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Umbrorum Draco, the marsh wyverns of Terni

UMBRORUM DRACO, the marsh wyverns of the Terni area

by Giosuè Tacconi

The figure of the dragon is present in all ancient civilizations, it is not just a creature linked to medieval legends.

However, in the Italian Middle Ages, especially in lower Umbria, with a special prevalence in the Terni area, we have an enviable wealth of legends about dragons (in the category of marsh species).

Through stories we witness, indeed, the extinction of dragons by brave knights (see the noble of the Cittadini di Terni family), even popes (San Silvestro killing the dragon of Fornole di Amelia) or even hermit monks (see San Felice and Mauro in Sant’Anatolia di Narco), etc.

The Middle Ages are populated by Dragons and Castles. In this regard it is interesting to note that Umbria – defined in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as the Regio Castigliorum (region of castles) for the large number of castles, fortresses and fortresses found in the area. It presents a variety of dragons which by type are similar to some other regions of Europe.

The province of Terni alone boasts 3 legends linked to swamp dragons and two of these are connected to the Nera river, 4 if we consider the ruler, an Italian variant of the basilisk, among the species draconis. Both words (basilisk and ruler) have the same meaning: king of snakes.


umbrorum draco: San feli ce and Mauro
High relief, Castel San Felice - Sant'Anatolia di Narco, 1194

Felice and Mauro were two hermit monks who, together with 298 other companions from Caesarea and Laodicea of Syria, arrived in Rome in the fifth century to ask for an audience with the Pope, to receive confirmation of their creed and the approval of their way of life.

The latter directed them to those inland areas of Umbria which had not yet been reached by Christianization and evangelization. The spread of which had taken place mainly along the consular roads, in which the ancient pagan religions still survived.

These men dispersed almost everywhere throughout Sabina and Umbria, concentrating above all in Monteluco di Spoleto. A sacred mountain since ancient times, and in Valnerina, an ideal environment for their conduct of life thanks to its natural isolation.

In order to lead an ascetic and prayer life, hermits need two essential things: a natural shelter, generally a cave, and a source of pure water. Two elements of which the Valnerina area is rich. Mauro, his son Felice and the latter’s nurse, found shelter in the cave below the current abbey of Castel San Felice, built by St. Mauro himself after the death of his son with the help of alms.

Mauro thus gave life to an abbey complex that gathered numerous monks, from whom he was made abbot, who began to follow the Benedictine rule.

The most fascinating aspect of the story is undoubtedly the legend of the dragon.

It is said that the two saints defeated the dragon that infested the place, rich in marshes downstream “the infernal dragon that always seeks our ruin”, described in features as “‘na specie de duck: a big scrooge with a twisted tail ”(Corresponding to the exact description of the ancient iconography of the Terni dragon and other members of the same species around Italy and Umbria). The most skeptical and modern Enlightenment interpret the fact as a fantastic myth, a fairy tale, but we know that all legends have a grain of truth and that the earth has given us copious quantities of skeletons of prehistoric creatures and large extinct reptiles.

Hypothesis on the origins of dragons

So there are those who, not only among the most scientist and positivist, but also among the most daring exponents of the world of spirituality, dared to affirm, without any scientific confirmation and endorsement, that the killing of the dragon is most likely a linked symbolic metaphor to the reclamation work carried out by the Syrian monks along the entire valley of the Nera river. In fact, the river with its floods transformed the fields into swamps, which became a vehicle for diseases such as plague, malaria or scurvy.

Obviously it goes without saying that malaria – formerly called, and not by chance we would say: “morbus draconis” – the marsh and the dragon are not mutually exclusive; one truth, in this case, does not exclude the other.

It is therefore no more daring and reckless to affirm that – in the light not only of the scientific archaeological finds brought to light and of human legends often associated with real events and handed down from generation to generation – than the preference and nesting of ancestral creatures (reptiles ?) among marsh-type habitats, also look at cases such as the legend of the dragon of Terni.

In which even the creature has a proper name, Thyrus. Or like the one that infested the Lodi area, always in the Middle Ages, called Tarantasio, wallowed in the marshes.

Umbrorum draco: Possible solutions

In the legend it is possible to trace a reference to these diseases and their remedies. Mauro himself, before carrying out the miraculous killing of the dragon, asked the nurse to prepare him a meal based on cooked cabbage, a plant rich in vitamin C, which therefore has antiscorbutic effects.

The story of how Felice and Mauro managed to kill the dragon forms the central part of the story. So important that it is also reported in the bas-relief of the church. It should be noted that in ancient churches, fictional facts are never represented, but historical and real facts concerning both truths of faith, such as the Novissimi and historical facts linked to saints and real characters of the Old Testament.

The dragon, who was in the cave where he lived, was lured by Felice with small pieces of bread. Mauro was waiting for him with the ax in his hand and, as soon as he put his head out to eat, the dragon’s head rolled into the Black River.


umbrorum draco: the thyrus of terni

Sculpture of the Thyrus, Palazzo Spada, Terni, around 1300

On the coat of arms of the city of Terni is represented the figure of a dragon, called with the proper name of Thyrus. The reason for this representation derives from a legend that ancient and modern Terni historians describe as follows:

A legend, which must refer to the origins of the medieval city,

rebuilt on the ruins of the Umbrian and then Roman ones. In fact, it is said that once upon a time a horrible monster, a kind of dragon or winged serpent dwelt in the marshy grounds at the place called “La Chiusa” (a place just outside the city almost a crossbow shot from the walls). The inhabitants died suffocated by the pestiferous breath that released the monster. Then a young and spirited knight, of the noble family of Germanic origin of the Citizens, armed, went to meet the beast that was hidden among the marshy vegetation, and, having found it, after a bitter struggle he killed it, freeing the poor citizens from death. In memory of this event it is said that Terni wanted to place the green chimera in its coat of arms.

Legends of this type were widespread in Umbria especially in the areas where the watercourses, finding obstacles, stagnated forming marshy areas. In ancient times the Terni area was in fact characterized by these marshy areas formed by the Nera river, the Velino river and the Serra stream. The river Velino, finding an impediment in the Marmore area, tended to form a vast marshy area that reached as far as Rieti.

The Nera river encountered two obstacles: one near Papigno and one towards the Narni gorges; in this way both the Val Nerina, from Ferentillo to Collestatte, and the Terni valley, were characterized by marshy areas. The stagnation of water and the formation of marshes caused the birth and spread of malaria, a disease that in ancient times made more victims than an attack by the barbarians. This legendary fact gave rise to the motto: “Thirus et Amnis Dederunt Signa Teramnis” that is: “The Tire and the river gave the signs to Terni.”


umbrorum draco of Fornole
Bas-relief, Church of S. Tommaso, Terni sec. XIII

In Monte S. Silvestro, near the small Amerino castle of Fornole (in lower Umbria), there is a small Romanesque church, with a fresco of the saint who has chained the dragon.

Legend has it that a dragon raged in these parts

which claimed victims and fear in the countryside and in the town of Fornole, sometimes even among children and animals. Then Pope San Silvestro, finding himself in Umbria, came to know of the matter and went towards Fornole di Amelia. San Silvestro succeeded in chaining the dragon: it was in this way that the inhabitants dedicated to him the church that still exists today. Furthermore, just below the church of San Silvestro there is the “dragon’s cave”.


Giosuè Tacconi

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