Dragons and Dragon Lore
THE 'OLD SERPENT' AND HIS PROGENY
IT is difficult to determine whether the Hebrews, as we know them in the Bible, believed in the actual existence of what we call a 'dragon,' at least as resident in Palestine. "Hebrew theology," Geiger concludes, "had no demonology or Satan until after the residence at Babylon. . . . The account of the Garden of Eden dates from a time subsequent to the captivity"; and this eminent expositor assumes that Satan came from the Zoroastrian conception of Arhiman, "the evil serpent bearing death."
The features of the original Sumerian, of pre-Sumerian, myth of the struggle of Marduk with Tiamat had become considerably modified by that time even in Babylonia. Dr. Ward mentions a cylinder on which Bel-Marduk is depicted as chasing and killing the Evil One--an unmistakable serpent. "This," Dr. Ward thought, "is convincing proof that in the region where it was made the spirit of evil was conceived as a serpent, as it is in Genesis, and also in Job 26:13 and Isaiah 27:1." Job calls it a 'crooked serpent,' and Isaiah declares that in due time the Lord of Israel "shall punish the leviathan, that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the leviathan that is in the sea."
Most of the allusions in the Old Testament appear to be allegorical or poetic, 'dragon' merely serving with the owl, raven, and other creatures of the Syrian wilderness as an expression for desert desolation. The prophets and bards, addressing a people fond of figurative speech, were no doubt confident their allusions and metaphors would be understood, even when a devouring, malignant, and unearthly agent of evil was meant, as in the frightful visions limned by the excited author of the Book of Revelations. Take, for example, John's vision in Patinos of dragon-horses (Rev. 9:17) whose heads "were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone . . . for their power is in their mouth and in their tails, for their tails are like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt."
Then there is that powerful modern picture in enduring phrases: "There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out and his angels were cast with him." Milton in next describing Satan's return to Pandemonium, changed to a dragon, finely distinguishes this hellish monster from the snaky tribe out of which it has grown, in these verses from Paradise Lost (10: 519):
For now were all transformed Alike, to serpents all, as accessories To his bold riot. Dreadful was the din Of hissing through the hall, thick-swarming now With complicated monsters head and tail, Scorpion, and asp, and imphishaena dire, Cerastes horned, hydrus and ellops drear, And dipsas (not so thick swarmed once the soil Bedropt with blood of gorgon, or the isle Ophiusa); but still greatest he the midst, Now dragon grown, larger than whom the sun Engendered in the Pythian vale on slim, Huge Python; and his power no less he seemed Above the rest still to retain. The figures of metaphor chosen by St. John show that he knew the traditionary characteristics (largely derived from India) of these reptilian ogres, and counted on the public's familiarity with them. No doubt he had often heard or read dozens of legends about them--such tales, for example, as the following one recounted in the long story about Job by Thal'labi, who died in 1035 A.D. It is a part of the Book of the Stories of the Poets, from which it was quoted into the American Journal of Semitic Languages (vol. 13, p. 145). God is haranguing the fretful job:
"Where wast thou in the day when I formed the dragon? His food is in the sea and his dwelling in the air; his eyes flash fire; his ears are like the bow of the clouds, there pours forth from them flame as though he were a whirling wind-column of dust; his belly burns and his breath flames forth in hot coals like unto rocks; it is as though the clash of his teeth were sounds of thunder and the glance of his eye were the flashing of lightning; armies pass him while he is lying; nothing terrifies him; in him there is no joint . . . he destroys all that by which he passes."
The rendering by the English word 'dragon' in the authorized version of the Bible of both the two similar words tan and thanin is explained by Canon Tristram in his authentic Natural History of the Bible. "Tan," he announces, "is always used in the plural for some creature inhabiting desert places, frequently coupled with the ostrich and wild beasts." The Prophets and Psalmist abound in such references, and hear their cries from the most desolate haunts they are able to picture to their minds. "I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the ostriches," exclaims Micah, remembering nocturnal voices that had echoed in the desert from ghostly ruins and perilous wastes--voices of real animals such as jackals, whose mournful howlings disturb the nervous and superstitious, or owls, always troublesome to timorous souls.
The writer of the article 'Dragon' in the Jewish Cyclopedia informs us that in the Septuagint version the word signifies a dangerous monster whose bite is poisonous. This accords with the Hindoo definition of a naga, which designates a venomous snake alone, a cobra. Such monsters must be imagined, says this Hebrew commentator, as of composite but snake-like form, and always as at home in water, even in the waves of the sea (Psalms 48: 7), where they were created by God with the fishes. "In the beginning of things YHWH overpowered them in creating the world. It is clear that this story, which is found only in fragments in the 0. T., was originally a myth representing God's victory over the seas."
