Dragons and Dragon Lore
THE DRAGON AND THE HOLY CROSS
IT IS noticeable in scanning the legends thus far recited, as purposely grouped, that the supernatural apparitions described, requiring superhuman feats for their extermination, were killed off because they were destroying human life and property, particularly cattle, or possessed desired treasures; not, as in the East, because they were maliciously withholding rain or other needed waters; and nowhere in Britain or northern Europe have we encountered a captive maiden or one about to be sacrificed to a dragon, which is the ruling feature in another and more recent group of tales. This, it seems to me, betokens a distinctly northern attitude of mind, and indicates legendary descent through a history of migrations from Scythia (to go no farther east for origins), where women were little regarded as compared with property, and chivalric sentiment all but absent from men's minds.
The type of stories, on the other hand, which was derived from aboriginal Greek imaginings, more or less tinctured with Hebrew and Egyptian teaching, and which filtered westward along the European shore of the Mediterranean, south of the great mountains dividing that sea from the basin of the Baltic, included almost always the idea of rescuing a woman in danger, and represent a southern as distinct from a northern inspiration and dramatic sense. Dr. Spence has remarked that the mediaeval dragon was a story teller's, or literary, subterfuge to give the hero an opportunity to be heroic. This latter style in dragon-stories remains to be treated; but before proceeding to that I want to say something about those tales current in Roman times and for centuries afterward on the continent of Europe, as recorded with pious credulity in the biographies of Catholic saints. These zealous missionaries, who went forth from Rome to spread the gospel of Christ beyond the Alps, often at the risk of life (the hardships endured by missionary priests among Canadian Indians in the eighteenth century make us understand what must have been the experience of many a would-be teacher among the wild tribes of northern Europe), were men who believed in a real, and at will corporeal, Satan and his imps; and they felt themselves obstructed by powers of darkness quite as much as by the natural reluctance of the 'savages' to abandon their ancestral gods and fetishes--in fact the apostles regarded such reluctance as due to past instruction as well as to present advice by the Devil. From the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, down to the fire-breathing all-devastating dragon (Greek drako, English 'drake,' literally 'big snake') of Revelation, the missionaries had the authority of the Scriptures to make it the image and synonym of Satan; and it was easy to impress this image upon the minds of pupils of the new faith, terrified by pictures of the tortures awaiting their souls at the hands of this same clawed and horned devil-dragon unless they came into the Roman religious fold. Remembering these threats, and recalling the clerical faith of the time in the divinely endowed virtue of the Cross or its symbols, and the miracle-working powers imparted by its aid to 'holy men,' there need be no wonder at the monkish legends recorded with such sincerity by the early chroniclers.
The industry of Dr. E. Cobham Brewer has brought together, in his Dictionary of Miracles, a large number of such records, culled from the authentic writings of St. Jerome, Gregory of Tours, and other fathers of the Church, among which is the following characteristic example indited by Richard de la Val d'Isere, the successor of the 'great' St. Bernard of Menthon (993-1008), who declares he was an eye-witness of the incident. "Saint Bernard left at the bottom of the Alps," as Dr. Brewer repeats the story, "the bishop, clergy and procession, which had followed him thither; and with nine pilgrims ascended the mountain where was the brigand Procus, called 'the giant,' and worshipped as a god. Saint Bernard and his companions came up to the giant and saw hard by a huge dragon ready to devour them. Bernard made the sign of the Cross, and then threw his stole over the monster's neck. The stole instantly changed itself into an iron chain, except the two ends held in the saint's hands." The nine pilgrims thereupon killed the dragon, and the two silken ends of the stole were long preserved in the abbey of St. Maurice-en-Valais.
This method of subduing Satanic demons which, owing to the ancient curse (Genesis 3:14) were obliged to assume a form that compelled them to crawl on their bellies, was a favourite one--we have already seen it used by St. Samson in Ireland. St. Germanus (fifth century) marched boldly into the dark cavern in Scotland inhabited by a prodigious dragon, threw his handkerchief around its neck, and led it forth to a deep pit into which he cast it, and so relieved the district of a mankilling nuisance. Paris was freed from a dreadful dragon of goulish habits in A.D. 136, by St. Marcel, who knocked it on the head three times with his cross. This done he wrapped his cloak about the creature's neck and led it four miles beyond the city's gates, where it was set free after it had promised to remain in a certain wood to the end of time--at any rate it has never reappeared. This is told by Gregory of Tours. After Ste. Marthe had quieted the frightful dragon of the Rhone, she conducted it by her girdle (Maury describes it more piquantly as her garter) to Tarascon, where the people put it to death; and they have been celebrating this deliverance ever since. Several other saintly heroes made captives of cave-dwelling monsters by similarly sanctified leading-strings.
