Earlier this week, I mentioned the favorable connotations of dragons in Irish poetry. So let’s go to the epic! Tain Bo Cualnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) was written about pre-Christian events, possibly collecting pre-Christian poetry, but was certainly put into its present form by Christians and preserved, memorized and copied from manuscript to manuscript by them.
It helped, of course, that Ireland didn’t have any martyrs; and that many people of druidic, poetic, and bardic families converted to Christianity and felt a call to become monks and priests. Some monks left annoyed comments in the margins about how the abbot was nuts to make them copy out all this boring old heathen stuff; but for the most part, the Irish saw their ancestors as God-touched in many ways. King Cormac, Ireland’s answer to Abraham and Akhenaton, was the poster misunderstood hero for this view. You even get bits like the tale of St. Patrick and Oisin. (Okay, so that was a late medieval fanfic add-on from much later. It still proves my point.)
So back to the Tain Bo Cualnge. Here’s the first description we get of Ulster’s great hero, Cu Chulainn:
I see a fair man who will perform weapon-feats, with many a wound in his flesh. A hero’s light is on his brow. His forehead is the meeting-place of many virtues. In each of his eyes are the seven jewel-bright pupils of a hero. His spearpoints are unsheathed. He wears a red mantle with clasps. His face is beautiful. He amazes women-folk.This lad of handsome countenance looks in the battle like a dragon.
Here’s another great hero, Fergus mac Roich. Queen Medb of Connacht flatters him by referring to him, to his face, as:
the bold Fergus, Fergus mac Rossa Róich with lowing cattle and great armies surrounded by tribes with great possessions, Fergus with the beauty of a king, the fierceness of a dragon, the venomous breath of a viper, the powerful blow of a lion.
Medb’s husband Ailill is watching the Ulster troops come up with Fergus:
‘Who are those, Fergus?’ asked Ailill.
‘Those are two warriors, two bright flames, two points of perfection in battle, two heroes, two combative chiefs, two dragons, two fiery ones, two champions, two fighters, two scions, two bold ones, the two beloved by the Ulstermen around their king. They are Fiachna and Fíacha, two sons of Conchobar mac Nesa, the two loved ones of the north of Ireland.’
None of this, btw, means that the image of the evil dragon is unimportant. In fact, the reason one can artistically compare some human to a dragon is probably that one is making a subtle compliment underneath — “Since you’re as fierce and tough as a dragon, I bet you could slay or tame a dragon if one showed up.”