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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 01 > Article

Dragon Slayer
by Tom Zoellner

The father of all Prince Charmings, Siegfried the Dragon Slayer was stalking the wilds of the Rhineland while Arthur was pulling his sword from the stone in Britain.

In Germanic mythology, Siegfried brandished a magic sword of his own, battled a fearsome dragon, captured a cave full of treasure and won the hand of a beautiful princess.

Scholars long had suspected an even earlier source for the Siegfried legend: that of the Greek hero Perseus, who slew a cosmic bull. But how the Perseus legend made the journey into German folklore had remained a mystery.

Then came Donald Beistle. Armed not with sword and mail but with skillful dissertation, the UGA doctoral student in comparative literature appears to have found the bridge from Perseus to Siegfried.

In a paper presented at the International Medieval Studies Congress in Kalamazoo, Mich., in May and another published in The Encyclopedia of Modern Germany, Beistle ties both archetypal heroes to the cult of Mithras, which he believes spread the dragon-slaying iconography into the Rhineland.

“Mithraism can account for how this story leaps from classical Mediterranean civilizations to Europe,” Beistle said. “It’s an academic puzzle, but it does have a political-religious component that gives it some oomph.”

Mithraism was a secret, almost exclusively male cult popular among Roman soldiers. It venerated the youthful god Mithras, derived from the Greek Perseus and donning a cape full of stars, for saving the universe by killing a cosmic bull.

In his dissertation, he theorizes that Roman military troops garrisoned on the northern fringes of the empire brought their Mithraism to local tribes. Over time, the Perseus figure adopted a local flavor and became Siegfried; the cosmic bull became an evil dragon with a cave full of treasure.

“The Germans were very gung-ho for embracing the militaristic side of Mithraism and it helped them define themselves against their neighbors” Beistle said. “What we see here is the beginning of a German national identity. It resonates down to this day.”

The early Germanic tribes kept no written records of their beliefs, so there is no paper trail leading directly to Mithras, Beistle said. But one convincing clue is the dragon’s lair in the Siegfried story. Beistle said it is a direct descendant of the temples of the Mithras cult.

The mithreum, as they were known, were often built inside caves. The ideal temple also featured a natural spring in the middle. The chamber was lit with firelight and the ceiling was set with gems and glass to represent the starry night sky.

These details recur in the Siegfried myth when the hero confronts the dragon in his lair, Beistle said. They will also be immediately familiar to modern readers of fantasy literature.

“Anybody who has read Beowulf or [J.R.R.] Tolkien will recognize the flicker of flames off the jewels,” he said. “These stories are ingrained into modern consciousness through the operas of Richard Wagner and pop-culture dragon-slaying stories.”

For more information, e-mail dbeistle@arches.uga.edu

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