Kinds of dragons

When we say dragon, we usually have one idea in mind: We think of a huge green scaled creature, usually with wings. In most cases, he breathes fire. That’s a fine definition for most dragons.

Oh, there are differences. For example, Western dragons tend to be evil, whereas Oriental dragons are usually related with good fortune. Dragons also vary in appearance.

Winged dragons

At one extreme, the cockatrice, sometimes called a basilisk, has the feet of a cock. A wyvern has the feet of an eagle. They all have wings and usually a barbed tail. The head of this cockatrice is like a cock, but a wyvern may have a more lizardlike head. On top of his head, he may have a rooster-like comb, a crown, or a coronet-type decoration.

The poet, Shelley, refers to “the green and golden basilisk.” This dragon often breathes fire, and his glance can kill.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, he refers to “The death-darting eye of Cockatrice.” This is the classic dragon of heraldry, and is often called a heraldic dragon.

Snake-like dragons

At the other extreme, there is the amphiptere, which used to be a term for a massive, snakelike creature with no legs and — in some traditions — no wings.

As recently as the late 17th century, these were discovered in England. There has been speculation that the amphiptere is actually a reticulated python which, in India, can reach a length of 30 feet.

But, as popular terminology changes, “amphiptere” now seems to include snake-like creatures with wings. And sometimes legs. But that blurs the distinctions, so I like to look at the roots of each category.

The main difference that remains is: amphipteres seem to be more snake-like.

Between these two extremes, there are many varieties of dragons.

Even more dragons

Drakes have legs and breathe fire (or snow/ice), but most of them don’t have wings.

A lindworm, lindworm snake, or lindwyrm has a head like a large snake or lizard, and often has no legs. He’s just a huge, snakelike creature. Sometimes he has wings, sometimes he doesn’t. Generally, the lindworm is considered an amphiptere.

Likewise, the Irish peist dragon is often described as a huge snake. In the Irish language, the word peist means worm, monster, or sometimes reptile.

There are dragons who fit neither category, and seem quite unrelated. One of these is the chimera, which comes from the Latin, chimaera, meaning she-goat or monster. The chimera is fire-breathing, with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.


The earliest references to dragons suggest that the live in or near the water. In the Bible, in Psalms 74:13, “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength; thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.” Similarly, in Isaiah 27:1, the Bible refers to “the dragon that is in the sea.”

New Testament references to dragons are almost always figurative, not literal.

Today, the Irish peist or ollipeist lives in the sea, where St. Patrick confined this dragon while banishing the snakes from Ireland. As one peist fled to the sea, he cut a path through the landscape which is now the Shannon Valley. In general, the peist–often associated with Co. Clare–is generally regarded as a sort of watchdog for some of the fae.

There has been speculation that the Loch Ness Monster is actually a water-dwelling dragon.

Sea serpents may be dragons, too. We don’t have enough information to be certain.

Land dragons

Many dragons live on or under the land. In the Arthurian legends of Merlin, we learn about two dragons, one red and one white, which live in a hill where Vortigern attempts to build a castle.

In England, several hills are famous because dragons used to curl around them as they slept.

In Oriental lore, many dragons live in caves or under hills, as well as on land. However, there are also dragons who live in wells and waterways, and some that begin as a fish and later become dragons on land.

The Jabberwocky story suggests that the Sockburn Worm started life as a small worm in a nearby fishing area. However, in later years he traveled on land, terrorizing the area.

So some dragons live in both the water and on land at different times during their lives. We can’t use habitat as a clearly defining characteristic.

However, it’s safe to guess that water-dwelling dragons are more likely to be the snake variety, without legs.

Learn more about the history of dragons
(and 20th century sightings) in our article,
A brief history of dragons

Faeries in your family tree

Bodium CastleDo you have fae ancestry? I mean really fae ancestry, the kind that can be written on your family tree?

If you have Irish ancestry, the answer is probably yes! Most people with Irish roots also have faerie ancestors.

Here’s a short version of the history.

The Irish fae world includes the Tuatha De Danann, who were the “gods and not-gods” (in Irish: de agus ande) of early Ireland.

The Tuatha De Danann were–and are–real people, or perhaps “beings” is a better word.

And, they married the (very human) Milesians and had children, when the Milesians conquered Ireland.

(This history is documented in many ancient sources, including The Annals of the Four Masters, one of Ireland’s earliest written histories, transcribed by monks.

The Milesians were the people who populated modern Ireland. Their surnames are the ones that start with O’ and Mac.

However, in recent times, those O’ and Mac prefixes were often dropped. For example, O’Baoighill became O’Boyle and then simply Boyle.

(Murphy was O’Murchadha and Sullivan was O’Suileabhain, and the list goes on…)

So, if you have Irish ancestry (and over 50% of people in the United States do), then you probably have Milesian blood in your veins.

That means you probably have faerie ancestors, too.

If you could trace your heritage back far enough, you’d get to the Irish ancestor who married one of the Tuatha De Danann, and you’d actually have the name of your faerie ancestor.