In another class of cases evil beasts, and particularly serpents, are subjugated by holy men by the exhibition of a crucifix or some sign representing it. A terrorized community would summon a saint, sometimes from abroad, to deliver it from a despoiling monster (in one instance with a penchant for devouring children--possibly a reminiscence of child sacrifice to bloody deities) just as villagers in India or Africa now seek the help of sportsmen to kill for them a man-eating lion or tiger.
Out of these stories and faiths came the ascription to many of the religious worthies of the Middle Ages of a dragon in some form as a badge of distinction--needful when the mass of the people could not read, and must have some means of identifying the 'saints' one from another, just as they had to have a bush to tell them where wine was sold and a bloody pole instead of a written sign to indicate the barber's shop. In his book, Saints and Their Emblems, M. M. Drake shows that dragons appear thirty-five times attached to thirty martyrs and other persons, for some exhibit more than one, perhaps having more than a single experience with the fearsome beast. The artist depicting the saint in statue, painting or decorated glass, tries also to tell the story attached to his or her name. Thus in the case of Martha of Bethany she is shown in a sixteenth century window at St. Mary's in Shrewsbury, England, holding an asperge and holy water vessel with a dragon behind her; but elsewhere you may see her more often in the attitude of vanquishing a dragon by presenting her crucifix to his gaze. Instances might be multiplied, but the reader may find them in the Catalogues and descriptive Lives of mediaeval celebrities of the Church.
Maury connects the many tales of the freeing of various districts of serpents with the Biblical promise: "They shall take up serpents . . . and it shall not hurt them" (Mark 16: 18). Thus is explained St. Paul's escape from harm by the adder which he flung into the fire in Malta. Hence arose the popular belief that the ministers of the gospel were immune from poisoning by the venom of serpents and might safely attack them. "In Brittany," Maury reminds us, "the apostles who reached the faith are regarded as having destroyed serpents that ravaged the country. Thus did St. Cadon [at Karnacl, St. Naudet and St. Pol de Leon [at Batz]. In Gaul in the fifth century St. Keyna the Virgin destroyed the snakes that ravaged the country in the vicinity of Keysham. In Pomerania were expelled serpents that vomited flames." St. Radegond fought in Poictiers the dragon called Grand Gueule; St. Clement did a like service at Metz; St. Saturnin at Bernay; St. Armond at Maestricht, etc.; and some of these Christians are reported to have been snake-bitten without injury to their health. The most famous, however, of all these exploits is that by St. Patrick in Ireland, and it is more manifestly mythical than any of the others because there never were any snakes in Erin's Isle! A sequel to this beloved tradition is less familiar than the main facts, and is told by Dr. Brewer as follows:
When St. Patrick ordered the serpents of Ireland into the sea one of the older reptiles refused to obey; but the saint overmastered it by stratagem. He made a box and invited the serpent to enter in, pretending it would be a nice place for it to sleep in. The serpent said the box was too small, but St. Patrick maintained it was quite large enough. So high at length rose the argument that the serpent got into the box to prove it too small; whereupon St. Patrick clapped down the lid and threw the box into the sea.
Critics justly regard most of these tales as allegories of the success had by various missionary priests in staying the 'devils' of paganism or of false doctrine in their several fields of labour, and in converting local groups of people to Christianity. Some such expulsion of native rites and idols from one or another district probably indicates the reality behind the many legends of serpent clearance. Several of these tales, nevertheless, seem to me based upon actual feats of heroism, as, for example, that exploit of Bishop Romanus, annually celebrated at Rouen, which may not be wholly mythical, since the 'horrible dragon' in this case might well be a bad man instead of a false doctrine. The adventure of that soldier-general of the army of Licerius in Thrace of the fourth century, who fought and slaughtered a dragon with his sword, and afterward canonized as St. Theodorus of Heraclea, furnishes another case. The Thracians would probably insist, could they return to tell us about it, that Licenus and his officers had put something to the sword more strategic than dragons, and more substantial than heresy.
These few typical examples out of many may suffice to show the way in which the general belief in supernatural and more or less harmful beings was utilized by the early Christian missionaries in Europe, to impress the sanctions of the new religion upon both the heathen and the indifferent or hostile men and women to whom they preached. Some of the best remembered of these legendary incidents, involving acts of extraordinary heroism or religious significance, have been periodically celebrated by quasi-religious ceremonies in Europe until recent times.
