There is no Hero Without a Dragon: A Revisionist Interpretation of The Myth of St. George and the Dragon

There is no Hero Without a Dragon: A Revisionist Interpretation of The Myth of St. George and the Dragon

By Estelle A Maré

Religion and Theology, Vol.13:2 (2006)

Saint George and the Dragon, by Willem Vrelant - 15th century

Saint George and the Dragon, by Willem Vrelant – 15th century

Introduction: It could be that, in some pre-literate community, the skeletal remains of dinosaurs gave rise to the concept of dragons. In literate societies the dragon’s lineage is ancient and varied. In Oriental cultures, most notably Japanese and Chinese, dragons were imagined as benevolent creatures and depicted as atmospheric or celestial manifestations. Western dragon lore, by contrast, has its origins in Babylonian myth in which Tiamat was the mother of all Dragons and the daughter of primordial Chaos. Thereafter the Western mind associated the dragon with the serpent, which in the Genesis myth blames it for all evil that befell the human race. In the Apocalypse the red dragon is a seven-headed beast with ten horns and seven crowns upon his heads, which threatens the Virgin who is in labour, but is slain by the archangel Michael. In popular Western depictions and descriptions the dragon assumed monstrous proportions and is most often described as an enormous, winged serpent-like beast, half reptile, half mammal, with a scaly body and a powerful tail, four-legged like a crocodile, with protruding teeth and eyes, sharp claws and the capacity to exhale fire or noxious gases.

Primordial dragons were associated with springs which flow day and night; they never sleep and their eyes are always open. Thus dragons were associated with springs, called “eyes” in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew in which “ayin” means both eye and spring. The eye of the fountain represents the dragon’s head and the serpentine movement of his hind part is the appropriate form for the flow of its water. A volcanic crater was also considered to be a fiery spring, so that the dragon could also be a fire-dragon spewing forth lava torrents, or exhaling noxious fumes. However, there are also other interpretations of the dragon’s illusive nature. The earth dragon may become a cloud-dragon and cause ruinous thunderstorms, so that the dragon “can be considered as able to live either in water, air, or on the earth, and as a salamander, even in fire”. Clearly, these four possibilities of dragonlife were derived from the ancient belief that the universe is comprised of four elements: air, water, earth and fire.

Because the dragon is, in the Western mind “the personification of life within the earth – of that life which, being unknown and incontrollable, is eo ipso hostile to man”, it follows dragons would be feared. It therefore comes as no surprise that Western people tell many legends of heroes who single-handedly engaged and vanquished ferocious dragons which threatened communities. Some famous dragon slayers are Perseus, Beowulf, Utter Pendragon, Deodatus de Gozon and Jason. In rare medieval depictions the Christ child is also represented as a dragon slayer. Because of the obvious symbolism of evil vanquished by a noble hero, many Christian dragon slayers were dignified with sainthood and acquired a dragon emblem as their popular attribute. These include St Martha of Tarascon, St Philip the Apostle, St Radeguix of Provence, St Clement of Metz, St Armentaire of Drahuignan, St Michael the Archangel, St Margaret, St Magnus, St Marcel and, most notably, St George. Depictions of these saint show them slaying a dragon with a sword or a lance and trampling it under foot, thus symbolising the triumph of Christianity over evil and the banishment of paganism from the earth.

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