The hot and arid country of the Holy Land was particularly favourable to serpent life. Several venomous species were present then as now, lurking not only in thickets and hedges (Eccl. 10: 8), and among rocks, but even in and about the rude, stone-built, dark houses of Judean villages, where they crept in search of mice, insects, etc. Amos alludes warningly to the danger in leaning against a house-wall lest an unseen serpent bite the lounger. Men saw the snake crawling in the dust, and held as a fact that it had been cursed in Eden (Genesis 3:14) to travel forever on its belly as a mark of degradation; only wondering why, instead, the good Lord had not removed altogether so dangerous a pest from his chosen people. Add to this power for harm its traditional history as something impious, and nothing seems more natural to a zoologist or an anthropologist than that this sly reptile should typify the unseen and dire influences that we name Eblis, Satan, the Devil, the Old Serpent, and so forth, and should become the prototype of the Dragon of Biblical and hence of modern legendary love, almost independently of Far Eastern notions.
Faiths, traditions, and figures of speech relating to these matters were an important element in the Christianity brought to Rome by early Jewish propagandists of the new religion, a striking novelty in which was the doctrine of punishment after death for wickedness wrought in life. No longer were men taught that when life ceased their spiritual selves were transported to another world more or less like this one; on the contrary they were sternly warned that if they died in their sins they went to a place of eternal suffering, in charge of a supreme torturer, who daily went roaming about on earth in ingenious and subtle disguises, tempting men to put themselves everlastingly in his power. He was called chiefly 'Satan' and 'Devil.' Both these names were terms taken from Oriental languages, and naturally soon came to be concretely represented by the figure of the Eastern dragon, with whom the populace, grown acquainted with Oriental things by the empire's conquests in Asia Minor and Persia, was vaguely familiar.
To fully identify this dragon of tradition with the Devil of the Bible, and so increase the terror of his power, was easy to the zealous, if not over-wise, ministers of Chistianity, and evidence of their success is found in the many representations in mediaeval religious art to be seen in ancient books and manuscripts, numerous examples of which have been copied into Carus's History of the Devil and other similar treatises.
"Set," remarks Dr. G. E. Smith, "the enemy of Osiris, who is the real prototype of the evil dragon, was the antithesis of the god of Justice; he was the father of falsehood and the symbol of chaos. He was the prototype of Satan, as Osiris was the first definite representative of the Deity of which any record has been preserved. . . .
"The history of the evil dragon is not merely the evolution of the Devil, but it also affords the explanation of his traditional peculiarities, his bird-like features, his horns, his red color, his wings and cloven hoofs, and his tail. They are all of them the dragon's distinctive features; and from time to time in the history of past ages we catch glimpses of the reality of these idetitifications. In one of the earliest woodcuts found in a printed book Satan is represented as a monk with the bird's feet of the dragon. A most interesting intermediate phase is seen in a Chinese watercolor in the John Rylands Library (at Manchester, England), in which the thunder-dragon is represented in a form almost exactly reproducing that of the Devil of European tradition."
Here we have the genesis of the figure of Mephistopheles! In the oldest version of the Faust legend (sixteenth century) Mephistopheles, the servant-devil, sends Faust through the air whithersoever he wishes to go, according to their compact, on a carriage drawn by dragons, not by wafting him on a magic cloak, as is the more modern rendering.
Dr. Smith continues: "Early in the Christian era, when ancient beliefs in Egypt became disguised under a thin veneer of Christianity, the story of the conflict between Horus and Set was converted into a conflict between Christ and Satan. M. Clermont Ganneau has described an interesting bas-relief in the Louvre in which a hawk-headed St. George, clad in Roman military uniform and mounted on a horse, is slaying a dragon which is represented by Set's crocodile. But the Biblical references to Satan leave no doubt as to his identity with the dragon, who is specifically mentioned in the Book of Revelations as 'the Old Serpent, which is the devil and Satan.'"
As Greco-Roman-born civilization gradually displaced savagery and barbarism throughout Europe, the idea expressed by the modern term 'dragon' spread with it in two streams and with two meanings, but lost much of its religious significance.
The eldest of these streams, derived from a prehistoric Asiatic source, was carried westward in that steady movement of eastern tribes which began to be felt along the Danube about ten thousand years ago, and slowly pressed forward to the Atlantic coast. This Neolithic current of rude, yet superior men and women, brought with it, along with certain arts and customs of a settled life, faith in and awe of a more or less demonic serpent connected with the guardianship of springs, rivers, and waters generally, but which was not much concerned with rainfall, for these early invaders of central Europe had little reason for anxiety as to sufficient rain for their simple gardening or pasturage. Later came invasions of Europe by ruder migrants from Scythia. Sarmatia, and other oriental tribes and regions.
The other stream of ideas proceeded at a later time from Christianized Italy by means of Roman soldiers (who carried an image of the dragon on their lances), or by wandering missionaries of the Church inculcating among the peoples north of the Alps religious creeds and allegories in which the dragon became a symbol and representative of the Biblical devil, and hence of all enemies of 'the true faith,' especially heresy and heathenism. Archaeologists find that all over eastern Europe, even to within historic times, reverence was paid to serpents, partly in a worshipful way, partly with superstitious dread--a universal characteristic of primitive religions which reached its highest development in the tropics, where great and formidable snakes inspired just respect. This prevailed, as we know, among the plainsmen of southeastern Asia and on the Russian steppes, but affected very little the tribes of the forested country west of Russia.