The most serious, elaborate, and picturesque of these festivals is that which, until lately, was annually celebrated at the ancient town of Tarascon, in Provence. It commemorated the taming of a singularly horrible and ravenous demon-beast by Ste. Marthe; but just who she was no one knows. Some say her name is a Christianized form of that of the Phoenician goddess Martis, patroness of sailors, whose symbols were a ship and a dragon; others recall classic reminiscences of Hercules and his battling with local giants, one of which was named Taras or Tariskos. Baring-Gould investigated the matter at length, and concluded that a Christian woman-missionary called Martha, who, soon after the death of Jesus, came with others to this part of Gaul, has become strangely confused with a Syrian prophetess named Martha, who accompanied the Roman general Gaius Marius, and aided him greatly by her magic and inspiration, during the two years of hard fighting by which he beat back the ravaging hordes of northern barbarians who invaded southern Gaul at the end of the second century, B.C. He regards the 'dragon' in this case as an image of the undying recollection of the appalling terror, devastation and suffering wrought by that invasion, and the ceremony as a grateful acknowledgment of the deliverance. The citizens generally, however, know little and care less about these explanations, for their minds are fixed on the miracle by which their forefathers were rescued. Roman monuments remaining at or near Tarascon, which represent Marius, Julia his wife, and the Syrian woman, the people have interpreted for centuries past as figures of Lazarus, Mary Magdalen, and Martha the hostess of Jesus. The legendary incident celebrated is this:
While Martha was preaching Christianity to the pagan people at Arles an urgent message was sent to her from Tarascon, reciting that an awful dragon called the Tarasque, whose lair was in the neighbouring desert of Crau, was killing the Tarasconais, and they begged her to come and destroy it. She gladly complied, and going to his cave was able, by sheer force of lovingness (and a sprinkler of holy water), to subdue and regenerate the ravaging Tarasque, so that he meekly followed her into the midst of the astonished populace. "Along the bright ways of the city," as the legend goes, "the procession moved: a crowd of excited people, a beautiful woman with the light playing round her head, leading by a silken cord a reformed monster who ambles after her as quietly as if he were a pet lamb. . . . And never again did he ravage the country or carry off so much as a single babe after Ste. Marthe had pointed out to him, with her usual sweet reasonableness, how wrong-headed and how essentially immoral such conduct had been." So Mona Caird pictures the scene of the deliverance from a devouring creature more dreadful, if we can credit mediaeval descriptions, than anything we have thus far discovered in this history of beastly demons--a figure worthy to represent the hellish character of the Teutonic invasion of this fair land 2000 years ago.
Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the kindly and artistic king Rene, desiring to gratify and amuse his favourite subjects, the Tarasconais, instituted a fete, the central feature to be a representation of the legendary miracle for the glory of Ste. Marthe. It was appointed for April 14, 1474, and proved a lasting success, for it was repeated annually up to the beginning of this the twentieth century. "A grotesquely terrible monster, red and black, of the pantomime type, made of wood, paraded the streets on the second Sunday after Pentecost. Enormous red-rimmed eyes stared out of a round, catlike countenance fringed with bristling white whiskers. The men inside who carried him, and whose legs were his, danced and capered about, so as to make the huge wooden tail wag and upset any spectator whose curiosity prompted him to come too near. For it was the monster's day out. His ferocity was as yet untamed. Then the Tarasque was taken back to the stable, where he is still to be seen, to await the day of his doom, St. Martha's day, 29th July. Tamed now, and gentle as a sucking dove, he was led forth once more, but this time by a ribbon held by a young girl, as a lamb to the slaughter."
Although this pantomime was attended by clergy who endeavoured to make it impressive, the day was one of hilarity and fun of every sort; and the gay crowd sang as they followed the lumbering figure through the streets the chant that they say King Rene himself wrote--
Lagadigaddeu! La Tarasco! Lagadigaddeu! La Tarasco! De casteu! Leissas-la passa La vieio masco! Leissas-la passa Que vai dansa!, etc. Another long-lived fete sanctioned by the Church is that of the 'Privilege' in Rouen. In that historic city on the Seine a narrow street leads down from the cathedral to the river, crossing on its way a large open space where stands the Chapelle de la Fierte Saint-Romain. With this ancient chapel is connected a curious custom, which was exercised for more than 750 years. The charter establishing it was granted to the Chapter of Rouen Cathedral by King Dagobert in the eighth century, and empowered the archbishop to release, once every year on Ascension Day, a chosen criminal from among those in the city condemned to death. On every Ascension Day, therefore, the people of Rouen flocked into the streets to witness the ceremonies with which this behest was carried out--the Procession of the Privilege of Saint Remain. First came the solemn visit of the Church to the Civic authorities, carrying the annual formal proclamation of the privilege (fierte). "Then every prison in the city must be searched, and every prisoner put on oath and examined as to the cause of his imprisonment. Finally the election of the favoured prisoner was put to vote of the Chapter. . . . He then confessed to the Chapter of Saint Romain, his fetters were removed, and he followed the archbishop to the Place Haute-Vielle Tour, where, in the Chapelle de la Fierte, a solemn service made him a free man. A solemn and magnificent procession then bore him, crowned with flowers, to the great thanksgiving Mass, after which he was free to go whither he would."