(If you’re a FitzGerald from the Limerick area, the process may be a lot easier, since Lord Desmond, the third Earl of Desmond, married the Tuatha De Danann goddess, Aine. Their son, Gerald, fourth Earl of Desmond, is still seen riding from Lough Gur every seven years when the lake is dry.)

My emphasis is on Irish faeries, because that’s my own ancestry.

However, many cultures have similar traditions, from Scandinavian to Indian to Arab to African.

Research your family tree and learn your faerie connections.

You may find some wonderful surprises!

The Banshee

Castle at WexfordWhen someone mentions a ghost, most of us think of cemeteries, haunted houses, and transparent figures draped in sheets.

Likewise, the word “faerie” is linked with cute little figures with wings, and merry mischief.

However, mention a Banshee, and people squirm. The Banshee, like a ghost, can represent death, but that is not her actual role in folklore, or in our lives.

She can appear transparent, and is the size of a living person. Nevertheless, like her fae counterparts, she is associated with a more magickal Otherworld.

Perhaps she is the link which shows us that the Otherworld is a vast place, inhabited by many kinds of beings, including faeries and ghosts.

The Banshee, in Irish the Bean Sidhe (pronounced “bann-SHEE”), means “spirit woman” or sometimes a spirit (perhaps a faerie) dressed in white.  She is usually described as a single being, although there are many of them.

Your Irish Family’s Banshee

According to legend, one Banshee guards each Milesian Irish family.

These are the families whose names start with O’ or Mac, and sometimes Fitz, though those prefixes have been dropped, particularly by American families.

There is a Banshee for each branch of these families, and the family Banshee can follow the descendants to America, Australia, or wherever the Irish family travels or emigrates.

The Banshee protects the family as best she can, perhaps as a forerunner of the “Guardian Angel” in Christian traditions. However, we are most aware of her before a tragedy that she cannot prevent.

Traditionally, the Banshee appears shortly before a death in “her” family.

The Banshee is almost always female, and appears filmy in a white, hooded gown. (The exception is in Donegal, Ireland, where she may wear a green robe, or in County Mayo where she usually wears black.)

However, if she is washing a shroud when you see her, she may merely signal a major life-changing event in your future. The way to determine this is to go home and burn a beeswax candle after seeing her; if it burns in the shape of a shroud, her appearance foretells death.

The Banshee’s Wail

The night before the death, the Banshee will wail piteously in frustration and rage. Her family will always hear her, but many others in the area will, too. For example, Sir Walter Scott referred to “the fatal banshi’s boding scream.”

One of the largest reports of this wailing was in 1938, when the Giants’ Grave in County Limerick, Ireland, was excavated and the bones were moved to a nearby castle. Those who heard the crying throughout central Ireland, said that it sounded as if every Banshee in Ireland was keening.

That wailing of many Banshees is unusual but not unique. There have been other reports of several Banshees manifesting together. When a group of Banshees are seen, it usually forecasts the dramatic illness—and perhaps death—of a major religious or political figure.

In Irish mythological history, the Banshee tradition may link to the fierce Morrighan as the “Washer at the Ford,” a legend of Cuchulain. In this story, the Morrighan appeared as a young woman who prepared for an upcoming battle by washing the clothing—or perhaps the shrouds—of those who would fight and lose.

Does the Banshee Cause Death?

Despite her grim reputation, seeing or hearing a Banshee does not cause death.

In fact, the Banshee is traditionally a very kind woman. As poet and historian W. B. Yeats commented, “You will with the banshee chat, and will find her good at heart.”

I believe that her appearance and wailing before a death are efforts to protect her family from a death or other tragedy that she foresees.

This is where we see the clearest link to what are popularly called “ghosts.” In many stories, the spirit appears to warn the living about danger, illness, or death. Gothic novels often feature a ghost whose appearance forecasts death.

Likewise, in the Sherlock Holmes story, the Hound of the Baskervilles howled before a family death.

In real life, my maternal grandmother and her siblings were individually visited by the spectre of their mother, to warn them of her imminent death in a hospital many miles away, and to say good-bye.

This level of concern for the living is consistent with many ghosts, as well as the Banshee.

Whether the Banshee is more correctly a “ghost” or a “faerie” is an discussion that may never be resolved. However, the Banshee provides clear evidence that the line between ghosts, spirits, and faeries is vague at best.

For more information about the Banshee, one of the best studies is The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght (paperback, © 1986, Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, Colorado).

Elves, gnomes and faeries

Continued from Different kinds of faeries

Toadstools - evidence of faeries?The “little people” might not be from the Tuatha de Danann, but they may be beings that were in Ireland before the TDD arrived. Some speculate that their size suggests they’re of the Fir Bolg. Some say that these are the beings who inhabited Earth, even before humans were here.

(For more info about the Tuatha de Danann and the Fir Bolg, start with my short history of Ireland.)

