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October 12, 2011

Drakes: The Fairy Dragons of Europe

Salamander, early 16th C.
Also known as kratchens in Belgium and Holland, or krats in Scandinavia, or drachens in Germany, or feu draks in France and Switzerland, drakes are a Eurpean supernatural entity that mixes the characteristics of a dragon, and the fairy folk. When it comes to the depiction of drakes, they’re extremely heterogeneous  and vary according to the local folklore. In the gypsy folklore from the Balkan states of South Eastern Europe, they are described as enormous humans with the heads and feet of a dragon; it said that they live in fantastic places with their human wives and be can be seen riding a giant horses. This description, however, changes further up north, where the term drake became synonymous with the myth of the legendary salamanders, but most importantly, with the fire-drakes, a type of dragon in Norse, Teutonic, and Celtic mythology who are said to guard treasures, such as the creature that kills Beowulf  in the 8th/11th century English epic poem of the same name. Most recently, in an early 19th century account, Sven Magnus Johansson was wondering around Lake Sodreg in Sweden, and stepped onto a log only to see it move and slither away into the lake. Even though the creature resembles the Swedish lindorm (linworm in Britain), a type of sea serpent or wingless bipedal dragon, the local people told him it was a drake. 

Ghost lights, a natural phenomenon behind the lore of will o' wisps


Contrastingly, drakes have also come to be described as little fairy beings who smell like rotten eggs, wear red caps and white tunics, except for when they fly, for it is then that they become a will o' wisp figure, changing into a tiny flaming ball with a big head, and a long trail, giving the illusion of a tiny dragon. An exemption occurs with the Finnish krat, who is always depicted as a miniature dragon with flexible wings, and a long tail that ends in an arrow. Unsurprisingly, the term fire-drake has also come to describe these tiny will o' wisp characters, also being associated with guarding treasures. Additionally, the drake, very much like the English Brownie, is also a house fairy; Author Anna Franklin writes about their lore:

"They are house fairies and move into a house and keep the firewood dry and bring gifts of gold and grain to the master of the house. The bond is between the male head of the house and the male drake, and is a serious pact, often written in blood. The drake takes care of the house, barn and stables, making sure that the pantry and money chest are well stocked. They can travel the world in a split second, and bring their masters a present back from faraway places. In return, the master keeps the drake fed and treated with respect. Should the drake be insulted the house will not be there long. If you see a drake on its travels, take shelter, for they leave behind a poisonous sulfurous fug. If you quickly shout "half and half" or throw a knife at the creature, then the drake may drop some of its booty in your lap. If two people together see a drake, they should cross their legs in silence, take the fourth wheel off the wagon and take shelter. The drake will then be compelled to leave them some of his haul". 


As a house fairy, drakes can be extremely loyal, even to the point of sacrifice just like the following story narrates, .  There was once an old marriage of Finnish farmers who found themselves one night on the brink of desperation; surrounded by a horrible snow storm, and with their young son extremely ill, his life was disappearing breath by breath. That same afternoon, a doctor had prescribed a life-saving medicine, but the parents couldn’t get out of the house in the middle of the tempest.  Suddenly, after a few seconds of seeing lightning outside the window, the woman noticed a small package wrapped in paper on top of the shelf. When she opened it she was surprised to find the life-saving medicine for her son. 

 Remembering the lightning, the parents understood that the drake of the house had flown in search of the medicine, maybe to the end of the world. After giving the son the medicine it became evident within minutes that he was going to be fine. That’s when the father went outside in the deadly snow storm and worked his way through until he reached the barn house where the small child (the drake) rested when he wasn’t flying. When he found him agonizing on the brink of death, the father took him to the house where he was nurtured back to health along with the son. Since the parents were so happy that the drake saved his son’s life, they raised him like his own child.

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Sources

Franklin,Anna, Working with Fairies. Franklin Lakes: Career Press, 205.
Hazlitt, William Carew, and John Brand, Faiths and Folklore,Vol 1. London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.
Matthews, John, and Caitlin Matthews, The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. London: Barnes and Noble, 2005.
Raynolds, Robersto Rosaspini. El Magico Mundo De Los Duendes. Buenos Aires:Ediciones Continente, 2001.

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