So the Marshalls describe the ceremony in their volume on the cathedral cities of France; and they give in the subjoined paragraph the legend that accounts for its origin, explaining that this legend appears to be of later date than the festival, which is mentioned "certainly as late as the twelfth century, and continued to delight the Rouennais as late as 1790." It looks to me as if it originated as an ingenious method by some kindly Church authority, in a time when tyranny ruled rather than law and justice, and innocent men, or personal enemies, might be immured in dungeons and forgotten, to make an annual survey and clearance of the prisons, freeing persons unjustly confined. This is the legend:
While Romain was bishop of Rouen a terrible dragon laid waste all the land and devoured the inhabitants. No one dared approach the monster, who was known as the Gargoyle [gargouille] until Saint Romain, armed only with his sanctity, set out to subdue it, accompanied by a condemned criminal--the prototype of those who were released on Holy Thursday--when the Gargoyle at once submitted and, with the episcopal stole around its neck, was led by the prisoner to the water's edge. It was then pushed in and drowned, whereupon the 'condemned criminal' was presumably rewarded for his courage by being given his freedom. At the head of the Portail de la Calende, the north porch of the cathedral, stands the figure of Saint Romain, and under his feet, with the stole around his neck, is the Gargoyle, craning its head around to look into the face of the bishop with the expression of a very hideous but very faithful dog. . . . In memory of the occurrence the standard of the dragon was borne in the processions at the Privilege--banners similar to those of the dragons of Bayeux and Salisbury.
Similar festivals and processions in which the dragon, as a symbol of wickedness, heresy, and so forth, took place in old days in many European communities. We read of them at Metz, where the evil beast was dubbed Grauly, at Bergerac (the dragon of St. Front), at the abbey of Fleury, and even in Paris. "The images are made of silk, very large, and are manoeuvred by children hidden in the interior." The celebrations were commonly identified with the Rogation days, and some have continued up to fairly modern times. Rogation days, as set apart by the Catholic Church, are the three days preceding Ascension Day, which is the fortieth day after Easter; and they are observed with prescribed litanies or liturgical prayers, and in some places with public processions, all the ceremonies combining to make a supplication for God's blessing on the crops. In view of this purpose, and the spring season, it is very significant that the dragon should be associated with this particular celebration--a prayer for rain! Mr. J. W. Legg contributed some statements as to these ceremonies to Notes and Queries for October, 1857, which are condensed below:
In the thirteenth century inventory of 'ornaments' of Old Sarum cathedral banners called Leo and Draco are specified. Documents state that at that epoch the use of these banners was ordained in certain rubrics, e.g., for Rogation processions. The custom of carrying images of the dragon is spoken of by many liturgical writers. Besides the figure in the Old Sarum Processionale, Barrault and Martin give a drawing of a processional dragon preserved at Metz at page 44 of their Baton Pastoral (Paris, 1856). Sometimes the dragon was carried on Palm Sunday, as at Orleans, when both a dragon and a cock, as well as these banners, were borne. I think these banners must be separated from the Easter dragon. The latter was a serpent-shaped candlestick for the triple candle, which was carried at Rouen on Easter Eve until the end of the seventeenth century. The processional dragon is not peculiar to either Sarum or the Celtic church. What its source is, whether a figure of the noisome beasts to which St. Mamertus began the Rogations, or whether it has come from the labarum of Constantine, or is of Pagan origin, I must leave others to determine.
Maury records that at Provins, in France, the bell-ringers of the churches formerly bore in Rogations processions, in advance of the Cross, an image of a winged dragon, and also an image of a lizard, garnished with flowers, in memory of ravenous beasts. At Paris the dragon always carried at Rogations was regarded as the image of the monster exterminated by Saint Marcel. At Aix-en-Provence, the marchers saw arranged upon an eminence called Dragon Rock, near a chapel dedicated to St. Andrew, the figure of a dragon in imitation of the one tradition sad that apostle had killed.
