Chapter 5

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

There appear to be two groups within the carvings of the Sigurd myth. The first narrates the story in some detail, with no particular emphasis, the juxtaposition with Christian symbols being almost incidental. This group includes the Manx stones, the York grave slab, probably the Halton cross, and possibly the Ripon cross head, but little can be concluded from this piece. The purpose of the Sigurd scenes on these pieces is to commemorate the ancestry of the dead man, or merely to emphasise his heroic abilities. m e Viking society held their ancestors in great esteem, and it may also be that, despite the conversion of the current generation, they still wished to commemorate their pagan ancestors. The popularity of the Sigurd legend is undeniable, although only one secular piece, a Scandinavian drinking horn, remains with a Sigurd motif Note 1. It may be that the Sigurd scenes were frequently portrayed on perishable domestic items, and that the Sigurd motifs were a fairly common sight in the secular community. This would go some way to account for the progression onto Christian monuments, for the Church would come to ace the motifs as secular, not pagan, and therefore having little destructive influence. This type of compromise by the Christian community would be more likely in more remote areas where the Church was still contending with the pagan culture. This is reflected in other monuments especially in the North west of England the Gosforth cross is a prime example of this. The York grave slab, due to its location, is perhaps a slight exception to this, but if it is as early as the first half of the 10th century when the region was still pagan, it still seems reasonable to include it in this group.

It seems odd nevertheless, that the examples where the pagan/Christian overlap is present are in the later carvings, namely the Nunburnholme cross shaft and the Kirby Hill cross, although the dating for this is only to the 10th century, and could be earlier or later. If these are intended to promote Christianity, it would seem more logical for these to appear when conversion is still in progress, rather than later when the region is largely Christian. This is another reason to suppose that the Church regarded the Sigurd myth as simply a popular secular, albeit Scandinavian motif. Of the two, the Nunburnholme addition is least likely to be designed to help conversion. The scene in this case is present due to Tostig, his patronage and ancestry, and perhaps the influence of the Halton cross. It must be admitted that the Sigurd motif provides a very apt pagan comparison with the Mass scene, and some thought had obviously gone into the addition. The earlier Kirby Hill cross is possibly designed with conversion in mind, although it is the ill gained knowledge that is the focus, with the comparison being the crucifixion. Again therefore, the only available Christian parallel is the eucharist with all its implications for the Christian belief. There has been one last alternative suggested, although this has no material evidence. The Sigurd myth could be compared to the events in the Garden of Eden, for the evil serpent/dragon is similar, and their presence leads to the eating of forbidden food, which gains both Adam and Sigurd knowledge. Although in one instance it is the serpent who tempts, and the other it is Regin, it should be remembered that Regin is the brother of the dragon Fafnir.

However there are no apparent references to St Michael, unless there was a private view that the Church held on the images of pagan dragon killings. There is no outward view of this, for where there are pagan/Christian comparisons these concentrate on the Mass and crucifixion of Christ, and do not include images of the dragon slaying. The images of the dragon slaying occur largely in the more remote areas, probably where the Church itself was limited in its learning, and would be unlikely to possess rare and costly books that included images of the Apocalypse of St John. There may have been oral knowledge of these rarer books among the isolated Christian communities, but even those communities who were still highly educated may not have known a great deal about the Apocalypse at this time.

Early Apocalypses were produced in Europe during the Carolingian period, (752 987). These were fully developed cycles, probably compiled from earlier illustrations. These include 5th century frescoes in Rome. At St Peter’s Church there is a mosaic of Christ with the four living creatures, and dated 430; St. John the Evangelist at Ravenna has an illustration of the seven candlesticks There is evidence that the influence of these images was widespread for Bede, in his Historia Abbatum documents the arrival of apocalyptic illustrations in England. In 680 the Abbot of Wearmouth, Benedict Biscop, returned from a journey to Rome with a number of pictures to decorate his church, including images from the apocalypse. The actual images are not recorded, nor does any evidence exist of them. However, the Apocalypse panels alone out of all the panels mentioned, were transposed onto parchment, and this may imply that these images were particularly unknown, and hence copied for more widespread viewing.

Northern France and Germany produced various styles of apocalypse cycles from the 9th century onwards. Treves and Cambrai belong to the first Family, Valenciennes and Paris to the second, and all would have included the St. Michael scene. However the Woman Robed in the Sun with the dragon attacking seems more central. This may have been seen as a stronger image of good opposing evil. The symbolic aspect is stronger in some groups than others. The second family has a more symbolic nature, with Valenciennes Paris shows the Woman above the dragon, with little narrative interest. Valenciennes has been linked to Northumbrian manuscripts through style and interlace, implying possibly some common notebook source, although there is no evidence for this. However Continental developments may not have been communicated fully to the English, since in the early 11th century manuscript production was low, although manuscripts were imported as important gifts. There is evidence of dragons being incorporated into English motifs, for example, in a Durham Cathedral manuscript, (AVI (la)), but no contemporary apocalypses remain. During the 8th century there was close monastic contact with the continent, but despite adopting motifs, the style remained insular, with a constant reversion to pattern ma ding and extreme stylisation. This pointed to the increasingly symbolic nature of English manuscripts, and despite the Viking settlement period, these characteristics held true, and can be seen in the 11th century work of the Winchester school. However there were no recognised apocalypse cycles in England until the Trinity Apocalypse of 1230. Although it seems clear that there was some interaction with the continent in relation to the apocalypse cycle, this was limited on the English side to the copying of various motifs from continental manuscripts. It is difficult to ascertain the nature of these, since evidence is scarce. Even if 3 the St Michael scene was known in ecclesiastical circles, it seems unlikely that it would have been regarded as important enough to be included on art work, or to be known by those who were aware of the Sigurd imagery, and hence appreciate the comparison.

It would appear that the Sigurd myth stands independent of any Christian context, and its popularity as a secular story may extend to many domestic items that we are now unaware of. The Volsung legend itself was not fully developed until the 13th century, but other documentary evidence (as well as the archaeological examples already discussed), shows that various portions of the Sigurd myth were well known long before this. In the 12th century Scandinavian kings expected their poets to be well versed in such stories. In the 11th century King Olafr asks his poet to compose a poem on the tapestries hanging on the wall of his court Note 2. The subsequent verses include dragon slaying and roasting, implying some images from the Sigurd lay, and hence emphasising the role secular art played in the portrayal of Sigurd. The literary evidence also points to the attitude to the Sigurd story. Although it should be remembered that this evidence is later than the dates for the English carvings, it is probable that, since the popularity had not decreased over the years, the attitudes remained fairly similar. Frillier audiences may have regarded Sigurd with slightly more awe, but essentially the love of the story remains the same. Often the tone is light hearted. One story, of Porsteinn, narrates how he visits a 22 seater privy at midnight, to discover a figure from Hell at the far end Note3. Porsteinn asks who endures Hell best, and the reply is that Sigurd Fafnisbane does. This inspires an image reminiscent of Milton’s Satan of a triumphant hero out of tune with the Christian world, but still possessing a compelling appeal.

It is this last impression that probably explains the presence of the Sigurd carvings on monuments of converted Viking settlers, and the independence of such scenes. By the mid 11th century, Sigurd is no longer portrayed on English carvings, although his popularity, and that of other dragon slayers such as Sigemund in Beowulf before him, perhaps explains why the dragon motif retains its barbaric and dynamic form well into the Norman period. It is this dragon that is faced with a new Christian adversary in the form of St.Michael.

Scroll to Top