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Dragon myths from Vorarlberg (Austria)



Vorarlberg is the westernmost province of Austria. It is a mountainous area, and most of its inhabitants live in the alluvial plane of the river Rhine. The other valleys are less densely inhabited. And the alpine areas serve as pastures during summer. Life was not easy for the peasants in this rough country. And during winter they had much time to ponder about the vast powers of nature. Many natural hazards were attributed to the dark and supernatural forces of the underworld. Therefore Vorarlberg is rich in folklore and mythological creatures. We learn about the "Nachtvolk" - the people of the night, compareable to elves - or the "Butz" - a kind of goblin roaming the mountain pastures and haunting the farmhouses during winter. Dragons, however, are seldom found in these myths. And they were not defeated by noble knights or saints. Believe me, the knights of our country had no desire to leave their small, but comfortable castles in the valley of the river Rhine. As the dragons did not devour lovely virgins, but only a cow now and then, the nobility was not inclined to relieve the peasants of these creatures. This was done by wandering scholars and other wise people, who possessed some supernatural powers themselves.



The Dragon Slayer

("Der Drachentöter"; BEITL, 1953: No. 312/II)


A fierce dragon once haunted the pastures, forests and ravines near Brand, a small and remote village well within a steep and narrow mountain valley. He often came down to the village to devour the cattle and harmed the peasants in every way he could. All attempts to get rid of the foe were in vain. Then one day a travelling scholar happened to visit the village. He promised relieve - but at the same time he warned the peasants of his own powers. Nevertheless the people of Brand were more affraid of the dragon but of the unknown magick of the scholar. The wayfarer proposed two methods to defeat the dragon: water or fire. Although knowing the forces of torrents and debris flows the peasant considered the fire more dangerous.

Early that evening the sky turned black as night. But just one moment later a thunderstorm arouse as it was never experienced before in this country. Flashes so rapidly followed each other that the whole valley was brightly enlighted - with no sun or moon shining. The thunder rolled and echoed from one mountain ridge to the other, the rain poured down and it hailed cats and toads. The tempest was worst in that area, where the dragon was supposed to dwell. Then at midnight, when its force still increased, the whole hillside collapsed. Meadows and woods, water and soil, trees and stones intermingled and rushed down the slope. And in the midst of this there was the dragon. Suddenly he was struck and killed by one last great flash. Then the thunderstorm ceased, and the debris flow soon stopped the the bottom of the valley. The rest of the night was covered by absolute darkness. Late came dawn. At full light the peasants could examine the devastations of the night. The whole hillside had turned into a steep torrent, and masses of debris covered the valley´s floor. "This is the dragon´s grave" whispered the men to their wives and children. The wandering scholar, however, had disappeared.

Shurely these mountain pastures were hazardous both for peasants and cattle. Cows quite often lost their ways and fell into torrents. People were threatened and sometimes even killed by thunderstorms. Debris flows still are a common hazard in these areas and millions of shillings are spent each year for the obstruction of torrents. Folk lore attributed all these threats to supernatural powers, e.g. in this case to a dragon. According to the old rule similia similibus curantur (an evil can be cured by somthing similar) only a magickal tempest could relieve the valley of this creature. At the same time the legend explained the formation of a new torrent. The geologist, however, has another explanation: Huge masses of unstable gravel had been deposited on the mountain flanks during the last ice age. They were soon covered and stabilized by trees. But in areas without vegetational cover theses gravels very often feed debris flows during thunderstorms.

The Schesatobel near Brand is one of these areas. About 200 years ago the woods had been cut down. The people needed money for the construction of a new church. They should not have done so. During the following years a small creek, not wider than two or three feet, developed into deep torrent. Today backward erosion exceeds three meters each year! About one hundred years ago the tooth of a mammoth was found in Schesatobel.

Shurely the legend is much older and does not report the formation of that torrent. But just imagine: The sudden collaps of a hillside, which had been stable for hundreds of years during an extremely strong thunderstorm, the appearance of a strange person at the same time, and perhaps the finding of mammoth bones - all these features could be the source of this myth which was born during the long winter nights.



A common motive in alpine folk lore is the punishment of hart-hearted people. It explains the occurence of vast devasted areas, glaciers or strange morphological features. As these legends should remind us of the powers of the LOrd, they usually are not connected to dragons - with one exception.

