocks red.
However, a Breton ballad set-down from the oral tradition in the 1830s provides yet another account of the defeat of the dragon of Grand Rocher. In this story, invigorated by the water that Saint Efflam had caused to spring forth, King Arthur drove the blade of his sword straight through the mouth of the dragon; the dying beast tumbled into the sea and was lost to the waves.
The earlier notion that the mighty King Arthur had been unable to defeat the dragon that only God’s servant could subdue is also noted in the life of Saint Carantec who is thought to have lived in the 5th century. Before his arrival in Brittany, the saint was travelling through what is now western England when he was called upon by King Arthur to subdue a colossal dragon that was ravaging the region. Carantec was able to pacify the beast by wrapping his stole around its neck and led it like a sheep to the king’s court.
During his time in Brittany, Saint Carantec is reputed to have again faced a dragon that had long menaced the inhabitants of the northern peninsula that now bears his name. It seems that, unusually, this beast refused to meekly submit to the power of the saint; legend tells that the saint took the dragon by its tail and threw it against a rock that split in two under the force of the impact. Carantec then threw the creature to the south wind and it landed in a bottomless pit through which it fell into the fires of Hell.
The dragons of Brittany might have simply been mythical beasts created by some pious scribes to highlight the power marshalled by the sauroctone saints but some could be the Christianised versions of far older tales once told of local heroes that battled against the last of the region’s great saurians. Although the age of dragons has long since passed, in the west of Brittany it was said that if you put a chicken feather and red and black rooster feathers in a bowl of milk, you would get a little eight-legged white lizard. However, nobody dares to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.