Elves are also “little people,” but in Ireland this word is usually used to mean any small, non-winged faerie. There is no clear word for “gnome” in Irish, so elf is used to mean them, too.

Classic elves are small, often wear a red cap, and they are rarely seen. They live under the roots of trees, and prefer tangled roots. They think the roots weave pretty designs in the soil.

Classic elves protect wild animals, and these elves are what you’ll “sense” (but you won’t see) when you’re walking in the woods. Your best chance to see them is to purposely not look straight at where you hear a rustling. You may then see them out of the corner of your eye.

(If you sense something much larger, you’re near the “Green Man,” which is a very different resident of the fae world.)

Irish elves, like most Irish faeries, are almost always kindly beings, if mischievous.

This is where the etymology gets confusing: The word, elf, seems to have a Teutonic/Scandinavian background, related to words such as aelf and ylf. In the Scandinavian tradition, elves are “dark” or “light,” referring to whether they’re kind or malicious.In Scotland, where there are gnomes as there are in Scandinavia, their faeries are usually from the Seelie or Unseelie Courts, which also denote temperament, good or bad.

However, the Irish, who use the Teutonic/Scandinavian word “elf,” don’t draw lines between good and bad faeries. In fact, the only “bad” (malicious) faeries in Ireland are usually the ones who came to Northern Ireland from Scotland, with a clear Scots-Irish history.

Banshees, aka Bean Sidhe, are definitely from the Tuatha de Danann, and they’re usually full-sized women. They are NOT always dressed in white. (That misconception started when people mistakenly translated Bean Sidhe with the word “ban” [Irish for “white”] instead of “bean,” which means woman.) They protect a particular family. There are many of them, although they’re rarely seen together; usually it’s just one at a time. (If you see a cluster of them, it usually foretells the death or serious illness of a holy man or political leader.)

But the Bean Sidhe (banshee) and other fae folk are numerous, very different from one another, and their names cannot be used interchangeably.

The Little People – and big people

This article was from around 2000, when I lived in Nashua, NH, USA.

The Little People

A few times, always outside or just inside our patio door, I’ve seen little people.

This is so preposterous, I’m hesitant to admit to it.

However, they seem to be there, even though I’ve only seen them about four or five times in the past three years.

They’re about three feet tall. They look exactly like those ceramic garden figures.

You know, the Munchkin-looking figures with the tall, usually red, pointy caps…?  Garden gnomes, like in the Travelocity commercials…?

That’s what I’ve seen, except they’re translucent. And we stare at each other for about half a second, the figure nods or moves slightly, and he vanishes.

They’re always male. They always look just like the ceramic figures or sketches in the book, Gnomes.

They always freeze when they see me, just as I freeze when I see them. It’s something that I see out of the corner of my eye, and they’re still there for that split second while I turn my head to see them full-face.

And then they’re gone. And I chuckle a little, feel a little nervous, and continue with whatever I was doing.

I have no idea what they are. I get the idea they’re playing games with the squirrels who frequent our patio, but I’m not certain if the squirrels are thrilled with this.

And, it’s become worse since I added plastic flamingos to our patio display, out of sheer kitsch.

Big people

Okay, it’s just one.

He’s a tall male, with straight, shoulder-length light brown hair. He’s probably in his 30s. He wears a cloak, as some people do at Renaissance Faires. In fact, he looks exactly like he’s at a RenFaire.

When I see him in real life, it’s usually when he’s walking up the corridor (away from me) between our living room and the bedroom areas.

He’s translucent, usually glances back to look directly at me when I see him, smiles and sometimes nods in acknowledgement, and then he fades in less than a second.

The only time I’ve seen him for any length of time in a dream, was in the first dream I had where he showed me another way to the Otherworld. (We were in NYC and we went through a high, round window in a church. Go figure. I mean, really, it was just a dream.)

Other than that, I only catch these fleeting glimpses of him.

He seems nice enough, but fairly businesslike. It’s as if he’s here for a specific purpose, and has no plans to waste time on anything else.

I’ve seen a couple of other figures, always at least as large as a human male, but they fade so quickly, I can’t describe them except they seem more bluish than anything. They aren’t the same as the man in the cloak.

Other figures and anomalies

Other than the little people and the big ones, I see things out of the corner of my eye. A large shadow racing across the floor. A few sparkles that are there just for a second when I look straight at them (no, not head rush) and then they’re gone.

These things happen three or four times in a week, and then nothing for a week or even a month. No pattern to it.


There are many different kinds of manifestations. I consider all of these “faeries,” though some may object to my inclusive use of that word.

They’re not ghosts. Ghosts are totally different, with a completely different style. (I talk about them at  Ghosts generally want attention. These things don’t seem to care if I see them or not. In fact, they don’t expect me to see them.

Are they really faeries? I don’t know.

My “gut feeling” is that they’re fae. And that’s what I’ll call them until someone gives me a better explanation.

Photo credits
Garden gnome (blue) by Caleb Wells, Idaho, USA
Fantasy people by Ophelia Cherry, Milan, Italy