A curious survival of these mediaeval combinations of piety and pranks was the 'snap-dragon' as a feature in the festive procession accompanying the induction of every new mayor in Norwich, England, up to 1832. Here the image was small enough to be managed by one man inside; it had a distensible neck so that the head could be wagged about, short, batlike wings, and a pig's tall. As described and pictured in an old number of Harper's Magazine, the head had its lower jaw furnished with a plate of iron "garnished with enormous nails which produced a terrible clatter." The jaws were made to open and shut by means of strings, and as the creature marched along, its head turning to right and left, the children amused themselves by throwing halfpence into the gaping jaws.
It must be borne in mind, of course, that the word 'dragon' in these mediaeval narratives does not necessarily imply that the creature for which it stands had a snake-like or crocodilian form, for the ghost-haunted minds of the people of that era readily conjured up marvellous and abominable shapes and combinations of animals with which no legitimate and self-respecting dragon would consent to associate, even in the limbo betwixt fable and allegory. Fine examples of the weird and unholy extravagances possible to a brisk imagination set at work to devise vivid caricatures of beastly demons may be found in Albrecht Durer's etched illustrations for the Faust legend, the temptation of St. Anthony, etc.; but three thousand years before him similar monstrosities were cut in miniature by the gem-engravers of Crete on seals and ornaments. Durer never saw these little horrors, which perhaps were intended to be talismans to ward off evil glances; but when he was bidden to depict the grizzly terrors that seemed to swarm about the sorely abused mind and body of the half-starved eremite in his chilly cell, his fancy could reach no other result than that found by the AEgean artist so long ago. "The Dream," painted by Raphael, is another collection of horrors of unnatural history. It is in and by art, indeed, that the fiction we are considering has been preserved to us; and artists now tell us that the survival and extensive use of the dragon in art is accounted for by its 'manageability' as an element in a decorative composition. All the multitude of dragon-forms, diverse as they are in reflecting the fears or the fancies of widely differing races of men, agree in fulfilling certain conditions that make them exceedingly useful in ornamentation. It is of course always possible to put some animal figure in place of a dragon, but the real creature is not nearly so manageable as the imaginary one. "The actual creature, whatever it may be," explains the English artist Lewis F. Day, "must be considered to some extent from the point of view of nature; but the monster leaves the artist free. . . . This is an incalculable convenience in design, and enables the artist to arrive with certainty at the effect at which he alms. There is a kind of keeping, too, between the ideal creature and the ideal ornament. The natural birds and other living creatures that occur at intervals among the purely ornamental arabesques of the cinque-cento always seem to me out of place. They suggest that the artist was not quite content with his art of ornament, and must needs relieve himself at intervals by indulging in a bit of naturalism. . . . If, then, the dragon has lingered in art long past the time when we have any faith in him, it will be seen that there is a reason for his prolonged existence."
Since the blazonry of more or less boastful badges on knights' shields and family possessions began, the dragon, as 'wivern,' has been a favourite device in European heraldry, and possibly the most antique one. Long before any College of Heralds was instituted we learn by tradition of the helmet-crests of the heroes of Romance. Tennyson sings of the 'great Pendragonship' and that sightly helm of Arthur, "to which for crest the golden dragon clung."
Let me quote another pertinent paragraph from Mr. Day's fine article in the third volume (1880) of the Magazine of Art:
The heraldic dragon conforms, after the manner of its kind, to decorative necessities. His business is to look full of energy and angry power. His jaws are wide; his claws are sharp; wings add to his speed and to his terrors; he is clothed with scaly and impenetrable armour, and he lashes his tail in fury; and all the while he is careful to spread himself out on shield or banner that all his powers may be displayed. In the days before the invention of the term 'fine art' the dragon was frequently introduced into pictures of sacred and legendary subjects, and it invariably formed an ornamental feature in the composition. St. Michael and St. George were habitually triumphant over the evil thing; and . . . if the rigid virtues were sometimes insipid, it must be allowed that the demons were usually grotesquely characteristic and often delightful in colour. The grim humour of the medieval Germans found its latest exponent in Albert Durer, some of whose imaginary creations are very remarkable. . . . They belong half to Gothic tradition and half to Renaissance influence, but yet they are wholly German and wholly Dureresque. The creatures of the Italian cinque-cento partook for the most part of the grace of the ornaments of which they were a part, though occasionally there lurks among the beautiful and fanciful foliation a monster that is inexpressibly loathsome. Art might well dispense with such imaginings. If the fabled creature is to live in ornament--and why should it not?--let it be on the supposition that it is a thing of beauty.