An analysis of the man and dragon combat from the Sigurd legend in the North of England to the first carvings of St Michael and the Dragon
The Viking invasions of England in the late 9th and 10th centuries transformed many aspects of Anglo Saxon life. Some elements such as names and words have become such an integral part of our environment that they no longer seem alien. Other aspects have been so changed through time that the original Scandinavian element is virtually lost. Further influences have been captured at their most vital and original, and are still reminders of the impact and character of the Viking influences on Anglo Saxon culture. Outstanding amongst these reminders are Anglo Scandinavian artworks. The Viking myths and Gods that were introduced with the Viking settlement were similar to their Anglo Saxon predecessors. Anglian sculpture was continued and developed under the Vikings and through the new decorative styles such as Jellinge and Urnes, the heroes and Gods being portrayed alongside the continuing Christian tradition.
Motifs from both these beliefs could appear together on pieces of art. For example the Gosforth cross, which depicts scenes from the Voluspa, can be regarded as having parallels in the Christian day of judgement. The story of Balder, who was supposed to return to life near the end of the Viking world can be echoed in the resurrection of Christ. Other pagan myths can be found on Christian monuments, being either totally alien to Christian beliefs, or having some reference to Christian equivalents. The fight of Sigurd against the dragon, translated into the apocalyptic combat between St Michael and the dragon, is one such instance. It may be that this one basic image of the man/dragon fight with its appearance first in a pagan context around 1000 A.D., and then in Christian versions by 1120, (or earlier), has little or no real continuity. The popularity and knowledge of each story may be confined to its respective period, with any connection being due to artistic love of the dragon motif, with all its decorative possibilities. Alternatively, there may have been a conscious artistic and symbolic progression. The Sigurd imagery may have been accepted on Christian monuments due to its resemblance to St Michael fighting the dragon, while still being enjoyed for its pagan values by the Scandinavian population. This consequently would put any Sigurd carving into the same category as the Gosforth Cross subject matter.
Later, as the pagan/Christian compromises were subdued into a general acceptance of the Christian faith, the fight was transformed into a more stylised attack by the saint on what remained a fierce and barbaric dragon, altering principally in its body, as the loops and twists were influenced by changing interlace styles. There are many Urnes derived dragons dating from after the Norman Conquest, when Norman sculpture, which was limited to stilted plain decoration, was supplemented by Scandinavian styles. Pure Urnes animals are found at Jevington, (Sussex), and Southwell Minster. A more elaborate Ringerike and Urnes dragon with St Michael is found at Hoveringham, and an Urnes influenced Romanesque type dragon, again with St Michael, can be seen at Ipswich. Although this did go out of fashion, the Urnes style was accepted by the Normans because by this time, the Scandinavian countries had been converted, and the Urnes style had the status of an international and orthodox Christian style. This helped the English to use a pagan derived style, and hence retain a lively, if barbaric, note in post-conquest sculpture. The development of the Urnes style beast continued both before and after the Conquest, and these beasts were involved in the depiction of St Michael fighting the dragon, reliefs of this scene often being carved on tympana. However, it is the dragon that provides the continuity between the Viking scene and that of the early Norman culture in England. It may be that the Sigurd story was lost before the interest in St Michael emerged from the Norman knowledge and influences.
To understand why this can be proposed, and to what extent connections exist, it is necessary to examine the status and use of the Sigurd carvings in Anglo-Scandinavian society and how extensive the knowledge of the St Michael story was. This examination should be in terms of who would be aware of the Book of Revelation and have access to any artwork with apocalyptic subject matter. Furthermore, artistic styles, dating, and geographic location of scenes of both Sigurd and St Michael fighting the dragon becomes important when trying to assess connections between the earlier Sigurd carvings and any St Michael successors. Carvings representing Sigurd slaying Fafnir the dragon are to be found in the north-east of England dating from the late 10th to early 11th centuries. Examples of St Michael fighting the dragon are more widespread, but appear to date from around 1100. This, coupled with the fact that the dragon emblem in the Urnes style provides a link between late Anglo Scandinavian and early English Romanesque sculpture reliefs, suggests that there is a path of continuity throughout the man/dragon combat scene. It is the nature of this path that concerns this dissertation.
The stories behind the basic image of the man/dragon combat are very different. The pagan myth of Sigurd fighting Fafnir the dragon has an emotive context of greed and treachery, and is a complete story in itself, although also being part of Sigurd’s life story. The reference to St Michael hurling the dragon from heaven on the other hand, comprises only a few lines in the Book of Revelation, and its moral balance is that of good overcoming evil, in the context of the final triumph of Christ at the end of the world. The dragon appears in heaven as the evil counterpart of the pregnant woman robed in the sun with the moon at her feet. The beast attempts to devour the boy when he is born, but fails when the child is taken up to the throne of God because he is destined to rule all nations. St Michael throws the dragon down to earth, where he goes in pursuit of the woman, who is again hidden by the angels in the wilderness. The dragon instead goes to wage war on her offspring, who are “those that keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony to Christ”. The glorification of St Michael may extend back to a primitive Eastern dogma concerning the antagonism between the spirit of good and that of evil. In Christian terms, all such fights between the divine and the powers of evil may symbolise the fight of the mind with the spiritual forces. This reflects man’s capacity for both choice and belief. Consequently the image of St Michael and the dragon may symbolise both the fight against evil, and the capacity to make a choice in spiritual beliefs, and the loyalty of that choice.
The Scandinavian legend of Sigurd killing the dragon is a well known incident in the hero’s early life, and is included in several writings such as the Volsung saga. Sigurd was brought up in a royal household, fostered by Regin the dwarf smith, after his father Sigemund had been killed in battle. At the coming of manhood Sigurd was given the horse Grani, after direct advice from Odin. Regin encouraged Sigurd’s heroic nature by telling him the story of Regin’s brothers Fafnir and Otter, who frequently took the shape of an otter to fish. One day Otter was in his animal form by the river when Loki killed the otter for sport and skinned it. Otter’s father demanded retribution in the form of sufficient gold to cover the skin. Unfortunately the gold obtained by Loki had been taken from Andvari, who had cursed the hoard in the misery of his loss. Fafnir, the other brother, then killed his father and transformed himself into a dragon to guard the gold. This was the dragon that Sigurd set out to slay, after Regin had re forged Sigemund’s broken sword Grand for him. After advice from Odin, Sigurd dug a pit in the path that Fafnir took when going to drink, and hid in it, hence being able to stab the dragon’s belly as he slid overhead. Regin then came out of hiding and told Sigurd to roast the dragon’s heart for him to eat. While doing so, Sigurd burnt his thumb and, after sucking it, found he could understand bird language. Fortunately he then heard two birds discussing Regin’s plan to slay him and take the gold. Sigurd therefore decapitated Regin and rode away with the treasure and its curse. This sequence from the forging of the sword to the death of Regin is represented in full or condensed forms on various stones in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Isle of Man, all from the 10th and 11th centuries. The Norman illustrations of St Michael and the dragon in the North of England occur mainly in Yorkshire, with two examples in Cumbria, although carvings appear throughout England.