Hence in Europe the presentation of the dragon as the Spirit of Evil and Anti-Christ, in a garb borrowed from Hebrew imagery and the visions of the Book of Revelations, easily superseded aboriginal notions yet, especially in the north and in the mountainous eastern borderland, was never wholly freed from them.
In his Zoological Mythology Angelo de Gubernatis presents many facts of modern Balkan and Russian folklore showing coordination with Hindoo theology. A story from Serbian folktales quoted in Frazer's Folklore in the Old Testament tells how a human giant of great ferocity, the owner of a mill, was wheedled by a woman until he revealed where his strength lay--as follows:
Far in another kingdom, under the king's city, is a lake; in the lake is a dragon; in the dragon is a boar; in the boar is a pigeon, and in the pigeon is my strength." A prince, whose two brothers the ogre had killed, learned this fact from the woman and made his way to the lake, where, after a terrible tussle, he slew the water-dragon and extracted the pigeon. Having questioned the pigeon, and ascertained from it how to restore his two murdered brothers, to life, the prince wrung the bird's neck, and no doubt the wicked dragon [of the mill] perished miserably at the same moment.
Craigie, writing of Scandinavian folklore, says that stories of dragons that fly through the air by night and vomit fire are fairly common in Norway and Denmark, and are not unknown in England. "In various places all over the country there are still shown holes in the earth out of which they are seen to come flying like blazing fire when wars or other troubles are to be expected. When they return to their dwellings, where they brood over immense treasures (which they, as some say, have gathered by night in the depths of the sea), there can be heard the clang of the great iron doors that close behind them."
Not only do these fiery, long-tailed dragons fly about, but terrestrial ones still brood over piles of gold coins in mounds and beneath churches. When they appear, as they sometimes do, various recipes exist for forcing them to reveal or even to shower down their gold, but the conditions accompanying these instructions are usually impossible to fulfil. The 'lindorms' and 'king-vipers' mentioned by Craigie are said to be serpents, usually of great size, that do various sorts of mischief, one kind having ghoulish habits; and these malicious beings are almost always connected in some way with imaginary bulls--an association constantly observed in serpent-myths, and undoubtedly indicating a phallic significance.
Frazer quotes (Balder, Vol. 1) a mediaeval writer who recorded that in some parts of Europe on Midsummer Night it was the custom to burn bones and filth to make a foul smudge, because this smoke drove away "certain noxious dragons which at this time, excited by the summer heat, copulated in the air and poisoned the wells and rivers by dropping their seed into them."
Grimm adds such items of Teutonic lore as follow. The dragon lives 90 years in the ground, 90 in the lime-tree, and 90 more in the desert, sunning his gold in fine weather. Heimo finds a dragon in the Alps of Carneola, kills it and cuts out its tongue, and with the tongue in hand finds a rich hoard. The swords of Sigurd and of Alexander (the Great?) were tempered in dragon's blood, which when eaten confers a knowledge of the language of birds, which are messengers of the gods. Dragons are hated; but it is a German saying that a venom-spitting dragon can blow its poison through seven church-walls but not through knitted stockings.
Such are dozens of living northern stories and fancies, traceable back into an almost forgotten antiquity.
Very old and primitive is the Teutonic tale of the dragons of the Underworld which come flying toward the shades of the dead, trying to obstruct their advance when on their way to the realm of a blissful eternity. There were also dragons on earth as well as beneath it; and one of these has survived to serve on the operatic stage wherever Wagner's Nibelungen series is produced. This is the story as recited in the Saga of Volsung--a German epic of unknown authorship produced about the end of the 12th century: The great god Wotan (or Odin) is possessed of a vast treasure which is committed by the gods into the keeping of two giants. One of them, Fafnir, kills his brother in order to get possession of all the wealth, and then transforms himself into a dragon to guard it. Wotan wants to recover his treasure. A knight, Siegfried (Norse, Sigurd) forges a magical sword out of the pieces of his father's sword 'Nothing.' Wotan and his brother Alberich come to where the dragon Fafnir is watching over the stolen money and jewels, including a magic ring belonging to Alberich to which a curse is attached. Siegfried approaches the horrid lair, whereupon Fafnir comes out, and in the fight that ensues Siegfried slays the beast by aid of his magic sword. The king tells the hero about the ring, and Siegfried goes and gets it, but its possession insures him constant trouble and unhappiness. Everyone regards this 'dragon' as a demon in serpent form, and he is always so represented on the operatic stage, and in the illustrations accompanying the tale in the many books in which it has been recounted in prose and verse, for it is the favourite hero-myth of the Germans.
In the Norse saga of King Olaf the hero ploughs the northern seas in his viking boat and surprises and seizes the great freebooter Raud, who has been ravaging the shores of Norway in his 'dragon-boat.' That craft is destroyed, and Olaf then instructs the shipwrights to construct for his majesty a 'serpentboat' twice as big. These were Norse sea-boats having tall figureheads of serpent-dragon form, in regard to which much that is entertaining is written in old books.