Der Jolerbühel

(VONBUN & BEITL, 1950: No. 18; "Bühel" is a dialect word for a small hill)


The site of a strange hill, the Jolerbühel, in the village Bezau was once occupied by a rich farmhouse surrounded by fertile fields and pleasant meadows. One day a stranger appeared begging for alms. When the hart-hearted farmer drove him away, the stranger turned around and warned: "Just wait, what I will bring you in return." Then suddenly the beggar disappeared, and one moment later the sky turned black as night. Water roared and a nearby creek turend into an impetous torrent. Down the valley came trees and boulders devasting the once so lovely place. And in the midst of the debris flow there was the stranger leading a fierce dragon by a red cord. With his tail the dragon drove all trunks and rocks towards the farmhouse. He heaped up the debris above the house burying both men and cattle. Then the stranger took the red cord and, leading the dragon through the center of Bezau, he turned towards the neighbouring village. Both beggar and dragon were seen never again.


Drache von Athanasius Kircher, 5 kb

This is not the only dragon threatening Bezau:


The Dargon of Lake Sonderdach

("Der Drache im See Sonderdach"; VONBUN & BEITL, 1950: No. 20)


A small lake is situated about one hour´s walk above Bezau amidst pleasant pastures. It lodges a huge dragon. Of course nobody knows its depth. One day some curious country lads tried to fathom the lake. Suddenly they heard a voice:

"If thou fathomst me, I´ll devour thee."

Frightend out of their wits they fled the enchanted waters. From that day on nobody again dared to measure the lake in fear of the dragon. With a stroke of its tail the brute might break through the shores. Then masses of water and mud will rush down the hill and the dragon will ride upon this debris flooding and ravaging the village.



In another myth the dragon not only acts as the bringer of debris flows. He also guards a mysterious hoard:


The Dragon of Galina gorge

("Der Drache im Gallinatobel"; VONBUN & BEITL, 1950: No. 100)


One of the most striking features in Galina gorge is an isolated huge rock. As the tale goes, in former times it rested upon three other boulders. A poor sheperd often seeked shelter beneath this rock. Every time he did so, he found coins of silver, and sometimes even of gold. One day his father got aware of these findings and - quite correctly - guessed that this was the hiding-place a hoard. But the moment he crept beneath the rock a dreadful thunderstorm arouse. Water rushed down the gorge carrying soil and stones. The man could escape, but the cave beneath the rock was buried. It is said that a wandering scholar had deposited his valueables there. A dragon guarded the hoard. This dragon also causes the thunderstorms and torrents of rains that still ravage the gorge occasionally. One day the dragon will leave his dwelling in the worst thunderstorm ever experienced. He will pass the hoard over to any person daring to stay on a nearby wooden bridge during the flood.

Well, brigdes are much safer today than they used to be some decades ago. However, floods will never be totally banned. If you now want to visit Vorarlberg and wait for the dragon you should bear in mind that the old wooden bridge has long been replaced by one made of concrete and steel. But perhaps the dragon allready has left his gorge. And finding nobody waiting for him he took the hoard along to hide it in some other remote place.



The Dragon and the "Venediger"

("Der Drache und das Venedigermännlein"; VONBUN & BEITL, 1950: No. 141)


Long time ago a dreadful dragon ravaged the surroundings of Sonntag, a small mountain village, where he harmed both man and cattle. All efforts to banish the beast were in vain. One day a "Venediger" appeared. Fearlessly he mounted the dragon and rode off through the valley waving his hat. From that day on the dragon was seen never again.

"Venediger" litterally means "man from Venice". During the middle ages and the ensueing centuries merchants from Venice travelled the Alps to find and buy rock crystals and other minerals which were cut and sold in Venice. In alpine folk lore a Venediger is a kind of goblin or dwarf searching rare crystals and especially gold. Some of them could even turn the water of a secret spring into gold (although in some cases it took five years to fill the magickal jar). Our myth does not mention any hoard. But perhaps it was their common love for the treasures of the mountains which established the friendship between the Venediger and the Dragon.



Sources:

BEITL, R.: Im Sagenwald. Neue Sagen aus Vorarlberg. - 464 p., Feldkirch (Montfort-Verlag) 1953. Reprint Bregenz (Franz-Michael-Felder-Verein) 1982.

VONBUN, F.J. & BEITL, R.: Die Sagen Vorarlbergs. Mit Beiträgen aus Liechtenstein. - 308 p., Feldkirch (Montfort-Verlag) 1950. Reprint Bregenz (Franz-Michael-Felder-Verein) 1980.

Have a look at the original german text!


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last update 10.03.1998